Lewis’ Polylemma

“Lewis’ Trilemma” according to William Lane Craig:
1. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
2. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic.
3. Jesus was Lord.

Other short versions:
“Liar, lunatic or Lord?” (most common; the order may change)
“Mad, bad or God?”

Answer by SmartLX:
This argument by C.S. Lewis remains puzzlingly popular, despite the fact that apologist idol Craig introduces it in Reasonable Faith and calls it unsound on the same page. It’s a comparison of the different possibilities suggested by the story of the Gospels.

A trilemma, if you’ve never seen one before, is like a dilemma but with three difficult options or “horns” instead of two (therefore “tri” instead of “di”, from the Greek roots). We’ll consider them one by one.

1. Lord
Jesus was genuinely divine – he was God, or the son of God, or both (let’s avoid the whole Trinity quagmire).

The whole point of the Trilemma is to convince people that the other options should be dismissed and this, as the only remaining option, is the truth. (Outside of the Trilemma, people attempt to support this using either arguments for a historical Resurrection or supposedly fulfilled prophecies, and I’ve discussed both plenty. Look around the site.)

2. Liar
Jesus only claimed to be divine, knowing it wasn’t true.

This would mean that Jesus was a fraud and a hypocrite, preaching honesty in the midst of a great deception, and on that basis alone most Christians dismiss it. To me, the main objection boils down to, “Jesus wouldn’t lie. He was Jesus.”

I don’t see an insurmountable conflict here; if he had to lie about himself to get his teachings across, perhaps it was worth a bit of secret hypocrisy by him, his closest followers or everyone involved. Cognitive dissonance has caused other similarly striking contradictions in behaviour.

3. Lunatic
Jesus genuinely thought he was divine, but was not.

Is someone who believes what Jesus supposedly believed, and is wrong, necessarily a lunatic? Misguided, yes, delusional, probably, but fundamentally of unsound mind? Would it really be impossible to convince a sane person of the same thing? “Lunatic” is a needlessly harsh word for a scenario in which Jesus was simply mistaken on a major issue. (This is moot if you establish that the Resurrection happened, which many try to do, but that’s another subject as I said.)

That covers Lewis’ Trilemma, but as you may have realised it is in fact a false trilemma because it does not cover all the possibilities. If you’re going to establish one option as the truth by eliminating everything else, you can’t leave anything out of your considerations. Thus, we use related Greek roots to turn the trilemma into a tetralemma:
4. Legend
Jesus either did not claim to be divine, or did not exist at all.

This essentially challenges the reliability of the Gospels where the non-supernatural acts and words of Jesus are concerned, which again is a separate battlefield. The relevant point for this topic is that it’s yet another possibility.

Shall we go for a pentalemma?
5. Lunkhead (or Lamebrain)
Jesus was not the true source of the teachings now attributed to him, including the idea that he was divine. He got it all from somewhere else. (Of course this wouldn’t actually mean he was stupid, but the other one-word options are needlessly derogatory, so what the heck.)

It seems to be very seldom considered that Jesus might have learned what he taught from other human beings, perhaps during the period when he travelled east and disappeared from Scripture for years. What if he found spiritual masters who convinced him of his own divinity? (Modern cult leaders come close to this fairly often.) There’s some overlap between this and “Lunatic”, given that Jesus is misguided in both cases, but it goes to show how many different ways the true story might have gone.

6. And so on…
Think of another possibility which is at least possible, and you’ve made it a hexalemma. And then you can keep going for as long as you keep thinking. Ultimately we must throw up our hands and apply the root for “many”, leaving ourselves with a polylemma. Apologists have limited it to a trilemma to keep it small and manageable, but ancient history is not determined through a process of elimination; at least, not one that simple.

A Real God Botherer

Question from Ethan:
Hi, I recently came out to my family and friends about my atheism about May this year, my family is just starting to accept my lack of religion, but I have this friend who is also my roommate in at college who can’t stand the fact that I don’t believe, and is pulling every cheap shot and tugging at as many emotional strings as he can to get me to come running back, it’s gotten to the point where he dragged my recently deceased grandmother into an argument. Every time I see him it’s some irrefutable proof of god videos and verses (which predictably are loaded with poor arguing points) I need some advice on how to deal with this, it’s gone from simple conversion attempts to malicious tearing down. If you find the time to get back, thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
There are ways to make yourself an unappealing target for conversion, chief among which is to make proselytisers fear for their own faith. The best defence is a good offence. That’s not to say tit for tat, because doing what your friend does would make you as bad as him, but you can carefully paint yourself as a source of doubt in others, and therefore not someone a devout Christian should talk to about faith.

First you should cut through all the guff. All the videos and quoted arguments he’s thrown at you have something in common: they’re not the reason he believes. He went and looked them up because he believes, and is using them as apologetic without any evidence that they can actually convince anyone who isn’t already devout. They might seem sound to him, but if they didn’t convince him or anyone he knows, why does he bother bringing them to you? Point out that it’s pointless.

If he really wants to make a Christian out of you, he needs to risk himself and tell you exactly why he believes. If you can get him that far, the focus will be off you and his own rationale will be up for criticism. You sound fairly confident with these things, so you probably have a hunch already; he was brought up to believe, for example, or he had a one-off religious experience. (Incidentally, a great many of those can be put down to sleep paralysis.) The question you should put to him is, is that a good reason to believe? If his parents believed it, does that make it true? Is there no earthly way he could have generated the same experience in his own brain? Adapt the question to the reason. If you can make him feel even slightly insecure about his own faith, and especially if you can do this regularly, it will become clear to him that witnessing to you is more trouble than it’s worth.

There is the possibility that he’ll go the other way and redouble his efforts, if only to reassure himself. If he changes the subject to some other YouTube apologetic, stop him. “Did this convince you? Has this convinced anyone? Where are all the ex-atheists on YouTube responding to this particular video with remorse, contrition and fervour? Is there any indication that apologetics have any effect at all on atheists? Not really, so let’s get back to your real belief and see whether that’s justified.”

Few believers are willing to risk their own souls (or their own egos) to Save(tm) the souls of others. It negates the rewards promised to them. That’s why most believers who distribute propaganda do not create their own unique pamphlets and videos: they’re not comfortable exposing their own heartfelt reasons for believing. The necessity of doing so to continue a discussion is a powerful deterrent. It’ll be easier for your friend to pray to God to show you the light than to stick his own neck out.

Whether you take my advice or not, do please let us know how you go. You’re in a very common situation and others may learn from you, whatever happens.

It All Comes Back To Jesus

Question from Tim:
Hello,
Thanks a lot for the website! If you guys are too busy to respond I understand.
Last year I finally managed to leave Christianity, but still have a few nagging doubts that I have been trying to resolve for some time now. My uncle told me that if I look at the evidence, I will see that the resurrection of Jesus is a fact. While I do doubt this, it is something that I feel like I need to learn about and take seriously. Do you know where I can find some resources addressing the resurrection from either an atheistic or neutral viewpoint? All I have managed to find so far are Christian ones.
Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
Don’t worry, we’d have to be a LOT busier not to be able to respond to every question we get.

This area of Christian apologetics is huge, as you’ll have seen by the sheer number of books specifically pushing it. It’s also a real sore point for believers when anyone questions even the divinity of Jesus, let alone his existence. That’s understandable since the whole of Christian doctrine hangs on the story of one man, and in the absence of physical evidence for that man the only traces of him are ancient documents.

There are a couple of starting points for you right here. My two long discussions in the comments of posts #271 and #574 with Rob (alias RP) cover a lot of ground and may suggest avenues of research. Post #271 itself contains links to earlier pieces of mine on specific documents and arguments.

As for things not on this site, the best-known critic of the New Testament and related documents is probably Bart Ehrman, so try one of his books. (He’s struck a nerve, because there are sites dedicated to answering everything he’s said.) A separate, highly-recommended book which challenges everything about Jesus is The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. Online, Jeffrey Jay Lowder has published a set of comprehensive responses to a wide selection from the apologetic arsenal, including William Lane Craig’s “empty tomb” argument and the entirety of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict.

YouTube is of course a treasure trove of individuals arguing both ways (Ehrman and Craig have many recorded debates on the subject, separately and together), but there you can also find one piece of work which prompted plenty of discussion when it came out: the independently produced documentary The God Who Wasn’t There. (It’s by the same group who debated Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron on Nightline).

I hope the above gets you started, but don’t take anything you find as gospel, so to speak. Any significant point that’s been made in opposition to the divinity or resurrection of Jesus has been answered (how well it’s been answered is always debatable) by apologists as a matter of principle. This means that if you read a major point, you can find major discussions to go with it.

Go get stuck in, and let us know how you do.