The trilemma argument says you must choose between believing Jesus was one of:
It would be doing Lewis an injustice to blame him for thinking up this appallingly dishonest argument all by himself because it was used at least as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century by preachers like Mark Hopkins, John Duncan, Reuben Archer Torrey and others, but his or not, C.S.Lewis found it to be a nice little earner, and got a BBC Radio series and a book, Mere Christianity, out of it.
It has been described as "The most important argument in Christian Apologetics" by other Christian apologists like Peter Kreeft. No! Seriously! I have certainly heard it delivered almost verbatim by some Anglican bishop or other on BBC Radio 4's Thought For Today; a religious interlude which is inserted for some unknown reason in an otherwise serious morning news programme. Nice work if you can get it.
Of course, all Lewis is doing here is producing an extended version of the false dichotomy fallacy. This fallacy is where the proponent of an otherwise unsupportable idea tries to present it as a choice between that and something completely absurd, or as the only reasonable choice. You see this used a lot when creationists attack science expecting you to believe that if science is wrong about something, the only alternative is to believe their favourite locally popular god must have been responsible. It only works if you fall for the idea that: a) science is wrong and; b) there is no other possible explanation, like a different scientific explanation, a different god, etc.
All the 'Trilemma' does is present a third option, a false trichotomy, in the hope that you won't think of a fourth, fifth or sixth, or more.
For example, there are at least two more which could (should?) be added:
- Made Up.
Reading the Bible, which is, after all, the primary (indeed, only) source of any information about Jesus, and which Lewis himself used as his source of information, and seeing the several confused and often contradictory accounts of his life and teaching in it, the most vicarious explanation is one of these two, not one of the three Lewis presents as the only choices. I have previously blogged about these muddles and contradictions here and here.
This is also borne out by biblical historians, few, if any, of whom would argue that: a) the Gospels were written by four different eye-witnesses to the accounts they describe; or b) that they were written contemporaneously with those events. There is very clearly development of a legend either based on a real figure or on one derived from several Jewish activists and teachers onto which the idea that he was a manifestation of the Jewish god Yahweh seems to have been grafted using old prophecies, mistranslated where necessary, to give it credence.
C.S.Lewis must have been aware of these possibilities yet chose to ignore them and present us with a narrow choice, the first two of which were almost unthinkable in those days - and indeed I know of no Atheist arguments that proposes that Jesus was mad and/or a liar.
In effect, Lewis was arguing that Jesus must be God or you must be stupid. Only stupid people don't agree with Clive Staples Lewis!
And this is a person who earned his living as a thinker!
It might seem surprising that a leading Oxford academic and famous author of children's fairy tales was using the tactics of a snake-oil salesman but, as we sat round our radios in wartime Britain it must have been reassuring to be told we had the right religion and that a renowned Oxford academic no less was telling us so and could prove it with these very clever arguments which only very clever people like him could understand properly.
Like domestic violence, incest, paedophilia, the sex-lives of the upper classes and the Emperor's new clothes, the possibility that an Oxford don and a Christian theologian might be pulling the wool over our eyes was not something decent people spoke about in deferential, class-ridden Britain. It would have been as unthinkable as, say, Lord Louis Mountbatten's wife having an affair with Nehru, Winston Churchill's mother having it off with King Edward VII and the German Foreign Secretary or Bob Boothby having to satisfy Harold MacMillan's wife because she wasn't man enough for him.