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One of the classic arguments in Christain apologetics is C.S. Lewis’ trilemma. As he summarized the argument:

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 ā€“ on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg ā€“ or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You can either 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. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

But are there really only three options: liar, lord and lunatic? Many now recognize that a fourth choice needs to be contended with: legend.

We need to include this option in our thinking because this is increasingly the position which is held by those around us. The reason for this is that each of the 3 choices from Lewis’ trilemma share one underlying presupposition; that the Gospel accounts in the Bible are accurate and true.

However, this presupposition is no longer something that is a part of most people’s worldview. Many believe the Bible is not trustworthy and that it does not contain a true history of Jesus life, teaching, actions and words. Therefore they hold that Jesus wasn’t deity, he was simply deified by later followers.

They may think he was misunderstood or misquoted; that maybe he was a Cynic or that he secretly married and lived long after his supposed resurrection and ascension.

In any case, whether or not these alternate “legend” theories have merit really come down one main question: can we trust that the Bible contains a true history; do the Gospels accurately portray Jesus?

Due to this, we can’t rest on the argument that liar, lord or lunatic are the only viable options enless we first establish the reliability and accuracy of the Gospel accounts and of the Bible as a whole.

  • I think you missed the point of the trilemma there.

    It’s true that Many apologists have used this argument based upon the testimony of scripture, but they do so fallaciously. After all, if we already knew we could trust scripture, we wouldn’t need a trilemma at all, the gospels clearly say he is Lord.

    The isea here is that even if we regest scripture as the word of god and rely upon it only as an old book, evidence exists in abundance to defend the premises that #1. Jesus is a historical person and #2. He claimed to be Lord. Which leaves only three options. Either he was wrong and didn’t know it, was wrong and did know it, or was not wrong.

    To claim that Jesus may not have been a historical character at all is not to add another option to the trilemma, It is to reject the trilemma on it’s face. Doing so also re opens the possibility that the trilimma exists to eliminate, that Jesus was a good moral teacher.

    Instead of adapting the argument into an arbitrary quadralemma with no functional use based upon an alliterative letter, Shouldn’t we rather simply learn to defend the major premises that the argument rests on? and do so extra-biblically?

  • Be it from something like The Da Vinci Code, Misquoting Jesus or The Lost Tomb of Jesus, it is not uncommon for people to believe in an historic Jesus, but to have a deep mistrust of what the Bible says about him.

    Therefore, when they hear the trilemma, as originaly presented, they don’t see it as addressing all the options; specifically it doesn’t address the opinion they hold.

    Talking in the context of how some scholars and clergy experience a crisis of faith, Dr. Craig Evans [insert shameless plug for our upcoming event here šŸ™‚ ] writes how many popular apologists still appeal to C.S. Lewis’ triad. He then says:

    “The appeal makes for good alliteration, maybe even good rhetoric, but it is faulty logic. Without further qualification, those who adhere to this line of argument commit the fallacy of excluded middle. That is, they overlook other viable alternatives. At least two other alternatives are possible … Jesus is neither liar, lunatic nor Lord (in the orthodox sense); he is something else … [or] … we don’t really know who Jesus was …” (p.20 Fabricating Jesus)

    Now does that mean the trillema needs to be adapted as I suggested? No, not nessesarily. But if it is not adapted, it needs to be explained and qualified much better than it often is.

    That said, we definately need to “learn to defend the major premise that the [original] argument rests on”, and, as you also said, we ought “do so extra-biblically.”

    The advantage I see in trying to integrate this into C.S. Lewis’ argument itself is that it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of Jesus’ identity, especially in the context of the more popular modern attacks on his divinity.

  • I just don’t see the advantage.

    The entire purpose of the trilemma is to eliminate the popular opinions people have about Jesus leaving only unfavorable ones and the truth.

    If we instead change our tactic to include all popular theories independent of the established facts then why even bother discussing the possibility that he is a Liar or a Lunatic (virtually nobody believes that)

    Instead we should talk about whether he is a Legend, a good moral teacher, a prophet, an avatar of the divine, a third century fabrication, or Lord

  • Thanks for the comments … gives me something to think about.