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Lewis's trilemma is an apologetic argument traditionally used to prove the divinity of Jesus by arguing that he must be God or a bad man, rather than a 'great moral teacher'. One version was popularised by University of Oxford historian and writer on religion C. S. Lewis in a BBC radio talk and in his writings. It is sometimes described as the "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord", or "Mad, Bad, or God" argument. It takes the form of a trilemma — a choice between three options, each of which is in some way difficult to accept.
This argument is very popular with Christian apologists, but while some biblical scholars consider that Jesus identified himself as a divine agent, embodying the purpose of Israel's God in his mission, they do not consider that the historical Jesus claimed to be God.
This argument was widely cited in various forms in the nineteenth century. It was used by the American preacher Mark Hopkins in his book Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1846), based on lectures delivered in 1844. Another early use of this approach was by the Scots preacher "Rabbi" John Duncan (1796–1870), around 1859–60:
"Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable."
Other preachers who used this approach included Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928) and W. E. Biederwolf (1867–1939). The writer G.K. Chesterton used something similiar to the Trilemma in his book, The Everlasting Man (1925), which Lewis cited in 1962 as the second book that most influenced him.
C. S. Lewis was an Oxford medieval Literature scholar, popular writer, Christian apologist, and former atheist. He used the argument outlined below in a series of BBC radio talks later published as the book 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 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."
Lewis, who had spoken extensively on Christianity to Royal Air Force personnel, was aware many ordinary people did not believe Jesus was God, but saw him rather as "a 'great human teacher' who was deified by his supporters"; his argument is intended to overcome this. It is based on a traditional assumption that, in his words and deeds, Jesus was asserting a claim to be God. For example, in Mere Christianity, Lewis refers to what he says are Jesus' claims:
Lewis implies that these amount to a claim to be God and argues that they logically exclude the possibility that Jesus was merely "a great moral teacher", because he believes no ordinary human making such claims could possibly be rationally or morally reliable. Elsewhere, he refers to this argument as "the aut Deus aut malus homo" ("either God or a bad man"), a reference to an earlier version of the argument used by Henry Parry Liddon in his 1866 Bampton Lectures, in which Liddon argued for the divinity of Jesus based on a number of grounds, including the claims he believed Jesus made.
The trilemma has continued to be used in Christian apologetics since Lewis, notably by writers like Josh McDowell. Peter Kreeft describes the trilemma as "the most important argument in Christian apologetics" and it forms a major part of the first talk in the Alpha Course and the book based on it, Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel. Ronald Reagan also used this argument in 1978, in a written reply to a liberal Methodist minister who said that he did not believe Jesus was the son of God. A variant has also been quoted by Bono. The Lewis version was cited by Charles Colson as the basis of his conversion to Christianity. Stephen Davis, a supporter of Lewis and of this argument, argues that it can show belief in the Incarnation as rational.
Writing of the argument's “almost total absence from discussions about the status of Jesus by professional theologians and biblical scholars”, Davis comments that it “is often severely criticized, both by people who do and by people who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus”.
A frequent criticism is that Lewis's trilemma depends on the veracity of the scriptural accounts of Jesus's statements and actions. This omits the possibility of those accounts instead being an invention of the early Christian movement, seeking to glorify Jesus.
According to Bart Ehrman, "there could be a fourth option – legend". Lewis himself denied the accounts of Jesus were legends: "I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing". N. T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar, comments that Lewis's argument "doesn't work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels."
The trilemma rests on the interpretation of New Testament authors' depiction of Jesus: a widespread objection is that the statements by Jesus recorded in the Gospels are being misinterpreted, and do not constitute claims to divinity.
In a criticism of Lewis's approach in his bestselling 1963 book, Honest to God, John A. T. Robinson, then Bishop of Woolwich, questioned the idea that Jesus intended to claim divinity: "It is, indeed, an open question whether Jesus claimed to be Son of God, let alone God". John Hick, writing in 1993, argued that this "once popular form of apologetic" was ruled out by changes in New Testament studies, citing "broad agreement" that scholars do not today support the view that Jesus claimed to be God, quoting as examples Michael Ramsey (1980), C. F. D. Moule (1977), James Dunn (1980), Brian Hebblethwaite (1985) and David Brown (1985). According to Gerd Lüdemann the broad consensus among a number of New Testament scholars is that the proclamation of the divinity of Jesus was a development within the earliest Christian communities. Larry Hurtado, who argues that the followers of Jesus within a very short period developed an exceedingly high level of devotional reverence to Jesus, at the same time rejects the view that Jesus made a claim to messiahship or divinity to his disciples during his life as "naive and ahistorical". N. T. Wright says the "trilemma" argument lacks historical context, oversimplifying first century Judaism's understanding of the nature of God's dealings with his people. Wright points out that arguments over the claims of Jesus regarding divinity have been passed over by more recent scholarship, which sees a more complex understanding of the idea of God in first century Judaism.
Another criticism raised is that Lewis is creating a false trilemma by insisting that only three options are possible. Philosopher John Beversluis comments that "he deprives his readers of numerous alternate interpretations of Jesus that carry with them no such odious implications". Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig cites this as a reason why he believes it is an unsound argument for Christianity.
In response to these criticisms, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, SJ, both professors of philosophy at Boston College, have expanded the argument into a tetralemma ("Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Legend") — or a pentalemma, accommodating the option that Jesus was a guru, who believed himself to be God in the sense that everything is divine.
The atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, argues that Lewis's contention is right but offers a different interpretation: in contrast to Christian moralists like Thomas Jefferson and Ernest Renan, he writes, "I am bound to say that Lewis is more honest here. Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it “moral” [...] to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a fanatic."