“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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56
So goes the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma, that is supposed to convince us that, the gospels of the New Testament being allowed as trustworthy reports of a historical savant of the late history of ancient Israel, we must decide that the savant is all he claimed, and all the gospels claim him to be.
The one response Lewis could not assume, given his belief, is, simply, ‘I don’t care.’ * The choice he presents is a false dilemma (not a true trilemma, because, as I point out later, one choice is strictly irrelevant); and indeed many of the questions raised in discussions concerning Lewis’ challenge, while having historical-scholarly interest, resolve (or dissolve) in practical application, into questions as to whether we care about god’s existence or not; and I don’t.
Lewis was basically writing for people who wanted to believe, but had their doubts (in an era when belief was getting challenged and shaken by many events of the 20th century); he was trying rhetorically to put them in a position where they needed to make a choice (presupposing they would choose faith, since alternatives would not be fully formed in their minds). As a ploy it is somewhat of a kin to Pascal’s Gambit.**
Nonetheless, in its clearest form, as I previously noted, the challenge presents us with a false dilemma. I remarked that one response might be, ‘I don’t care,’ because I can certainly hold that Jesus was able to remark some ethical truths and that he was something of a loony. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, ‘loonies’ can be capable of moral insight.
(‘Lunatic’ is a derogatory term, that does no justice to those suffering mental illness. Certainly it’s possible for someone who believes he’s a poached egg – which no one suffering mental illness has ever claimed, as far as I’m aware – to both recite and adhere to the famous Golden Rule of treating others as one’s self. Lewis not only violates empirical knowledge concerning mental illness, he not only violates the right of the mentally ill to be treated with dignity, he thus also violates the morality he claims to presume.)
As far as to whether Jesus is lying, that’s really quite irrelevant, since we only have the asserted quotations of the NT, we have not other means of determining his veracity. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that he is ‘Lord,’ on the basis of this logical challenge, since whether Jesus was a loony or not, or a liar or not, have nothing to do with any claimed divinity for him. He could well be an angel, or some avatar for some other religion’s god; or he could be a brilliant storyteller and moralist, giving his audience just what they needed to hear to reconsider their lives ethically. Or he could have been some sort of brilliant politician; or maybe he was just just someone, like Monty Python’s Brian, who happened to be in the right place at the right time – whether he wanted to be or not. Or maybe, what he had to say is so generalized as to be practically empty, anyway.
Or maybe he didn’t even exist, and the gospels are just so much fiction.
As far as to whether the gospels are themselves lies, records of hallucination, or straight-forward reportage:
There are, I think, two basic approaches to biblical scholarship – one asking, ‘what are the origins of these texts?’ (which may rightfully asked of any literature), and the other asking ‘how do these texts hang together, how do they compose the whole that believers read them as?’ The problem is that in scholarly practice the two questions often overlap, but unfortunately the answer to the second question (which is only meaningful to believers) may simply be that they do not hang together, that we are looking at a quilt, not a tapestry.
Look: concerning any ancient literature, any answer we could possibly give to the questions concerning their veracity, or intent, or the mental stability of their authors, or the rhetorical relation they might have had with their presumed audience – such answers would require compiling as many versions of the narrative as possible, from variant, preferably conflicting sources (since the conflicts will actually weed out certain biases), comparison with non-textual historical records and artifacts, etc., etc. Eventually we say, ‘In their own contemporary context, this is likely what they meant to say to their given audience.’ (By the way, all of this is derived from Schleirmacher – a devout Christian and a brilliant scholar.) But taken beyond the religious view in which such hermeneutics originated, this basically means we are reading such texts the way literary historians read great fiction of past eras, to discover their contemporary context and determine what can be salvaged to apply to literary reading today (or what readers of these texts, literature or not, can use today).
The NT has some problems in this regard; a strong social institution grew up around it and effectively cloistered the texts from critical reading, while at the same time abetting a radical and profound change in the social context in which these texts were first composed. I am not familiar with biblical scholarship per se, but I do know some of the history that tracked through the decomposition of Rome (and its great libraries), led to the canonization of the texts. This history has left us with great lacunae in our efforts to compose a single narrative such that all the loose ends could be tied together. Frankly, I doubt they can be.
This makes asking, ‘how do these texts hang together?’ ultimately resolving into speculations – some well-informed, some mere guesswork, none with enough evidence to be convincing.
* Actually, other than the remarks of this essay, possible responses Lewis would not really have expected, given his context and expected readership, include:
“Jesus was a complete loony, you’re absolutely right, all of his moral dictates are worthless, we should read Hume and Schopenhauer instead.”
“Jesus was indeed the spawn of the devil, and all his moral postulates are intended to confuse us. Read Aristotle or Confucius instead.”
“Jesus was a complete fool, and live your life according to the dictates of capitalism.” (A favored response among many Americans, although they won’t admit to it.)
“Jesus was indeed a prophet, but he was surpassed by the blessed Mohammed.”
“Jesus was mere avatar for the divine Krishna.”
“Yeah, yeah, Hillel said much the same things a generation before. What a mensch!”
“I don’t think there is evidence this guy even existed.”
“My father, pastor at the Everything Is Lovely If You Submit Church, beat the crap out of me when I was young – so take your ‘Lord’ and shove it!”
Each to his own god (and some of us to none at all).
* Pascal’s Gambit:
If you don’t believe in god, and there is a god, you will go to hell.
If you believe in god and there is no god, you’ll have lived a better life anyway.
Complete response: On the other hand, if you don’t believe in god, live a good life, and there is no god, then you will have lived a good life; but if you’ve lived a good life without believing in god, but there is a god, and he is all merciful, as claimed of him, then you will not go to hell.
Note that the “all merciful” component is left out of Pascal’s Gambit. Yet, it is crucial. I remember a priest remarking, “it is my duty to believe in hell; but only a fool would believe there is any soul in it.” Either god is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, or he is really a waste of time. BUT if he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, then do what you can, do as you feel you must, and make your peace with him after death.
And if it is not the case that he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving – then he is not a god worth believing in.
He will forgive my non-belief – or he isn’t worth believing in.
Either he exists, and nothing happens; or he doesn’t exist, and nothing happens.
Or he exists and sends me to hell because he is not all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, in which case he is not worthy of worship, and I would prefer hell to any heaven he offers.
In this life, it doesn’t matter whether he exists or not. If there is any after-life, we’ll deal with that as it comes along.
But this is really what we non-theists have claimed all along.