A while back, a discursionists post quoted from famed author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’ work Mere Christianity. The quote in question dealt with Lewis’ attempted deductive argument for belief in the divinity of Jesus, or, in somewhat common nomenclature, the “Liar/Lunatic/Lord” Trilemma. At the time, I said I would write up an explanation of the flaws in Lewis’ reasoning. Well, that ended up growing into something of an essay. So, here I’ll post a brief summary of the longer document and provide a link to a PDF of the whole thing.
First, here’s the main quote:
I’m 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 a level with a 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 call Him 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.
Lewis then continues:
We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now, it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.
Though I have my doubts, this apologetic work – and this part in particular – appears to be aimed at those who one might call skeptics. Lewis seems to be trying to compel with logic that one could not possibly view Jesus as a moral teacher without also believing him to be God. So, is this a good argument? Is it really a logical argument? Does it dissuade someone from calling Jesus a moral teacher while denying his divinity? Does it provide a rational basis for belief in the divinity of Jesus? The simple answer to all of these questions is, No.
Here are some of the issues with Lewis’ Trilemma which I point out at length:
• Heavy reliance on logical fallacy (primarily false dilemma)
• Apparent ignorance of history and scholarship (though it’s hard to fault Lewis for this, it is a problem with more contemporary apologists)
• Reliance on a heavily debated premise
• Arbitrary and self-serving approach to hermeneutics
• Even friendly scholars reject his reasoning
• Ignorance of the fact that the same reasoning can be equally applied to other characters of history
• It does no good for believers or skeptics
• It may even be harmful to believers
• It diminishes the profundity of mystery and faith
There’s plenty more in the full essay. In any case, the Liar/Lunatic/Lord Trilemma does not work as a reasoned argument. It cannot provide a rational basis for faith and only provides a false sense of reasonable support for those who have already been convinced of the truth of the Trilemma’s conclusion without such attempts as reasoning.
I wrote this quite a while back, but just now finally got around to editing it. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting enough to make it all he way through. (Length Warning: The main body is about 15 pages with another 5 of endnotes.)