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10/23/07 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis one of the most influential works of popular Christian apologetics in the English language. It was a very important book to me when I was a believer, but now many of his arguments seem weak. The Moral Argument is central to Lewis's defense of Christian faith and I've dealt with that in previous posts. One of the most famous passages from the book presents a supposed trilemma: Jesus must be a Lord, Liar or Lunatic.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to (Lewis, 42).

The key phrase is "A man who said the sort of things Jesus said . . ." Lewis assumes that Jesus really said all the things attributed to him in the Bible. If we remove that assumption, then a fourth choice emerges. Jesus was Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Legend. It's possible that the stories we have about Jesus are so polluted by legendary changes and additions that we can say very little, if anything, for sure about who Jesus was and what he said.

In fairness to Lewis, he was trying to answer a very specific argument from anyone who accepts that Jesus said the words of the Bible but doesn't believe that he was God. He's right when he says that this position is nonsense. But I've never heard of anyone actually taking that stance. If you doubt that Jesus was God, then you almost inevitably don't trust that the Bible is a reliable account of historical events. So, Lewis is doing battle with a straw man and he's armed with a bad assumption.

Is anyone willing to try to make the case that Jesus did say everything the Bible claims he did? Lewis certainly makes no effort to prove that assumption and now that I think of it, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone put forward good reasons for believing it. It's just one of those ideas that you get for free when you buy into the inerrancy of scripture.

Since it isn't relevant to the imagined argument that he's combatting, Lewis doesn't really address the Liar and Lunatic options or attempt to show why they're not true. It's certainly possible that Jesus was a liar and/or mentally ill. Most people who start religions fit one or both of those descriptions. Almost any Christian would place Joseph Smith, Muhammad, David Koresh and L. Ron Hubbard in one or both of those categories. Is it so hard to believe, then, that Jesus was more of the same? The fact that the Jesus story started so long ago means that there is less evidence to prove that Jesus lied (if Jesus was a science-fiction writer who told friends he wanted to get rich by starting a religion, then we have no record of it), and there has been more time for legends to grow up.

If we stop believing that the Bible is accurate history, can we gain anything from the words that are put in the mouth of Jesus? I think we can. The ideas can and should be judged on their own merit, whether Jesus said them or not and regardless of who Jesus really was. But personally, I think we can very easily arrive at a humanist ethic that is more useful, clear and consistent than what the Bible teaches.



You’re right that this argument isn’t often brought up these days in at least highly educated circles. Lewis’s book really isn’t written for the highly educated, though, and I suspect that the proposal the “trilemma” is meant to respond to was/is more common among people who haven’t really read a lot about the New Testament but think, in general, that they like what Jesus says but don’t think he was actually God.

There has obviously been a LOT of scholarship on the authentic words of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is the most obvious one, but it’s not really that respected these days. Check out Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament for an overview of some of the work, but, of course, it’s never going to be definitive.

I guess what is suggestive to me is that, for whatever reason, the teachings in the Gospel were associated with Jesus. They’ve been the basis for most humanistic efforts in the West in the last 1000 years (whether Christian or no). These are important, innovative, even revolutionary moral teachings (of a sort that I don’t think Hubbard or Koresh could manage). But it doesn’t make sense to just accept what we like as authentic and discount those we don’t as later emendations. So accepting at least all Jesus says in Mark as authentic, we still have a guy who is a great moral teacher but claims to forgive sins and tells Caiaphas that he is the Son of the Most High.

Ultimately, not an argument on the level of a proof of the Pythagorean theorem, but historical scholarship is always going to be messier than science or math.

On a totally unrelated note, I love the layout of this blog entry (the twin pics, etc.)! The ol’ Blog Cabin is lookin’ pretty fancy these days.

Doug [Visitor]  10/25/07 @ 06:22
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/10/25/07 @ 07:53

I enjoyed your post, Danny. I often chuckle over Lewis’ trilema. It’s like the apologetic that goes to 11. I mean, at least he didn’t exclude the middle.

On the topic of moral teachings of Jesus, I’d like to point out what I feel to be two highly immoral teachings of Jesus. Granted, we have to make some assumptions that Jesus said what he did as attributed to him in the Gospels, but, I think this is fair as it is implicit in discussions evaluating the moral teachings of Jesus. The moral teachings of Jesus to me, is code for what Jesus is claimed to have said in the Bible. It’s not as if there’s a substitute or alternate source for it.

First off, Jesus believed and taught the concept of what most today call original sin. Personally, I now find this belief sad, and both ethically and morally untenable. The idea that people deserve punishment or treatment based on the action of an ancestor is thinking of a barbaric variety. If we were to graft this notion onto our modern system of judgement, I think it would be instantly obvious how nonsensical it is. Imagine, for a moment, that a notorious serial killer like John Wayne Gacey, or Ted Bundy had a son. Now imagine that in addition to the father receiving a death sentence for their crimes, their son, innocent of any involvement in those crimes, received a like sentence. I maintain that anyone with a modern sense of ethics would see this, and be able to instantly identify it as a great wrong. And I should add, whatever crimes that progeny did commit, would clearly deserve judgement on their individual merit. If pulled into court for a traffic violation, would the “sins of the father” automatically make them “more guilty"? (I feel odd just typing the phrase)

Secondly, Jesus maintained and taught that eternal torment in hell awaits the unrepentant soul. The non-proportional magnitude of this, coupled with the promise of torture, is immoral. The parent who keeps their son in line by admonishing them to remember he has an evil twin in the basement that would dowse him in gasoline and light a match should he ever be sent down there as punishment, would clearly be engaged in an act of dubious parenting. I can imagine, such a tale hitting the grapevine would not make that household a hotbed of neighboorhood sleepovers. Yet, many afford Jesus the luxury…

A common objection to counterpoints like this can be summed up as “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water". But the rub, as I see it, is that Bible or not, we mostly know what the “baby” is. It’s not as if without the teachings of Jesus, we wouldn’t have arrived at notions of civil disobedience. Or that murder is wrong, or war is often bad, or that caring for the sick is a good thing. Is there no record of these things prior to his teachings? It’s often said that such precepts, present across a multitude of religions, surely point to a heavenly creator. To which I object, they point to our evolved capability for empathy and need of social ties. The atheist from sweden, buddhist from Australia, Christian from South Korea, or Muslim from America would all be perfectly justified, and expected, to put a stop to an act of murder unfolding before them. That doesn’t take a divine revelation.

Brendon [Visitor]  http://www.techfreak.net10/25/07 @ 09:12

I’d say things like the sermon on the mount and the emphasis on giving up your own rights were pretty revolutionary. True, some of the ideas are found in other ancient literature and throughout the rest of the Old Testament, but they weren’t strung together to create this in the way credited to Jesus. And when most people in Western (and even sub-Asian) culture cite these ideas, they usually attribute them to Jesus. Wherever the teachings came from, they’ve certainly inspired a lot of good.

On the other hand, the book of Mormon is mostly lifted from the King James Bible and doesn’t really offer any moral teaching that seems significantly new. Koresh, similarly, had different apocalyptic teachings, but no significant and well reasoned moral theology. Jesus, on the other hand, seems so earth-shaking just about every other Western and South Asian religion wants to list his teaching in their hall of fame.

Doug [Visitor]  10/27/07 @ 07:05

To Brendon, both of your points are debatable. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with you, they’re debatable that’s all.

There are myriads of denominations that do not adhere to “original sin” and are actually quite inclusive.

Despite that, there are still some very quirky things within the Bible.

gringo [Visitor]  11/01/07 @ 19:37


Right, wrong, or otherwise, I have a question for you. Would _you_ debate or challenge the notion that the Jesus of scripture did teach & believe in original sin or hell?

If so, what are your reasons for such a position?

Brendon [Visitor]  http://www.techfreak.net11/02/07 @ 16:44

I’d give you the same response. It just depends on one’s interpretation.

Some believe Christianity is very inclusive. Some even have a very unorthodox interpretation of hell.

I guess my point was, attempting to pin point some theological points don’t seem so successful to me when trying to disprove a particular believe (some, not all).

That’s probably not the answer you’re looking for. My apologies in advance.

gringo [Visitor]  11/03/07 @ 12:31

Ultimately, there are only two choices – was Jesus telling the truth or not.

And there are also only two ultimate premises – there is a God or there is none

Or as Ratzinger puts it, there are only two possible origins to the world – irrationality (chance) or God (rationality). And the general order in the world shown by science points to rationality.

The majority of mankind, its “common sense", has down the centuries intuited a God, and so far 1 out of 3 in the world have intuited that Jesus is Lord. Happy to see that great majority who view this blog have voted for Jesus as Lord.

In my opinion, when one has intuited the existence of God, and thus accepts that he can act in history, then the logic of the trilemma appears more clearly. That I think is the point of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Raul Nidoy [Visitor]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Marax11/04/07 @ 18:23
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/11/04/07 @ 19:33

I promise you, Raul, this isn’t a pile on but your response seems a bit over simplified which is what Danny was pointing out in Lewis’ argument.

I’m not in the least impressed with your conclusions that “It’s either a) God b) or irrationality.

What you’re saying is that we have to go on a gut feeling and that’s not very scientific imho. Your “answer” is a canned response and really doesn’t make much sense. If I went with a gut feeling then all sorts of things could be true: flying pigs, flying spaghetti monsters, mormonism, scientology (my favorite) etc.

Happy intuiting! XD

[Member]11/04/07 @ 21:54

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” - Carl Sagan

[Member]11/05/07 @ 11:56

Yes, I believe many things are possible, but I think those who have “intuited” the existence of God and Jesus’ divinity have in fact based their thinking on the available evidence, or on what is most probable.

Imho there is a wealth of evidence on the historicity of the gospel accounts on Jesus and what he said: Here is summary: http://www.apologetics.com/default.jsp?bodycontent=/articles/historical_apologetics/habermas-nt.html

The eyewitness accounts are backed up by historians such as Pliny the Younger who reported in the 2nd century that the early Christians were singing hymns to Jesus “as to a god”

On the existence of God my favorite is this: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm

Raul Nidoy [Visitor]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Marax11/05/07 @ 22:41

Does evidence of branch dividians having lived in Waco, or Mormons living in Utah, or people’s temples members having been in Guayna offer any shred of evidence as to the divinity of David Koresh, Jim Jones, or the inspiration of David Koresh? I don’t think so.

Brendon [Visitor]  http://www.techfreak.net11/06/07 @ 20:05

Correction, I meant “inspiration of Joseph Smith”

Brendon [Visitor]  http://www.techfreak.net11/06/07 @ 20:07

Everyone is free to think that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic. But 30% of present world population, billions of people, have read the biblical evidence in favor of his truthfulness: according to several eye-witness accounts, Jesus opted for death in defense of the truth. And he is acclaimed as a moral leader and a good ethical example.

The evidence has to be weighed very seriously because the questions Jesus raises are all important.

Raul Nidoy [Visitor]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Marax11/06/07 @ 23:55

So when Jesus said “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” in Matt 7:14 (NIV) he meant “few” as in billions/30% of the world population? That’s a “few"?

Much of your positive claim regarding Jesus could also be made of the prophet Mohammed. In fact, Islam is now one of the world’s fastest growing faiths (~21% world population vs. Christianity’s ~33%) . So if might makes right, shall we say, then what shall we say about Islam?

Also, take into account that popular belief doesn’t automatically translate to a reasonable sign of truth. For example, if statistics gathered by Jon D. Miller (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/science/30profile.html) are correct, 1 in 5 Americans think the sun orbits the earth. Such a percentage of belief hardly shakes or shapes our understanding of planetary orbits.

I won’t deny Jesus had some good things to say. But to claim that his teaching were somehow unique, special, revolutionary, or necessary, is to turn a blind eye to history as well as evolved capacity for ethical and compassioniate behavior (not to say we can’t be savage jerks as well, it’s a mixed bag).


Brendon [Visitor]  http://www.techfreak.net11/07/07 @ 00:25

One thing I forgot to add! Personally, I find it questionable to assume that the notion of willingness to die for the truth is a _good thing_.

There are many things in this world that are true and worth defending. But laying my life on the line would not make that truth more or less true, nor necessarily be the right thing to do.

Also, willingness to die for the truth can sometime be labeled as “martyrdom", a concept I think we should be wary of openly embracing. We have unfortunately witnessed its fruits all too well.

Brendon [Visitor]  http://www.techfreak.net11/07/07 @ 00:39
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/11/07/07 @ 03:53

“However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.” - Matthew 17:27

[Member]11/07/07 @ 13:22

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