What possible answers could be given to the question, “Who was Jesus?”
C.S. Lewis famously wrote:-
“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 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. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” (Mere Christianity, p40f)
Lewis is saying, in effect, that Jesus of Nazareth is either a Lord, a Liar, or a Lunatic. Or, to put it slightly differently, Mad, Bad, or God.
This Trilemma has been part of the staple diet of Christian apologetics for the past 60 years. It features prominently, for example, in Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and also in the Alpha Course.
But the Lewis Trilemma has come in for criticism. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, calls it ‘ludicrously inadequate’, suggesting that ‘a fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken.’
I’m not convinced that Lewis ever intended to cover all available options. His main point was not that Jesus can only ever be regarded as one of three things, but that he cannot be regarded merely as a great moral teacher.
Christian apologist Kenneth Samples has extended and nuanced Lewis’ original idea, coming up in his book Without a Doubt with a fuller set of options. We have to consider, he says, whether Jesus of Nazareth was:-
- Man (i.e. just a regular human being)
- Myth (i.e. he never existed, or, if he did, the biblical record of his doings and sayings is largely legendary)
- Madman (“Lunatic”)
- Menace (“Liar”)
- Martian (i.e. an alien – this idea has been proposed with some seriousness)
To this list would could add the idea that Jesus might have been a
- Magician (i.e. possessing extraordinary powers, but still merely human)
And, without ruining Samples’ apt alliteration (although doing a little bit of damage to his grammar), we could add Dawkin’s contribution to the debate, namely that Jesus was:-
I’m not going to evaluate each of these options right now. My point is that the Lewis Trilemma, far from being ‘hopelessly inadequate’, gives us a good start in setting out the possible ways of regarding Jesus of Nazareth.
An idea is invalidated by being wrong, not by being incomplete.
(Listen to Kenneth Samples’ discussion on this subject with sceptic James Croft here)