Lord, Liar, Lunatic

C. S. Lewis is known for his trilemma, an argument in favor of Jesus’ divinity. Lewis says that, since Jesus claimed to God, he must either have been telling the truth (Lord), been lying and known about it (liar), or been himself deluded (lunatic).

This is often derided as a false trichotomy – there are, it is claimed, other possibilities. Jesus, it is said, did not actually claim to be God (“rabbi”). Or he claimed to be God but only in some sort of pantheistic sense – everything is God, so he’s God (“guru”). Or Jesus as we know him is essentially a mythological character anyway (“myth”).

Now, I could take each of these objections separately, but I think they all reflect the same flawed mindset. New Testament scholars saying that Jesus didn’t actually claim to be God; people who favor the Gnostic gospels saying that the true Jesus is found in those, and in them, Jesus seems to be a pantheist; others claiming that Jesus didn’t actually exist; all of these result from rejecting the narrative the New Testament lays out and substituting another.

The New Testament is pretty damn clear that Jesus is God – or, at least, that Jesus claimed to be God. So how can we arrive at the conclusion that he didn’t actually do so? Only by saying that the Jesus presented in the New Testament is not the historical Jesus – that they don’t give an accurate representation of him, and so we have to try to ignore them and discover through other means what Jesus was really like.

The scriptural scholars do this by dissecting the Gospels and drawing conclusions from them that, well, make little to no sense. I’m no expert on their methods, but the ones who come to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t claim to be God seem to do so in spite of, not because of, the evidence in the Gospels.

The gnostics do this by saying that the Gnostic gospels are more accurate than the New Testament gospels. The problem here is that, well, they’re not. The Gnostics are free to claim that the New Testament is unreliable – but it’s absurd to claim that the Gnostic gospels are more reliable.

The atheists do this just by saying that the New Testament is historically unreliable and, even if we have nothing better to give us data on what Jesus did and taught, we can’t use the New Testament as a base.

The problem with all of these, I think, is that the New Testament is the best source of information on Jesus that we have. It’s clearly more reliable that the Gnostic gospels. It’s certainly more reliable than the theories of scriptural scholars doing their work 2000 years after the events in question. So why not use it? Even if you reject that it is divinely inspired, it’s better than nothing. And it’s pretty clear on the fact that Jesus claims to be God. It leaves lord, liar, and lunatic as options, but it rejects rabbi and guru.

What about myth, then? It is true that we can’t know for certain that these are the only three possibilities. But, it’s also true that, as far as we know, there might have been a man living in South Africa in 10000 BC who claimed to be God and then drowned himself, and that he was the “real historical Jesus”. Such speculation doesn’t accomplish anything. The historical Jesus is either what is presented in the Gospels, or there is no historical Jesus that is historically significant. This would make Jesus a myth – but that doesn’t mean what some claim it means. It means that Jesus didn’t exist. Either lord, liar, lunatic, or nothing. “Nothing” is a possibility – but nothing else is. And a “nothing” possibility seems rather redundant. I could claim right now that Caesar Augustus didn’t exist, and you couldn’t contradict me, but what would be the point?

So, yes, I think the lord, liar, lunatic, trichotomy is valid. It isn’t the best piece of apologetics, but I think it is a valid argument for why those who claim to “respect Jesus as a teacher but not believe in him” are intellectually dishonest. And really, that’s all it’s intended to do.

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8 Responses to Lord, Liar, Lunatic

  1. Baekho says:

    Hey Turin,

    While you list reasons why you accept the Lewis trilemma as valid I notice that you don’t go into a whole of effort to back up those assertions. For instance:

    Does Jesus in fact say, unequivocally, that he was God? Or is this a mtter of interpretation? In the early Church, I seem to recall a number sects (subsequently deemed “heretical” ) who would disputed this point. Could it not be that we are so used to the “orthodox” description that we have come to dismissanything non-orthodox out of hand?

    Likewise, one what grounds do you say that the Gnostic Gospels are less valid than the four officially approved ones?

    Finally, what about other options? For instance, what if Jesus was neither a lunatic nor a liar nor Lord, but who was right about some things (i.e. moral teachings) and wrong about others (the claim that he was God)? Not to mention the Islamic understanding of Jesus, which is that the Gospels are all fatally flawed and that the Revelation is brought to its completeion in the Qur’an.

  2. In the Gospels, Jesus pretty unequivocally says that he is God. (This is especially the case in the Gospel of John, but even in the Synoptics it’s hard to miss.) My understanding is that no Christians actually disputed this; they disputed in what sense it was meant. Arianism, for example, said that Jesus was the highest created being, but slightly lower than God. When the Nicene council declared that Jesus was divine, it was against this belief, not against the idea that Jesus was “merely human”. No Christians believed this.

    There were, however, some Gnostics (a previously existing religion) who tried to take the Christian story and use it for their own purposes. They came fairly late and had no direct contact with Jesus. All of their documents were written after those of the New Testament, by a period of at least 50 years (the earliest Gnostic gospel was written post-150 AD, if I recall correctly; the last book of the New Testament was written around 100 AD, and most were written in the 50s, 60s and 70s). As such, I find it hard to see them as credible historical sources.

    The “lunatic” option encompasses the possibility that Jesus was right in his moral teachings but wrong about his claim to be God. The problem with the idea that this means he isn’t a lunatic is that his moral teachings stem from his claim to divinity. He clearly accepts the Torah as divinely inspired, and he would only have authority to change its directions (as he does, repeatedly) if he were divine. So if he was wrong about his divinity, he was also wrong about his authority to give the commandments he gave, and so if he were ever brought to not believe wrongly about his divinity, he would retract his moral statements…

    The Islamic understanding is what I was trying to encompass with my mythological references; the Muslim claims about Jesus are no different from my claiming that there was a person who lived in 10,000 BC who claimed to be God and drowned. In other words – they’re irrelevant. At least, they’re irrelevant if you are trying to use the claims outside of the closed system of Islam. Within Islam, they can be accepted, but only because the observer finds the rest of Islam persuasive, and thus sees no reason not to trust Islam on this. If that last sentence didn’t make sense… I’ll try to make a post on organized religion some time in the near future to elaborate on it.

  3. Ziff says:

    Hello, speaking as an atheist, I am not sure if I would have a position on the New Testament other than that it is a religious text, like many others. Its contents, taken for what they are, give variations on a theme. The interesting part to me is the effect that those contents have had on human behavior over the time since it first started circulating.

  4. Baekho says:

    Fair enough regarding the “lunatic” response.

    However, I’m not necessarily convinced about the unreliability of the Gnostic Gospels. For one thing, there are those who allege they were written earlier than the Orthodox Gospels. For example, I’ve heard some claim the Gospel of Thomas was written as early as 40 AD. Not being a Biblical scholar, I don’t have much of an opinion about that.

    Furthermore, who is to say that one cannot have a “gnostic” reading of the Orthodox Gospels? Either way, it seems reasonable to me to have either an orthodox understanding of Jesus or an understanding of Jesus as “guru”.

    As for your dismissal of the Islamic view of Jesus, well, I think that is rather unfair. The only major difference between the Islamic view of Jesus and the Chrsitian view is that Muslims do not believe that a ) Jesus was the Son of God and b ) that Jesus died/was crucified. I don’t find either of those opinions to be any more preposterous than the Christian claims.

    Besides, it seems to me that one could make the same claim about Christianity: its claims are irrelvlent if one tries to use them outside of its own closed system. While I wouldn’t make that claim about every Christian, I do think this criticism holds good for Creationists as well as for most-if-not-all proponents of “Intelligent Design”.

  5. Everything I’ve ever read or heard about the Gnostic gospels indicates that they post-date the New Testament. I might be wrong about that, but I would need to see some sort of evidence in favor of an earlier date for the Gnostics before I would change my position. As to whether you can get a Gnostic view of Jesus from the New Testament, I don’t think so, but making an argument for why would require detailed analysis of the text that I don’t have time for now. Perhaps a later post.

    The main difference between the Muslim and the Christian historical claims about Jesus – as opposed to the theological claims, where Muslims claim Jesus only appeared to be crucified while Christians say he was resurrected – is that Muslims deny that Jesus said he was God. Since pretty much every historical document from that time period (the New Testament, the Gnostic gospels, the secular Roman histories) state that Jesus claimed to be God (the Gnostics disagreed with what he meant by that claim, but don’t dispute that he made the claim), I find it hard to take seriously the Muslim claim. There’s absolutely no historical evidence for it.

    What I’m trying to argue here, remember, is that no matter what standpoint you take (secular, Christian, Gnostic, Muslim), if you are going to look at Jesus historically (as opposed to taking religious claims as history because your religion claims them, not because there is historical evidence for them, as Christians do with the persons of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc), you are going to come to the conclusion that Jesus was either Lord, liar, lunatic, or nothing, and you are NOT going to come to the conclusion that he was some sort of guru or rabbi.

  6. Rimbecano says:

    Are you a big fan of Lewis?

    You don’t really even need to throw “nothing” in there. If Jesus did not exist, or the things that we say he said about himself are not true, then either what we know of Jesus is a deliberate fabrication, or else a misunderstanding. The first case is an extension of the “liar” case, with a third party as “liar,” and the second is an extension of the “lunatic” case. with a third party as “lunatic” (or at least fool).

    The point is still the same: Either the Gospel is true, or it is not. Either Christ has absolute claim to govern our lives, or he does not.

  7. I like Lewis (both fiction and non-), though like J.R.R. Tolkien I’m rather disappointed in him for not going all the way and becoming a Catholic. ;)

  8. Rimbecano says:

    Of course. :-) And I’m dissapointed that he did not become a 21st century American Evangelical. ;-) But the wonderful thing about him is the way that his worldview is simultaneously very foreign to me, and at the same time, one with which I am completely at home. It is of course that way with any solid Christian that you meet (or whose book you find in the bookstore) at random: You aren’t likely to belong to the same denomination, but if both are rooted in Christ before anything else, you share more than two pagans raised in the same household.

    I had read Chronicles of Narnia fairly early in life, but reading Lewis’ nonfiction actually taught me quite a bit of respect for the more traditionalistic churches, since he demonstrated that one can be a member of such a church and still be a very strong Christian. Also, his thoughts on liturgy brought me from an attitude of cool dismissal towards the concept to, “whoa, he has a point.” (I was raised thinking that rote liturgy is a good way to get the entire congregation on autopilot, rather than actually thinking about what they’re saying/singing. In reading through some of Lewis’ writings, I realized some of the problems with not having a rote liturgy of any kind.)

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