In an article entitled “The Trilemma. Lord Liar or Lunatic?,” J. P. Holding of Tekton Apologetics ministries attempts to rescue CS Lewis’s most famous argument for the deity of Christ from its inherent flaws. He starts with a discussion of ways in which this argument has admittedly been abused by apologists, but claims that skeptics have an even worse record.
On the other hand, attempts to “refute” it have tried to fuddle the argument by adding one or more options, or by saying that the options already stated are not clear enough – which is itself rather a poor methodology!
The scare quotes around “refute” are a nice touch. Let’s see if Holding can do any better than Lewis did.
To argue that the trilemma is refuted by showing the horns not to be clear-cut and distinct possibilities is correct ONLY if one can prove ALL of the horns to be such. But, for example, if only two of the horns are “fuzzy” but the third one “tight”, then the trilemma has simply converted to a powerful dilemma and the problem is still in our faces. At the same time, arguing that the trilemma is refuted by showing that there are more than three possibilities simply turns it from a bothersome trilemma into a bothersome tetralemma. Skeptics who continually say that the trilemma is “refuted” whenever another option is added miss the point. Only the “tri” part is refuted – the “lemma” is still there, whether is a tri-, a quadra-, a quinto-, or whatever number you please!
The problem is not that the terms of the “trilemma” are too fuzzy, nor is it that skeptics have any particular problem with the possibility that Jesus was deluded and/or dishonest to at least some degree. The problem with Lewis’s “trilemma” is that it creates a false trichotomy by oversimplifying the theological issues involved. JP Holding tries to rescue Lewis’s argument by breaking it down from three choices into four choices. Unfortunately, like Lewis, Holding creates a series of false dichotomies that fail to accurately represent the realities involved.
- Either Jesus claimed to be divine, or He did not. If He did not, words were put in his mouth by someone else. We have already addressed this in this essay. If He did make such claims, then:
- Either Jesus was right about those claims, or He was wrong. If He was right, Christianity is true. If He was wrong, then -
- He either knew He was wrong, or did not know He was wrong. The first phrase is the “liar” option of the trilemma. As for the second:
- If He did not know he was wrong, He lacked knowledge because of an error in judgment. Errors in judgment have only two sources: A properly working mind, or an improperly working mind. The latter is the “lunatic” option. The former is the “honestly mistaken” option, the most common skeptical attempt to add to the trilemma.
Notice the binary thinking here. Either a thing is 100% true, or it is 100% false. Either Jesus claimed to be divine, or he did not. But does this really reflect the realities involved in Jesus’s remarks and the circumstances under which he made them (assuming he really did make them)? Let’s look at one example, from John 10.
[Jesus said:] “I and the Father are one.”
Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
“We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?
So according to Holding, either it’s 100% true that the Father and the Son are one, or it’s 100% false. In what sense might it be true, however? In the context, Jesus gives us a Biblical precedent for interpreting such remarks, citing Psalm 82 as an example of God using the term “god” to refer to mortal kings:
God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?
…I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
So God called the kings of the earth “gods.” That means that either God is a liar, or God is a lunatic, or the kings of the earth really are gods. It’s either 100% true that they are gods, or it’s 100% false that they are gods. It’s either 100% true that God called them gods, or it’s 100% false that God called them gods. If God called them gods when it’s 100% false that they are gods, then God must either be a liar or a lunatic. Either it’s 100% true that God knew they were not gods when He called them gods, or it’s 100% false that He knew they were not gods. If He knew they were not gods, then He’s a liar. If He didn’t, then either He’s 100% insane, or He’s 100% ignorant.
Quiz time: how many people think that Psalm 82’s true, intended meaning is best arrived at via the “tetralemma” approach outlined by Holding? And what does that tell us about what Jesus meant when he cited Psalm 82 as the precedent for his own declaration of being “one” with God?
The problem is that “god” is a term without any objective, verifiable, real-world reference. It is a term whose meaning is defined entirely by the stories men tell about it, and the feelings men have about it, and the speculations and philosophies men imagine about it. And as if it weren’t bad enough that these things contradict each other and themselves, we also use the terms “god” and “divine” metaphorically and hyperbolically, as well as “spiritually.” It’s entirely possible for it to be 100% true that Jesus claimed divinity (in some sense) while being 100% false that he claimed divinity (in some other, equally valid sense).
We know that Jesus is not God, in the sense of being an all-knowing, all-loving, all-wise and all-powerful supernatural being who loves us enough to die in our place so that we can be together forever. If there were such a thing as an omnipotent being who wanted to be with us, we’d know about it because he’d show up in the real world. If that’s what he wants, and nothing in heaven and earth has the power to deny him what he wants, then we’d see it.
Clearly, that doesn’t happen, so we know no such deity exists. Consequently, we can dispense with the possibility that Jesus was God, because no such god exists in the real world. According to Lewis and Holding, that leaves “liar” and “lunatic” as the only remaining possibilities, though Holding concedes that “honestly mistaken” is also a valid alternative that Lewis somehow failed to consider.
The reality of the situation is that Jesus was probably on the spectrum of human behavior between the cynical huckster who deliberately manipulates popular superstition in order to acquire political power, and the deluded egomaniac who is sincerely unable to tell the difference between whatever seems right in his own eyes, and “God’s Eternal Will.”
On the huckster side, we see that Jesus manifestly loved to step into the limelight and build up his own reputation by denouncing the unpopular leaders of his day. He seized the moral high ground by preaching virtues that, unfortunately, he himself did not quite put into practice (for example, compare “love your enemies” with how he actually treated the Pharisees and the merchants on the Temple grounds). He even denounced his own followers at times, but he loved to have people scrape and bow and show their faith in him.
But we should give Jesus the benefit of the doubt and suppose that he might indeed have been one of those naive and egocentric souls who seem to be simply unable to conceive of the possibility that their opinions about God’s will might be mistaken. “It seems right in my own eyes, so it must obviously be God’s eternal standard of morality and justice!” Such people can be more dangerous (especially to themselves) than the cynical huckster, because the huckster, at least, can draw the line before things get out of control. The deluded egomaniac can’t compromise without making the fatal concession that his personal opinions might not be genuinely infallible, and in Jesus’s case that ended up getting him killed.
So where does Jesus fit on the Liar, Lord, or Lunatic tree? Is it 100% dishonest to fail to distinguish between your own value judgments and God’s Eternal Truth? If so, there are a lot of lying Christians out there. Or is it 100% insane to try to live the best, most moral, and most righteous life you can live, given your understanding of what morality and justice are? If so, there’s a lot of people, Christian and non-, who are cuckoo froot loops.
But if it’s possible for you to be just a bit deluded about the difference between the way things seem to you, and the way “God” would have ordained them (if He existed), and if it’s possible at the same time to be willing to exploit people’s superstitions in order to motivate them to live up to (your own) moral standards (and incidentally lend you considerable political power and influence), and if it’s possible to do all that without being either a liar, a lunatic, or an almighty God, then maybe, just maybe it was possible for Jesus too.