Dialogue on C. S. Lewis’ “Trilemma” (Jesus’ Claims)

Dialogue on C. S. Lewis’ “Trilemma” (Jesus’ Claims) March 26, 2019

Background: C. S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity (also later used to good effect by Josh McDowell) that — given Jesus’ claims — He could only reasonably be regarded as a Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. Our friend is trying to logically get out of the “Trilemma.” His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, I am increasingly of the opinion that Lewis is far too dogmatic and narrow in his definition of the possibilities for Christ. (I happen to believe that Christ must have been the actual Son of God, but my personal beliefs don’t enter into this present discussion).

How could they not?

In point of fact, there have been various incredibly important men through the course of human history who HAVE lied about several important things, but this did not contradict or destroy the power of their other TRUE statements.

This is beside the point, though, I’m afraid to say. Lewis was arguing that the only plausible choices with regard to Jesus are Lord, Liar, or Lunatic, not whether Jesus’ other teachings are to be accepted despite Him being a compulsive liar and/or one who deliberately misleads on very important matters. He is saying that people are reluctant to label Him that because it simply doesn’t square with what we know about Him. That’s quite a different proposition from what you’re talking about. Thus, your argument doesn’t defeat the Trilemma.

For example, Martin Luther King was an adulterer (his affairs are well documented). However, his positive, prophetic impact on the history of America, and the way people are treated can be only treated as a faithful witness to God’s demand of equality in human behavior. King was inspired by God to proclaim truth. The fact that he failed to be truthful in his personal life, and to his wife, does not destroy the power of his mission.

I agree, but this is a non sequitur with regard to my argument (and Lewis’s). King never claimed to be God. It is that claim which leads inexorably to the Trilemma, because it is so shocking, unusual, and extraordinary.

Likewise, JFK was a deeply flawed human being who also did some very good things for America.

Ditto. This has no relevance to the discussion at hand.

There is a continuing record of Popes, prophets (going back to David and Samson in the Bible), and other people of the church, who — although dishonest or otherwise deeply mistaken — continued to minister to people in incredible honest and powerful ways.

Again, none claimed to be God. And the ones who did would have been labeled nuts, blasphemous, or in league with Belial, and mistreated and/or killed, just as Jesus was. The Prophets were killed for much less.

In short, YES it is POSSIBLE that Jesus Christ could have claimed to be the Son of God while he was NOT the Son of God, and he could still have an enormously powerful impact on the lives of those around him.

Of course. I agree. This is self-evident. Look at the other religions, for Pete’s sake…….

One crucial side-point is embodied in the following quotation from the piece below:

When someone goes around claiming to be the one God (in the Western monotheistic sense, not an Eastern monistic religious one, where everything and everyone is “god” or part of “god”), we immediately consider him or her a lunatic.

In point of fact, the “Western” monotheistic idea of one God was not one which was commonly in evidence in the cultural matrix which surrounded Jesus of Nazareth. YES, the Jews of Palestine endorsed this, but the lands of the New Testament and the culture of that time did NOT endorse that idea.

So what? With Jesus, we are essentially dealing with the Jews and Samaritans (and Romans indirectly), are we not? Comparative religion and anthropology have little connection to the Trilemma that I can see. The Jews knew full well what Jesus meant. He was actually in the Pharisaic tradition. This is why they tried to stone Him, and sought to kill Him (Jn 5:17-18; 10:27-39; esp. 31-33). They certainly understood, but didn’t accept the claims. Today, few people outside the Christian Church even seem to understand the claims. I know I didn’t, growing up, and I was supposed to be a Methodist.

Furthermore, even now much spirituality in that region is much more Eastern influenced, and driven by Eastern ideas than by Western (read “Anglo”) influence. Even now, the divisions in Islam, and the pilgrimages of Indian prophets are much more part of the fabric of the culture than the attempt of Westerners to assert their own ideas into the region. Therefore, it does not make sense to claim that Jesus was NECESSARILY espousing the “idea of the one God” in the Western sense, over the Eastern sense. This is a false assumption.

I don’t see how. My paper on the biblical proofs for the Deity of Christ makes that clear, I think, with its hundreds of cross-references.

No one — knowing the Jewish monotheistic milieu in which the words were spoken — could possibly miss the point. The only “out” as far as I’m concerned, is to dispute the texts themselves (which would amount to the entire New Testament). This is done all the time, of course, but also on illegitimate and severely biased grounds, since the New Testament is extremely well-attested: much more so than any other ancient work.

In short, the Bible is a matter, ultimately, of faith. Contrary to Thomas Aquinas, you cannot prove it. That’s kind of the point.

Ultimately, at bottom all ideas and beliefs whatsoever (even Almighty Science itself) are a matter of faith: based, as they are, upon axioms, premises and presuppositions, which themselves must be accepted on faith and without rigorous proof. But I speak of “faith” in the sense of intellectual acceptance and inductive leaps. Faith is also a matter of supernatural God-given enabling grace, without which no one would believe.

That said, I do think that Christianity is a very reasonable, credible belief (i.e., as far as reason goes), unlike many religious views, which jettison reason, or pretend to be reasonable, when in fact they are quite irrational (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Science). But none of this defeats the Trilemma, either, if that’s what you are trying to imply. Jesus’ claims must be grappled with one way or the other. Claims are linguistic, hence subject to logical analysis. This is the nature of language, and it’s inescapable. The only way to escape the reality of logic is to remain silent or grunt like apes. Would that many religions (let alone political ideologies) would understand this . . . 

However, if you think that faith is kind of a crutch, then you’ve got a very weak understanding of the ways in which you depend upon the internal combustion engine, the idea of gravity…. etc. In short, don’t discount the Bible merely because it’s about “faith.” Discount yourself if you’re too weak to take it on that basis.

Ah! I see that we perhaps agree on this score, then. Good……..

Thanks for the food for thought. I disagree, but I respect this effort.


(originally 1998)

Photo credit: Christ, by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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