C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma – Liar, Lunatic or Divine?
C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books and himself an atheist before turning to Christianity, was critical of the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not divine, with the following trilemma:
- Jesus was lying and knew it, so he was a liar.
- Jesus was lying but believed what he was saying, so he was a lunatic.
- Jesus was telling the truth, so he was divine.
Thus, according to Lewis, Jesus could only be a great moral teacher if he was telling the truth and was the son of God. Later, this argument was used as a logical proof that Jesus was in fact the son of God.
- Point 1 couldn’t be true, or so the argument goes, because then Jesus wouldn’t be willing to die for it.
- Point 2 couldn’t be true, because Jesus for some reason couldn’t be a lunatic.
- Therefore, the logical conclusion is that Jesus was divine.
The point was raised in the comments to one of my blog entries on my Import Mind.Reason blog that there may be a fourth option – Jesus never claimed to be the son of God but that the early Christians misunderstood this or decided it for themselves. The Gospels were written long after Jesus lived. In fact, the first was written forty years after his death. This is a significant period of time to allow for the stories to change slightly during a time period when technology was much less advanced than today. The fact that many elements of Christianity were also found in other contemporary religions suggests that early Christians borrowed from other traditions. It is difficult to discern exactly what applies to Jesus the myth or what applies to Jesus the man.
However, even if we accept the premise that Jesus claimed he was divine, the Lewis arguments are not solid. I agree that if Jesus did not believe in what he taught, and he did indeed teach that he was the son of God, then he would not have given his life for it. However, point 2 above is much more problematic. I have yet to hear a compelling argument that Jesus could not have been what Lewis calls a lunatic.
Martyrdom is a weak argument for a cause. If people are willing to die for it, it must be true, right? Wrong. In 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide. 38 followers and the leader himself killed themselves so that they could take a ride with a spaceship they believed was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Needless to say, the comet didn’t hide any spaceships and the members died in vain.
Why couldn’t Jesus have been under the (wrong) impression that he was divine? He would be far from the first, nor the last prophet charismatic enough to convince people he was not mentally ill and still claim the most fantastic things. The leader of the UFO sect mentioned above managed to convince 38 people that he was not some lunatic with a tin-foil hat, but rather a prophet who knew about the arrival of a spaceship. He is among many others who have convinced people to believe obvious falsehoods.
In fact, I would argue that the Gospels themselves are not very accurate. Of course, this is a view all atheists must take because the Gospels contains many passages about miracles we believe never happened. In fact, I’d argue that any text on miracles should be looked on as less reliable than a text with no miracles, simply by virtue of the fact that they contain miracles. Through the years, there have been numerous accounts of miracles, but never has any one of those claims stood up to skeptical inquiry. Never has there been any evidence suggesting that these events could not have happened by natural causes or that they were altogether fake. Given this simple, empirical observation, that no purported miracle has ever been proven to be genuine, we should be careful to trust sources that tell about such miracles.
In a comment to the previously mentioned blog entry, Husky said:
If Jesus was only one of tens of thousands of Jesuses living in Palestine at the time, and if there were multiple other prophets as well, then why did Christianity flourish with time and the rest of them fade away? I feel the burden of proof lies with the atheists on this one. There must be some objective aspect of Christianity that allowed it to succeed. Or it must be conceded that Christianity’s rise to prominence was a highly, HIGHLY improbable development.
I can’t say how many Jesuses there were in Palestine at the time of Jesus, but he was certainly not the only prophet in the area at the time.
Christianity’s rise was mostly a result of luck. Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity by granting religious freedom. He also did much to prevent the old custom of worshiping the emperor, and held the First Council of Nicaea that helped settle disputes internal to the religion. Before this, Christians had been prosecuted and executed for their religious beliefs. After Constantine, Christianity grew from being allowed to being favored, and from then on it spread rapidly. It seems likely that without Constantine a combination of internal and external factors would have led to Christianity to be much more obscure than it is today.
Unlike scientific ideas that generally become accepted once sufficient evidence for them is presented, religious ideas are much more dependent on social factors. No religion can provide objective evidence in favor of their position, so asking what objective ideas particular to Christianity that provided it with an advantage is missing the mark a bit. Rather, the popularity of any particular religion seems to be mostly based on luck and how good communicators the originators are. That Christianity would become the largest religion in the world is an improbable development given the weak arguments to support its claims.