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Is C.S Lewis’ Trilemma a Good Argument for the Divinity of Christ?

November 16, 2017


Is Jesus God? Man faces no greater question.

Today we live in an age and society where atheism appears to be on the rise. What is worse, modern day unbelief is often accompanied by an emotion-powered “devangelical” fervor that founds itself on the reckless principle: “God does not exist. Therefore, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!”

This growing atheistic attitude pervading our culture is accompanied by another modern day spiritual phenomenon just as concerning, a close relative to atheism—religious indifferentism

This indifference has taken hold of the minds of many. For these people, the prospect of the divinity of Christ is not something they’ve chosen to dismiss as a theory they’ve put on trial and proven false; rather, they are indifferent towards the question and have not honestly tested the hypothesis at all. They just don’t care.

This lack of concern about Jesus’ claims of divinity exemplify the intellectual and spiritual stagnancy of our times. It seems that for a tragic many, the question of eternal destiny has become about as important as asking “which pajamas shall I wear tonight?”

Indeed we live in a culture of complacency.

Yet, we must face this question, for it holds the prospect of eternal destiny in the balance. For one who accepts the claims of Jesus and believes them, there is everything to gain and nothing to lose. For one who rejects his claims and does not believe, there is everything to lose and nothing to gain. In the words of Pascal, “You are embarked. Which will you choose then?” Faith or rejection appear to be our two options; and indifference, I fear, is a choice that does not fall under the “faith” category.

When it comes to believing in something, however, it is important to have supporting evidence to help make an informed and responsible choice. Do Christians have such a thing as “good evidence” for their belief in the divinity of Christ? I would argue we do.

How can we know that Jesus was who he said he was—God, the second person of the eternal Trinity? Many Christians have turned to the great Oxford intellectual, C.S. Lewis, for answers. Most famously, they have turned to his classic work of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity. Here the former atheist presents an argument known as the “Trilemma,” also known as the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument (as coined by Josh McDowell).

Lewis says:

“I am trying 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 the 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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

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.. I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” (p. 55-56) 

This argument has reached notoriety among Christian apologists of all levels. It is clear, employs sound logic, and is easy to remember—a fitting apologetic to be utilized at all levels of discussion, including evangelization across the kitchen table.

The Rock Upon Which the ‘Trilemma’ Is Built

Lewis’ famous argument, however, depends on the refutation of another potential explanation of Jesus’ identity which, if shown to be true, can potentially crumble the Christian case for Christ’s divinity.

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg illustrates:

“The problem with [the Trilemma] is that it assumes what is regularly denied, namely that the gospels give substantially accurate accounts of the actions and claims of Jesus. One can…introduce a fourth option: the stories about Jesus were legends…Unless one can successfully dismiss this alternative, one cannot appeal to Lewis’ apologetic.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, page 22)

Thus, if Jesus is not God, he is either a liar, lunatic, or legend.

The question necessarily arises then: Is there good evidence to show that Jesus was not a legend? I answer yes.

Some Evidence for the Historicity of the Gospels

1. The accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings were recorded in remarkable proximity to the actual events. Consider the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Many experts believe that both were written within 20 years of Christ’s crucifixion. Most scholars hold that all of the Gospels were written by the close of the first century (less than 60 years after Jesus). We must always remember that although the Gospels can and should be read as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, they can also be ready as valuable historical documents.

2. Good archaeological evidence validates the accuracy of the details in the Gospels. The number and nature of the 5000 existing Greek manuscripts of the Gospels we possess today are extraordinarily useful in validating the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. These manuscripts include fragments from as early as the early-mid second century. Blomberg notes that “almost no-one denies that highly accurate texts of what the four Evangelists originally wrote have been preserved.”

3. Early Christians did not dispute the Gospel accounts. There seems to be a firm and stable conviction, unattested through most of church history, that the apostles or followers of the apostles penned accurate accounts of what Jesus really said and did. Surely, if the Gospels were misrepresentations of the “real” Christ, there would have been substantial backlash from the early Christians, especially since it was for the sake of the Gospel of the divine Christ that they were being martyred. Any public claim that Christ was not divine, orally or in writing, would have been a disgrace to these early century Christians under persecution.

4. Early secular historians wrote about Jesus. Jesus is alluded to by Roman historians from antiquity like Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger.

5. Major events in Jesus’ life, such as the crucifixion, were mentioned in the writings of early non-Christian writers. Mention of the crucifixion of Jesus were recorded in the first century writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, the secular writings of Tacitus and Lucian of Samosata of the second century, the Jewish Talmud of the late second century and a letter from Mara Bar-Serapion from somewhere in the first-third centuries.

6. Jesus’ miracles were attested to by early sources, some of whom were non-Christian. Some scholars hold that Jesus existed by did not actually work true miracles. Ancient history seems to point otherwise. The Jewish historian Josephus describes Jesus as a “doer of marvelous works” (Antiquities 18:3). The Jewish Talmus accused Jesus of being one who “practiced sorcery” (Sanh. 43a). Celsus, who despised Christianity, wrote that Jesus came to “[know] of certain miraculous powers…and by means of these powers proclaimed himself a God” (Origin, Contra Celsum 1:38; cf 1:160). Early rabbis prohibited healing in Jesus’ name and Arnobius, an early fourth century Christian apologist, writes that Jesus’ name was used in exorcisms (Disputationes Adversus Gentes 1:43).

7. The disciples were highly likely to have recorded accurate historical accounts of Jesus. We know this was St. Luke’s intention, for example, by the nature and style of his prologue (see Lk 1:1-4). The Greek style he utilizes in the first verses of his Gospel is typical of a first century historical prologue. Professors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli of Boston College point out that, in fact, it is notable that Luke actually claims exact chronological order in his prologue (Lk 1:3), which emphasizes his intentions to record an accurate historical account (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p.216).

Consider also that memorization was an essential skill taught and developed from a young age in the first century. For example, from about the ages of 6 to 10, Jewish children would begin their education at a school called Bet Sefer or “House of the Book.” There the children would memorize the TorahGenesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Those who excelled would then go on to memorize the entire Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

A further incentive for developing memorization skills in antiquity was that oral tradition was highly authoritative, particularly to the Jewish people.

Scholar Rainer Reisner, in his German work Jesus als Lehrer, gives several reasons why Jesus’ followers would have carefully preserved details about his life and teachings. To his followers, says Reisner, Jesus had authority as a teacher, prophet, conveyor of memorable sayings and authority as a first century rabbi. He also commanded his followers to pass on his teachings (St. Paul propagates Jesus’ command in his epistles; see 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 11:2; 2 Tim 2). These reasons, combined with the apostles’ childhood memorization training, give us good reason to believe their records of Jesus are historically reliable. For more on this see the footnotes from Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p. 56).

Furthermore, many of the disciples of Jesus, including many of those who wrote inspired texts now found in the New Testament, died as martyrs for the sake of the same Gospel account captured in their writings.

9. The best explanation of the Resurrection is that it really happened. Scholar Richard Swineburne calls the resurrection of Jesus the “signature of God.” If the resurrection is true, the divinity of Christ becomes overwhelmingly likely just based on facts.

Dr. Gary Habermas has done phenomenal work in this area, implementing the “minimal facts approach” to show the shocking plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus. He contends that nearly every scholar who studies the subject of the alleged resurrection of Jesus in history (including the non-Christian critical experts) agree on the following four facts:

I. Jesus died by crucifixion.

II. Jesus’ disciples believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them.

III. The church persecutor Paul was converted.

IV. The skeptic, James (the “brother” of Jesus) was converted.

They also point to a fifth fact: the empty tomb. Notable philosopher William Lane Craig draws largely from the evidence for this fifth fact in his scholarly debates, and Habermas estimates that about 75% of Christian and critical scholars agree on this point.

In light of this (and related) evidence, and after all possible explanations of the alleged resurrection have been considered, an actual resurrection of Jesus is unquestionably the best explanation of what truly happened, especially considering this conclusion’s explanatory power and scope, as well as the level and degree of historical evidence in its favour.

Back To The Trilemma

Is the “Trilemma” argument for Jesus’ divinity a sound one? I contend that it is indeed, especially in light of the evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels. Is there more to be discussed from both sides of this discussion? Absolutely. Ultimately, however, despite well-reasoned arguments coming from both directions, I must hold with good conscience that the best evidence rests in favour of Jesus as true God and true man, Lord and Saviour.

May God protect us from an indifference towards the things that matter most.