Despite the fact that many people in the past have predicted that the works of the late C. S. Lewis would fade into obscurity and be forgotten (one social commentator once described enthusiasm for his works as a “fad”), his books on Christianity seem to be in no danger of fading. Indeed, soon after the breakup of the Soviet empire his book Mere Christianity was published in Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Russian Slovakian, and Slovene. It is also popular in (of all places) repressive China, with a 2007 translation selling 60,000 copies by 2014 (the stats are from Marsden’s 2016 book C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography).
This is not to suggest that Lewis was or is universally loved. Far from it—in fact many people heartily detested him for his Christian faith and his apologetics. Thus Dorothy Sayers (a friend and fan of Lewis) wrote to a friend asking, “Do you like C. S Lewis’ work, or are you one of the people who foam at the mouth when they hear his name?”—for there were many who thus foamed at the mouth.
One of the things that caused many such mouths to foam was Lewis’ famous and oft-used “tri-lemma”, the assertion that, given the claims of Christ to divinity, there were only three possible conclusions about Him: either He was the Lord, a lunatic, or a liar. Lewis’ actual words, (found in his Mere Christianity) were as follows:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [that is, Christ]: ‘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 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 up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
This so-called “tri-lemma” has come under fire from many quarters. Sometimes it is denounced as naïve and unsound, taking insufficient note of New Testament scholarship. One contemporary Christian writer (although a fan of Lewis) criticized it for neglecting the Jewish Old Testament background of Jesus’ time and so not recognizing how His claims to be the Son of God would have been understood (i.e. how the title “Son of God” was used in the psalms and the ancient Near East as a usual title for a king). This scholar pronounced Mere Christianity to be “a fine but leaky building”. Others fault Lewis for not taking into consideration textual criticism or the assertions of some that the Gospel accounts containing Christ’s claim to divinity were unreliable as historical reportage.
All these criticisms fail to recognize what Lewis was actually doing when he first wrote those words during the Second World War. He was not writing for scholars, but for the “man in the street”—in particular, the man in the London street then experiencing the Blitz. He was asked to write and deliver a series of talks to be broadcast over the BBC, each one about 15 minutes long. He therefore tailored those brief talks to reach the common man where he was—and where he was did not include knowledge of or interest in textual criticism or the details of Old Testament background. Lewis’ target audience assumed that Jesus said what the Gospels reported that He said, but they misunderstood its import.
Lewis is often criticized by scholars because he did not deal with matters that were of interest to them, or pen a work of deep theology. But the BBC did not ask him to talk to scholars, but to the common unscholarly man who tuned in to the BBC. He was asked to write an introductory primer, not a theological tome. It is unfair to criticize him for doing his job and not the job others would have liked him to do.
Nonetheless, some scholars continue to criticize the tri-lemma as naïve and unsound. In particular, they insist that there are other options than Lord, lunatic, or liar.
For example, one criticism asserts that we do not know that Jesus actually said what the Gospels report Him as saying, and that the Gospel accounts are historically unreliable. It is suggested (by men like John Beversluis) that the Gospel accounts give us not what Jesus said, but that Jesus’ disciples might have misinterpreted His claims and badly misunderstood what He was saying. (Perhaps the criticism that the term “Son of God” is not in itself a claim to divinity finds a place here.) In this scenario the tri-lemma is completely undercut, because it presupposes that Jesus claimed to be divine when in fact He claimed nothing of the sort.
Another criticism (also put forward by Beversluis) is that Jesus might indeed have been suffering from mental illness and delusion. In other words, He might indeed have been a lunatic. Admittedly one can find in history plenty of people claiming to be divine (including the tragic “Father Divine” who died in 1965). It is asserted that perhaps Jesus was one of those tragic figures.
How to answer such critiques? Sadly, Lewis (who died in 1963) is unable to have a go at them. But I will offer the following to defend the legitimacy of the perennial tri-lemma.
First of all, the Gospel texts show clearly that Jesus’ claim to divinity was not confined to His use of the title “Son of God”. In fact, His favourite self-designation was not “the Son of God”, but “the Son of Man”—an unmistakable reference to the title of the Messianic figure featuring in the Book of Enoch, which in turn adapted it from the Book of Daniel. In the Book of Daniel, we find the Son of Man given dominion, glory, and a kingdom so that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him (Daniel 7:13-14). In the Book of Enoch, He is the One chosen by God to raise up kings from their thrones and break the teeth of sinners, and His name was named before the sun and the stars of heaven were created (Enoch 46:1, 48:3). Claiming to be “the Son of Man” was in itself a claim to supreme and even divine authority.
Moreover, Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins—an authority all acknowledged as belonging to God alone (Mark 2:5-12). He also claimed that He would decide the eternal destiny of anyone who had ever lived on the basis of how they responded to Him (Matthew 25:31f), that He had the authority to reject sinners from the age to come (Matthew 7:22-23), that He was one with the Father (John 10:30), that as one who shared with the Father exemption from the Sabbath restrictions He was equal to the Father (John 5:16-18), that the Father had given Him authority to give life to all men and to judge them, so that all should honour Him even as they honoured the Father (John 5:21-23), that those who believed in Him would have eternal life and had passed from death to life (John 5:24), and that those who had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:9). After such extraordinary claims, diffused throughout all the four Gospels, it was hardly necessary to use the title “Son of God” to claim divinity. The claims to divinity could hardly have been clearer—as His hostile hearers knew only too well.
Secondly, one may well ask whether or not Jesus actually made such claims. Did the apostles and the first century writers who knew Him somehow misunderstand and misrepresent Him? How do we know that Jesus actually said such things?
One may point to the historical fact that Jesus was disowned by Israel and handed over to the Romans for crucifixion as evidence of Him saying things which they considered to be blasphemous. For if He was simply a good pious Jew who taught the Golden Rule, why did His own people disown Him so violently? The Gospels include information that His Jewish enemies believed that His claims to divinity and Messiahship were blasphemous, and that He was a false Messiah. The Talmud also confirms this, including as it does the description of Jesus as one who “practiced sorcery and led Israel astray” (Tractate Sanhedrin 43a)—that He worked miracles by the power of Satan and falsely claimed to be a divine Messiah. If Jesus did not claim such extraordinary and scandalous things, why would the apostles affirm that He did? It seems clear that the writers of the Gospels reported that He said these scandalous things because that was what He said.
These Gospel claims to divinity find confirmation in the epistles of St. Paul. Paul is emphatic that prior to His birth Jesus existed eternally “in the form of God” and then emptied Himself to be born on earth (Philippians 2:1f). Paul cannot be regarded as proclaiming something fundamentally at odds with the Twelve, for he says in his epistle to the Galatians (everywhere acknowledged as genuinely Pauline) that he presented his message to the Twelve for their approval and that he received their blessing (Galatians 2:2-9). Paul taught that Jesus was divine and he asserted that this was in conformity with the message of the Twelve. Obviously the Twelve also were proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth was divine.
Could all those who knew Him well such as the Twelve been so fundamentally mistaken about what He said and meant? Would they have lied about what He actually said? Why would they do this? What had they to gain by such lies? What did they in fact gain—other than poverty, persecution, and martyrdom?
To quote Lewis again: “The idea that any man spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance” (from his Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism). Indeed: the notion that men who had lived with Jesus day in and day out night and day for months or years could so fundamentally misunderstand His message and yet His message could be accurately recovered by moderns from His followers’ flawed and mistaken reportage is, frankly, absurd. There is therefore no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of what the Gospel writers reported.
Thirdly, do we have what the Gospel writers reported? How do we know that the Gospels in our Bibles are fundamentally faithful to what the Gospel writers first wrote? In two words: textual criticism.
To put this into historical perspective, it is instructive to compare the New Testament with other ancient texts. The Greek writer Herodotus wrote his History around 450 B.C. No more than eight manuscripts of this work have survived, and they date from around 900 A.D., yet no scholar questions the authenticity of the text. The same is true of other ancient manuscripts. Julius Caesar wrote his Gallic Wars about 55 B.C., and only ten valid manuscripts have survived, dating from about 900 years after Caesar wrote them, yet all scholars accept the text as reliable. Plato wrote in about 400 B.C., and only seven copies of his work Tetralogies exist, the earliest of which dates from 900 A.D. But despite this 1200 year time span separating the original from the oldest manuscript copy, no one questions the authenticity of this text of Plato.
Compare all this with the New Testament: Herodotus’ History survives in just eight manuscripts; the New Testament survives in hundreds of manuscripts. The earliest surviving copy of Herodotus’ History is 1300 years later than its original; the earliest New Testament is only 300 or so years later than its original. Indeed, two copies of John’s Gospel (the Bodmer papyri) date from about 200 A.D.—just over one hundred years from the time of the original.
No wonder that Sir Frederic Kenyon (one the great authorities in the field of textual criticism) wrote, “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” In other words, we may trust that we have substantially in our Bibles what the Gospel writers originally wrote.
The final question remains: granted that Jesus claimed to be divine, what if He was wrong? What if He thought He was divine and was simply a nut? Here we move a bit further afield, into the question of His miracles.
Both the Christian Gospels which accept Jesus’ claim to divinity and the Jewish traditions which reject His claim agree that Jesus did miracles (or, in the words of the Talmud, that He “practiced sorcery”, casting out demons by the power of the devil). For Christians the greatest miracle is that of the empty tomb, evidence that God raised Him from the dead, vindicating His claims to be His Son.
I will not rehearse again the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ; it can be found here. These miracles point decisively to the truth of His claims. Any lunatic can claim to be God, but a lunatic who opens blind eyes, cleanses lepers, raises the dead, and Himself rises from the dead is (to say the least) unlikely to be a lunatic. The same goes for the suggestion that He was a liar, claiming to be God when He knew full well He was not. For (in the words of a first century witness) “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” (John 9:16). How indeed.
To draw together these threads and connect the dots: we may trust our Bibles that in the Gospels we have what the apostles reported that Jesus said. Jesus clearly claimed to be divine. The tri-lemma, brilliantly and concisely stated by Lewis, remains: either Jesus of Nazareth was the Lord, a lunatic, or a liar. His miracles point away from the latter two options. The only remaining question is: what do you think? Is He the Lord? And if so, what are you going to do about it?