The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis laid out in his book Mere Christianity an argument that would come to be known as the Trilemma. He claims that if Jesus wasn’t actually God, he must either be a liar or a lunatic. The three options Lewis gives us — lunatic, liar, or Lord — are obviously not the only possibilities on the table. Of course, the three the options Lewis gives are also valid options, they’re just not the only options. It’s possible that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, though I think there are other possibilities that are more likely.
Jesus could’ve been mistaken, for one. He could’ve been entirely sincere, just sincerely mistaken. And you wouldn’t have to be a lunatic to say the things Jesus said back in the first century Middle East. A superstitious, uneducated, bewildered, terrified people living in the desert thousands of years ago would not have to be crazy to make claims that would be crazy to make in present-day Western civilization.
Another possibility is that the people who wrote about Jesus didn’t get every single detail correct of what he said and did. Jesus himself never wrote anything down. We’re dealing with copies of copies of copies of anonymously written, non-eyewitness accounts written decades or centuries after what Jesus said and did, so it’s almost certain that he didn’t say and do exactly what the Gospels report. And according to experts in the relevant fields like ancient history, religious studies, and the languages of that time and place, the historical Jesus bears little resemblance to the mythologized, personalized Jesus your parents believe in. There probably was a guy named Yeshua who, to quote Bart Ehrman, was “an itinerate, apocalyptic preacher” who was executed by the Roman government. The stories of his life and teachings, transmitted orally, morphed and evolved over time until decades later, or in some cases centuries later, when they were put down in anonymously authored, contradictory accounts that were translated from their original language and are in our Bibles today. Not only could Jesus have been mistaken, but so too could’ve any link in the long chain between the real events themselves and the Gospel accounts sitting on my shelf.
If Jesus was divine (if the ‘Lord’ option is the correct one), you would expect the world to look differently than if he wasn’t divine. For example, you wouldn’t expect not to have any original manuscript of the only records we have of his actions that supposedly proved his divinity, and we wouldn’t expect text was the chosen vehicle of an omnipotent god. If Jesus really was god, you might even wonder why he chose to only appear to superstitious people who had no way of objectively recording the events, or why his appearance was a one-time deal in the first place. Or why Jesus doesn’t say more interesting things. Also, if Jesus was god, you might expect him to be a little more convincing on that point. You can’t honestly maintain that Jesus made the most compelling case possible for being god. God wouldn’t have such a hard time convincing me he was god.
But we have to remember the long chain between the words originally leaving Jesus’ mouth all the way to you or I picking up a Bible and reading the words attributed to him. The first link would be Jesus himself, who never wrote anything down. So there were the eyewitnesses and firsthand audience of Jesus. Then they passed the stories on through word of mouth for decades. Then people who were not eyewitnesses or firsthand audience members, who were living far away from where the events took place, decades after they transpired, wrote down the stories they heard. These manuscripts are not the ones we have; we have copies of copies of those, and the different ones we do have contradict each other in unreconcilable and non-trivial ways, which I detailed last week. The reason all this needs to be said is because the Trilemma just assumes that we know for sure that Jesus claimed to be god. Given what we’re talking about here, we cannot take the unreliability of the Gospels lightly. We can’t judge if Jesus was who he said he was if we don’t know for sure who he said he was in the first place. The long chain between Jesus’ actual words and deeds and our Biblical accounts should be enough to cast serious doubt on the idea that we’re certain of exactly what Jesus said and did.
So we’re not just asking if Jesus was mistaken, or lying, or crazy, or some other possibility; we have to ask the same of every single unknown person in that long chain of communication that spans over the decades and geographical distance that eventually, over centuries, landed in our Bibles.
The Historical Jesus
But I don’t bring all this up — the contradictions in the Gospels or their haphazard creation — just to cast doubt on their factual inerrancy. According to historians going off of the manuscripts and records we have, there’s a big difference between the historical Jesus and the mythological Jesus who some of us used to have a personal relationship with. Like I said, there was a guy named Yeshua, who was a preacher of a small Jewish sect; he got in trouble with the Romans and was killed by them. But one thing the historical Jesus never did was claim to be god. If you’ve never heard that before, it can be surprising. But based on the earliest documents we have, Jesus and the disciples considered him to be the messiah, but definitely not god. Just to be clear — if you open your Bible, you will see Jesus claiming to be divine, but the different parts of the New Testament were written at different times by different people, and Jesus only makes divine claims in the newest documents we have. You won’t find Jesus claiming to be god in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, the earliest Gospels. The Gospel of John, the latest of the Gospels, is the only one where Jesus actually says that he’s god.
In his book How Jesus Became God, and in the Great Course lectures bearing the same title, Bart Ehrman outlines the development of early Christianity and documents the theological pressures that drove the evolution of Jesus from mortal status to divine human to eventually be equal with god. But Jesus himself never claims to be god in any of the early manuscripts. It’s not until the Gospel of John, by far the latest Gospel, that Jesus claims a divine status for himself. He says, “I and the Father are One,” “Before Abraham was, I am,” and “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” These sayings are not found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. And that is not what you would expect if the historical Jesus really went around saying he was god. Wouldn’t that be the most significant thing to say about Jesus — that he called himself God? Did all of them just decide not to mention that? That seems pretty unlikely. It’s far more likely that they didn’t write it because they had never heard Jesus say it.
Apologists have pointed out that in Mark, Jesus apparently forgives sins, and who has the authority to do that but god? Well, what Jesus actually says is “your sins are forgiven,” not “I forgive your sins.” It’s also worth pointing out that priests and religious authorities regularly invoked the authority of god to forgive sins, as was the case with animal sacrifice, so Jesus’ statement doesn’t have to be any weirder than what other religious authorities were doing at the time. If Jesus was going around calling himself god, you’d think the earlier Gospel authors might’ve mentioned it.
I also have to mention, because this is a pet peeve of mine, that C.S. Lewis is in the proud line of “atheists” who converted to Christianity. I love listening to Christians pretend they used to be atheists. I’m actually convinced that large numbers of believers don’t even know what an atheist is — even in their own movies, like God’s Not Dead, the atheist professor confesses that he just hates god because his mom died of cancer. I’ve heard Lee Strobel who also “used to be an atheist” say things like, “Believe me, I was a devout atheist!” You know who wouldn’t describe themself as a “devout atheist”? An atheist.
C.S. Lewis said,
“I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world.”
So he’s an atheist who’s angry at god for creating the universe. How does anyone write that down and think that’s what an atheist thinks? It’s impossible to be mad at god if you’re an atheist. I’m mad at religion, I’m mad at people who believe in god for various reasons, but it doesn’t even occur to me to be mad at god. And in describing his conversion experience, Lewis said, “I became aware that I was holding something at bay.” That sounds to me like he always believed. I am not holding belief in god at bay. I don’t believe in god, I couldn’t if I wanted to.
The Trilemma is the product of a profound lack of imagination, if not outright dishonesty, on the part of C.S. Lewis and the apologists who use this argument. It’s pretty easy to imagine other answers, but Lewis didn’t acknowledge the most likely answers, and he just dismisses the liar and lunatic options as absurd without really addressing them. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to cover this topic because it’s such an easy target. But this is from one of the most famous Christian apologists, writing in one of his most famous books, making one of his most famous challenges. C.S. Lewis is considered a brilliant writer and apologist in the Christian community, though at least after hearing the Trilemma, it’s not entirely clear why.
I wanted to make one clarification of my Easter episode last week. I got a message from Leah asking me to explain something I said about the story of the women discovering the empty tomb.
Exactly what I said in the episode was that believers argue if one were to invent a story, you wouldn’t choose women to be the ones to discover Jesus’ empty tomb, since women weren’t seen as reliable witnesses. And I said one possibility is that the story was made up by women. And she said that she doesn’t quite know what I mean by that.
That’s all I have for you today. Happy Easter everybody. I’ve been Emerson Green, I’ll see you next time.
How Jesus Became God — Bart Ehrman [Amazon]
Misquoting Jesus — Bart Ehrman [Amazon]
Trilemma – Matt Dillahunty [YouTube]
Josh McDowell on the Trilemma [YouTube]