Why Should We Believe that Christianity is True? Part 1: The Trilemma

by Neil Shenvi

If you had two minutes to provide a rational defense of Christianity, what would you say?

This is part one of a four-part series of essays attempting to answer that question. These essays will by no means exhaust the possible answers, but they will help to equip us as Christians to give “a reason for the hope that is in us” (1 Pet. 3:15). Below, I want to look at what I consider to be one of the most important arguments for the truth of Christianity. It was put forward in its most popular form by C.S. Lewis and is known as the ‘Lord, Liar, Lunatic’ argument, or the Trilemma.

The argument

Here is the argument in Lewis’ own words from his 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.

This argument is effective because it points people to the very heart of the Christian faith: the person of Jesus himself. The essence of the argument is that we cannot put Jesus off as a ‘good teacher.’ It calls us to actually, honestly engage with the person of Jesus that we find in the Bible and make a decision about his extraordinary claims. However, one major obstacle to any engagement with Jesus is skepticism about the biblical text. Lewis assumed that most of his hearers recognized the biblical texts as generally reliable. Unfortunately, this belief is not shared by many today.

In order to restore the argument’s usefulness, we must therefore make a case that the gospels provide a generally reliable portrait of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. To do so, let’s focus on four major areas: reliability of transmission, non-Christian documentary evidence, archaeology, and internal evidence…

Why Should We Believe that Christianity is True? Part 1: The Trilemma