The Trilemma: Useless

The so-called trilemma is a popular evangelism and apologetics crutch. As Josh McDowell puts, Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. The originator of the idea, C.S. Lewis, put it this way 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 one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing 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."

I’m a big fan of Lewis and his writings were instrumental to my return to faith, but I cannot accept this argument. It is fallacious and essentially useless for converting a non-believer.

  • Assumptions and Objections
    • The Old Testament contains divinely inspired texts that completely and accurately represent both pre-Christian Judaism and the will of God.
      • Since the OT records the prophesies that must be fulfilled by the Messiah, we cannot beg this question if we are speaking to non-believers. If the OT is believed to be either innaccurate or inunspired, it is of limited apologetic use.
      • God may not be entirely good and truthful.
      • The Israelites might not be the only chosen people.
      • The authors of the OT may not have had sufficient intellects and/or education to fully comprehend and accurately record God’s will.
      • History is written by victors. Perhaps heresy superceded orthodoxy and OT Scriptures are edited, missing books, or entirely bogus.
    • The OT texts referred to as Messianic prophesies actually are and were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.
      • If it is believed that New Testament authors played fast and loose with OT texts in an effort to shore up Jesus’ claims, putative Messianic prophesies come under suspicion. In other words, if one distrusts apostolic hermeneutics and exegesis, saying that Jesus fulfilled OT prophesies is moot.
    • The New Testament contains divinely inspired texts that completely and accurately represent both early Christian beliefs and the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
      • The apostles may have been lying, in part or whole.
      • The apostles may have neglected to record anything detracting about Jesus.
      • The apostles may have embellished or romanticized the sayings and/or deeds of Jesus
      • The apostles may have been heretics that twisted the teachings of Jesus who was just a popular rabbi.

The take home message from this short list of assumptions and possible objections is that before one can prove the veracity of Jesus’ claims, we must prove the veracity of Scripture. If one considers Scripture to be a mix of truth, lies, mistakes, and pious fiction, one is not forced into any of the three proposed conclusions. Even if one accepts Scripture as mostly or entirely reliable, there are still problems.

  • Assumptions and Objections
    • Jesus was a liar.
      • The most convincing lies contain elements of truth.
      • To lie about one thing does not necessitate that one lie about everything.
    • Jesus was a lunatic.
      • Do mental defects entirely negate wisdom? There is ample historical evidence that genius often borders and sometimes blurs into insanity.
      • If a mad man says something true, is it no longer true.
      • If Jesus was mad, he might not have been so for his whole life. He may have taught wisely and lucidly for a couple years before beginning to believe he was God.
      • Belief in one falsehood is not mutually exclusive with belief in all truths. Futhermore, while mental instability or stubborn belief in a wrong idea may harm one’s reputation, they do not necessarily mean one is insane or wrong in all matters.
    • Jesus is Lord
      • This conclusion follows logically, but is not obviously or trivially true. There are enough holes in the ther options that one is not forced to accept this conclusion.

Obviously, as a Catholic Christian, the objections I presented are not ones that I believe or promote. I was merely playing devil’s advocate. These objections are far from exhaustive. They’re merely what I pulled off the top of my head. I’m sure they could be worded convincingly. In fact, it is my confidence in that fact that seals my belief in the uselessness of the trilemma. It will only convince those who want to be convinced, the naive, and those of weak intellect.