The Trouble With Trilemmas


I have been spending some time, perhaps not very profitably, thinking some more about the so-called “trilemma”. If you don’t know what it is, then you are in a blessed state and I suggest you don’t bother with this article.

I think that the argument can be stated as follows:

1: Jesus claimed to be God

2: Jesus was a good man

3: Good men cannot lie

4: Therefore Jesus was God

(5: Therefore God exists and you must accept what Jesus and his followers teach about him.)

Point 3 is not usually stated explicitly, and it is clearly the crux of the whole argument. Good men clearly do sometimes tell lies. If we substitute any other person for Jesus the syllogism falls apart:

1: Garth claims to have been abducted by aliens

2: Garth is a good man

3: Good men do not lie

4: Therefore Garth was abducted by aliens

(5: Therefore aliens must exist, and you must accept anything else Garth tells you about life on the planet Zog)

Believers in aliens, fairies and the Loch Ness Monster do often resort to an argument very like this to justify their claims. “The witness was of good character,” they say “So what he says he saw, however unlikely, must be true.”

According to James Randi, Conan Doyle’s belief in the Cottinley fairies did not depend on the fact that the photographs could not have been faked, but on the fact that it was inconceivable that two little girls could deceive their mother!

Presumably, neither Lewis nor McDowell would resort to such a spurious argument…

If we want to carry on claiming that the trilemma has logical validity, I think there are two lines we can take, either :

1: Claims of Godhood are a special case or

2: Jesus was a special case.

If we take the first option, we have to say “Good, sane people can falsely claim to have been abducted by aliens, to have seen ghosts or to have received golden tablets from angels; but it is impossible for them to falsely claim to be God. The words “I am God” have a special status. If you can find, anywhere in history, a good sane man who pronounced them then that man must really have been God.” This seems fairly self-evidently nonsensical.

This leaves us with option 2. The argument turns on the unique personality of Jesus himself. The heart of the argument is “Jesus was so superlatively, uniquely perfect that it is impossible to believe any falsehood or self-deception about him. We would automatically believe anything he said.”

Thus, we have to restate the argument as:

1: Jesus claimed to be God

2: Jesus was superlatively good

3: It is impossible that a superlatively good man would lie

4: Therefore Jesus was God.

But surely, this argument is circular: you only accept premise 2 (Jesus was perfect) if you have already accepted the conclusion (that Jesus was God.) If you don’t accept that Jesus was God, then he may just have been another excellent human being. And excellent human beings sometimes tell lies.

This puts a new spin on the question “How far can we believe the Gospel reports of Jesus claims?” These arguments tend to go around the question “Is it possible that the gospel writers, while giving a fairly accurate picture of Jesus personality, misunderstood or misreported or made up his claims to be God.” But surely we should also admit the possibility “They accurately reported his claims to be God, but did not accurately describe his moral character. They represented him as being more perfect than he in fact was.” After all, if they had a sincere religious belief that he was God, it would not be very surprising if, when they came to write about him, they attributed God-like attributes to him. (This would be even more likely if the Gospels were not journalistic accounts of a sequence of events, but theological proclamations of a religious insight.)

It begins to sound as if the trilemma says little more than “There exist documents which describe a person who both claimed to be God and who had a god-like attributes: therefore, God exists.” This is not a very good proof of anything: it only tells us that the Evangelists wrote about Jesus as they would have done if they had believed he was the Son of God.

Descartes version of the ontological proof effectively says “Since Man can conceive of God, God must exist.” Does the trilemma in fact say any more than “Since the Gospel writers could conceive of a God-Man, the God-Man must have existed.”?

I think that the trilemma is useless at “proving” the truth of Christianity. I much prefer the view of the mature Lewis in the essay “The Seeing Eye”. The Russian cosmonauts, he says, failed to find God in space: but then, they would have failed to find God on earth, too. Some people find God in Jesus, but then, some don’t. It all depends on the seeing eye.

I think, however, that the trilemma still does the job which Lewis intended it to do: it absolutely refutes the sort of minimal Christianity put forward by such luminaries as David Icke, John Lennon, the Vicar of Dibley, Woody Guthrie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen of England, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and Miss Govey who taught me R.E at primary school. This is the view that what the gospels describe is a good man who came along and explained that we should all love everyone and try really hard to be good. The idea that you should be good we assume, had never occurred to the evil Jews before, and which horrified them so much that they had him crucified. The trilemma does absolutely refute this idea. The person described in the gospels – the only Jesus we know about – cannot, indeed, be regarded as “just a good man”. Even on the hypothesis that the gospel writers created a fictitious character, the fictitious character they created was quite consistent: he thought he was God, behaved as if he was God, and died as if was God.

Last Easter the BBC put out an embarrassingly terrible documentary series called “Son of God” which concluded (“very conveniently”) that the “real Jesus” was a Blairite Jewish reformer who preached social inclusion and the introduction of a National Health Service. Well, the gospels don’t leave that option open to us. They did not intend to.

Post script

Someone might say “But actually, the Jesus of the Gospels is not superlatively good. He is a scary, bad tempered individual, attacking the Pharisees, cursing fig trees, kicking over tables, refusing to see his brothers, telling a foreigner that healing her would be like giving the kids dinner to the dogs, and snapping “What have I got to do with you, WOMAN” at his mum.”

Of course, if you already believe that Jesus is God, then these are very valid things for him to do. But if you don’t they aren’t. Which may put another wrinkle in our proof: “Jesus was superlatively good – but only on the assumption that he was God.”