This is CS Lewis’ trilemma. It’s central notion is that the information we have about Jesus suggests he was either a liar, a lunatic, or the incarnation of God. Lewis argues that the information presented is inconsistent with the first two, leaving the the latter as the only logical option.
Jesus, apparently, spent a lot of time saying that he was actually God. It’s a pretty bold claim. Lewis directly asks us to imagine a contemporary saying that. It’s not that tricky to imagine, but we know immediately where we’d consign that person to, in terms of mental pigeonholes. The emphasis would be on the mental.
It’s such an intense claim, and yet we are shown almost everyone agreeing with him. He is intense, perceptive and insightful. Lewis cites the Sermon on the Mount as a piece of radical teaching so insightful that it could never have been written by a madman. So what else could he be?
As for bad? Maybe he was just a manipulative liar. He made these claims to gain followers for his own immediate benefit. It explains the intellectual speeches, and claims of godhood, but not really the self sacrificing end of the story. The willingness with which he sought his own death.
So, Lewis tells us, the only logical answer is that he must have been God.
Conveniently, this is the result that Lewis was looking for.
I think it’s a fascinating thought experiment. But doesn’t quite have the ring of logical truth that Lewis suggests (though Lewis is a much more thorough thinker than I, so I feel almost as arrogant as a god claiming son of man when I say that). The primary fault is that these aren’t really the only options.
There’s no reason that madness rules out intellect. In fact, one could argue, that to see the world as radically different as Jesus presented it (I personally am fond of the ‘Jesus was a clever, radical teacher’ narrative). Jesus’ words, asked to enfranchise the meek, the humble and the poor. Those words asked for an end to vengeance, and the birth of a world where people thought of others compassionately.
At the time this was radical, perhaps even mad, but it had truth in it. Plenty of truth. You can still see it now, if you look closely.
I don’t think it make sense to pour through a second hand text, created by biased annotators, for logical evidence of someone’s truthiness. Jesus may or may not have existed, and he may or may not have said and done the thing presented in the gospel.
If you believe in him, then he is real for you. If you don’t, then there’s still something to learn from his kindness, but you aren’t ever going to get further than that.
I can’t take a story as a proof, no matter how beautiful, intelligent or wise its teaching is. A book is not a reality.
As ever, I’m content to learn from the mad.
Illustration by Michael