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Lewis's Trilemma

Lewis's trilemma is an apologetic argument traditionally used to argue for the divinity of Jesus by arguing that the only alternatives were that he was evil or deluded. One version was popularised by University of Oxford literary scholar and writer C. S. Lewis in a BBC radio talk and in his writings. It is sometimes described as the "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord", or "Mad, Bad, or God" argument. It takes the form of a trilemma — a choice among three options, each of which is in some way difficult to accept. This argument is very popular with Christian apologists, although some theologians and biblical scholars do not view Jesus as having claimed to be God. Some argue that he identified himself as a divine agent, with a unique relationship to Israel's God. Others see him as wanting to direct attention to the divine kingdom he proclaimed.

trilemma divinity jesus

1. History

This argument was widely cited in various forms in the nineteenth century. It was used by the American preacher Mark Hopkins in his book Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1846), based on lectures delivered in 1844.[1] Another early use of this approach was by the Scots preacher "Rabbi" John Duncan (1796–1870), around 1859–60:[2]

Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.

Other preachers who used this approach included Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928)[3] and W. E. Biederwolf (1867–1939).[4] The writer G.K. Chesterton used something similar to the trilemma in his book, The Everlasting Man (1925),[5] which Lewis cited in 1962 as the second book that most influenced him.[6]

2. Lewis's Formulation

C. S. Lewis was an Oxford medieval Literature scholar, popular writer, Christian apologist, and former atheist. He used the argument outlined below in a series of BBC radio talks later published as the book 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. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.[7]

Lewis, who had spoken extensively on Christianity to Royal Air Force personnel, was aware many ordinary people did not believe Jesus was God, but saw him rather as "a 'great human teacher' who was deified by his supporters"; his argument is intended to overcome this.[8] It is based on a traditional assumption that, in his words and deeds, Jesus was asserting a claim to be God. For example, in Mere Christianity, Lewis refers to what he says are Jesus's claims:

  • to have authority to forgive sins — behaving as if he really was "the person chiefly offended in all offences."[9]
  • to have always existed, and
  • to intend to come back to judge the world at the end of time.[10]

Lewis implies that these amount to a claim to be God and argues that they logically exclude the possibility that Jesus was merely "a great moral teacher", because he believes no ordinary human making such claims could possibly be rationally or morally reliable. Elsewhere, he refers to this argument as "the aut Deus aut malus homo" ("either God or a bad man"),[11] a reference to an earlier version of the argument used by Henry Parry Liddon in his 1866 Bampton Lectures, in which Liddon argued for the divinity of Jesus based on a number of grounds, including the claims he believed Jesus made.[12]

3. Influence

The trilemma has continued to be used in Christian apologetics since Lewis, notably by writers like Josh McDowell. Peter Kreeft describes the trilemma as "the most important argument in Christian apologetics"[13] and it forms a major part of the first talk in the Alpha Course and the book based on it, Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel. Ronald Reagan also used this argument in 1978, in a written reply to a liberal Methodist minister who said that he did not believe Jesus was the son of God.[14] A variant has also been quoted by Bono.[15] The Lewis version was cited by Charles Colson as the basis of his conversion to Christianity.[16] Stephen Davis, a supporter of Lewis and of this argument,[17] argues that it can show belief in the Incarnation as rational.[18] Bruce M. Metzger argued that "It has often been pointed out that Jesus'[s] claim to be the only Son of God is either true or false. If it is false, he either knew the claim was false or he did not know that it was false. In the former case (2) he was a liar; in the latter case (3) he was a lunatic. No other conclusion beside these three is possible."[19] It has also been put forward by Catholic apologist Robert Barron.

4. Criticisms

Writing of the argument's "almost total absence from discussions about the status of Jesus by professional theologians and biblical scholars",[20] Davis comments that it "is often severely criticized, both by people who do and by people who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus".[21]

4.1. False Premises and Ambiguous Terms

A frequent criticism is that Lewis's trilemma depends on the veracity of the scriptural accounts of Jesus's statements and actions. This omits the possibility of those accounts instead being an invention of the early Christian movement, seeking to glorify Jesus.[22] The trilemma rests on the interpretation of New Testament authors' depiction of Jesus: a widespread objection is that the statements by Jesus recorded in the Gospels are being misinterpreted, and do not constitute claims to divinity.[23]

According to Bart D. Ehrman, "there could be a fourth option — legend".[24] According to Ehrman, it is historically inaccurate that Jesus called himself God, so Lewis's premise of accepting that very claim is problematic. N. T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar, has commented that Lewis's argument, based on a simplistic understanding of incarnation in Judaism, "doesn't work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels."[25]

In Honest to God, John A. T. Robinson, then Bishop of Woolwich, criticizes Lewis's approach, questioning the idea that Jesus intended to claim divinity: "It is, indeed, an open question whether Jesus claimed to be Son of God, let alone God".[26] However, Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, thought that Robinson's theology was weak, and that he had only a vague understanding of many of the issues. John Hick, writing in 1993, argued that this "once popular form of apologetic" was ruled out by changes in New Testament studies, citing "broad agreement" that scholars do not today support the view that Jesus claimed to be God, quoting as examples Michael Ramsey (1980), C. F. D. Moule (1977), James Dunn (1980), Brian Hebblethwaite (1985) and David Brown (1985).[27] Larry Hurtado, who argues that the followers of Jesus within a very short period developed an exceedingly high level of devotional reverence to Jesus,[28] at the same time rejects the view that Jesus made a claim to messiahship or divinity to his disciples during his life as "naive and ahistorical".[29] According to Gerd Lüdemann, the broad consensus among modern New Testament scholars is that the proclamation of the divinity of Jesus was a development within the earliest Christian communities.[30] N. T. Wright says the trilemma argument lacks historical context, oversimplifying first-century Judaism's understanding of the nature of God's dealings with his people.[25] Wright points out that arguments over the claims of Jesus regarding divinity have been passed over by more recent scholarship, which sees a more complex understanding of the idea of God in first century Judaism.[31] But, Andrew Loke argues that if Jesus did not claim and show himself to be truly divine and rise from the dead, the earliest Christian leaders who were devout ancient monotheistic Jews would have regarded Jesus as merely a teacher or a prophet, but not as truly divine, which they did. [32]

4.2. Unsound Logical Form

Another criticism raised is that Lewis is creating a false trilemma by insisting that only three options are possible.[33] Philosopher John Beversluis comments that "he deprives his readers of numerous alternate interpretations of Jesus that carry with them no such odious implications".[34] For example, it is logically possible for Jesus's claims (if any) as to his divinity to have been merely good-faith mistakes resulting from his sincere efforts at reasoning, as well as for Jesus to have been deluded with respect to the specific issue of his divinity vel non while his faculties of moral reasoning remained intact. Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig cites this as a reason why he believes it is an unsound argument for Christianity.[35]

4.3. Responses

Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, SJ, both professors of philosophy at Boston College, have also expanded the argument into a tetralemma ("Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Legend") — or a pentalemma, accommodating the option that Jesus was a guru, who believed himself to be God in the sense that everything is divine.[36]

The atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, argues that Lewis's contention is right but offers a different interpretation: in contrast to Christian moralists like Thomas Jefferson and Ernest Renan, he writes, "I am bound to say that Lewis is more honest here. Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it 'moral' [...] to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a fanatic."[37]


  1. Mark Hopkins, Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1846), Lecture VIII: "either ... those claims were well-founded, or of a hopeless insanity. ... No impostor of common sense could have had the folly to prefer such claims."
  2. William Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica, 1870, page 109: Knight explains that the conversations quoted took place during the summers of 1859 and 1860.
  3. Undated sermon by R. A. Torrey, Billy Graham archives; see also Deity of Jesus Christ, by R. A. Torrey, 1918
  4. W. E. Biederwolf, "Yes, He Arose", in Great Preaching on the Resurrection: Seventeen Messages, ed. Curtis Hutson, Sword of the Lord Publishers (1984), page 29.
  5. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith (1993). The Everlasting Man. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. pp. 196–198. 
  6. Zaleski, Carol. "C. S. Lewis's Aeneid". Christian Century. Retrieved 27 September 2014. 
  7. Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56. (In all editions, this is Bk. II, Ch. 3, "The Shocking Alternative.")
  8. Lewis, C. S., God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 2014), pages 100–101.
  9. Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, Simon & Schuster. p. 55.
  10. Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, p. 51.
  11. Lewis, C. S., God in the Dock: Essays on theology and ethics, 1945, Eerdmans, p. 101; letter to Owen Barfield, c. August 1939, printed in Walter Hooper (ed.), The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2, Harper Collins (2004), page 269
  12. Henry Parry Liddon, The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Lecture IV (London, 1867): Liddon's version was 'Christus si non Deus non bonus'. According to Charles Gore, (The Incarnation of the Son of God, 1890), Liddon could not recall the source of the epigram, but Gore thought the argument went back to Victorinus Afer. (Appendices, page 238)
  13. Kreeft, Peter (1988). Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics, p. 59. San Francisco, Ignatius Press. ISBN:0-89870-202-X. Chapter excerpted online, accessed 13 April 2007.
  14. Helene von Damm, ed., Sincerely, Ronald Reagan (New York: Berkley, 1980), 90
  15. Michka Assayas, Bono in Conversation, (Riverhead Hardcover, 2005) page 205.
  16. Jonathan Aitken, Charles Colson, (Continuum International, 2005), pages 210–211.
  17. Davis, Stephen T. (2006), "Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?", Christian Philosophical Theology, Oxford University Press, Abstract, ch. 9, pp. 149f. "In this chapter, C. S. Lewis'[s] famous trilemma argument in favour of the divinity of Christ (Jesus was either mad, bad, or God) is developed, and a version of it is defended."
  18. Davis (2006), "I [...] claim that the MBG argument, properly understood, can establish the rationality of belief in the incarnation of Jesus." (p. 150)
  19. Bruce M Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, (Abingdon, 1964, rev. 2003), p. 157. ISBN:978-0-227-17025-0
  20. Davis (2006), page 151
  21. Davis (2006), page 150
  22. Blomberg, Craig L. (1987). The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Intervarsity Press), page xx. "The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is regularly denied, namely, that the gospels give entirely accurate accounts of the actions and claims of Jesus ... This option represents the most common current explanation of the more spectacular deeds and extravagant claims of Jesus in the gospels."
  23. Davis (2006), page 150.
  24. Tucker, Neely. "The Book of Bart", Washington Post. 5 March 2006.
  25. Wright, N. T. (March 2007). "Simply Lewis: Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years". Touchstone Magazine 20 (2). Retrieved 2009-02-11.  "What Lewis totally failed to see — as have, of course, many scholars in the field — was that Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament — the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology — was a language designed, long before Jesus'[s] day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel. Lewis, at best, drastically short-circuits the argument. When Jesus says, 'Your sins are forgiven,' he is not claiming straightforwardly to be God, but to give people, out on the street, what they would normally get by going to the Temple."
  26. Robinson, John A. T., Honest to God, 1963, page 72.
  27. Hick, John, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, page 27. "A further point of broad agreement among New Testament scholars ... is that the historical Jesus did not make the claim to deity that later Christian thought was to make for him: he did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate. ... such evidence as there is has led the historians of the period to conclude, with an impressive degree of unanimity, that Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate."
  28. Hurtado, Larry W. (2005). How on earth did Jesus become a god?: historical questions about earliest devotion to Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 4–6. ISBN 0-8028-2861-2. 
  29. Hurtado, Larry W. (2005). Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 5. ISBN 0-8028-3167-2. 
  30. Gerd Lüdemann, "An Embarrassing Misrepresentation", Free Inquiry, October / November 2007. "the broad consensus of modern New Testament scholars that the proclamation of Jesus's exalted nature was in large measure the creation of the earliest Christian communities."
  31. Wright, N. T. (1999). The challenge of Jesus : rediscovering who Jesus was and is. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. p. 98. ISBN 0-8308-2200-3. 
  32. Andrew Ter Ern Loke, The Origin of Divine Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp.100-135
  33. Lord, Liar, or Lunatic: C. S. Lewis – Jesus Trilemma, About Atheism,, retrieved May 5, 2014 
  34. Beversluis, John, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 56.
  35. Craig, William Lane, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Crossway Books (1994) pages 38–39.
  36. Kreeft, Peter and Tacelli, Ronald, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Madison, 1994), 161–174.
  37. Hitchens, Christopher (9 July 2010). "In the Name of the Father, the Sons...". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 February 2015. 
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