More than half a century ago, christian apologist CS Lewis presented a simple argument for belief in the divinity of Jesus. The argument wasn’t original to him, but it went like this. We cannot think of Jesus as merely a good moral teacher for good moral teachers don’t claim to be the son of God. Either he was a fraud, or he was deranged, or he spoke the truth. And who would want to say he was a liar of deranged? Those fond of alliteration soon labelled the argument “Liar, Lunatic or Lord?”
It was a convincing argument at the time, but is commonly disdained these days. What is the basis for the negativity? And can the argument be resurrected, or not?
Things have changed
A lot has changed since CS Lewis used the argument, and some of this makes it less effective.
Son of God?
CS Lewis’ argument is based on the belief that Jesus claimed to be divine, but these days historians and knowledgable critics are not so sure.
Those of us who grew up in christianised cultures are so used to thinking of “Father, Son and Spirit” that we take it for granted that “son of God” means divinity, the second person of the Trinity. But the term didn’t start out that way.
In Jewish thought, a good person, perhaps the king, might be described as a son of God, without any claim to divinity. The Messiah, God’s anointed king-like deliverer who faithful Jews were waiting to come and “make Israel great again”, may well have been considered to be a son of God. So, some say, Jesus never claimed any more than to be the Messiah, a human being anointed by God.
But many of Jesus’ sayings gave hints of a closer relationship with God as his father than any Jew would claim, and he made claims to exercise God’s authority in ways that no man could claim (see Jesus – son of God?). We can see why the early church, almost from day 1, worshiped Jesus as divine.
So it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus saw himself as divine and gave hints to that effect, which along with his resurrection, led his followers to believe he was indeed the unique Son of God. However critics of the argument will likely not accept that conclusion, and certainly not without a review of the historical evidence.
Good moral teacher?
The argument is based on the idea, common in CS Lewis’ day, that Jesus may not have been divine, but he was a good moral teacher. There would be many who would still think this today, but, again, historians and knowledgable critics sometimes have other views.
It would be fairly common in historical scholarship today to see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. By this they would mean that Jesus acted and taught within the long tradition of Jewish prophets, and warned Israel that unless they were more faithful to God, calamity would come. They don’t generally mean by this that Jesus actually spoke messages from God, but rather that he thought that was his role.
Many historians would hold that Jesus was a failed prophet, because while Israel’s world did indeed end 40 years after Jesus lived, they say the kingdom of God didn’t eventuate as he predicted. Hence my use of the term “loser” (to keep the alliteration going).
I see no reason why we shouldn’t accept the description of Jesus as an apocalyptic or Messianic prophet – it is, probably, the way many of his contemporaries saw him. But it need not imply that he wasn’t a true prophet from God, and it doesn’t preclude him being Messiah and Son also. And if we understand the kingdom of God as something subtle and within us, as Jesus said, then we can regard his prophecies as having been fulfilled.
But whichever view we hold, the idea that Jesus is best described as “just” a good moral teacher is probably no longer credible.
The CS Lewis argument also assumes that we can know a good deal of facts about Jesus’ life and teachings from the gospels. But this too is contested today.
There are those who claim that the whole story is a legend. Almost every historian on the planet concludes that Jesus was a historical figure (see Was Jesus a real person? and Quotes on Jesus as a historical person, and regards these “Jesus mythicists” as missing the obvious and distorting the evidence. Nevertheless, and despite the consensus of historians, it is quite likely that critics of the CS Lewis argument will suggest Jesus may be no more than a legend.
Other critics are likely to accept that Jesus was a historical figure, but argue that many of the stories about him, including anything that looks like a claim to divinity, is a legendary addition by the gospel writers. This view has a little more support among the historians, many of whom consider some parts of the picture drawn by the gospels to be unhistorical, but it remains true that most historians believe a lot of the gospel content is historical. Nevertheless, the legend option will be argued by some critics.
An attempt to extend the argument
Christian apologist Tom Gilson has attempted to extend the CS Lewis argument to meet the view that Jesus’ claim to be divine is just legend, in The Gospel Truth Of Jesus. He has tried an interesting approach.
Rather than argue for the historical reliability of the gospels, Gilson presents the following argument, built around several questions:
- Who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from those in the Bible? Various real or fictional characters (e.g. Napoleon, Superman) may be suggested.
- Who in all of human history and imagination, outside of the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons you can think of? Not so many people fit here, but Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela may come to mind.
- Can you think of any single person—again, outside of the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and imagination who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good? Only a small number of people may be suggested here (e.g. Gandalf, Abraham Lincoln), but they all fall short in either power or serving. None of our greatest writers or story tellers (e.g. Shakespeare, Homer) ever came up with such a character.
- If we allow Biblical characters, then arguably Jesus fits both parts of the description. But, Gilson argues, if the character of Christ were created and not rather recorded in the Gospels, then those who created it were geniuses.
- So, “in order for the legend hypothesis to hold water, there must be a plausible explanation for the genesis of the Gospels. Somebody — or more precisely, four somebodies — put the Gospels in writing, and they got their information, or their ideas, from somewhere. And here we encounter a remarkable thing about the story of Christ: that it was placed in its final form not just once but four times, and that each of those four final authors (or author groups) got the crucial aspect of Jesus’ character — his perfect power and perfect goodness — exactly right, without flaw.”
- Finally, Gilson examines how proponents of the legend hypothesis think the gospels came to be written, and concludes: “The life of Christ is just too good to be have been produced through legendary processes.”
It is an ingenious argument, and contains a lot of truth. I think perhaps it claims too much, and I’m sure sceptics will not accept it. But I can’t help feeling that it is an argument that could be used effectively to show that the legend hypothesis cannot just be put forward as if it answers the christian case. The legend argument is itself weaker than its proponents think it is.
Liar, Lunatic, Legend, Loser or Lord?
My assessment is that CS Lewis’ argument cannot be so easily used today. Both sides in these debates might like to think they have knock down arguments, but it isn’t that simple these days. Christians or atheists who think they have the arguments all sewn up are fooling themselves, in my opinion, and headed for disappointment. We must be ready for much more cut and thrust.
But I think the thoughts behind both CS Lewis’ argument and Gilson’s additions are still very useful.
My preference, when discussing with non-believers, is not to try to press the argument for Jesus’ divinity too strongly. It can often lead into all sorts of sidetracks.
I prefer to start with the historical facts which show the character and teachings of Jesus, point out the implications of those facts, and then let the character and teachings of Jesus to speak for themselves. I am happy to trust (and pray for) the Holy Spirit to speak to the non-believer’s heart, and help them to see the historical facts in a new (and I believe more correct) light. If they are not drawn to Jesus, I doubt intellectual and historical argument will change that.
CS Lewis’ and Tom Gilson’s ideas fit into that approach very well.