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.

10 thoughts on “Lewis’ Polylemma”

  1. Maybe Lewis’s argument would be acceptable in the fairy-tale world of Narnia that he created, definitely not in the real world.

    If we are to agree on my statement above then I have a snide remark to make about why its not puzzling that the argument remains popular (apologies upfront if the remark sounds caustic):
    So many human beings tend to live in their own personal Narnia in their heads, no wonder C.S. Lewis’s argument still remains popular, since it was meant to be acceptable in Narnia … πŸ™‚

  2. Hmm!~ As far as I can tell, Jesus did not in fact say anything! There is assumed hearsay of hearsay of stories of dubious origin that claim that a person known as Jesus did and said something, somewhere, to someone; written down by someone and transcribed over and over; translated back and forth between various languages; in custody of various competing religious groups for centuries! I have not heard of a single word written by someone claiming to be Jesus, no photos, no paintings, no inscribed graffiti, no notes, no books, no carvings, no sound tracks, no video, no burning bushes, nothing, nada! More likely than not this Jesus character is a made up protagonists for the religious ideas fostered in his name along with a family story line that is absurd!

  3. While you have represented William Lane Craig accurately, I believe that this particular objection to Lewis’ argument forgets what the trilemma is in response to. In the lead up to the trilemma C.S. Lewis says “…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.”
    At its root, it is in response to those who believe Jesus as a historical figure but not a divine one. This would eliminate the “Legend” possibility that is proposed.
    Don’t think that I’m saying Jesus could not have been legend per se, the trilemma, however speaks to those who believe otherwise.

  4. That’s fair enough Starwelters, but since Lewis plenty of people (Josh McDowell in More Than A Carpenter, for instance) have presented it as an all-purpose argument for God, aimed at people who don’t necessarily believe anything at all about Jesus. When apologists use it like this, they try to ignore the “horns” outside of the official trilemma.

    As for those who do accept that Jesus not only existed but did and said roughly what the Gospels say apart from the supernatural stuff, both “Liar” and “Lunatic” can be reasonably defended as possibilities, so near enough is not quite good enough; even assuming that the non-supernatural parts of the Gospels are true they’re not sufficient evidence for the supernatural aspects, Son of God included.

  5. Since “Liar” and “Lunatic” can, as you say, be reasonably defended possibilities, “good teacher” is most certainly ruled out; thus Lewis’ trilemma stands as a response to that assertion.

    1. Ah, I see your point now, but I disagree. “Liar” and “Lunatic” are unnecessarily derogatory names for the options, as I’ve written, and neither one entirely rules out the idea that he was a great moralist for his time.

      – If he lied about being the son of God, it might simply have been to give himself greater authority and spread his teachings. He would have been fully aware of the hypocrisy, but in this scenario he wasn’t the son of God and was entitled to a flaw or two. Or it could have been a noble thing where he sacrificed his own integrity for others.
      – If he was genuinely but erroneously convinced that he was divine, he would have delivered his message with complete confidence. He would have been one of the earliest in a long line of famously intelligent and yet very wrong men.
      – Bringing “Legend” back into it, if the actual claims that he claimed to be God are untrue but his words are otherwise faithfully recorded, then there was no hypocrisy at all on his part and he wasn’t misguided either.

  6. This is obviously an old one, but as it’s a very common question to come up in debates over Christianity/Jesus I thought it was worth adding my thoughts on what I believe on this point and why.

    I believe (and I have no idea what an ‘L’ name for this option would be, but whatever – the ‘L’s are pretty silly anyway and weren’t part of Lewis’s original argument) that Jesus never actually claimed to be divine, but was misrepresented on that score after his death. Here’s why:

    The gospels repeatedly show Jesus as claiming to be the Messiah/the Son of God. These are typically taken as being evidence that he was claiming to be divine, but in fact, when you look at what the terms actually mean in *Jewish* culture and not at the way they’ve been reinterpreted by Christianity since then, they mean absolutely nothing of the sort. The Old Testament has several prophesies of a wonderful future time when the Jewish people will be delivered from all their trials and tribulations to live in peace and prosperity, no longer under threat by enemies, under the rule of a descendant of King David’s royal line. The Jewish people developed the custom of referring to that wonderful prophesied time by talking about the king who was prophesied to rule there – who was referred to as the Messiah (well, Maschiach if you want to go with the original Hebrew) because the word meant ‘anointed one’ and was traditionally used to refer to both priests and kings.

    ‘Son of God’ was an expression used metaphorically of both King David and the Jewish people generally, to convey a special relationship with God. It would be natural to use it of the Messiah as well.

    As for the passages that do seem to show Jesus claiming divinity rather than Messiahhood, those all seem to be in John, which is thought by many scholars to be the latest of the Gospels and which contains ideas and themes not found in the other three. From Acts, it doesn’t seem that Jesus’s own followers thought of him as divine or were preaching anything of the sort.

    So it seems to me that by far the most likely explanation here is that Jesus believed he was the Messiah (quite possibly as a result of his followers, who longed for this to be the case, urging him on this point) and that the claims of divinity were made and attributed to him only after his death, as the early church spread from Jews to Gentiles who might be coming to it with very different religious backgrounds and interpreting its teachings through the lens of those backgrounds. As for believing you were the Messiah, that wasn’t delusional at all for a faithful first-century Jew – the Jews of that time believed *someone* would sooner or later be the Messiah. Believing you were the Messiah was, in those times, similar to a US citizen of today beliving he’d some day become President – chances are you’d be wrong, but the belief wouldn’t actually qualify as delusional.

    1. Just because it is technically possible does not mean it can’t be delusional. The two are not mutually exclusive.

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