Logical Fallacy Thursday

Welcome back to Logical Fallacy Thursday. I’m going to look at one of the most common paragraphs in Christian apologetics this week. It’s from C. S. LewisMere Christianity, and enough people find it convincing to ensure that I hear it trumped out in casual conversation or serious debate on a regular basis.

Lewis is one of the most popular and respected theologians of the twentieth century, known as much for his fiction as for his serious apologetic and philosophic works. He claims to have been an atheist in his teens, but converted to Christianity through personal consideration of the Bible, discussions with J. R. R. Tolkien, and reading G. K. Chesterton, among other things. Here’s the passage from Mere Christianity:

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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The logical fallacy is false dilemma, which is committed “when the arguer claims that his conclusion is one of only two options, when in fact there are other possibilities. The arguer then goes on to show that the ‘only other option’ is clearly outrageous, and so his preferred conclusion must be embraced.” In Lewis’ case, the dilemma is between “God” and “devilish madman.” It has also been termed a “trilemma,” where the three popularly cited options are “liar, lunatic, or Lord.”

What this false dilemma ignores is that other options are possible, and the three categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Jesus could well have been a liar about some things (e.g., being God) and told the truth about other things. Is anyone really 100% liar or 100% truth-teller? Of course not. He could have been (and was) way off on the God thing, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong on absolutely everything else and didn’t provide any good moral teachings. Lunatics, too, can speak words of truth through their foolishness–a favorite theme of Shakespeare’s. And what about the “honestly mistaken” category?

The trilemma also assumes that the biblical account is an accurate portrait of Jesus’ message. The latest of the four canonical gospels, the Gospel of John, contains almost all of Jesus’ claims to be God, including all the famous “I Am” statements. All of the gospels were written at least a generation after Jesus’ death (70-95 CE), but the gospel of John is the latest and most philosophical of the four. Perhaps Jesus’ statements were juiced up and altered by people with an agenda?

It is clear that such interpolations did in fact take place as the story of Jesus developed, even after the gospels themselves were written. One of the most beloved stories from the Gospel of John, for example, is the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), traditionally known as the Pericope Adulterae. This passage is widely viewed as a later addition to the gospel, and almost all modern translations (including my NIV Bible), mark it off with lines before and after and with a note that says the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this story. As such, it is thought to be a fourth-fifth century interpolation.

As stories about Jesus grew in popularity and spread by word of mouth, it is almost impossible to imagine that they weren’t changed or exaggerated in some way before being written down decades later. This is not to make a specific point about the gospel accounts, but simply to say that other options outside Lewis’ trilemma are very probable. Along with some decent moral sayings, the actions and words of Jesus could as well be “myth” or “metaphor” as lies, ravings, or the words of a supernatural deity embodied in a human.

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7 Responses to Logical Fallacy Thursday

  1. BigFrank says:

    Thanks, Mikhailovitch, that’s very useful! I like the idea of some kind of scale with the lowest standard of credibility at one extreme where people believe anything and everything and the other extreme where, at the limit, people are convinced of nothing. If the evidence is good, fewer people at the skeptical extremes reject it, if the evidence is poor, only the more credulous accept it.

    The problem, as I see it, is estimating how good evidence is in any particular case, and where is the best place to stand on the credulous/skeptical scale.

  2. mikhailovich says:


    Yeah, you’re certainly right that different people have different standards. For some, all it takes is a friend telling them a story; others require more evidence before they believe. I accept that most people are convinced of what they believe, but I maintain that people can become convinced for really bad reasons.

    Carl Sagan’s insightful comment is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (that might not be word-for-word, but it’s something like that). If I tell you that I have a pillow on my couch right now, you’ll probably believe me on that statement alone, because it’s not a very extraordinary claim. If, on the other hand, I told you that right now I have a real live alien sitting on my couch, you probably wouldn’t believe me, because the claim was more extreme. You’d require a serious scientific investigation before accepting a story like that as true.

    The same principle certainly applies to the multitude of “risen savior” stories that have cropped up throughout history, Jesus included. The claim is so unnatural and extraordinary that unless evidence emerges to support it outside ancient fables, the far, far more likely explanation is that it did not happen.

  3. BigFrank says:

    Thanks Mikhailovitch. I followed your argument. I wonder, if people are not totally gullible and have intelligence and have some temporal relationship with the things they testify about (even if it’s second-generation), they shouldn’t be regarded as witnesses even if we reject their evidence on the basis that they stand too far away from the events to be truly reliable. They are witnesses but not good enough ones to establish the divinity of Jesus on the balance of probabilities? And not good enough because they are writing too long after the events? I hope I’ve read you right.
    I’m very interested in types and quality of different sorts of evidence, because I think that’s critical to deciding whether a particular argument can be sustained or not. So I’ll keep thinking for a while. In the meantime do get back if I’ve misunderstood you.

  4. mikhailovich says:


    Thanks for your comment. I agree that we should have good evidence for our examined beliefs (i.e., I’m not a fan of credulity or gullibility), but this should be based on the preponderance of accumulated evidence, not a desire for absolute proof or certainty, which is not only impossible but flies in the fact of continued honest inquiry and openness to new data as your understanding of a problem or issue evolves. (I think we agree on this.) My belief is that Jesus was not God. Nothing remotely resembling reasonable evidence has been presented for this claim.

    I think the main question here is whether intelligent people can firmly believe something that isn’t demonstrably true. Personal experience or eyewitness testimony is a bit of a red herring because no writings from eyewitnesses of Jesus exist today.

    The gospel writers were composing their narratives in Greek (not Aramaic or Hebrew), and they were certainly more educated than the common disciples whose names have been applied to their accounts. They were also writing 40-60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, at which point oral tradition and perhaps fragmented narratives had borne the burden of delivery as the new religion developed and spread. Before the canonization process solidified an “orthodox” version of Christianity hundreds of years later, theology was considerably varied and competing gospel narratives were written with different theological emphases, which were later condemned as heresy by the version that happened to win out in the councils (significantly, Nicaea in 325).

    To get to the point: the gospel writers almost certainly believed what they were writing, but I don’t think they had to be particularly gullible, based on what they had heard and the time that had elapsed for the stories about Jesus to grow via oral tradition and a motivating bias on the part of the storytellers. Itinerant miracle-working apocalyptic prophets (like Jesus, or others like Apollonius of Tyana) were not uncommon in first century Palestine. Stories of miracles were widespread, and almost everyone believed in the POTENTIAL of the supernatural, even if they doubted the specific supernatural claims of other belief systems.

    Even in today’s world, miracle workers like Sai Baba exist with hundreds of followers who give eyewitness testimony to dramatic miracles (including a resurrection!). Should we believe every sincere storyteller or person who thinks s/he’s witnessed a miracle? What about all the people (and entire families) who give corroborating testimonies of alien abduction? Should be believe their tales? Sincere group delusion is possible, and even educated people can believe nonsense from time to time (e.g., many educated people put faith in elaborate medical placebos like homeopathy or acupuncture).

    When I was a Christian, I loved intelligent writers like G. K. Chesteron who could expound upon the theological implications of familiar scripture passages and help me realize spiritual “truths” that I hadn’t seen before. There’s no denying the intelligence of Chesteron (or Lewis, or St. Paul), but in my opinion, they also bought into some fundamentally stupid assumptions. Every person (as well as every generation, on a larger scale) has their blind spots and areas of unexamined belief that influence what they say and do from that point forward. You can construct a VALID argument that isn’t SOUND, i.e., a logical argument that follows and yet has false premises.

    Christians think Islam is obviously false even though there are thousands of brilliant minds who accept Islam as truth. I think Mormonism is absurd, but there are also many intelligent Mormons. Another angle might be the observation that many rational, intelligent men think their wives are the most beautiful in the world, even though this belief might be obviously false. When you care about something or believe it, even for bad reasons, it doesn’t mean all of your intellect falls apart, or that you can’t build a complex philosophy on a foundation of sand. The point here is that nobody is 100% gullible or 100% rational. The gospel writers need be no different.

    I’ve probably rambled on far too long to hold your interest, so I’ll tie it up here. But feel free to write back or clarify if you don’t feel like I’ve answered your question. And thanks for the discussion. I always appreciate a good chat.

  5. bigfrank says:

    Webmaster: had a couple of tries to upload this comment but they may have gone wrong. If they appear, please delete in favor of this one. Thanks. BigFrank

    Hey, Mikhailovitch, back in the days when you did Christianity, you sure learned it good! But your piece about CS Lewis, reminds me of a difficulty I have which you may be able to help with. It goes like this. I believe that, as far as possible, we ought to be able to prove the things we hold as certain. Not necessarily beyond reasonable doubt, but at least on the balance of probability. I take your point that Jesus might have said some true things especially as some of the things are similar to things said by the Rabbis. But the things which are really at issue are what he said about himself and the conclusions of the new testament authors that he was the son of god. Whether the message came from him or from those who wrote about him, the basic claim is either true of false. If it is false, the writers either knew and were therefore liars or they were taken in and were pretty gullible. Now it is certain that the people of the ancient world were not generally taken in by religious fraud. People knew that the oracles at the shrine of Apollo at Claros, for example, were not really oracles at all – but the priests made them up. But they went along with it because for Greeks, believing was a matter of political co-operation, but they weren’t going to die for their belief in the oracles of Claros. The people in the new testament seem much more convinced than that. So perhaps they are really stupid. Greeks said nobody, but nobody, has ever been raised from the dead. So the new testament authors must have been pretty stupid to believe the story they’d heard about Jesus.
    On the other hand, as you have shown, christianity seems quite complicated. Your criticism of the atonement shows this clearly – you were able to point out the weaknesses of the theory, but at least there was a theory! You couldn’t produce a criticim of say, alchemy, like that because the whole thing is garbage. In contrast, christianity does seem to be pretty thoroughly worked out, and quite a lot of that work seems to have been done in the new testament.
    The problem I have with all this, is that the authors and the people who came after them, had to be quite clever (if misguided) and also pretty stupid at the same time. If the whole story is false, you’d have to be smart to get the meaning of the cross, and a fool to believe the resurrection. Is there a way out of this seeming reduction to absurdity? What is your best reading of the jesus phenomenon which takes account of these seemingly conflicting factors? I’d be interested to hear.

  6. mikhailovich says:

    Almost all of Jesus’ statements about godhood are from the Gospel of John, the latest and most philosophical of the four gospels. It’s also the most prone to metaphor, even “rearranging” (or misremembering) events such as the date of the Last Supper to make it more symbolically meaningful (lining it up with Passover). So there is a case to be made, as you indicated, that Jesus’ claims to be God’s son or “one with the father” in John are more figurative than literal–if they are to be accepted as Jesus’ literal words in the first place.

    Nevertheless, the way Jesus’ remarks were received in the Gospel of John indicates that their meaning was clear. For example, here is one of Jesus’ strongest statements about godhood, in John 14:7-10:

    “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
    Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
    Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”

    There are other passages like this one. According to the same gospel, Jesus’ contemporaries viewed statements like this as the equivalent of saying, “I am God.” Here’s John 10:31-33:

    Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
    “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

  7. Laura says:

    You are taking me way back with the CS Lewis quotes here! I remember reading Mere Christianity and really buying into the “liar, lunatic or lord” argument. I believe someone else also added “legend” to the list at some point – saying that perhaps Jesus didn’t exist as the Bible says.

    I’m curious – does the Bible specifically have an instance where Jesus says the words “I am God” ? I was always told he never said that outright, but danced around it and said he was “the son of God” – but no more or less than any other person could also be a “child of God” – you seem much more well versed in Bible passages than I ever was (boy, I was a bad Christian).

    I think religious folks use the False Dilemma argument to defend a lot of their positions, simply because they are ignorant of scientific progresses.

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