What Happens If We Add “Legend” to the Trilemma “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”?
by Tom Gilson
He did not leave us that option: he did not intend to.” Thus C. S. Lewis closes out his famous “Trilemma” argument on the impossibility of Jesus being a great moral teacher and nothing more. The argument is beautiful in its simplicity: it calls for no deep familiarity with New Testament theology or history, only knowledge of the Gospels themselves, and some understanding of human nature. A man claiming to be God, says Lewis, could hardly be good unless he really was God. If Jesus was not the Lord, then (to borrow Josh McDowell’s alliterative version of the argument), he must have been a liar or a lunatic.
The questions have changed since Lewis wrote that, though, and it’s less common these days to hear Jesus honored as a great moral teacher by those who doubt his deity. Today’s skepticism runs deeper than that. The skeptics’ line now is that Jesus probably never claimed to be God at all, that the whole story of Jesus, or at least significant portions of it, is nothing more than legend.
Christian apologists have responded with arguments hinging on the correct dates for the composition of the Gospels, the identities of their authors, external corroborating evidence, and the like. All this has been enormously helpful, but one could wish for a more Lewis-like approach to that new l-word, legend—that is, for a way of recognizing the necessary truthfulness of the Gospels from their internal content alone.
Lewis was always more at home looking at the evidence of the Gospels themselves than at the historical circumstances surrounding them. In one classic essay (variously titled “Fern-Seed and Elephants” or “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” depending on where you find it) he delineates the Gospels as true “reportage” rather than fable, and concludes, “The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”
It seems to me that the legend hypothesis can be rebutted in a similar way—a way that requires little technical knowledge of the Gospel manuscripts, their dating, and so on, but calls instead for something like Lewis’s having “learned to read.” As with the original Trilemma, one need only bring to the argument a good working knowledge of the content of the Gospels, particularly as they present the character of Christ, and a clear understanding of human nature—which is where I’ll begin my argument.
A Search in Three Questions
Three or four questions concerning human nature have so caught my attention lately that I’ve taken to asking them of my friends and conference attendees. The first is this: Who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from those in the Bible?
The scope of the question is intentionally broad. I exclude biblical personages for reasons that will become clear later, but include everyone else: both historical and quasi-historical figures, as well as characters that are purely the products of human imagination, whether from literature, mythology, film, TV, or even comic books. And I define power in this context as the ability to do and/or obtain whatever one wants without constraint.
The answers I’ve received range from Andrew Carnegie to Zeus, and include both genuine and doubtful luminaries, such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao, and, occasionally, United States presidents. Superman is often mentioned.
My second question is of similar scope, but has a completely different set of characters in mind: Who in all of human history and imagination, outside of the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons you can think of?
The most common answers are Mother Teresa and “my mom.” Sir Galahad and Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot have also been suggested, but the set of answers I receive to this question is smaller than to the previous one.
My next question is this: Can you think of any single person—again, outside of the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and imagination who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good?
If the second set of answers was small, this one is minuscule. Some of the best suggestions have been Abraham Lincoln, Superman, and Gandalf. Yet none of these characters really measures up as both supremely powerful and supremely other-oriented. Lincoln commanded an army, yes, but his army very nearly lost the Civil War. Gandalf, my own preferred candidate, was entirely dependent on a pair of hobbits, far beyond the reach of his power, for his mission’s success. And so far no one has included him among the most self-sacrificial; his small, weak friends Frodo and Samwise Gamgee claim that honor above him. Superman remains an interesting case, for reasons I’ll specify in a moment…