A common Christian apologetic argument is the Trilemma. First introduced by C.S. Lewis, this argument since Lewis has undergone modification. However, the basic argument has not changed. As the argument goes, Jesus, was either telling the truth when he said that he was God, Jesus was lying, or Jesus was insane. This is generally abbreviated as “Lord, Liar or Lunatic.”
Lewis used this argument primarily as a response to people who thought that Jesus was a good person. but not the Son of God. Lewis argued that this was not a possibility since, if Jesus was not telling the truth, then one of the other two possibilities must hold. In its more modern form, the argument is identical, but evidence is presented as well that the last two possibilities don’t hold.
The argument in either the original form of Lewis or in other variants, suffers from flaws. The most serious flaw is the reliability of the Gospels as record of what Jesus said. It is not at all implausible that Jesus didn’t claim to be the Son of God, but such claims were later asserted by followers. Or Jesus could have in fact said exactly what he is quoted as but have been genuinely mistaken. These are two are two good detailed discussions of these and other flaws. Rather than discuss the flaws, I’d like to examine why this argument is so effective apologetics.
The argument, especially in its post-Lewis form (such as that advanced by Joshua McDowell in his “Evidence that Demands A Verdict”) does not explicitly invoke the presupposition that the audience thinks that Jesus was a great man . However, in an unstated form, this approach is far more effective. We live in a society with few taboos stronger than saying negative statements about Jesus. Indeed, even if one asks most Jews who live in the United States what they think of Jesus, they will feel compelled to say something like “I think he was a great teacher” or something similar. Thus, to most people, the notion that Jesus was either a lunatic or a liar is so repulsive (or politically incorrect) that when faced with those alternatives, they have no choice but to rush to the third possibility. The Trilemma thus rests on implicit cultural norms that Lewis was willing to make explicit. His successors have been less forthcoming.
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