Liar, lunatic, legend, loser or Lord?

January 27th, 2017

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.

Legend?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.

Graphic: Wikipedia

10 Comments

  1. if we consider the time period of Jesus and what the main “need” of the time was, it is easy to see how this man became “divine” in the eyes of his followers. Taking up the legends and stories surrounding the man and expounding on them to fulfill the “needs” of the people becomes a very easy process. I myself have pronounced half truths and lies about a person in order to fulfill “my” need for importance. Throughout history man”s ego and desire to be accepted and loved by his piers has led to legends and lies in order to quench the the fire of love. Coupled with the fact that some intelligent person with a secondary desire for control, of a group, has placed an individual into the status of “divine” and you have the makings of a messiah. Jesus was a very unusual individual who was closer to God than almost anyone of that time. The Bible states we are all children of God. Therefore, Jesus could rightly claim he was the son of God.

  2. Hi Randall,

    Thanks for your comment, and your interest.

    I can see how it is easy to think of a scenario like the one you have presented, but historians need evidence, not just ideas. What do you think is the historical evidence for your scenario?

  3. I think I got started on a tangent and forgot where I really wanted to go, so, let’s try again. First, was Jesus the son of God? Absolutely. The same bible that declares his divinity also tells us we are “all” children of God. Therefore, I am a “son” of God. I know others will still state that Jesus was “the” son of God. Unfortunately we only have the bible to verify this. Which, brings us back to my original rant. Because beliefs are challenged and egos bruised we all have a tendency to inflate the story and bend it slightly to fit the circumstance. I include myself. I have been witness to men laid out across a red hot stove with no injury. I have seen people “slain” in the spirit who could not be raised off the floor by four grown men. Cripples walk and blind can see. What do these incidents prove? That the leader of the group was “the” son of God. Nope. Proves that at that moment God chose to work through an individual for God’s purpose and that purpose was never revealed to those present. After all, it may have been to heal the person or to spiritually strengthen someone in the viewing area. The only thing that really counts is that it happened to glorify God. Is it any more significant than a dead seed given some water sprouting into a plant? Only if we choose to see it that way. God’s divine miracle is that persons are chosen to further God’s love and grace. Much as God chose Jesus, I believe he chose Mohamed and others to show Love and compassion. Men always want to take a “revelation” and turn it into a “Denomination”. Then they go shout from the roof tops that they have found the “true” God and follow “ME” if you wish to see God’s resting place. Believe in God? With all my being! Believe Jesus was the only son of God? Juries still out on that one.

  4. Hi Randall, that’s an interesting way for the discussion to develop. Do you think you are a son of God in just the same way Jesus was?

  5. Yes, I believe I am a son of God in the same way as Jesus. However, God, the creator, did not provide me with the same gifts or circumstances as Jesus because that would not fulfill his design for this world. Further, unlike Jesus, I did not fully recognize the gifts and grace I had until much later in life. Why? I’m not sure if this was due to Divine intervention or just pure stupidity. I suspect the latter. We all possess the gifts of the Spirit and are capable of using them. I believe Jesus taught that we could do what he was doing and in fact we would do even greater “miracles”. OK, so why don’t we demonstrate these “gifts”? Pretty simple. “FAITH”. This was one of Jesus’ greatest renderings of God’s Gifts. He exercised the faith he had been given. Incredible man ? Yes. God in the flesh? Still out on that one.

  6. G’day Randall,

    I don’t wish to be rude, but I presume you have never been raised from the dead, never performed dozens of healing and other miracles, and never attracted large crowds with your innovative teaching? Jesus is reported as doing those things.

    So do you think that doesn’t make Jesus different to you, or do you believe Jesus didn’t do those things either?

    I’m unclear about this because you have said “I believe I am a son of God in the same way as Jesus” but you also said “Incredible man ? Yes. God in the flesh? Still out on that one.” I’m unsure what you are actually saying here.

  7. I most certainly don’t consider your comments to be rude or out of line. The majority of Christians have been taught that the bible is the definitive answer to all our questions. Unfortunately it seems to be the only answer to many of our conundrums.
    I believe the apostles stated to Jesus that they had been healing the sick and casting out demons, even raising the dead. Many of the “miracles” that you put forth as evidence for Jesus’ divinity. Although I have participated in all but raising the dead, I too, have been fortunate to witness God’s power at work. The gathering of crowds to hear him speak should not be brought up because even Hitler was able to draw large crowds and I certainly wouldn’t put the two in the same category.
    Different from Jesus? Most assuredly. Jesus exercised his faith and therein God said Yes to whatever was asked. I get a lot of no’s because most of my prayers are based around my own ego. That’s why we still have Hospitals.
    When I stated that Jesus was an incredible man, I was meaning to imply that he had totally turned himself over to God to be used as God saw best. Was Jesus, God in the Flesh? For me and many, The jury is still out, debating.

  8. Hi Randall,

    1. What healing and nature miracles have you participated in? I’d be very interested to hear.

    2. Jesus also said he was establishing the kingdom of God on earth. Do you think you are doing that in the same way Jesus claimed?

    3. I’m curious about your statement that the jury is still out on Jesus being God in the flesh. Do you mean that son of God doesn’t imply divinity, but maybe Jesus was more than just son of God, you are still open to that?

    Thanks.

  9. Dear uncleE, I believe my last posting included a statement that “the jury is still out”. Well, deliberations are over and the jury has decided that Jesus was the “Son” of God. As I would prefer to call him, the physical form of God on this Earth.
    What changed? I believe my Indian Brothers would call it a vision. Please bare with me. I will try and be brief: I have engaged in praying each day and following the teachings of a few Shamans or Medicine Men to be patient and wait, well, on Tuesday night I was taking some OTC medicine for a head and chest cold when I inadvertently swallowed the wrong way and sent the medicine into my lungs. A horrible mistake as I began to cough, violently, and could not get the OTC out of my lungs. I started to cough up a small amount of blood and was deeply concerned. By concentrating hard on relaxing and breathing slowly I found the ability to breath return but, was still inadvertently coughing.Unable to sleep I sat in my TV chair and watched a movie. I finally slept on and off for 12 to 14 hours. At my normal bedtime of 2 AM, i felt I could nap again. Believe it or not. Now the vision. I dreamed I was in a very rural area much like I live in now. i was engaged in the construction of a cross on a flat bed wagon and had assistance from one of the men I have discussed my quest for a vision with. It was surreal in that each shackle and joint was as clear as if I truly was in the phase and was able to inform my friend of the name and purpose for each fitment. Being from a working ranch life this did not surprise me until I looked around and recognized numerous faces in a large crowd of on lookers. Apparently the construction was completed and I sensed we had moved to wagon bearing the cross to a hillside location where we all began to sing the old hymn “there will be peace in the valley for me.” the entire crowd was continually giving thanks for the construction, including me. At this point I awakened with a complete “peace” and a stupid grin on my face and a feeling of joy in my heart.
    My interpretation? I had been spoken to in a way I would accept. Jesus had told me He was in fact real and that I should begin the Ministry I had long been contemplating. Not one based on a specific set of beliefs or rules but one filled with the fun, joy and love of God.
    I will stop here as I feel myself going over to the rules side where I “Know” he does not want me. You are the second person I have shared this incident with because of respect and belief of understanding. My wife was the first and I got the expected response of “here we go again”. LOL Been a Long road with many stops. I believe this one will take. Thanks, R

  10. Hi Randall, thanks for answering my questions and sharing your ideas and experiences. My suggestion is to follow the teachings of Jesus and you won’t go far wrong. All the best.

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