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Logic and rhetoric
“”While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way — one might cite Pascal — and to some it is dreary and absurd — here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis — both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible.
|—Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great|
The Lewis Trilemma is a fallacious apologetical argument for the divinity of Jesus, invented c. 1844 by preacher Mark Hopkins (published 1846 in Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity) and popularized by C. S. Lewis on BBC radio, hence the name of the trilemma.
The argument is also known as "liar, lunatic, or Lord," "mad, bad, or God," or "myth, madman, or messiah" referring to the three given parts of the
Lewis's own statement of the argument
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 was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.[note 1] 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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. …Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
Note that his own words appear to undermine premise 3 of his argument below, which relies on Jesus being a great moral teacher to rule out the possibility of his being a lunatic.
It should also be noted that the Lewis' formulation of the argument does not intend to prove the divinity of Jesus (although Lewis believed in it), but merely the impossibility of accepting Jesus as a moral teacher while refusing his claims to divinity.
The logic of the argument
This can be summed up as:
1. Due to the law of the excluded middle, Jesus was either correct or incorrect in his claim of divinity. He also either believed or did not believe he was divine. Therefore one of 1A, 1B, 1C or 1D applies to Jesus:
- 1A. Believed he was God and was correct in his belief (Lord).
- 1B. Believed he was God and was incorrect (lunatic).
- 1C. Did not believe he was God and was correct (liar).
- 1D. Did not believe he was God and was incorrect (ignored).
- Jesus spoke out against liars, so he was not a liar.
- Jesus did not show any other signs of being deranged, being a great moral teacher, so he was not a lunatic.
- Therefore, Jesus was God.
Josh McDowell writes:
If, when Jesus made His claims, He knew that He was not God, then He was lying and deliberately deceiving His followers. But if He was a liar, then He was also a hypocrite because He told others to be honest, whatever the cost, while He Himself taught and lived a colossal lie. More than that, He was a demon, because He told others to trust Him for their eternal destiny. If He couldn't back up His claims and knew it, then He was unspeakably evil. Last, He would also be a fool because it was His claims to being God that led to His crucifixion.
Problems with the argument
The above argument holds a few hidden premises beyond the ones given outright by Lewis. These hidden premises include:
- The Abrahamic God exists.
- Jesus existed.[note 2]
- The Gospels are an accurate record of Jesus' life and teachings.
- Hypocrisy is impossible.[note 3]
All of these hidden premises appear when we formalise the trilemma, and all can be challenged or undermined, with the last one breaking the logic altogether. Anyone with any non-zero amount of social activity[note 4] has tons of experience of hypocrisy in their lifetimes. Never mind that the very statement "hypocrisy is impossible" can be considered blatantly hypocritical. Even young children can remember cases where they or someone else was hypocritical.
There are a further 2 points:
- If Jesus existed it is assumed that all the sayings attributed to him were by the same person. If the preachings of many men were attributed to Jesus some may have been mentally unstable and/or liars.
- Any number of false accounts could have been added to the narrative during the decades of oral transmission before the Gospels were written down.
There are also more problems with the argument beyond these alone. Step 3 in the argument can be challenged, as Jesus may have had that one delusion of false belief of auto-divinity but been otherwise okay, much like how Isaac Newton was an alchemist and tried to find messages in the Bible but otherwise made great contributions to science.
Did Lewis overestimate how deluded a person who saw himself as God would have been in ancient Judea? The concept of a human as God is totally unacceptable in Judaism but in the Greco-Roman religion men can be gods. The Roman emperor was, for example, seen as man and a god.[note 5]
One could disagree with the claim of Jesus being a great moral teacher. A great deal of Christian morality is about inducing guilt and reducing self-respect. The teachings of Jesus have been used to justify widely divergent belief systems like Christian communism, Christian economics and Liberation theology. The teachings of Jesus were used to justify the Spanish Inquisition and various other persecutions of those considered heretical by a range of different Christian orthodoxies. In the United States they were used at least as much in favor of slavery as they were for its abolition. How the moral teachings of Jesus are interpreted has a great deal to do with how later Christians developed what is in the New Testament.
In Lewis' specific version of the trilemma, it is not apparent how Jesus would not have been a great moral teacher simply because he falsely believed himself to be God and for no other reason. This blends with the above paragraph: Newton practiced the pseudoscience of alchemy, yet that did not make his contributions to actual science any less valuable. Many great moral teachers had significant flaws: Aristotle justified slavery; Kant was an anti-semite; JS Mill an imperialist and racist; to say nothing of Mohammed, Nietzsche, or Shaw.
The true essence of the argument is that Lewis, in reading the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, simply had the subjective opinion that it did not seem like they could have come from anyone but God, and the rest of the argument is mere window dressing around that core.
Our fourth, ignored possibility — of Jesus not knowing he is God — also shows up. It isn't enough to refute the trilemma, beyond turning it into a "tetralemma,"[note 6] and is little more than a triviality due to the confusing implications which nobody, either theist or atheist, has really explored in depth. Anyhow, that possibility isn't part of the established story and no one has made the claim (that we know of). Beyond that, Jesus claims his own relation to divinity multiple times throughout the Bible, though they all appear to be in arrears of other people claiming it.
A version of the trilemma appears in Lewis' fiction book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the Narnia series. After Lucy visits Narnia and tells the other three children, they dismiss her story. The owner of the house at which they are staying, however, argues that since Lucy is neither dishonest nor insane, her story must be true. This shows both the absurdity of the argument, and the disingenuity in employing it (the man had already visited Narnia, and thus this argument wasn't his true reason for believing Lucy, just as Christians have other reasons for believing in Christianity).
Lewis gets Hitchslapped
Christopher Hitchens takes up the old coot on his trilemma, shedding the following light in his book God Is Not Great (which is, itself, rather great);:118-120
There were many deranged prophets roaming Palestine at the time, but this one reportedly believed himself, at least some of the time, to be God or the son of God. And that has made all the difference. Make just two assumptions, that he believed this and that he also promised his followers that he would reveal his kingdom before they came to the end of their own lives, and all but one or two of his gnomic remarks make some kind of sense. This point was never put more frankly than by C. S. Lewis (who has recently reemerged as the most popular Christian apologist) in his Mere Christianity. He happens to be speaking about the claim of Jesus to take sins on himself: Now, unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic.
We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden-on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men's toes and stealing other men's money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history. It will be noticed that Lewis assumes on no firm evidence whatever that Jesus actually was a "character in history," but let that pass. He deserves some credit for accepting the logic and morality of what he has just stated.
To those who argue that Jesus may have been a great moral teacher without being divine (of whom the deist Thomas Jefferson incidentally claimed to be one), Lewis has this stinging riposte: That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and 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 and 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.
I am not choosing a straw man here: Lewis is the main chosen propaganda vehicle for Christianity in our time. And nor am I accepting his rather wild supernatural categories, such as devil and demon. Least of all do I accept his reasoning, which is so pathetic as to defy description and which takes his two false alternatives as exclusive antitheses, and then uses them to fashion a crude non sequitur ("Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God."). However, I do credit him with honesty and with some courage. Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that.
- I.e., a liar.
- A necessary starting point, since if he didn't exist, the debate is moot.
- Or, more likely, it's impossible for Jesus to have been a hypocrite, because of course he was the son of God.
- I.e., everybody over age three except for good ol' Jack, whose literature indicates he has not talked to any actual humans for years.
- Seeing women as goddesses was less important if it happened.
- Just a dilemma with four conflicting possibilities, much like a trilemma has three or an ordinary dilemma two.
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (p. 7)
- Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity by Mark Hopkins (1846) T. R. Marvin.
- Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (1943) Collier Books.
- Jesus: God or Just a Good Man? Analyzing our 3 options to explain His identity: a liar, a lunatic, or Lord? by Josh McDowell, Cru (archived from December 31, 2018).
- Christian Morality: Hostile to the Individual and Society
- The Myth of Christian Morality
- Philosophers justifying slavery, BBC
- Confronting Philosophy’s Anti-Semitism, New York Ties 18 Mar 2019
- See the Wikipedia article on John Stuart Mill.
- Artist of the Impossible, The Guardian, 26 Jul 2006
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (1950) HarperCollins.
- God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007) Atlantic Books. ISBN 1786491478.