The Power and Limitation of Lewis’ Trilemma

Teaching the Mere Christianity class this summer has given me the opportunity to work back through a classic. I’ve appreciated revisiting several parts of the book that had a profound effect on me when I first read it several years ago. And virtually every time I read Lewis, I’m reminded of his ability to say meaningful things in vibrant, memorable ways.

One example of this is what may be the most famous passage of Mere Christianity. Often dubbed the “Trilemma,” it reads as follows:

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.

Now quite aside from the fact that Lewis’ analogy of a man who thinks he’s a poached egg is likely forever burned in my memory, I think this paragraph represents an important plank in a persuasive defense of the Christian faith. It is not, however, the last word, particularly in the current cultural climate.

The problem lies along these lines: Lewis’ argument is formidable insofar as we consider the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as constituting the authoritative and reliable account of his words and actions. So long as that is a given, then Lewis’ point is powerful. I would readily argue that a close reading of the gospels demonstrates Jesus in fact claimed deity in any number of ways. And if he did, then it indeed follows that he is either right or wrong, leading to possibilities and, I would certainly argue, the conclusion that Lewis mentions in the passage above.

But suppose Jesus really didn’t say the things we read in the Bible. Suppose he didn’t really do the amazing things detailed in the gospel accounts. Often driven by a considerable array of ideological and methodological presuppositions, modern skepticism offers that the biblical accounts have accrued a good many legendary elements as the actual events have receded into the past. Well meaning, if overly zealous followers of Jesus sought to make him into much more than he ever claimed for himself. Or perhaps a cabal of manipulative men, in what might have been a thinly veiled grab for power and influence, invented a compelling fiction (at least to ancient ears) of their teacher after he’d been unceremoniously executed by the authorities. And by the way, why should we limit ourselves to these four accounts of Jesus life? Then there is also the question of simple human error—a reality we are all intimately familiar with—in regard to the transmission of the gospel texts. In light of these problematic variables, the truth about Jesus must now be extracted from various layers of myth and error. Consequently, we need not be confined by Lewis’ stark options. The comfortable view of Jesus as inspiring moral teacher is back on the table.*

*I should also mention that this Jesus inevitably possesses a particularly modern notion of tolerance, i.e., not “I’m convinced you’re wrong but will treat you with respect anyway” but rather “all positions are equally viable.” Of course, many have observed that adherents of the latter perspective are often surprisingly intolerant of at least one group: those who don’t believe all positions are equally viable. Ah, the hobgoblin of consistency.

Rest assured, I believe all of these (often legitimate) objections to the reliability of the gospel accounts have good answers. But for Lewis’ argument to enjoy its full force, they must be addressed. I’ve mentioned it a few times in this space before, but Lee Stroebel’s The Case for Christ, containing interviews with several accomplished Christian scholars from various disciplines, is an excellent and readable introduction to many of the relevant issues.

I’ll close by saying this: in a backhand way, the objections to the gospel accounts underscore the persuasiveness of Lewis’ argument. As I said before, if you do acknowledge the gospels’ reliability, taking their message seriously and reading them in light of their own historical and cultural context, then it is difficult to escape the reality that Jesus is as Lewis and the rest of historic, orthodox Christianity has conceived him: God incarnate. But if that’s true, then Jesus is not merely a well-respected but easily ignored teacher. He’s our Sovereign Lord, laying claim to all of who we are. And though doing so constitutes the central human tragedy, you can see why we just might be tempted to explain that away.

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