Fool, Charlatan or Evangelist?
C.S Lewis, Josh McDowell, and the "Trilemma"


1: McDowell's use of the 'Trilemma'

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. It follows that he was either a liar, a madman, or the Son of God in fact. Jesus' universally acknowledged goodness and wisdom rule out the first two possibilities: we must therefore accept the third. This argument, reduced to the neatly alliterative 'Lunatic, Liar or Lord' (or 'Mad, bad or God') and nick-named 'the trilemma' is a mainstay of much popular Christian evangelism and apologetics. It sometimes seems to be more famous either than the book, Mere Christianity, in which it appears or the man, C.S Lewis, who wrote it.

The term 'trilemma' is not used by Lewis. It is coined by Josh McDowell in his book Evidence Which Demands a Verdict, a collection of quotations and sources intended to save preachers the trouble of reading any actual books. McDowell presents the argument in the form of a simple flow chart, a series of 'either/or' propositions, (Jesus either was or was not the Son of God; he either did or did not believe it Himself, and you must either Accept or Reject him.) McDowell cites various secular and religious writers who insist on Jesus' moral goodness and wisdom and thus rules out the possibility that he could have been mad or bad. ('Someone who lived as Jesus lived, taught as Jesus taught and died as Jesus died could not have been a liar.') He therefore takes Jesus divinity as proven. In an astonishing post-script he adds:

'The evidence is clearly in favour of Jesus as Lord. However, some people reject the clear evidence because of the moral implications involved. There needs to be a moral honesty in the above considerations of Jesus either as a liar, lunatic, or Lord and God.'

The objections to McDowell's case are well-known, but it is probably worth re-stating them.

1: The argument starts from the premise 'Jesus claimed to be God'. Many of those who reject Christianity do so, not because of moral defectiveness on their part, but because they believe that Jesus made no such claims. They hold, for example, that Jesus' disciples misunderstood or misreported him or that he is a fictitious, mythological or legendary figure.

2: Not all 'madmen' are necessarily drooling imbeciles; delusions are not necessarily incompatible with great wisdom or goodness. It is significant that McDowell quotes a Unitarian named Channing who regards calmness and self-possession as the antithesis of 'madness', and thus that Jesus serenity is proof of his sanity. 'Point me, if you can to one vehement, passionate expression of His religious feelings. Does the Lord's prayer breath feverish enthusiasm?'

3: The logic of the position is that no good and wise person can ever be guilty of a major self-delusion. Yet the Dali Lama claims to be a reincarnation of the Buddha; Joseph Smith and Mohammed both claimed to have been given infallible teachings by an angel of God. If these beliefs are false, then all three must have been madmen or liars; yet all three are widely regarded as good and wise men. On what basis does McDowell reject their claims?

Why does Lewis use such an obviously flawed argument? If he believed it himself, then his reliability as an apologist must surely be in doubt: who knows how many more logical fallacies may have been smuggled into his work? If he did not believe it, then wasn't he simply a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman out to win converts by any means possible?

In fact, Lewis neither claims nor believes that the 'Trilemma' proves the divinity of Christ, and McDowell is guilty of a misrepresentation if he implies that he does.

2: Lewis's use of the Trilemma: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity is a collection of short essays, which were originally 15 minute radio broadcasts given on the BBC Home Service in 1943. The second series of talks were entitled 'What Christians Believe', and the third in the series was entitled 'The Shocking Alternative.'

This third lecture amounts to a rough-and-ready summary of the Bible-story. 'Christians', it begins 'believe that an evil power has made itself for the present Prince of this World...' The tone of the talk, which has been justly criticized for its matey, patronizing and artificially populist tone can be gleaned from his summary of the first section of the Bible.

'He selected one people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God he was—that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews and the Old Testament is an account of the hammering process.'

Considering he is addressing readers and listeners who are supposed not to know 'what Christians believe', this is a good, punchy, pithy and memorable explanation of the kind of thing which Christians do, indeed, think the Old Testament is about. I have done enough door-to-door evangelism to know that 'What is the relevance of the Old Testament to Christianity?' ('How can you believe the Bible when it contains all that savage Old Testament stuff?') is a real problem, frequently raised even by church-goers. 'The Old Testament is an account of the hammering process' is a pretty good starting point to get you thinking along the correct lines: it is not a final statement of a hermeneutic, nor is it intended to be. It's also a passably good joke.

It is in this spirit—the spirit of a witty, thought-provoking Sunday evening 'Thought for the Day' that he moves from the Old Testament to the New.

'Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God...' ('Suddenly turns up,' is, like, 'hammering in' mildly frivolous and irreverent.) Lewis says that, granted that the Jews were monotheists, this claim is 'simply the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips', although, he says, readers neutral and indeed hostile to Christianity are not always as shocked by it as you might expect.

He goes on:

'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 one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing 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.'

It is this passage which Josh McDowell quotes. A number of things can be observed in this passage:

1: Lewis specifically addresses it to those who accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not as the Son of God. It is only this claim which he offers to refute.

2: He says that he is discussing 'A man who said the sort of thing which Jesus said.' This phrase seems to be equivalent to 'the Jesus of the Gospels' or 'the person who appears in the Bible.' Lewis doesn't address himself to whether a real historical person did say 'the thing which Jesus said', because he is explaining what the Bible contains–'what Christians believe'.

3: He does not think he is answering a serious objection. It is simply "the really foolish thing" which people sometimes say, which must be dispensed with before he can return to his main thread.

4: He dedicates precisely no space to showing that Jesus was too good to be a liar or to wise to be a madman. He does not say that Jesus' divinity is proven and that only moral defectives will reject it. Granted, he begins the next talk by saying 'It seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend...', but this is a personal statement, made almost in passing, to introduce the question 'What was the purpose of it all?' He then proceeds to the next stage of his hitch-hikers guide to the Bible—an explanation of the Christian teaching about the Cross.

3: Lewis and the 'trilemma': 'What are we to make of Jesus Christ?'

Lewis uses the argument again in a 1950 essay entitled What are we to make of Jesus Christ? Indeed the whole of this essay could be seen as an expansion of the Mere Christianity passage.

He begins by saying that the problem with dealing with the person of Jesus is to reconcile two facets of his character—on the one hand 'the almost generally admitted depth and sanity of his moral teaching' and on the other 'the quite appalling nature of the Man's theological remarks.' These are, he says 'claims which, if not true are those of a megalomaniac compared with which Hitler was the most sane and humble of men.'

He goes on to re-state the 'trilemma' in these terms:

'There is no halfway house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and said 'Are you the son of Bramah?' he would have said 'My son, you are still in the veil of illusion'. If you had gone to Socrates and asked, 'Are you Zeus' he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked 'Are you Allah?' he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius 'Are you heaven?' I think he would probably have replied, 'Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.' The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are not looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects — Hatred — Terror — Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.'

Note again, the language that Lewis uses: "quite appalling" and "megalomania"—and a comparison of Christ with Hitler—are ranged against those who would see Jesus as one who gave "nice", "beautiful", "comforting" teachings.

It is clear that, in this passage, Lewis goes further than he did in Mere Christianity. First, he does come close to saying that the wisdom and sanctity of Jesus moral teaching is evidence against him being an insane megalomaniac. Second, he does appear to think that the insanity which Jesus is supposed to have suffered of would have rendered this wisdom impossible. His claim is that a belief in your own divinity would be such a fundamental delusion that it would undermine every aspect of your thinking. I am far from certain that I agree with this; but it is definitely an improvement over McDowell's "if wise then not mad" argument (to say nothing of "if serene then not mad".)

Lewis also addresses himself, in passing, to the second objection: "If the trilemma applies to Christ, why does it not apply equally to Joseph Smith or Mohammed?" Lewis points out that Christ's claims are of an entirely different order to those of any comparable historical figure—he specifically points to spiritual geniuses who might be regarded as "on a par" with Jesus Christ. I think his claim is that a false belief in a visit from the Archangel Moroni would not "undermine the whole mind of man" in the way that a belief that you are the creator of the universe would. He also regards it as significant that the people most generally regarded as Jesus' spiritual equals made much more modest claims: other historical figures who have made claims of the order of those of Christ are generally regarded as lunatics and charlatans.

In this essay, Lewis also briefly addresses the third objection to the trilemma, that Jesus never in fact made the claims that were attributed to him. He rules out the possibility of misrepresentation by the original disciples on the grounds that they were also Jews: it is as unlikely that they would have falsely attributed the claim to Jesus than that he would have falsely made it. (In a passage deleted from the Mere Christianity paragraph he says "The theory only saddles us with twelve inexplicable lunatics instead of one.") Presumably, one could respond "But the disciples might have been liars, or fools, or bad men", to which Lewis might have said "Why should liars, or fools, or bad men go to such trouble to create a religion they themselves did not believe in?") He also considers the possibility that what we have read about Jesus are only legends. This he rejects on literary grounds: "I have read a great deal of legend and I am perfectly sure that they are not the same sort of thing." In a separate essay, Fern Seed and Elephants he argues, from style and internal evidence, that the gospels are "reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts." Lewis, then, does appear to regard the major premise of the trilemma ("Jesus claimed to be God") as true: but the proof depends on historical and literary arguments not on an a priori belief in the authority of the Bible. Lewis cannot be accused here of a circular argument.

Even though the claims made in this essay are much stronger than those made in Mere Christianity he does not press them into proof of the divinity of Christ or accuse skeptical readers of moral evasion. Skeptical readers are not his real target: the people he is addressing are the half-Christians, and the people who want to promote a watered-down version of Christ's claims.

So, in the same essay he addresses himself to the Christian story of the resurrection. "I heard a man say 'The importance of the Resurrection is that it gives evidence of survival (after death).' " Lewis, of course, rejects this minimalist account: he believes that the resurrection shows that "a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe". "It is very important" he says "to get the story clear...that is the story. What are we to make of it?" And again, of Jesus' claims to divinity "You must accept or reject the story." What he claims to have proven is what 'the story' contains.

He concludes the piece with a long re-statement, in very dramatic language, of the claims of Jesus Christ. Very significantly, he cites these claims in a language rather different from that familiar to readers of the King James Bible. His intention, I think, is to force he reader to attend to what Jesus was saying, rather than be lulled to sleep by familiar and beautiful words. Rather than quoting "I am the Resurrection and the Life...", he writes:

'He said...I am Re-Birth, and I am Life. Eat Me, drink Me. I am your Food. And finally do not be afraid. I have overcome the whole Universe.' That is the issue.

'That is the issue.' Lewis's intention does not go much beyond placing this 'issue' before his readers.

4: Lewis and the Trilemma: The Problem of Pain.

The Problem of Pain was written 2 years before the Mere Christianity broadcasts. It is a full-length treatment of the Christian view of the "problem of evil" (why does a good God allow suffering?) which amounts, inevitably, to an explanation of the entire Christian faith. Although not an academic treatise, it is more philosophical and closely argued than the radio talks which make up Mere Christianity, or the punchy journalism of What Are We To Make of Jesus Christ. In the introductory chapter of the book Lewis presents a theory of the origins of religion in general and of Christianity in particular.

People, he says, have always had a sense of the numinous—a mystical intuition that something supernatural exists. They have also had a sense of a moral law that should be obeyed. At some point, he says, someone made the jump and said 'The Numinous Power is the source of Moral Law'. This belief in a moral God was felt particularly strongly by the Jews. We are, of course, back on Mere Christianity territory, so it comes as no surprise to hear Lewis precede to restate the trilemma.

'There was a man born among these Jews who claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be 'one with' the Something which is at once the haunter of nature and the giver of the natural law. The claim is so shocking—a paradox, and even a horror, which we may easily be lulled into taking lightly—that only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second.'

Note, once again "we may be lulled into taking it too lightly." He is addressing those who are prone to "take it too lightly", not those who reject Christ's claims altogether.

Before embarking on this whistle-stop history of religion, he states: "I am not primarily arguing for the truth of Christianity, but describing its origin". He concludes by saying that he hopes he has shown why he, in common with many people, believe that there exists a good and righteous God, but adds "It does not amount to logical compulsion". He then embarks on the remaining nine chapters of his book, which address weighty matters like free will, the nature of omnipotence, original sin, heaven and hell. All of these are intended to answer the question "But if there exists a good and moral God, and if Jesus is his Son, the why is the universe such a bad and immoral place?" That is, he thinks that belief arises because of a sense of the numinous, a sense of the morality, and because of the impact of Jesus Christ. He regards the "problem of evil" as an objection to this belief. If it cannot be answered, then the belief is refuted: so he sets out to answer it. So, once again, Lewis does not claim that the trilemma amounts to anything like a conclusive proof of Christianity.

The lines "I am not arguing for the truth of Christianity...It does not amount to logical compulsion" ought to stand as epigrams to McDowell's misleading book.

4: Conclusion

An 'apologist' is one who 'answers objections' to the Christian faith. Lewis at no point claims to be able to prove that Christianity is true. His claim is far more modest: to give sensible answers to difficulties such as 'Hasn't science disproved the existence of God?', 'If you live a good life, does it matter what you believe?' or 'How can a good God allow pain in the world, and even send some people to hell?' He believed that historical Christianity had perfectly good answers to these questions, and that his task was to explain what this 'mere Christianity' was, in language which ordinary people could understand. The so-called trilemma is an answer to one such objection: 'Jesus was a good man, but not the Son of God.' You do not have to listen to many religious discussion programmes or political speeches to realize that the idea that 'Christianity is really about Jesus moral teaching' (or, "If you follow Jesus moral teaching, then you are a Christian") is still very prevalent.

Lewis wrote that it was almost impossible for English children to hear and understand the Christian story, because it was so bound up with bad hymns and stained glass windows. Part of the purpose of his children's books was to present the story in a non-religious context so that they could really hear it, perhaps for the first time.

He also said that the Christianity of most of his countrymen was in fact 'vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code' which demanded churchgoing as 'at best a part of loyalty and good manners, at worst a proof of respectability.' Again, he said that 'the great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort.' The trilemma, like the figure of Aslan, is intended to be a wake-up call to such people, encouraging them to see the Biblical Christ for the first time. If McDowell wishes to claim that it proves more than this, he has no right to attribute this claim to C.S. Lewis.

Works Cited

C.S Lewis:
The Problem of Pain
Mere Christianity

'What are we to make of Jesus Christ' an essay in the collection God in the Dock
'Sometimes Fairy Stories May Best Say What Needs to Be Said', an essay in the collection Of This and Other Worlds.
'Christian Apologetics' an essay in the collection Timeless at Heart.
'Fern Seed and Elephants', an essay in the collection of the same name.

Josh McDowell, Evidence Which Demands a Verdict.

All quotes from Lewis are Copyright C.S Lewis pte Ltd.