Too Good To Be False: Answering the “Legend” Critique of Lewis’s Trilemma

I’m missing the opening of The Hobbit tonight, so I’ll spend some time thinking of one of Tolkien’s great friends, C.S. Lewis. Lewis said that Jesus described himself too much as God to be considered a great man, unless it was true. Some criticize Lewis for leaving out the possibility that Jesus was just a legend. I argue here, on grounds similar to Lewis’s, that the accounts of Jesus’ life are too good to be legend.

The Trilemma

It all begins with Lewis’s famous Liar/Lunatic/Lord trilemma, found in his classic 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 said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

A Fourth Option: Legend?

What a master of word Lewis was! I tried to echo some of his phrasing below, and I had to give up. Still, not all have founded this argument of his to be compelling. Criticisms have been raised especially against Lewis’s assumption here that Jesus existed, and that he said what the New Testament (NT) claims he did. What if there was no Jesus, or what if he didn’t say what was ascribed to him?

The complaint is misdirected in the first place, since the trilemma is specifically aimed at shutting out the possibility that Jesus was just a great moral teacher. Of course it assumes that the NT record of Jesus’ teachings is generally accurate: it is addressed to an audience that shares that assumption, and was intended to address an objection specific to that group.

The Historical Evidence Against “Legend”

So it seems the possibility remains that Jesus’ life and words were legendary. Or does it? There’s a growing body of research leading scholars to consensus not only that Jesus lived but that he was a teacher and miracle worker. No less a skeptic than Jesus Seminar leader John Dominic Crossan has said,

I hold, in summary, that Jesus, as a magician and miracle worker, was a very problematic and controversial phenomenon not only for his enemies but even for his friends.

Of course Crossan would not see Jesus’ miracles as evidence of deity, but as “some kind of socioreligious phenomenon.”

The Further Unlikelihood of “Legend”

Yet I think there is yet another reason to reject this strange beast’s fourth horn, the Legend tusk that has sprouted along with Liar, Lunatic, and of course Lord. (This will look familiar to regular readers here, since I wrote about it in October and echoed it in part more recently, though not in context of the trilemma.)

Invented by a Beleaguered Community?

The Legend hypothesis asks us to believe that a beleaguered faith community invented Jesus, either in whole or in part. Perhaps there was a great man of that name, perhaps he spoke inspiring words and did great deeds, and perhaps a band of followers gathered around him; or perhaps not. All we can surmise is that there sprang up in the first or second centuries a faith community in his name. This brave band persisted in spite of the pressure of Jewish and Roman persecution, holding on even more tightly to their hope in Jesus (whatever that meant to them at the time) even after it had been proved futile.

Such things have been observed in modern times. What has never been observed, however, is any such group inventing someone like Jesus Christ.

Moral Genius Like No Other

Christ is portrayed as a man of highest ethical standards, the epitome of grace and truth (John 1:14), the great teacher of love, the protector of the oppressed, the righteous warrior against abuse of power. He came not to be served but to serve, he said, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:35). Bonhoeffer called him “the man for others,” and there could hardly be any disagreement with his assessment of the way Jesus is portrayed. Whoever this troubled community of faith might have been, they must have included men and women of great moral genius.

Power, Never Used for Self

But that’s hardly half of it, for the account we have of Jesus also shows him having unimaginable power. He walked on water. He stilled the storm with just a word. He healed many, and raised some who had been dead, even up to four days (John 11). He fed 5,000 with just a few loaves and fish. He could do whatever he wanted.

I have worked with men of great temporal and political power. I have never met one, though, nor have I heard of one or even read of one in any fictional account, who used his power one hundred percent for the good of others. Lord Acton said it well: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Uncorrupted Power

Yet Jesus with his absolute power showed absolutely no sign of being corrupted by it. When tempted to turn stones into bread, to satisfy a normal human hunger following a long period of fasting, he refused to take that shortcut. He didn’t fly, he walked. When he got tired he was tired, until he rested. When he was on trial for his life, he had legions of angels at his disposal, but he accepted the court’s sentence of death. He didn’t heal himself of the wounds of his flogging. He gave himself up instead. Even when he rose from the dead, when he could have rounded up his killers and knocked their heads together, he went instead to places where his presence would bring joy.

If It Was Fiction, It Came From Moral Geniuses

If this was fiction, it was fiction of an order all its own. If this was the product of a community in trouble, then what genius inspired them to create it? What caused them to remain nameless, and to ascribe their work to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? What reason did they have to leave their own story so far in the background as to be virtually undetectable? Were these crafters of a false Messiah intend their story to be believed? Every sign points to that, both in the NT documents and in the external testimony of early Christian leaders. If they intended it to be believed, and they knew it was false, were they not crafting a deceit? If they did not realize it was false, were they not delusional?

Another Trilemma

So it seems we have another trilemma. Whoever wrote the Gospel accounts, they were either witnesses to the greatest moral genius of all the ages, or were the creators of the greatest moral genius of all fiction. Were they fraudulent moral geniuses? The very sentence fails for self-contradiction. Were they deluded moral geniuses? This seems hardly more likely. To accept either of these options is to fly in the face of all that we know about human nature. It would require a prodigy that was greater, more mysterious, less comprehensibly explained, and far less comprehensively situated in revelational history than Jesus Christ himself.

To believe either of these, in other words, would take more faith than to recognize these early authors were what they claimed to be: witnesses to the great power and love of Jesus Christ himself.

The account of Jesus’ life is too good to be false.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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9 Responses

  1. Doug says:

    Excellent. Thanks, Tom!

  2. GAB says:

    Gimme a break. You are mischaracterizing the “legend” hypothesis. Which is something like: Jesus was probably a real person, probably had some good teachings (as well as some strange stuff about the end of the world being nigh, etc.), and perhaps even claimed or was thought to do “healings” and the like (much as the gullible, desperate and uneducated go to faith healers and other forms of quack medicine today).

    He had a small group of followers, and got executed as a rabble-rouser by the authorities who probably executed rabble-rousers as a routine affair, along with criminals and other annoying people. The authorities tossed his body to the dogs or threw it in a pit to rot (it becoming unidentifiable after perhaps only a day or two) like all the other rabble rousers and criminals.

    A few days or weeks later, stories started among the distraught and superstitious followers about visions of Jesus. And the legend starting growing from there. Visions turned into “empty tomb” which turned into “raised from the dead”. Even if this part only took weeks, it was too late to check for a body, the authorities wouldn’t even bother to try to refute the claims of what they saw as a few more religious dissident lunatics, if they even knew what they were claiming, which they probably didn’t since anyone associated with Jesus was probably in hiding or skipping town to avoid Jesus’s fate.

    Over time the stories were told and retold and grew into angels and earthquakes and bodily, physical appearances, etc. Jesus also probably became more perfect than he was in real life. We can still see some of the later stages of this process of legendary accretion and expansion preserved in the Gospels.

    What, I ask, is so wildly implausible about this scenario, or something like it? Why do evangelical apologists and “Thinking Christians” find it so hard to even give their readers a fair account of the actual hypothesis that most nonbelieving scholars have? It’s not like it’s a hidden idea, e.g., Bart Ehrman would basically endorse the above.

    In response to this:

    So it seems we have another trilemma. Whoever wrote the Gospel accounts, they were either witnesses to the greatest moral genius of all the ages, or were the creators of the greatest moral genius of all fiction. Were they fraudulent moral geniuses? The very sentence fails for self-contradiction. Were they deluded moral geniuses? This seems hardly more likely. To accept either of these options is to fly in the face of all that we know about human nature.

    Like CS Lewis, for some reason you leave out what is the OBVIOUS alternative hypothesis which most skeptics actually hold, which is, again, LEGEND. The authors didn’t have to be liars or the most astounding moral geniuses of all time, rather, they retold and improved upon stories that had been retold and improved upon for decades before they were written down. The stories got better over time through telling and retelling. Like other legends (Greek etc.) they, and the central character of Jesus, end up having remarkable insight on the human condition, as well as having oddities that don’t make much sense outside of their original context, or that get anachronistically reinterpreted throughout history. But “remarkable insight” doesn’t add up to “perfect” or “so amazingly mind-blowingly astounding it proves historical reality of the associated fantastical tales in spite of the internal contradictions and proven historical inaccuracies in the accounts.”

  3. GAB says:

    What caused them to remain nameless, and to ascribe their work to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

    This also isn’t evidence for your position. It was apparently common in ancient times for works to be anonymous or to be ascribed to other people. The traditional authorship claims are not in the actual text of the Bible, they are based on extrabiblical tradition, although it is old tradition. And, crucially, there is virtually undeniable evidence that at least some of the gospels are not straight-up compositions, rather they are reworkings of previously-existing sources, e.g. Matthew and Luke rely on Mark and Q.

    It’s highly misleading to leave all of this out.

  4. Tom Gilson says:


    Apparently you think there is something about legend developing in the way you have described it that differs materially from legend developing the way that I have. As far as I can see, your description is just a specific scenario fitting into my more general description.

    Whether or not that’s the case, there is external evidence that strongly undermines any legend theory. There is additional reason to doubt that Jesus’ body was thrown into a common grave as you suggest. But I’ll set that aside, as I want to continue with the question in the form I asked it here in the OP.

    What is it about “distraught and superstitious followers” that gave them the ability to invent a character utterly unlike any other in all history or literature, having unimaginable power and yet using it always only for others?

    You wonder why I find that implausible. It’s because as far as I know, no one has ever developed a character like that in all history. No one has ever imagined such a person. Anyone who did would have to possess moral genius equal to that of the Jesus whom they were portraying.

    Further, there was one phrase tucked in the close of my OP that I could have stood to expand further: “comprehensively situated in … history.” If Jesus was real, he came out of centuries of preparation within the Hebrew/Jewish nation, and the revelation they received. His existence makes sense in the flow of revelation history.

    If Jesus was legend, that legend came out of essentially nowhere; for there are too many features of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that had nothing by way of any preparation or theoretical background leading up to them. For one example (out of many possible), in the context of the times, any legendary Jesus would have been far more likely to have come back in a sort of spiritual return, not a physical resurrection. Check out N.T. Wright on that.

    As for the authorship question, it’s not a big deal to me, but I would want you to make sure that you included the whole picture in your analysis and your reaction. It may have been common for writers to ascribe their works to other people. The question that puzzles me is how this legend-developing group could have included the greatest moral geniuses of all literature and history, and how those magnificently great, truly unique, absolutely one-of-a-kind-for-all-times persons could have remained nameless, unheard of, entirely unknown to all other persons who left us any record to examine.

    That seems unlikely.

  5. Ray Ingles says:

    Bertrand Russell had a few things to say about this topic, and in that area I pretty much agree with him. See here, and search for the phrase “The Character of Christ”.

  6. Larry Tanner says:


    I have an off-topic question, but with creativity it may have bearing on this post.

    Do you believe, as orthodox Judaism teaches, that the Torah relates the story of God himself coming down to Sinai and speaking directly–in his own “voice”–to the nation of Israel?

    Is this claim a lie, lunacy, legend or the Lord’s truth?

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    I’d have to study it again, Larry.

    I don’t know how much good it does to think of a claim as lunacy, legend, etc. in the context of the Trilemma (or Quadrilemma). The reason is because even if the claim is accurate it could be uttered by a lunatic, which means the categories are not so neatly distinguishable. as they are in the Trilemma.

  8. Debilis says:

    I realize that I’m entering late on this discussion, but I did want to thank Ray Ingles for the link to Russel’s essay. Though I think his arguments are based on clear misunderstandings, I respect both his intelligence and refusal to sidestep questions.

    That said, if the only reason he has for questioning the moral teachings of Jesus is a distortion of the doctrine of Hell, a perceived indignation, and an equally poor understanding of the matter of the pigs and the fig tree, I’d say that his objection is more a sign of popular misconceptions of the teachings of the New Testament, rather than a substantive objection.

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