The Dilemma of the Trilemma

more carpenter I’m a big fan of C.S. Lewis. I was first exposed to his writings with The Screwtape Letters and since then I have enjoyed many of his other books and essays. His “trilemma” is one of the most well known of his propositions and has been repeated in numerous apologetic sermons, speeches and books.

This is how he presents it in 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 true then we are left with only three possible descriptions of Jesus;

  1. Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.
  2. Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
  3. Lord: Jesus is God.



Makes perfect sense doesn’t it? I’ve used this argument numerous times myself. But there may be a problem with his conclusion. There is a actually a fourth (or perhaps even fifth) option remaining;

Misunderstood: Jesus never actually claimed to be God but rather the Son of God (as Lewis states)

Misrepresented: The accounts of Jesus in the Bible are inaccurate or false

    (The last of these two options would have the effect of reducing Jesus to that of a fiction-like legend in the eyes of the skeptic).

    I think that, for Christians, Lewis’ trilemma can certainly be comforting – it rationally backs up what we accept to be true in our hearts. But as an apologetic argument I now think it leaves something to be desired and would hesitate to present this as support for Christianity. I am unsure if there are any ‘rational’ arguments for the Incarnation. The very idea is too fantastic, if not just scandalous.


    , , ,

    1. #1 by logiopath on January 16, 2008 - 7:55 pm

      Read “Surprised by Joy” to see what Lewis meant. The analogy, as I understand it, was indeed for Lewis’ atheist mentor.

      It was logic that brought Lewis to faith, not analogies. I believe, if I am correct, it was the words and council of Roman Catholic author G. K. Chesterton who convinced Lewis, not a formula.

      Lewis was also friends with Tolkien. However Tolkien did not support Lewis for the English equal to rank and tenure at Oxford, so Lewis moved to Cambridge.

      All of this can be read in “Surprised by Joy.”

    2. #2 by logiopath on January 16, 2008 - 7:56 pm

      P. S. An atheist can consider Jesus a great moral teacher. Why not?

    3. #3 by logiopath on January 17, 2008 - 4:08 am

      I think if we put Lewis into formulas–like Campus Crusade promoted all those years–we miss his message.

      If we read Mere Christianity, we find the message of Lewis.

      We find a man who is impressed by Roman Catholics; he even promotes the doctrine of purgatory through his work The Great Divorce. He gives ample praise, as I mention above, to G. K. Chesterton and Tolkien.

      We also find a man, in that same work, who gives an untainted view of the atonement and forgiveness. The rider taps the Bitter-Conscious man with his sword, and the man experiences great pain. On the other side of the pain is forgiveness and a trip from the Gray City up to heaven.

      We also find someone trying to explain Chrisianity. He is not trying to tell a person to “be saved” or repent, or follow this or that formula. He is “merely” saying that Chistianity is what it is.

      At the bottom of it is a paradox. Lewis is called by some the greatest apologist of the 20th Century. Not only an apologist, but an evidentialist. (Geisler writes of Evidentialism, “Truth must be objective and public; it needs a basis in fact.”) on the other hand, Lewis was a master of mysticism and whimsy. He called Genesis “true myth.” He wrote fantastic allegory. He also wrote with scalding wit, and at the same time kept himself free of falling into ridiculous arguments about doctrine.

    4. #4 by ric booth on January 17, 2008 - 9:32 am

      My comment that Lewis is not talking to the atheist … is really in response to the post and Christian’s comment #4. My suggestion is to look at Lewis’ opening sentence: “…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.”

      My point is, the only people he’s addressing here are those who consider/accept Jesus as a great moral teacher. Some may be atheist. Some may be theist.

      An atheist can consider Jesus a great moral teacher.

      Lewis’ point is there is no evidence to logically support that notion.

      My point (and possibly Lewis’ point in Surprised by Joy) is from a non-biblical, purely historical (legendary) perspective, the claim is even more illogical.

      Whether the person (atheist or theist) cares if their view is illogical or unsupportable is another issue.

    5. #5 by Christian on January 17, 2008 - 1:37 pm

      I wonder if there can be such a thing as a non-biblical perspective on Christ. Is there really that much information on Jesus, outside the pages of the Bible? Aside from a couple of lines in Josepus’ “Antiquities of the Jews’ there doesn’t appear to be much (if anything) about him in the historical record.

      So anyone today, not just those who sees Jesus as God (or the Messiah), must be using the Biblical accounts, either verbatim or modified, as their source of knowledge about him. And that would also include atheists or people of other faiths.

      I know it’s become a cliche but Gandhi apparently thought of Jesus as a great moral teacher and I don’t think he thought of him as God. In somewhat the same way I can see Siddhārtha Gautama as a great moral teacher while not being a Buddhist. I don’t think Gautama ever claimed to be God but there is a pretty good argument that Jesus never did either. If your world view is different than most Christians I can see how his remarks about his divinity could be taken as something else.

      And again, I like the trilemma and think that it is a neat little package but as most of you guys have already said, it is only valid in the eyes of the (nearly) Christian. It’s too blunt an instrument for broad evangelism.

    6. #6 by kathyso on January 17, 2008 - 5:03 pm

      Is there really “support” for Christianity? Isn’t that exactly what faith is?? Having all of the answers is knowledge. Faith is believing without all the answers. As one of the partners in Buddy’s company has said…”I’ll believe in Christianity when someone can explain to me why the lions didn’t eat the lambs on the ark…”. ????????

      Sorry to be a killjoy to all you intellectual types! 🙂

    7. #7 by Christian on January 17, 2008 - 5:16 pm

      No, killing of joy here. And I think the real intellect resides somewhere in those Frankenboots. You just said, simply and clearly, what I have been trying to say but with some difficulty.

      You can’t rationalize God. You can’t prove that God exists and you really can’t explain faith. IMHO. The ‘atheist’ who demands an explanation is being no more ridiculous than the theist who tries to provide one.

    1. 20 Doubtful Things that Many Christians Believe « SHARP IRON

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: