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.