The Trilemma Dilemma

“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. 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.” – C.S. Lewis

C.S. LewisThis presentation by C.S. Lewis, also used by others, is called the trilemma because it presents only three possibilities for the identity of Jesus: 1) liar, 2) Lord or 3) lunatic.  For many Christians, this is a very convincing argument.  It is obvious from the Gospels that Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic and so skeptics have no choice but to acknowledge him as Lord.

In general, I would agree with the trilemma.  When one holds to certain assumptions, the trilemma makes sense.  But there is a reason why many skeptics are not convinced.  The problem with the trilemma is that there are not just three options.

4) Legend.  It is also possible that Jesus was just a legend.  That is, what we find in the Gospels are legendary accounts of a possibly mythical figure.  We would never hold the trilemma to Heracles, so why should we to Jesus?  Of course, I believe the Jesus myth theory is severely lacking in evidence.  The Gospels, when compared to ancient myths, do not come across as legends.  However, a skeptic may still hold to this view.

5) Lacking History.  Even if there was a Jesus of Nazareth, how do we know that Jesus said and did the things that the Gospels say he did?  It is possible that Jesus never claimed to be God and that it was later Christian writers attributed this status to him.  If one does not hold to the historical reliability of the Gospels, the trilemma falls apart.  Of course, I believe that the Gospels are accurate.  I believe this not just as a Christian but as a historian.  The Gospels stand up very well to historical scrutiny.  The claims of divinity appear in different forms and contexts and likely go back to the historical Jesus.  However, a skeptic could hold to this view.

I am not saying that we should reject the dilemma.  I am saying that it only works if the person we are talking to accepts that the Gospels give an accurate description of a real and historical Jesus of Nazareth.  More often, we are going to have to work at responding to the other options before we get to the trilemma.  Thankfully, there is very good reason to believe that Jesus was real and that we have historically reliable accounts of his words and deeds.

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9 thoughts on “The Trilemma Dilemma”

  1. This is a fair point as far as it goes. As you say, though, neither of these have much supporting evidence, so it stands to reason that why Lewis did not deal with either of these. There are other possible, however incredibly implausible alternatives, but it is difficult to deal with every objection.
    I think perhaps even before the historical defense of Christ we must first deal with the exceptional nature of Christ.

  2. I think the trilemma worked for Lewis because there was much more of respect for the value of the Bible in his day than ours. Even so, I recently read a letter by Lewis where someone questioned him after hearing the trilemma in a sermon and Lewis said he assumed the people were Christians and would have argued differently otherwise.

    I disagree with you on the priority. I think we have to begin with the history before the theology. What we know of Christ’s nature comes from the Bible. If we cannot show that the NT accurately describes Jesus, we cannot demonstrate his nature.

  3. Great point. I couldn’t agree more. Christ’s exceptionality springs from his historical reality. Because of this the two must work together, in what Lewis would call an “eternal dance”. And I certainly do not intend my earlier comment to suggest a priority of importance in anything else than the way the current culture engages with apologetics. Opening up with a historical defense for Christ tends to fall on deaf ears, not because it isn’t of primary importance, but simply because many people do not understand why it is important.
    Strangely enough I have found this most applicable in the universities where you would expect historical arguments to be the most engaging. We get to historical evidence but almost always after the beauty of the gospel is explained and explored and how that message addresses problems of modern life.

  4. C.S. Lewis was not addressing all skeptics but one particular group of skeptic. This is the group that believe in the historic Jesus and while this group does not believe Jesus to be God, they do recognize his strength as an excellent philosopher. C.S. Lewis was constantly surrounded by intellectuals that constantly rationalized why they did not believe Jesus was Lord, but that was no reason to dismiss the merit of his teachings. C.S. Lewis was pointing out how this type of logic is a conundrum.

    The trilemma should ONLY be used when you have convinced the skeptic that there was in deed a historic Jesus. C.S. Lewis did not discuss “Legend” or “Lacking History” because his audience already accepted those not to be true. Apologetics starts with using history and facts to convince the skeptic that Jesus existed. Then, and only then, do you employ C.S. Lewis trilemma. A perfect example of this is the story of how Lee Strobel turn to God by researching the history of Jesus and discovering that he actually existed. At this point he had to really examine the meaning of the C.S. Lewis trilemma, and came to the realization that Jesus must be Lord.

  5. I do not dismiss the trilemma. I simply encourage Christians to understand its limitations. The idea that Jesus did not exist is not a huge problem. People’s doubts that the New Testament accurately records the words and deeds of Jesus is a greater challenge. Such critics were around even in the time of C.S. Lewis. This is an area that apologists need to put more work in rather than just relying on a snappy presentation.

  6. Just brainstorming here; could we add another option, “Language?” We affirm he was neither insane nor deceptive, but with the uncertainty of language how can we know what he really meant by using the word “Lord?” In other words, pull a PoMo on the whole thing. That would even allow us to affirm the general reliability of the Gospels. Could that be another objection?

  7. That is a good point. That is a possible object. Another reason we have to look at the cultural context and the way these words were used. Unless we do this homework, the trilemma has no effectiveness.

  8. Lewis refers to this argument as “the aut Deus aut malus homo” (“either God or a bad man”), a reference to an earlier version of the argument used by Henry Parry Liddon in his 1866 Bampton Lectures, in which Liddon argued for the divinity of Jesus based on a number of grounds, including the claims he believed Jesus made. Jesus is Lord! If he can’t be Lord of all He will not be Lord at all!

  9. Really appreciate your explanation of the Trilemma and pointing out to believers where it may constitute failure among skeptics. In fact I liked it so much that I linked it to the word “Trilemma” on the about page of my Tumblr blog.

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