Brierley on Lewis’s Trilemma

I recently finished Justin Brierley’s book Unbelievable?: Why After Ten Years of Talking With Atheists, I’m Still a Christian, a book of Christian apologetics. It’s well-written and I recommend it if you’re looking for a book on that topic, and it should be of interest to theists, atheists, and agnostics alike. But here I want to focus on Brierley’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’s famous trilemma.

You’ve almost certainly heard of Lewis’s trilemma, particularly if you’ve been a Christian at any point in your life. The claim is that we have three possible ways of viewing Jesus: “a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.” Posing this choice is a way of claiming that we can’t view Jesus as simply a (non-divine) wise teacher. For the purposes of this discussion, we can ignore the question of whether Jesus actually viewed himself as the Lord. The claim by Lewis, and Brierley, is that we can accept that he was divine, or that he was crazy, or that he was a liar.

Brierley then goes on to discuss the Jesus myth theory, wherein people claim that Jesus did not exist, and is a completely fictitious character. Brierley concedes that this could be a fourth “L” option: “a liar, a lunatic, the Lord, or a legend.” He gives a good overview of why this theory is not accepted by serious scholars of the bible and of the time-period, and I agree that the myth theory does not seem like a serious option.

But this choice argument has always seemed very unconvincing to me, and still does even with the fourth option added. The reason is simple: some of the things in the bible that are said about Jesus, or by Jesus, are real and historical, and some of them are likely not. It’s difficult to know which verses fall into which category. Is the Book of John less reliable than the other three gospels? Did Jesus really say something to the effect of “nobody comes to the father except through me”? My goal here isn’t to give a close reading of the gospels (and I’m not a biblical scholar), but just to point out that it’s extremely unlikely that the gospels are 100% historically accurate about what Jesus said and did. And we have to expect that early Christians would have added or altered events to suit their purposes. In fact, we know that there are errors and intentional changes in different new testament manuscripts, and that there were multiple competing Christianities from the get-go. We can’t read the bible as pure historical record (and I would suggest that doing so is missing the point anyway, if you are a Christian).

So, at the risk of breaking the nice alliteration, I would say the choices should include “a liar, a lunatic, the Lord, a legend, or a complex mix of history and myth.”

The trilemma probably deserves to be retired from apologetics. But again, I do recommend Brierley’s book overall, and his podcast is a minor miracle, what with Brierley’s ability to facilitate interesting and substantive discussions between believers and non-believers that do not descend into mud-slinging. Our world could use more discussions like these.