Doubting ThomasAs some of you may know I work part-time with an organization called Power to Change, which attempts to help people change their lives by realizing the transforming power of knowing Jesus Christ. Today it was brought to my attention that one of the many links to includes a blog post titled ""Lord, Liar, or Lunatic"? Or, I dunno, something in between." I disagree with several points made in that post, and it gives me an opportunity to discuss Lewis' famous argument, which I think was left somewhat undeveloped in its original form but can be redeemed.

The basics of Lewis' "Trilemma" argument can be found at the following Wikipedia entry: Lewis' Trilemma Argument. Unfortunately, it is only quoted in part, and reading the full chapter from Mere Christianity (full text here, see chapter 8) and the preceding material in the book might make things clearer. Nevertheless …

The Wikipedia entry describes the trilemma as below … Asylum Seeker, the author of the blog post linked above, takes issue with every part of the argument. (Hereafter I'll refer to Asylum Seeker as "Asylum", since his real name is not given; and although I am unsure of their gender I will refer to Asylum as "he" for the sake of ease.):

(P) Jesus claimed to be God.
(Q) One of the following must be true.
1. Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he believed that he was.
2. Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
3. Lord: Jesus is God.
From these premises it follows logically that,
(C) If not God, Jesus is either not great or not moral.

I have edited (Q)1) to remove the word "mistakenly" since, as I explain later and Lewis himself made clear, Jesus' claim is not the sort of thing a person can make an "oopsie" about.

Re (P), Asylum claims that "that Jesus did not necessarily refer to himself as the "Son of God" and he was only claimed to be after the fact by followers" and later claims that "As mentioned above, Premise P is suspect". However, no reason is presented for denying that Jesus thought of Himself as God. Even if Jesus never referred to Himself as "Son of God", the name "Son of Man" still carried similar connotations for his first century listeners. The Wikipedia article contains several suggested reasons that might be given for concluding Jesus didn't consider Himself to be divine, but also presents equally forceful reasons (I would say, better) for believing Jesus did in fact claim to be God. See for example Glenn Miller's summary or more comprehensive articles (on the synoptics and John) on the subject. If we take the biblical texts seriously, I don't see how a case could be made that Jesus considered himself to be anything less than divine.

That's IF we take the biblical texts seriously, of course. What if, however, as several commenters to Asylum's original post suggest, that we should not take the biblical text seriously because they are not trustworthy? This is a more popular was of avoiding the conclusion (C) of Lewis' argument: By positing a fourth way, a fourth "L", namely Legend. Asylum suggests early in his post that "Jesus could be fictional [and/or] the Gospel could be inaccurate".

Regarding Jesus being fictional (ie the "Jesus never existed" hypothesis) this hypothesis is dismissed by nearly all serious scholars on the subject, G. A. Wells being the main notable exception. For more details on this topic, see Dr Gary Habermas' article commenting directly upon Wells' hypothesis A Summary Critique: Questioning the Existence of Jesus, or a more general article Christ Myth Refuted. Whether the New Testament is accurate, however, is more open for debate. This is certainly a worthy objection to Lewis' original argument. Of course, Lewis was operating under the assumption that the New Testament is trustworthy. If that assumption is removed, it must be argued for, as I believe I have done in my free ebook on this subject, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament. I encourage you to download a copy and check it out.

There are, in fact, good reasons to believe the New Testament is trustworthy; especially in contrast to some of the other works commonly mentioned by skeptics of the New Testament such as non-canonical documents written in the second century AD and later. In the comments section of Asylum's post one of the commenters Richelle says "it would have been nice to know what all the other stories of jesus were before they all got destroyed by the church once they decided jesus was going down in history as a superhuman." Here she is referring to another commenter's mention of the Council of Nicaea. Of course, the Council of Nicaea did not discuss which books would be included in the New Testament at all, and we have plenty of information about what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus, first from the New Testament documents themselves, and then from the early Christian letters (some from the first century). Larry Hurtado's recent book argues that in fact "perhaps within only a few days or weeks of his crucifixion, Jesus' followers were circulating the astonishing claim that God had raised him from death and had installed him in heavenly glory as Messiah and the appointed vehicle of redemption." So such ideas are hardly inventions by a church council in the 4th century!

Even if we accepted for the sake of argument that the New Testament is generally untrustworthy and contains numerous errors, Jesus' divinity is proclaimed or assumed throughout, so it still would be difficult to escape the conclusion that the authors believed Jesus claimed to be God unless we were to discount the entirety of the New Testament as being totally and utterly untrustworthy; as even most ardent skeptics won't do, for good reason.

This leads us to (Q)1): "Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was." This is a major point of contention for Asylum, who says: "A "lunatic" is hardly crazy about everything. People who have such a delusion can still have insight." This is true. A person may be perfectly sane in one regard, and completely delusional in another regard.

Yet think for a moment what you might say if someone you know, let's call him Joe, claimed to be God. Not just for a laugh, but seriously and continuously. He seemed normal in certain other respects (he was able to dress himself and engage in normal social conventions) yet he claimed he was in fact God. Now what if a group of people got sick of Joe's ranting and decided they'd kidnap him and, if he didn't stop with this God nonsense, that they would kill him in the most painful way imaginable. What would you say about him if he steadfastly refused to recant and was killed in the most excruciating manner for his claims? I, personally, would not call him sane. Would you?

When Lewis wryly remarks that "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 a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell" he is saying, with his 'poached egg' remark, that Jesus' self-claims are not trivial, they are entirely foundational. A person calling themselves God is either true, or, if false, akin with claiming to be a poached egg! This is not the sort of thing a person could make an "oopsie" about and we would still call "sane".

Asylum notes in the comments that he is "not sure if Jesus's behavior is inconsistent" with Schizophrenia, though he is careful to note he does not think it is per se. It's worth noting that to be able to suggest that Jesus was Schizophrenic, a person would have to get their information from … the New Testament, so they must be claiming that it is essentially reliable. You can't have your cake and eat it too. But is there evidence within the New Testament that Jesus had some kinda of mental illness? In fact there doesn't seem to be anything about Jesus' behavior which suggests mental illness, let alone Schizophrenia. (Compare for example with what is know about Muhammad, where, while far from conclusive, there are at least suggestions that he suffered from epilepsy or a similar mental illness.)

Gary R. Collins, PhD in psychology from Purdue University, concludes that "I don't see any signs that Jesus was suffering from mental illness." Asylum's point prior in his post is that a person may be sane in some areas of life and insane in others, but as noted above claiming to be God (and willing to be put to death for that conviction) is not the sort of claim that is distinct from a person being sane.

So, if we take the New Testament seriously and Jesus' words seriously when he claims to be God, and if Jesus shows no signs of mental illness, we are ruling out the Legend argument, (Q)1), the lunatic argument, and (Q)2) the liar argument. Are there other possible alternatives? Kreeft and Tacelli note at least one additional option in their book (available here BTW, with a much nicer cover than my copy has): Maybe Jesus didn't mean he was literally God, maybe he was just being really mystical and symbolic. They call this the Guru objection. This is rejected, in part, because of the context in which Jesus spoke and lived: He was Jewish, and directed his own ministry primarily to the Jews, no doubt because they (perhaps unlike some of the non-Jewish people around) would not have understood his claims to be mystical. (Certainly those who committed Jesus to death for His perceived heresy did not see the claims as being mystical!) For more on the "mythical Jesus" see for example here: The Persistent New Age Jesus (and other articles on the CAFA site).

All that said, I don't see Lewis' argument as an iron-clad proof that Jesus was who he said he was. It is, I think, a more powerful argument than Lewis is given credit for, especially since he was not a philosopher by trade. And the version put forth by Kreeft and Tacelli is I think a definite improvement (expansion) of Lewis' original. But it is not airtight by any means. When I first read of it, before I was a Christian, I did not drop to my knees and become a Christian immediately afterward.

What's the point, then? It is one of several arguments that I believe suggest that Jesus, and the Gospel message, are actually true. No one will be convinced to become a Christian by rational arguments alone (because the nature of the trust of faith is not merely rational, but also volitional and emotional) but they may at least convince us that such ideas are worth thinking about.

Related reading:
– A better article on one of our sites than the testimony linked by Asylum's blog post: Who did Jesus think He was anyways?
– Peter Kreeft's brief article on the topic on his website: The Divinity of Christ
– Stand to Reason: Christianity worth thinking about