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C. S. Lewis’ Trilemma

C. S. Lewis’ trilemma is really easy to refute, since it rests on quite a few unfounded premises. The simplest refutation of Lewis’ trilemma is “It’s still possible that Jesus could have been crazy and/or a liar and still had a few good moral teachings. I don’t see how those are mutually exclusive. He could have been a mostly good guy who was a little nuts, or could have believed that lying to get people to accept his moral teachings was a noble lie.” For some reason, Lewis thinks in black and white – either he was a great moral teacher AND god, or he was a liar/madman or a demon. Since Jesus being a moral teacher is “not one of the options”, that only leaves God, demon, or madman. Since people like the character of Jesus they don’t want to concede that he’s a madman or a demon, so the only option left, according to Lewis’ false trilemma, is the God of the Jews. Of course, there are two other options – Jesus was mistaken, or Jesus was a legend. Jesus could have been all too human and simply mistaken, or Jesus could have had words put in his mouth by his non-Jewish followers decades later. My conclusion is the latter:

From Mere Christianity 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.

I agree with this part of his argument. Except that since the [Christian] Satan doesn’t exist (which is a different being than the Jewish Satan), that part falls flat. We live in the darkness of a demon-haunted world, creeping with trepidation and fear at the shadowy images just outside of our peripheral vision. They seem to mirror our movements; they rise when we rise and are right at our side when we fall… looking right at us, never once extending a helping hand. However, when certain people light the candle of reason, we see that there were no demons at all – merely a mirror. Our own reflection. They are ourselves. Those “demons” were just us looking back into ourselves via silhouettes floating in the mirror in the dimly lit room of our superstitions.

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.

“God” seems to have done the same for chimps. Chimps have been known to drown themselves trying to rescue fellow chimps in a moat, or starve themselves when they realize that when they press a button to get food, they shock a fellow chimp. What’s going on here? Chimps, just like ourselves, are social creatures. Social creatures can only survive if they work in unison – which can only work if you have some inclination of how your fellow [being] feels. We call this “feeling” empathy; and empathy is godless.

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.

Somewhat true, but:

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.

For some reason, Lewis fails to account for the Jews and their constant struggles against idolatry – one of the most idolatrous crimes was a human being declaring themselves to be a god. Jews have absolutely no tradition of worshipping any of their kings or high priests as a god, let alone YHWH himself. This concept is completely foreign to Jews. All throughout Jewish history, YHWH has come down to Earth to interact with his chosen people directly. This is in direct opposition to Lewis’ later claim of Jesus being YHWH himself, and YHWH all of the sudden needing a mediator to interact with his chosen people – any Jew who claimed that he was YHWH in the flesh would be desecrating the monotheism of the Shema, which incited Jews to rebellion in other historical contexts that Lewis seems to be ignorant of: the Maccabean Revolt of 164 BCE, the Jewish-Roman war of 70 CE, and the Bar-Kockba Revolt of 132 CE.

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.

This depends on which “Jesus” you’re talking about. The Jesus in Mark (the first gospel written) most certainly never claimed he always existed, and is ultimately unsatisfied with Peter. He is basically a nobody until the holy spirit possesses him, adopts him as his son, and forces him into the wilderness. Mark’s Jesus is subtly Gnostic; only demons and unnamed people recognize Jesus as the Savior and exonerator of sin. Jesus’ disciples and the Jews are completely clueless. Any time Jesus does a miracle on one of these unnamed, he asks the recipient to not tell anyone, yet they do the opposite. Mark’s story is filled with lovely Greek irony – only the reader, demons, and unnamed people recognize Jesus as the Christ. At the end of Mark’s gospel, the clueless women (who he names) come to anoint the dead body, but are told by the anonymous young man that Jesus has risen. No longer should Jesus’ status as salvation be kept a secret, but proclaimed from the mountaintops. The named women of course do the opposite – just like everyone else in this gospel. They don’t recognize Jesus as the Christ, they run away scared and don’t tell anyone – and this is how Mark’s gospel ends which is how it is in history. No one knew that Jesus was the messiah, except the lucky initiate who is blessed with esoteric knowledge. Subtle Gnosticism, which is/was the beauty of the original ending. Of course, depending on which Bible you read, “Mark” then has Jesus appear to Mary Magdelene and drives several demons from her, but everything after 16:8 is unoriginal to Mark.

This Jesus is different from the Jesus in Matthew, who seems to like Peter and is the literal son of God. The Jesus in Matthew/Luke, as opposed to Mark, actually teaches some moral values (the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse). In another respect, the Jesus of Mark never once claimed that he was coming back to “judge the world”; that sentiment is more Pauline than any of the Synoptics. The Jesus in Thomas never declares himself to have any special relationship with YHWH; as a matter of fact, he says that if you “drink the same cup that [he] drinks, you can become like [him]”. If the Jesus of Thomas thought he was god, imagine how much more radical it would be for god to say that you too could become god?

Of course, Lewis seems to only have the Jesus of John in mind when he writes this premise. He doesn’t seem to understand the history of early Christianity. There were many “types” of Jesus’, all believed by the many different Christian sects. The Ebionite Jesus differed from the Valentinian Jesus. The Valentinian Jesus differed from the Basilidean Jesus. The Basilidean Jesus differed from the Marcionite Jesus. The Marcionite Jesus differed from the proto-Catholic Jesus. The Arian Jesus differed from the Athanasean Jesus. John was originally the choice gospel of the Gnostics which was reappropriated by the [non-Jewish] writer of the Johannine epistles sometime in the early 2nd century. It suffices it to say that if Jesus was a Jew, there’s no way he would have said anything remotely like what the Logos of John said. The Jesus (the Logos) of John is unattractively arrogant and likes to speak in longwinded speeches like the philosophers of the day. Simply philosophizing about his awesomeness and never giving any moral lessons. This is markedly different than the Jesus in the Synoptics, who is trying to teach his Jewish followers how to improve the world for the coming kingdom with short parables. Not once does the Jesus of John speak in parables and he only once mentions the “Kingdom of God” – hence the deliniation in scholarship between the Synoptic Gospels and the gospel of John, which stands alone as an aberration.

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.

True.

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.

Again, which Jesus? The Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas never claimed to be YHWH. This only happens in John. Not only does John’s Jesus claim that he and the father are one, but he’s also said to be the “Logos” of Stoicism in the opening hymn. John’s Jesus is as Jewish as a bacon-burger.

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.

Not quite. We have two months out of the year that were named after people deified. July and August. Caligula attempted to have himself deified and a statue of himself set up in the Jewish Temple around 40 CE but was eventually assassinated. If he had carried through with that act, the Jews would have went to war with Rome immediately, instead of waiting 30 years.

9.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.

This, again, is ignorant of Jewish history. All Cohenim Gadol (High Priests) can forgive sins. That is their primary role in 2nd temple Judaism. Ironically, all High Priests are “Christs” in that they are anointed with oil once taking office. The anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews knew this, and presents Jesus as a heavenly Christ who forgives sins in heaven. This is strangely analogous to the Jewish philosopher Philo’s “Logos”, who he reappropriated from the Greek Stoics and added some Jewish flavor. Philo’s Logos (Word) was a second power in heaven who stood on the confines between the Father and humanity, being both uncreated like the Father and suffering like man. Philo’s Word was a paraclete, taking in the sins of mankind and negotiating in favor of humanity just like epistle to the Hebrews’ Christ. Of course, Philo was born 20 years before Jesus, and was teaching his Logos/Word as a divine paraclete and “second power” in heaven while Jesus was a pre-teen.

How odd it is that Philo never once writes a word about his contemporary Jesus – who was supposed to be the living embodiment of his Logos, yet writes quite disparagingly of his other contemporary Pilate.

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.

Of course, this assumes that Jesus actually said this! Considering that the documents that describe these scenes were written in third person already throws some doubt into the “eyewitness” claim. The fact that the vast majority of New Testament scholarship conclude that the gospel narratives were written by anonymous Christians far removed from their Judaean/Galilean context means that the depth of Lewis’ argument here becomes incredibly shallow.

No, what the authors of the gospel narratives wanted to do was demonstrate, just like the author of Hebrews, that a Jesus was a new “High Priest” in town, giving people hope that their sins could still be forgiven after the official office of the High Priesthood, the Sacrificial System, and the 2nd Temple had been destroyed in 70 CE – evidencing the near scholarly consensus that these stories were written in a post-2nd Temple (70 CE) era.

11. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.

Considering actual New Testament and 2nd Temple Judaism scholarship on the issue, it really makes no sense at all.

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.

Just about every king in the pagan world was deified after death. Having a story where a Jew starts making the same claim as other pagans must mean that this story was written by non-Jewish pagans. And of course like I wrote earlier, High Priests absolved sin via the Sacrificial System. Lewis’ claim of being unrivaled is emphatically over-stated.

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.

I agree. Humility and meekness are not any of Jesus’ traits in the gospel narratives… but who knows what Jesus really said and did? I have to wonder who these “enemies” who read the gospel narratives are though. Maybe the author of the Toledot Yeshu? But there are quite a few people who read the gospel narratives and find silliness. I have yet to meet someone who read the gospel narratives and then was convinced it was true. Either people who are ambivalent or agnostic to Christianity read them and blow them off, or Christians who want to confirm what they already believe read them and find them to be earth-shattering genius.

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. 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.

I really don’t see how this follows. Of course Jesus said some things that are morally upright, yet he also said quite a few things that are morally repugnant. Off the top of my head, calling a “Syro-Phonecian” woman a dog (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30) and his rant against the caricature of the Pharisees in Matthew and Luke. Though I highly doubt Jesus’ rage against the Perushim was historical, since the Pharisees weren’t the Jews in power during the tenure of Pilate. The Sadducees were actually the legalistic Jews who were also the ruling class of 2nd Temple Judaism since the time of the Maccabean Revolt. The Pharisees were actually more interested in practical application of the Law unlike the Sadducees; the Sadducees (much like the modern Karaite Jews) rejected the Oral Law that the Pharisees said expounded on the written Law and made it less restrictive. The Pharisees started gaining clout in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, since the Temple was the power base of the Sadducees; meaning that Jesus’ ranting against the “legalistic” Pharisees is an anachronism of a writer describing post 70 CE conflicts in 33 CE.

15. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.

What’s wrong with being human? We all say some things that are cogent, but also say things that are offensive. The claim of being “god” dishearteningly common.

15. 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.

The author of the gospel of John most certainly didn’t leave that option open. However, there’s no reason to think that there’s any history in that gospel. Lewis’ argument can only function on the absolute historicity of that gospel. Ironically, Jesus doesn’t give any great moral lessons in that gospel; that only happens in the Synoptics. The biggest mistake is assuming the καθολικος catholicos (wholeness) of the four gospels.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2009 in c. s. lewis, gospel of john, logos, mere christianity, trilemma

 
 
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