Pt. 3 C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.

Perhaps one of the most convincing arguments made by Bart Ehrman due to an emotional connection in recent Christian memory is the attempt to dispel the historicity of the gospels by challenging C.S. Lewis’ trilemma proposition on Jesus Christ. Ehrman writes, “I had come to see that very premise of Lewis’ argument was flawed. The argument based on Jesus as liar, lunatic, or Lord was predicated on the assumption that Jesus called himself God…I had come to realize that none of our early traditions indicates that Jesus said any such things about himself…not three options but four: liar, lunatic, Lord, or legend.”[1]

The problem with Ehrman’s assessment here is that it is wrong on more than one level; in fact, it is not very close to being a correct assessment on C.S. Lewis; furthermore, what the early traditions say themselves. One has to remember that C.S. was a professor of Medieval literature, so it is pretty bold to assume that C.S. Lewis did not know what a legend was when converting to the Christian faith. Lewis would have been very accustomed to legends, so the challenge of the trilemma argument is more or less taking Lewis’ proposition out of the context that Lewis intended for it.

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles writes on the development of Lewis the skeptic into Lewis the Christian and Lewis’ understanding of legend, “Although Lewis does not claim to be a specialist in New Testament criticism, he maintains that he is well qualified as a literary critic to distinguish between history, legend, and myth. The Gospels clearly belong to the genre of history. The skepticism of radical New Testament critics like Bultmann, he contends, has its roots in their philosophical commitments, not in the character of the texts.”[2]

Again, scholars cannot take Lewis’ argument in a vacuum; scholars have to ask: “Who is Lewis speaking to with this proposition? What was their world like? Etc.” The difficulty with skeptics is that they tend to generalize the biographical, which is essential when assessing Lewis’ point here; the problem is that it often leads to false comparisons with what people in the 21st century assume Lewis might have meant and what Lewis was actually trying to convey.

So, If people who have assented to the historicity of the Gospels, how are they to understand Lewis’ trilemma, and what is meant by proclaiming Jesus as Lord in history? Ramage explains, “The primary aim of the Gospels, then, is to proclaim Jesus,” “The Gospels are histories, to be sure, but they are interpreted histories that present us with the life of Jesus Christ through the lens of the early Church’s faith.”[3] The view is not unique to the gospels, and in fact, all history is viewed through a particular bias. The historian must understand that an event occurs; it is witnessed, then it synthesized by biases of the particular witness. The witness may record the event, but depending on the biases, the value of the truth that can be expressed depends on the witness’s ability to receive and then express the truth. As a result, many different witnesses may record various values of the truth depending on previous biases, opinions, upbringing, etc., which can affect their testimony.

Naturally, it is crucial also to examine how history is written—historiography. The writing on a particular topic tends to be ongoing development and refining of the narrative. For example, Ramage examines the Gospel of Mark within the understanding of the Synoptic tradition, writing that in regards to the infancy narratives that “our journey through the infancy narratives we encounter certain peculiarities which pose potential stumbling blocks for our quest to meet Jesus…The first of these consists in the simple fact that the birth of Jesus is found only in later Gospels.”[4] What is odd is that many modern biblical scholars will assume that these later additions of the infancy narrative were literary inventions created by Luke and Matthew to serve their theological purposes. Ramage explains, “the modern assumption that the infancy narratives were invented after the fact may be reasonable and even plausible, but it remains just that: an assumption.”[5]

The art of writing the modern biography begs the question of this assumption, doesn’t new biographies on the same topics often have new details written by the discovery of new information from research on a particular subject? The natural mode for historians writing a historical account is the development of the narrative, so I think the use of Ockham’s razor—is the simplest explanation, to be wise here, and accept this to be merely the norm. If modern history is written in this manner, then skeptics have to produce positive evidence why ancient histories are to be assumed fabricated with later editions rather than being accounts from different viewpoints and information.

[1] Ramage, 114.

[2]  Avery Dulles. 2005. “Mere Apologetics”. First Things.


[3] Ramage, 105.

[4] Ibid, 172-173.

[5] Ibid, 173.

2 thoughts on “Pt. 3 C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.

  1. Nicholas

    I would expect to find something like an infancy narrative in Luke given Luke claims to have spoken to eye witnesses. Indeed, he may have spoken to hostile eye witnesses (e.g. unrepentant Pharisees, unrepentant citizens of Nazareth, etc). If Luke interviewed Jesus’ family, they would be able to tell what they knew or had received (e.g. James may have related to Luke things that he received from Mary or Joseph). Received things are not direct eye witness testimony, however – they are hearsay. If Luke is being strict in his description, then he would have obtained this information from Mary most likely. He may well have met her during her sojourn in Ephesus.

    Mark would not necessarily contain infancy narratives given: (a) Peter may not have known much about Jesus’ early years – it would perhaps have been odd for Peter to have asked personal questions like that about Jesus and Peter and Jesus grew up in different towns; (b) Mark/Peter might have made an editorial/authorial decision to keep the Gospel focussed by omitting information they considered non-essential.


  2. Jock McSporran

    Phillip, Nicholas – if the post really is about C.S.Lewis’s trilemma, then I’d respectfully suggest that John’s gospel is the most relevant, where Jesus claims most directly to be the Son of God.

    If you guys then want to talk about reliability of accounts, etc … then I’d strongly recommend you both to read `Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ by Richard Baukham.

    I don’t have time to read many religious books. I read that one and it was well worth it.

    One thing about it is that he does point to all the things which make John’s gospel look like authentic eye-witness and he also debunks the garbage about eye-witness accounts being unreliable. He points out that if you are a third person witnessing something out of the corner of your eye that perhaps doesn’t have much to do with you – then witness statements taken along these lines can diverge, but if you are a disciple, Jesus is the person at the centre of everything you stand for at that time and the whole reason for your being, then your memory as a witness is likely to be razor sharp and reliable.

    I have made a rather bad lightning precis of one of his arguments – I strongly encourage you both to read it, because it is strongly relevant to the issues that you both tend to discuss.


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