Against C.S. Lewis' 'Trilemma' Gimmick

Most who have at least a passing interest in religious matters have encountered some version of C.S. Lewis' famous 'trilemma,' a staple of contemporary apologetics:

"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."

This is a gimmicky, shallow parlor trick, and it is totally dependent on ignorance of the Bible, especially the Jewish Torah and the Gospels:

Firstly, Lewis' premise is wrong; Jesus does not claim to be God, and does not ask of people to call him God. Jesus never once calls himself God. Jesus commonly refers to other people calling him God, yes -- such as in Matthew 8:21-22: "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?" But in every instance, the claim is put into the mouths of others. There is no exception. There are people who call him God, he acknowledges, yes -- but Jesus prefers not to define himself at all, even (especially?) before Pilate. Whenever someone calls him God, he replies, somewhat cryptically, only that others say that of him. John 8:58 is the closest Jesus comes to identifying himself as God, but even this statement is ambiguous: "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am." He believed God manifested with him. But he believed God potentially manifested in all of us:  "The kingdom of heaven is within you."

Surely Jesus was convinced of the absolute moral superiority of his teachings; he claimed that there was no way to Heaven except through him. But he also claims, as we have seen above, that going 'through him' means following the will of his Father in Heaven. He clearly believed that it was his overriding mission on Earth to restore the righteousness of the House of Israel. Matthew 10:5 indicates that he was an explicitly Jewish teacher whose overriding concern was the fate of his own people: "These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: 'Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 'Follow me, my fellow Jews, or perish' is at least as plausible an interpretation of this statement (ie; one that is commensurate with the substance of the Gospels as a whole) as is the notion, which seems to first be pushed by Paul, that Jesus was in fact offering salvation to all of Mankind through Faith. But there is very little in the Gospels to support this notion other than a passage at the end of Matthew, which feels so out of place that one is tempted to think it was added later for political purposes. Thomas Jefferson claimed that Paul was the first corrupter of the teachings of Jesus by institutionalizing and universalizing them, and wrapping them up in mythology. This does not mean that Jesus' words are not greatly useful to us as spiritual guidance. But we should ask ourselves whether Nietzsche was right that there was only one Christian, and that he died on a cross.

Crucially, the ancient Jews commonly understood themselves to be 'sons of God.' We must try to understand Jesus as he understood himself and not retroactively impose the categories of 2,000 years of Christendom onto him. Genesis 6:2 and 6:4 refer to the "sons of God" descended from Adam. Exodus 4:22 that the House of Israel itself is God's son: "Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn." Deuteronomy 14:1 states of the Jews: "Ye are the children of the Lord your God." We see, then, that this language was hardly unfamiliar to the Jews of Jesus' time, and was certainly not foreign to Jesus himself; we have seen above that Jesus identified himself strongly with the House of Israel and with God the Father. Is it really so implausible that Jesus felt himself to be the most awakened of Jews, a special son of God, one who manifests the Father within himself and who could show others -- first, the Jews -- the way, the truth, and the light?

Again, Jesus' lack of divinity and his status as a distinctively Jewish teacher in no way diminishes his status as a great spiritual thinker. But it is precisely this option Lewis wishes to deny us. He does this because he personally cannot conceive of a way in which a 'human, all-too-human' Jesus could have said the things he said without being insane or lacking in integrity. Since Lewis does not perceive these traits in Jesus, he concludes that, if Jesus is not either of those things, then he must, by process of elimination, be the Savior of Mankind. But it is Lewis' limited imagination that insists on these limited options, not Jesus. We have seen that for Jesus, God is the savior, God manifests in all of us, and our souls might enter Heaven after death if we walk the moral tightrope to share in God's divinity. He saw this at the time as a specifically Jewish pursuit; the God of Abraham was not the god of other tribes or factions -- yet -- and it would make little sense to preach this message to Gentiles during his lifetime. And it is this specifically Jewish sense of spirituality that led him to identify as a 'son of God.'

What we are left with, then, is a distinctively Jewish spiritual guru who speaks in parables, possesses a sense of irony, has a keen political sensibility, and can have said everything he said without being a liar or a lunatic. Lewis' typically Protestant -- and painfully shallow -- attachment to the exoteric doctrines of the Bible are what lead him astray. All he sees in other great spiritual-moral traditions (e.g., the Daodejing, Platonism) are precursors or echoes of the Bible, as we see in the appendix of Abolition of Man. His unwillingness to take those traditions seriously constrict his perspective and leave him with nothing but parlor tricks. If God is just, we will see far less of the 'trilemma' in the future.

Alex Knepper