Identity Check: Are C.S. Lewis’s Critics Right, or Is His “Trilemma” Valid?

by Donald T. Williams

No argument that C. S. Lewis ever made is more well known—or more controversial—than his famous “Trilemma” (not his word), or “Lord/Liar/Lunatic” (not his phrase) argument for the deity of Christ. N. T. Wright observed accurately in these pages that “this argument has worn well in some circles and extremely badly in others” (“Simply Lewis,” March 2007). Indeed, some of the sharpest critiques have come from within the believing community.

It is ironic that an argument that has become a staple of Christian apologetics should be rejected as fallacious by many who nonetheless presumably accept its conclusion. At stake is not only the validity of a much used argument but also the competence of arguably the greatest apologist of the twentieth century. Are the critics of Lewis’s argument correct? Can we still use the Trilemma? If so, in what way?

Lewis presents the argument in Mere Christianity, in response to a person who says, “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”

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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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Bk. II, ch. 3)

The Trilemma is presented not so much as an argument for the deity of Christ as a refutation, a heading off at the pass, of a popular way of evading the claims of Christ. Many non-Christians willingly say Jesus is a great moral teacher; this, Lewis argues, is the one thing we cannot say.

Lewis’s critics contend that his argument commits the fallacy of False Dilemma, the premature closure of options. Marvin D. Hinten alleges that Lewis “overlimits choices.” If it can be shown that there are other legitimate possibilities for how to understand the claims of Christ, it is urged, the argument fails.

These other suggested possibilities fall into two categories. First is the possibility that either Jesus did not actually make the claims attributed to him or, even if he did, he did not mean them as the bald claims to deity for which conservative Christians have taken them.

The second is the possibility that someone could be sincerely mistaken about his identity without being insane in a way that would compromise his views of ethics or his status and authority as a moral teacher.

What Did Jesus Say?

First, it is argued, modern biblical criticism does not allow us to make the naïve assumption that Jesus said everything that the New Testament attributes to him. Few believers are ready to sign up for the Jesus Seminar and question wholesale whether the words of Jesus as reported in the canonical Gospels are authentic. But believers recognize the fact that most secular people today will not begin with a presumption of the authenticity of the Gospels. So, Wright thinks that Lewis’s argument “backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels.”

This criticism is more a practical than a logical critique of Lewis’s argument. The argument itself simply presupposes that Jesus said and meant the things he is traditionally taken to have said and meant: It treats “a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said.” The argument is presented in the form, “If Jesus said and meant these things, this is what follows.” To note that the initial premise is controversial in some circles is not a refutation.

Why does Lewis, though, make an initial assumption that does not appear to be one that we can actually afford to make safely today? It is not because he was unaware of biblical criticism. It seems to me that most critics of Lewis have simply ignored the original audience for the Broadcast Talks that eventually became Mere Christianity…

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Identity Check: Are C. S. Lewis’s Critics Right, or Is His “Trilemma” Valid?