There is a magnetism about Jesus Christ. Even those who deny his divinity—deny the thing that Christians claim makes him important and influential in the first place—seem to seek any reason to be able to recognize him as important or influential, stopping short of acknowledging his divinity. People seem reluctant to abandon him or throw him by the wayside. They try to downplay his importance, but they know he is important. So they must find some other reason to admire him. We’ve all heard it many times before: Jesus was just a great moral teacher, someone who told us all to be nice to each other, and we can all learn from his example of niceness.
There are many people around the world who profess no religious belief in Jesus. “He was a great moral teacher,” they say, or “We can follow his example of togetherness and acceptance of everyone.” But they strenuously deny that he was God—in other words, they deny that he was what he claimed to be.
The problem is, if you deny his divinity, you run into a pretty thorny problem. This is a man who clearly claimed divinity for himself (see Luke 22:69; John 10:30, 10:38, 14:7-10). This is a man who, when faced with torture and execution, doubled down and assured his inquisitors that yes, in fact, he is the Son of God (see. Luke 22:70). Is it possible to deny this claim and still admire the man? If he is not God, is it possible to still look up to someone who claims such a thing for himself?
When it comes down to it, there are only three options: 1) he was who he said he was; 2) he was out of his mind; 3) he was knowingly lying. This argument has been made before, most famously by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, and has been called the trilemma. How are we to interpret Jesus’ claims to be divine, and what implications does that have?
Logically considered, there are a finite number of possibilities, all of which are mutually exclusive and one of which must be true. What Lewis’s trilemma does is work through the possibilities and make a case for which one makes the most sense to believe.
The trilemma is not really an airtight argument for the divinity of Jesus. It does not demonstrate the truth of this claim by appealing to any authority, or by logically and systematically laying out the reasons for believing Jesus was God. It is more like an argument in favor of believing the divinity of Jesus. Pascal’s Wager comes to mind: while not a proof for the existence of God, it is a demonstration of the reasonableness of such faith. Lewis’s trilemma is a sort of deductive demonstration: there are three options, two of which do not make sense, so the correct answer must be the third. The question is: is he Lord, lunatic, or liar?
While this is typically called the trilemma, some have presented a fourth option: legend. Here we consider the possibility that the Bible is not historically reliable, so we cannot know for sure that Jesus (if he really even existed) ever actually claimed to be God, so the accounts would be simply legendary. This option is usually not included in the conversation, as it sort of defeats the purpose and undermines the question. We could easily end any historical conversation by saying, “Perhaps the matter in question never happened.” Think about it: one could ask whether or not the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally justifiable and be shut down by someone saying, “It never happened, so the question is irrelevant.” This contributes nothing to the conversation. As for Jesus’ historical existence, the evidence is far too great to deny it. We must accept the fact that he claimed to be God and approach the question from there.
No one can lay out the argument as well as Lewis himself, so here is the pertinent excerpt 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 argument was also put forward in a somewhat different context by St. Thomas Aquinas more than seven hundred years before Lewis. In Lectura super Ioannem, in the prologue to the commentary on the Gospel of John, Aquinas says John’s reason for writing his Gospel was that, “after the other Evangelists had written their Gospels, heresies had arisen concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was purely and simply a man, as Ebion and Cerinthus falsely taught. And so John the Evangelist, who had drawn the truth about the divinity of the Word from the very fountainhead of the divine breast, wrote this Gospel at the request of the faithful. And in it he gives us the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and refutes all heresies.”
So is the speaker a lunatic? Is he deranged, without a grip on reality? If that’s the case, no one should be taking lessons on ethics (or anything else, for that matter) from this person. Someone without a firm grasp of reality should not be looked up to for any kind of advice and could not be considered a great moral teacher.
So is the speaker a liar? And if so, does it matter? Can’t we still trust that his moral teachings are sound? Frankly, no. Someone who would intentionally lie about being God is not someone who should be trusted to give ethical advice and guidance. This person would be a narcissist in the most technical, clinical sense; a selfish, self-serving individual, lacking in compassion. Not exactly the resume of a great ethical teacher.
It would seem that third remaining option must be true: Jesus is Lord.