or why CS Lewis’s “Trilemma” asks the wrong question
Jesus is incredibly important to modern Christianity. Among Christians, those who call themselves “evangelical” boast a very high Christology; for these believers the divinity of Christ is an incredibly important fact and a central part of God’s revelation in the New Testament. But, what happens when this belief in the full divinity of Christ (“the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal” as one creed puts it) is read back into the gospel accounts? Instead of merely proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the believer will end up insisting that Jesus taught this doctrine himself.
C.S. Lewis is beloved by Christians for his devotional books and religiously inspired fiction. I do not deny his talent as a writer or as an insightful critic of his times. When I was a young college student I felt that I could feel Lewis speaking back through time, directly to me, strengthening my faith and challenging my mind through books like The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. But when Lewis makes an argument for Jesus’ divinity in Mere Christianity (his famous apologetic work) he falls into the same trap as many Christians today still do. In his argument Lewis insists that we must accept Jesus as either a liar, a lunatic, or lord (and by “lord” Lewis means the divine being, God). Lewis treats the gospel texts as authoritative, historical accounts of what Jesus actually said and did. His argument also relies upon an understanding of these accounts which blends them together with later theological developments.
Why is Lewis’s argument so popular among Christians?
Since most people, even non-believers, admit to a high degree of respect for Jesus’s teaching and character the religious apologist advancing Lewis’s argument (or a similar one) can help score points for their side. When presented with the trilemma, very few are willing to argue that Jesus was a mad-man. To call him a liar would be even more offensive and this is also not a popular response to the challenge. An apologist can easily build on this “victory” and go further. Why would Jesus’s closest followers choose to remain so devoted to a liar or a lunatic? Why would they ever choose to die and be martyred for someone who they knew was a fraud? Surely their sacrifice validates what Jesus says about himself in the gospels, that he is the Messiah and “God’s only Son”? The claims that the gospels make are written out in black and white, and the most obvious answer to the trilemma is that Jesus, consistent with his admirable character, spoke the truth about his divinity, just as he spoke the truth about his inspiring moral principles.
There are more than a few problems with this popular approach to Christian apologetics but I want to tackle what I feel is a rather obvious problem, a problem which demonstrates that many Christians really don’t take their holy book as seriously as they claim to. The problem I have in view here can be summarized in two words: Which Jesus?
In my experience, most believers see the New Testament as part of one unified religious and historical tradition. Within this tradition the gospels supposedly narrate the life of Jesus and explain, through teaching, parable and storytelling, the importance of his life, death and resurrection. The gospels are viewed either as eyewitness accounts (Matthew and John), or as faithful historical biographies based on eyewitness testimony (Mark and Luke). The problem with this view is that while the gospels are written as a sort of history (they do purport to represent facts about Jesus, not pure allegories or fiction) these accounts are not in fact eyewitness reports or even close to it, and the accounts themselves contradict each other in key areas. Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman, does a great job of introducing lay readers to the problem of reconciling the various New Testament portraits of Jesus. When one compares events and details between the gospels, one notices that there are differences. Furthermore, these differences of accounts and quotations, even though sometimes “small” individually, add up into different images of Jesus and hence different understandings of who he is and exactly what his role is. A more detailed treatment of this issue can be found in Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. Fredriksen explains how various oral traditions about Jesus, which were originally based in a Jewish Palestinian context, underwent change and revision as the church’s gentile members became the majority. Alongside of gradual developments, major political events in Palestine (especially the destruction of the Temple in AD 70) affected the perception of Jews by the early Christian communities and together these changes colored how the gospel writers wrote about the Jesus traditions they had inherited.
I won’t go into detail on this topic here, but I do want to make a few important points. For scholars who study the New Testament documents critically (that is, not assuming that they are divinely inspired, but instead seeing them as historical records whose claims and sources must be evaluated like any other part of the historical record–see “What is history?“) it is not at all uncontroversial to say that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present diverse, evolving pictures of Jesus which are informed by circumstances many decades after the execution of Jesus (from roughly 70 AD to 100 AD). It is also not controversial to state that the titles of the gospels were almost certainly added to the documents much later and that the gospels in their original distribution (before they became canonical), were anonymous. The gospels were not meant to be read together or to be seen as “eyewitness” accounts in the sense that we might think of eyewitnesses in a modern courtroom or news reporting. Rather, the gospels offered comfort and ideological support to their diverse communities, communities which had already formulated very different ideas about the life and nature of Jesus. The easiest way to see this contrast is by comparing the gospel of Mark, our earliest witness, with the gospel of John, our latest witness. In Mark and John, Jesus has different teachings. Even major events in his life, such as the cleansing of the temple, happen in different sequences (in John this event is at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry while in the Mark and the other synoptic gospels it occurs near the end, when Jesus visits Jerusalem before his crucifixion)*. If you want to learn more about these topics and how the four canonical gospels differ (and explanations for why) I heartily recommend the two books mentioned above.
Did Jesus claim to be God?
When it comes to the trilemma, it is important to evaluate whether or not Jesus claimed to be God. For Lewis this is an open and shut case. In Mere Christianity Lewis doesn’t waste much time defending the viewpoint that Jesus actually claimed to be God. He quotes a few passages from John, reiterates the common evangelical understanding of Jesus, and that’s that. But when we actually look at the content of the gospels closely there is a big problem: all four gospels present us with a different Jesus. He teaches different things, he does different activities, his genealogy and the explanation for how “Jesus of Nazareth” actually came from Bethlehem (as the Old Testament prophecy demanded of the Messiah) differs between our accounts. Of our accounts only the latest one (the one that critical scholars consider the least reliable as a source of information about the historical Jesus) contains statements that can be construed as equating Jesus with God himself. What if Jesus never claimed to be God? What are we to make of Lewis’s famous trilemma then? What if Jesus was just another Jewish apocalyptic preacher who prematurely declared that The End was nigh? What if he was another failed Messiah who was put down before his movement could become dangerous to the Romans and the other ruling elites? An honest look at the source materials that describe Jesus’s teachings require us to add a fourth option to Lewis’s trilemma: legend. It is quite possible that the Jesus modern Christians worship is a legend, an amalgam of real, historical bits mixed in with later theological developments. Some of those developments were provided by the gospel writers and their communities, and some were the product of much later controversies that arose after Christianity became a major force in Roman society (for a good treatment of theological development before and after the gospels, see Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God).
The Wrong Question…and the Right One
The famous trilemma really asks the wrong question. Instead of asking doubters and wavering Christians “do you believe what Jesus said about himself?” we should be asking “what did Jesus really say, and how can we be reasonably certain that he said it?”
*For many Christians this is where that pesky “No Contradictions Allowed” bias comes into play and prevents them from accepting the texts for what they are. Jesus, Interrupted does a great job of debunking this naive approach to the gospels and is a fairly easy read for those who are new to the historical-critical approach to the Bible.