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.