A few scattered thoughts on a popular and alluringly aliterative argument regarding this supposed “Trilemma”. Jesus – you know the one, long hair, Jewish chap, bit of a hippie, died tragically young in a freak woodworking accident1 – claimed, in the Bible (Mark 14:62), that he was God, albeit neither as often nor as unequivocally as other people claimed it for him (Matthew 26:63-64, Luke 22:70). But if he did make the claim, then there are three basic ways to take it.
One is that he was a no-good rotten liar. He ain’t no omnipotent deity, and his daddy ain’t no omnipotent deity, and he knows he ain’t all that. Much like the far more interesting Zaphod Beeblebrox, Jesus was just this guy, you know? There were some prophecies, someone got the wrong idea, this mythos started to grow up around him, and he ran with it because he guessed he could get a pretty sweet book deal out of it. Basically, imagine Brian as a cynical, manipulative bastard who’s up to no good. Sounds like the sort of thing which could possibly have happened to someone a couple of thousand years ago.
Or maybe he was a nutter. Perhaps someone did set the ball rolling by misinterpreting an ancient prophecy, but rather than consciously attempting to work the idea to his own personal gain, Jesus was a paranoid schizophrenic who incorporated it into his delusions, and started to believe that his mum really was a virgin, and he could get sloshed on a couple of bottles of spring-water. If this is the case, then he’s had phenomenal success in drawing other people into his fantasy. Certainly far more than any of the people in the hospital I work at who also claim to be Jesus (yes, there really are a few). But, in more credulous times, it’s by no means completely out of the question.
And, of course, we mustn’t neglect the possibility that he really was the Christ, the Messiah, the One who is Anointed, the Lamb of God, the King of the Jews, the King of Kings, the Emmanuel, the Son of Man, the Good Shepherd, the Top Dog, the Big Cheese, the Head Honcho, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Magical Mr Mistoffelees, and the Fantastic Mr Fox. Just like it says in the Bible.
Once these three options are established, the argument goes, since there is nothing to suggest that the Jesus of the Bible was either a compulsive liar or a certifiable wack-job, it seems likely that he really was who he said he was. It’s often referred to as Lewis’s Trilemma, for the novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. He popularised the argument, and represented it in his still rather wonderful Chronicles of Narnia series. From my own copy of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe:
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
He’s talking about Lucy, the youngest of the four protagonist siblings of the book. Lucy has been telling her brothers and sister about how she’s discovered a passage to the magical world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe, and spent many hours there, even though only a few seconds seemed to pass in this world while she was away. The other three then went to investigate the wardrobe with Lucy, and found nothing but some fur coats and wood panelling, and a noticeable dearth of fauns. They express their concern about their sister’s bizarre behaviour to the Professor, who gives them the above speech about always believing crazy stories that people tell you who’ve shown no previous symptoms of mental instability.
If this is all still seeming reasonable to you so far, let’s recap some of the main points in exciting, dynamic, bullet-point form:
- An eight-year-old girl says she’s found a mysterious land of witches and magic and many traditional fantasy elements, while playing a game with her siblings to while away a boring afternoon. This claim defies many well-understood physical laws, and would undermine a staggering amount of modern scientific understanding of the Universe if it turned out to be true.
- An empirical test is performed to examine this falsifiable hypothesis, ie. they go to the wardrobe and see if there’s a Narnia inside it. Her hypothesis falls at the first hurdle, when its most obvious and fundamental prediction fails to match up with the observations made.
- An alternative hypothesis – that the eight-year-old girl in question is incorrect in her assertion, and is thus either lying (if she believes what she says) or seriously disconnected from reality (if she doesn’t) – is abandoned in the face of the dogmatically maintained assumptions that “she doesn’t tell lies” and “it is obvious that she is not mad”. These two assumptions are given barely even a cursory questioning.
- It is assumed, immutably, that the girl claiming to have found a snow-covered world inside the furniture and had an extravagant tea with a half-man half-goat, and who apparently thinks that this all really actually happened, for realz, is obviously not mad. Or a liar. There’s never been any evidence before that she has any propensity to make up stories, so that’s totally implausible, and therefore there must really be a lamp-post, and magical Turkish Delight, and a Jesus-allegory lion, and Tilda Swinton with weird straggly hair, all hidden in the wardrobe, even though they went and checked earlier and there clearly wasn’t. It’s basic logic.
- What is wrong with you people, get a fucking straitjacket and have that crazy bitch committed.
Seriously. Seriously. I know that in the context of the books Narnia actually does exist, and it’s been such a popular story for so long that it’s easy to forget just how outlandish a claim is actually being made. But imagine someone you know and trust, in the real world, telling you with solemn earnestness that they discovered a magic doorway to the planet Zarquon in the airing cupboard, and that they went there and played backgammon with a hippogriff called Oswald. The only questions here are how quickly to back away, and how much reassuring nodding to do to make sure you don’t upset the crazy person.
Yes, for someone usually reliable and seemingly sane to start acting so bizarrely without reasonable justification would be very unusual, and could lead you to seek an alternative explanation. But you know what’d be even more unusual? Finding Narnia in a fucking wardrobe. We’ve all seen people tell lies, make mistakes, suffer delusions, and otherwise get things wrong and act batshit insane. We haven’t, while in a legal state of mind, seen Narnia in a fucking wardrobe.
You know, I’ve not been making the most of my ability to say this, so I’ll say it here: I work in a mental hospital, and this is the craziest fucking thing I’ve heard all week.
To return to the original point, Lewis did see this logic as directly transferable to the case of Jesus.
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.2
There’s that word “obvious” again, being applied this time to the sanity and credibility of a man claiming to be the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of everything. Why, for the love of Xenu, why is the one truly outlandish, unlikely, fantastically improbable conclusion apparently the one deemed most acceptable after ruling out the others?
Surely it would be far more natural to reason along the lines of: “Well, we know your sister isn’t a compulsive liar, but we also know that wardrobes don’t lead to fucking Narnia, therefore for the moment and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is out of her tiny mind.” Or the Jesus-y equivalent.
The idea that we are faced with these three options does nothing to help the Christian case. If anything, having available the more plausible choices of liar and lunatic, which both would resolve the matter quite neatly, only raises the bar for how much evidence of actual divinity we should demand before we pick the Lord option.
Of course, the Trilemma doesn’t even take into account the other likely possibilities that Jesus’s grandiose claims were wrongly attributed to him by historians of the time, or mistranslated at some point of the story’s being passed down through the ages. But I’ve wittered enough for one entry, so any sarcastic wisecracks about that will have to wait till another day.