Jesus: Man, Myth, or Misunderstood
Let me share with you something I wrote for a friend on Lewis’ Trilemma (which as I understand Lewis actually got from Chesterton). This is presented thusly on p55 of Mere Christianity:
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 said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
If you type this into Google, you’ll find thousands of Christian websites that apparently feel this is a high point of Christian apologetics. It’s actually illogical and uninformed, and it does not reflect well on people who accept it as serious thinking.
You can see the first problem here. Lewis writes “A man who said the sort of things Jesus said…” but accepting this premise first requires that we establish what Jesus said. It is not easy to separate what Jesus said from what was added to his sayings later. There is widespread disagreement among scholars on what goes back to Jesus. Many scholars believe, for example, that nothing in John goes back to Jesus. Others argue that anything about Gentiles or food laws is a later addition. Still others point out that Jesus’ sayings closely resemble popular philosophical sayings of his time.
What arguments or evidence does Lewis offer about what Jesus said? Well, I’ve read Mere Christianity, and I didn’t see any. So unless Lewis can tell me how he knows what Jesus intended, I do not see that there is any support for his claim from that direction. In fact, Lewis even writes that Jesus claimed to be God, but nowhere is there a clear statement of that in the Gospels (even a statement like “I and the Father are one” can be interpreted in many ways). Many, many scholars would dispute that historical Jesus ever made such a claim.
But it gets worse, because in addition to lacking scriptural support, Lewis’ position is a string of logical fallacies. First, he offers you three choices. Either Jesus was really God, or he was a devil, or he was crazy. “A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” Any time someone gives you violently opposed choices you should start becoming suspicious about his arguments.
Think about it. Could a liar be a great moral teacher? Of course! All the great moral teachers of history were human beings, and like all humans, must have been liars. Martin Luther King plagiarized his doctoral thesis and cheated on his wife. His “I have a dream” is taken unacknowledged from a speech written by a friend of his. Does that mean he wasn’t a great moral teacher and leader? Of course not! Just imagine all the great moral leaders and teachers you know – didn’t they all have human failings? So with Jesus. There is no reason to imagine that simply because he was a great moral teacher, he must be divine.
Furthermore, there is no reason to imagine that Jesus had to have been a liar to make the claims that he did. He might have sincerely believed in what he said. He might even have sincerely believed he was God. His followers might have believed it too. That sort of thing has happened before as well. But even if he were crazy, would that invalidate him as a great moral teacher? Crazy people are as likely to say intelligent and insightful things as anybody. After all, saying Jesus was a nut doesn’t really say anything about what kind of nut he was. He might have been a nut like Kurt Godel, one of the great philosophers of all time, who in his later years insisted on communicating with everyone by phone even if they were in the same room. Yet his social strangenesses did not prevent him from being a truly great thinker and teacher.
Another problem with this point of view is that in fact there is nothing particularly divine about Jesus’ teachings in any case; they can be found in the popular philosophy, Cynic and Stoic, of his day, and in the Old Testament. For example, when Jesus tells people that the physicians do not heal the healthy, he quotes a famous Cynic maxim going back several centuries. Do we then claim that the Cynic philosopher who first thought that up was divine? Probably most people would not. When Jesus cites the famous Shema in Mark 12:29-31, he is citing a bit of Jewish moral teaching. So should we then regard all the Jewish teachers who taught this as divine also? The Golden Rule, found in many cultures, is another example of this. Were all those teachers divine?
In fact, there are many more than the three dramatic choices – God, Devil, or Nutcase – that Lewis offers us. Maybe Jesus was just a human like you and me. Maybe he was misunderstood. Maybe the things he said were made up, or spoken by others and then attributed to Jesus. So next time someone says “Lord, liar, or lunatic?” You can respond by thoughtfully saying, “No, more like man, myth, or misunderstood.” – Michael Turton
- The de-Convert
- Were the Gospels eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus?
- Jesus – to be or not to be, that is the question!
- Is Jesus mentioned in the Talmud?