Lord, Liar, Lunatic Trilemma: How the Accounts Prove the “Legend” Answer Fails, Too

I could use your help with a presentation I’m preparing. Read on to find out how.

C. S. Lewis popularized what’s come to be known as the Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma: it’s impossible to look at the accounts of Jesus and think he was a great moral teacher but not God. The famous passage in Mere Christianity reads:

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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

What About the Fourth L, “Legend”?

If we take the accounts seriously, we have to conclude Jesus was more than a man; he was God. But atheists and skeptics respond that we don’t have to take the accounts seriously. “Sure, you can claim that Jesus was a God if there ever was a Jesus like the one in the Gospels, but who says the gospel stories really happened?” It isn’t a trilemma, it’s a quadrilemma: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Legend.

There are good historical reasons not to dismiss the stories as mere legend. For starters: the accounts were recorded too soon after the events for legends to have developed, the historical record in the accounts is corroborated in too many ways, and the witnesses proved their credibility by putting their lives on the line for what they were saying.

I consider those answers persuasive, but they take a lot of digging into history.

“Lewis-esque” Article Shows the Quadrilemma Takes Us To the Same Destination

Back in 2014 I presented an argument that the story itself — straight out of the gospels, just like the Trilemma — demands that we take it seriously. Therefore the Legend objection falls down right along with Liar and Lunatic.

The distinguished New Testament scholar Dan Wallace called that articleLewis-esque,” certainly the highest compliment I’ve ever received for my writing. He adds,

Gilson wrestles with a number of objections, but marches through them and lays out an eminently reasonable case that no author could have created the likes of Jesus of Nazareth out of whole cloth. He may well be on to something. In turn, this argues for historicity.

So what’s my argument? You really need to read the article, but here’s a preview:

The story of Jesus is unique in all history and all literature. It’s the only one ever told of a person who was both immensely powerful and completely self-sacrificial and other-centered, never using his great power for his own benefit. If the early church made him up, they accomplished a feat of ethical and literary genius far above any poet, playwright, novelist, or philosopher.

This is not merely unlikely. According to the skeptical explanation, the gospels were produced by a community that was suffering from delusions and/or guilty of intentional deceit, and the process by which they produced this “legend” was riddled with error. It’s impossible to think this community and this process could have produced a character as uniquely, consistently, and perfectly selfless as Jesus Christ.

Your Help Needed: What Objections Have I Missed?

Why am I bringing this up now? I could use your help.

I’m expecting to present this argument at a conference in March, and I’m interested in knowing whether I’ve missed any good objections in my “wrestling.”

Here’s one I’ve heard already: Jesus wasn’t that good after all, since he didn’t argue for equal rights for minorities, women, and gays, and he didn’t speak out against slavery.

I have a long answer: even if he didn’t address these things explicitly, the way of Jesus leads ultimately to the right ethical answer on all of these.

But there’s a short answer that’s a lot easier: So what?

Suppose you were walking across a desert, and you stumbled over a huge glittering diamond. You wouldn’t say, “No big deal. Other than that, it’s just sand everywhere you look.” You’d say, “This means something. Either someone lost a diamond or we should dig for more!”

Neither does a reasonable person ignore the uniquely complete and perfect selflessness Jesus displays. So what if you think there’s something else about him that isn’t perfect? You still have to explain the perfection that is there.

That’s one objection. Are there any others?

Image Credit(s): Central Baptist, Waycross, Georgia.