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. Lewis‘ Mere 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.