Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The Trilemma":
An Invitation to a Shredding

The headline quote on my blog is called "The Trilemma": fool, demon, or God. Now, personally, I think most folks fall into one of those or the fourth which Lewis says is not open: great moral teacher. I was over participating in a thread at Common Sense Atheism and someone said

“By and large, [C.S. Lewis's] theology, like his apologetics, is embarrassingly incoherent, unsound, incomplete, and generally bad” I agree. I created a thread on freeratio about and it generated some good discussion. It can be found here:
and pointed to this other thread and his opening quote there:
Theres the trilemma, which has been shredded to pieces, even though it was self evidently stupid to being with, . . .
Now, I have heard Christians say the same about the Trilemma, but since it is still my banner quote - obviously no one has convinced me yet it is "shredded" or "self-evidently stupid" (I think more of myself than that). So, I invited folks over to shred it for me and perhaps make me change my banner quote

So, here is the entire passage of Mere Christianity the Trilemma is a part of - and I am going to break it into pieces (numbered for easy reference in the comments) so that folks can shred more capably. It is from Chapter 8 - "The Shocking Alternative"
1. That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended-civilisations are built up--excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.
Other than the Satan part, which my rationalist invitees (and many of my Christian brethren) won't buy, is there any disagreement about this being true of historical (and current) human social and political institutions and systems?
2. And what did God do? First of all He left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong: and all through history there have been people trying (some of them very hard) to obey it. None of them ever quite succeeded.
Any disagreement yet? I truly hope not.
3. Secondly, He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and by his death, has somehow given new life to men.
I have been told so many times about this by so many pagans I think it is unassailable
4. Thirdly, He selected one particular 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 gives an account of the hammering process.
Now, we are into a Christian theological view - whether or not you agree you have to grant this for the sake of the discussion. The criticism is that Lewis is incoherant as a Christian, and that this is self-evidently wrong for a Christian to say.
5. Then come the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time.
Now, Jesus Seminar aside, any disagreement that the Bible presents Jesus saying this about Himself? Again, whatever you think of the Bible, this is internally consistant, isn't it? [I will be happy to provide chapter and verse if you think he did not claim any of that in the Gospel accounts]
6. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it.
Problem yet?
7. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else.
That is right, correct?
8. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
It got him crucified, right?
9. Now the core of the argument: One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men's toes and stealing other men's money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct.
If you are going to derail this, that is the first key point you have to derail - is it "asinine fatuity" for you to forgive Fred for a sin he committed against Joe. But, there is more.
10. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences.
That is correct, right? Not only that, he could forgive those sins and Fred could be instantly healed of some illness - and not be told to go tell Joe he was sorry.
11. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.
I cannot argue with that
12. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.
True isn't it? Now, you might try to come up with people more conceited than this - but besides being really hard, it would be really pointless in the discussion, wouldn't it?
13. Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less so unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is 'humble and meek' and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.
If you are going to say he is "a great moral teacher" - then you have to jump in there. This is the standard "meek and mild teacher of truth" basis for the "great moral teacher - but not God" view of Christ.
14. 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.
Would he?
15. 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.
Especially, since he demonstrated the power to heal along with his "conceit" to forgive sin. I am not sure lunatic is actually a choice there - maybe only demon or God.
16. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
Actually, that really is a dilemma as stated by Lewis. Shred away now.
17. 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.
I too agree, that along with the Resurrection, this choice was really not left open to us. Son of God and great moral teacher, but not the second without the first.


  1. A man who thinks himself a poached egg may still be able to fix my car. A woman who thinks herself to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra may still help me with my math homework. In a school where I taught physics, there was an engaging and effective history teacher who took astrology seriously, and who couldn't understand why I thought celestial activity didn't directly influence our lives. Crazy and truth-telling are not mutually exclusive. If a liar says the sky is blue, do you cease thinking the sky is blue?

    All this goes to show that statement 11 is false. There is nothing stopping me from saying, "I forgive you of all your sins." You would be right to dismiss this statement as nonsensical--as per your comment to statement 9. However, there is nothing impossible about my having wrote it, since I just did. Any person can say anything they want.

    For example, I admire James Watson for his role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. I also find him detestable for the way he treated Rosalind Franklin and his general misogyny. These are not inconsistent positions to hold.

    In the same way, Jesus was a moral teacher to be admired for several things he said: "Love your neighbor as yourself," "they that take the sword shall perish with the sword," "Blessed are the peacemakers." Jesus is not even unique in saying these things, as the Golden Rule, for example, is near universal in human culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethic_of_reciprocity). That Jesus claimed to be God and to have the ability to forgive sins does not render these teachings false because the truth of these statements does not depend upon the divinity of Jesus.

    This is the problem with Lewis' trilemma: the lemmas are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible for Jesus to have said some good and true things as well as some crazy and false, even silly, things. Every one of us does this.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for taking up the challenge.

    First, I agree that Jesus is not unique in his moral teachings - before or since. As Lewis said, great moral teaching usually doesn't comprise anything new - just bringing people back to the same basic truths. So we agree, Jesus is nothing special as a moral teacher.

    That, however, posits a problem - at least for me and obviously Lewis: if there are plenty of sources of moral teaching that are equally good and valid then why would be select a teacher who falsely said that he was God.

    Lewis's point is that Jesus was trying not to leave room for that being who he was - just a little looney moral teacher. I will grant you that you can indeed select such a teacher - but if he says he is God and a good chunk of his moral teaching is about following him as God - I think you would bow out as would must rational folks. Especially mono-theistic Jews in 30 AD.

    Even more important, his moral teaching points out the problem. Jesus makes it clear that someone leading the weak astray will be dropped into the ocean with a rock around his neck - yet by teaching that he was God and to follow him he would be doing exactly that.

    I do not think you are really understanding the "forgiving sins" thing. I cannot forgive you the transgressions that you do against your wife or other near relationship. And, especially, I cannot act as if the whole matter is laid to rest because I did that. I can forgive you harm you have done to me, and have a relationship based on that - but you and your spouse still have issues. And, you should still have issues with God (unless God forgave you - which Christ implied was done). The lifting of physical infirmaries based on that forgiveness cements the deal.

  3. Personally, I don't regard Jesus as a "great moral teacher," only someone who said some true things about morality. I learned my morality by accepting and rejecting the moral teachings of those around me. From my parents I learned of generosity and work ethic while rejecting their Christianity; from the founders of the United States I learned how a government responsible to the people should operate while rejecting their holding of slaves; from Jesus I learned about accepting everyone as a neighbor while rejecting his forgiveness of sins and claims to divinity. I've since found better examples to follow than Jesus.

    Atheists do not hold Jesus to be a "great moral teacher." Like me, they may have learned some of their earliest moral lessons from Jesus' teachings because they happened to have been born into a Christian family. I didn't select Jesus as my teacher. I just happened to learn many things from him first. In the same way, a kid in a Jewish family would encounter many moral teachings from the books of Moses. What's critical is not who one learns their morals from, but the quality of the morals. Similarly, it doesn't matter where one learns calculus, only whether such knowledge is correct.

    I don't understand why you and other apologists think that I have to accept everything Jesus said or nothing. He said some true things and some false things. It just happens to be the case that I learned many moral teachings from the Bible first. I learned a lot of things from the Bible that I've had to evaluate and even reject. I used to be a creationist, now I reject it because I learned of the evidence for evolution. I used to think it was wrong to be homosexual, now I don't because I cannot see the harm in such relationships, whereas I can clearly see the harm in the oppression of homosexuals.

    From every potential teacher and source of knowledge, I evaluate each of their claims (as much as I am able). I accept those I come to agree with, and reject the rest. On occasion, as I learn more, I change my mind.

    Your last paragraph is odd. I reject Jesus' claim that he can forgive my sins. Actually, as an atheist, I reject the entire concept of sin since I don't believe in the existence of a God I can sin against. When I do wrong, it is against other humans. It is from those that suffer from my wrongs that I ask forgiveness, not God. If anyone says they can forgive me when I have not wronged them, I would say he or she is a liar. You may argue that, if I think Jesus is a liar, why would I accept any moral teaching from him? I would merely state that even liars can say the sky is blue.

    As for "the lifting of physical infirmaries," I reject any miraculous claim except those that have scientific evidence in its favor. There are uncountable stories involving miracles in the mythologies of human societies. I don't see any reason to lend credence to Jesus' miracles or any other miracles in the Bible.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Let me make something clear. As an apologist, I do not think that Christian apology can bring anyone to God. It is not something you can rationally argue somebody into. So, I expect you to believe nothing. Accept nothing - especially because I, or CS Lewis, make a great theistic argument. It really just doesn't work that way.

    If the reason folks think Lewis sucks is because his arguments do not convince them - well, he wasn't really trying to (and if he was I sure am not). Apology is also called pre-evangelism, or in a phrase I like better - I am trying to remove folks implausibility structures.

    However, let us go back to your example about your poached egg mechanic. Since there is a direct relationship between thinking one is God and one's moral teachings - the real example here is that Mr. Poached Egg did a great job on your windshield wipers last week, and fixed your power door locks nicely - but now he says God has told him how to retrofit your car to run on decaf coffee.

    I am hoping that you find a different mechanic - and indeed perhaps have that new mechanic check the installation of your windshield wipers and maybe take a look at those door locks.

  5. Hi John,

    Alright, you've convinced me: I won't take any more moral lessons from Jesus! He's obviously crazy!

    Joking aside, I'm intrigued by your characterization of Christian apology as the removal of doubts rather than the giving of reasons, especially after reading your testimonial (quite the journey!). If not through rational argument and evidence, how does one come to God? Does God only work through time and circumstance? Elijah's altar contest with the Baal prophets (1 Kings 18:16-46) seems to argue against this; it looks to me like a scientific experiment to prove God's existence and identity.

    It seems to me that Lewis is presenting an argument. Granted, in point 14 Lewis does say that his purpose is to stop people from saying that Jesus was only a "great moral teacher" (a phrase I put in quotes because I only ever hear it in the context of this argument). But, everything he writes in this passage leads to the dilemma of God or Liar. Shortly thereafter, he will say that Jesus as presented in the Bible does not seem mendacious and so cannot be a liar or crazy. Thus, by disjunctive syllogism (had to break out the old logic textbook for that term), we must conclude he really was the son of God (and God).

    If you force me to pick from Lewis' choices--God, Liar, Crazy--I'd have to go with the latter two with the addendum that everyone, even the crazies and the liars, tell the truth occasionally. This is why I find Lewis' Trilemma so odd and ineffective, even as an apologetics tool. He spends most of the above passage convincing the reader that Jesus has to be crazy to claim to be God. Then, a little later, he tries to pull a switch on the reader by claiming that Jesus doesn't have the character of a liar. But the switch isn't convincing. There's nothing to stop a listener or reader from concluding that Jesus was crazy to claim to be God. How many people today claim to be God? How many claim to speak for God? How many claim to perform miracles? How many do we believe?

    For this and other reasons, I have gotten a new mechanic. I have had my car checked out and found some things wrong that the previous mechanic had broken (see my previous post, third paragraph). I haven't consulted Jesus' teachings for moral guidance in a number of years. I don't know many atheists, agnostics, or other non-Christians who do.

    Here's some wild, baseless speculation: The force of Lewis' argument is that it tries to get non-believers to state that Jesus was a bad person--criminally bad, even. In a majority Christian society--England in Lewis' time, America now--this is a very unpopular thing to say and the social pressure it brings to bear on the non-believer is tremendous. We're already unpopular enough, as evidenced by former President George H.W. Bush saying, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." (On a side note, this is one reason Obama's mentioning of non-believers in his speeches is such big news for both believers and non-believers.) In front of an audience, calling Jesus crazy would, in the minds of most of the audience, count as damning evidence against him.

    Heh, "damning." I slay me!

  6. Hi Mark

    Mere Christianity was originally a set of radio talks then put to paper. Lewis was attempting to explain "what Christianity was" at its root - what was there that all the various denominations would all agree on with their differences stripped away. Lewis did it to explain something - not to convince anyone.

    The general view of my particular herd of ilk is that God calls folks to him. The hyper-Calvinists would say that call is undeniable - who he calls come; and once they are His God doesn't give them up. That, of course, means you were created by God to go to Hell. Not my belief - and if I believed that I might share the extreme atheist view that God is immoral. It still would be his game and his rules, but those are ugly rules to have to play under. And, I do not think scripture supports that kind of hyper-omnipotence and the lack of free will.

    I believe He calls everyone and some do not come - by their own wills. I hate to quote scripture to folks who do not believe in it - but Paul said it better than me:

    Romans 1:19-20 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.

    So, in my view God is calling you to Him, or will. When I mentioned implausibility structures I wasn't really talking about removing doubt - but this:

    Everything that we believe is filtered through our plausibility structures — belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. For example, if I were to find a box of cookies in my kitchen cabinet I would assume that my wife had bought them at the store and placed them there herself. If someone were to argue that tree-dwelling elves baked the cookies, packaged them for their corporate employer, and stashed them in my pantry, I would have a difficult time believing their claim; the existence of unionized tree-dwelling elves is simply not a part of my plausibility structure.

    Plausibility structures can prevent us from forming beliefs that are inconsistent with experience and evidence. But they can also have a negative impact, preventing us from forming true beliefs about reality. . . .

    . . . Theological arguments aid in this effort by pointing out that belief in the existence of God is more probable, more plausible, more reasonable, and more rational than its denial. While we should be respectful of individuals who adhere to skepticism or atheism, when these beliefs are brought to the public square their mystical and improbability assumptions should receive the utmost scrutiny

    Theological arguments can help a Christian buttress doubt - especially with so much of the anti-religious rhetoric, etc being aimed at lowering Christian belief to the level of belief in those tree dwelling elves. Doubt is acceptable to most of us: the opposite of faith is not doubt - it is fear. Indeed, since no one can prove that God does, or doesn't, exist - the whole "battle" is on the Plain of Plausibility

    On the evangelism side, I see apology as simply attempting to remove the rational obstacles to belief - plowing the road God calls someone down.

  7. Oh,

    I suppose I should say something about this - although I can see how you would never have heard it:

    Lewis does say that his purpose is to stop people from saying that Jesus was only a "great moral teacher" (a phrase I put in quotes because I only ever hear it in the context of this argument).

    I hear it all the time - but I do not hang out in atheist circles much. (the discussions are seldom as respectful as this one). I hang out at a site that has atheists at it - but is a "faith and politics" site called Street Prophets. There are neo-pagans, UU's, theologically liberal Christians, etc. In all of those cases, the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection of Jesus are called into question - even with the Christians. The focus on Him as "moral teacher" is almost absolute. Few would really answer "Son of God" to the trilemma - except in the sense that they have spiritualized everyone to being "Sons of God". They would not say he is a Demon (they do not believe in those either), and (mostly) rely on calling the folks who wrote about Him liars - whatever doesn't fit with their view was made up and added to the Bible.

    Frankly, I much prefer atheists to that. Tell me the whole thing is a crock of shit rather than pick out what you like and say the rest is someone's lie.

    And, that kinda of gets to one of your points. Of course, liars can tell the truth sometimes - but are you going to trust them as an authority? Anything not quite as apparent as the sky being blue is going to be run through other sources before you accept it.

    So, theologically liberal Christians (IMO) have no basis to believe anything about Jesus - good teacher or not. The stories we have are the stories we have - I do not see anyone having the basis of knowledge to decide which parts of them are true and which are not.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly