Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?: Overview of Lewis’ Famous Argument

CS Lewis is perhaps the most recognized Christian writer of the twentieth century. From the well-known and loved Narnia books to the more theological and apologetics books like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has captured both the imagination and intellect of his many readers since he began his writing. CS Lewis’ analogies, arguments and stories are frequently quoted because of their clarity and cleverness.

Here, I would like to give an overview of one of the most famous of CS Lewis’ arguments in support of Christianity. This argument is based on comparing the impression that most non-Christians get from reading about Jesus to the perspective that Christians have when we read about Jesus. While it isn’t possible to explore all aspects and nuances of the argument in one article, hopefully this will be a good start.

Background: The Common Non-Christian View of Jesus

Of course, Christians have a very high view of Jesus. This is not surprising, because to Christians, Jesus is God Himself, the perfect sinless man who saved us from our sins. Because this is who Christians believe Jesus to be, obviously Christians view Jesus as a supremely good moral teacher and example for how to live life. As regards figures in other religious traditions, Christians generally agree on some points and disagree on others. You can find significant overlaps between Christian ethics and, say, Muslim ethics or Hindu ethics. And on those points of overlap, Christians will of course agree with Muslims or Hindus. However, there will also be points where these traditions disagree, and of course on those points Christians will tend to voice their disagreement. At the end of the day, then, Christians don’t have a high or low view of other religious figures by default – it would depend on what their teachings are.

As you’d expect, this is generally true of other religions as well. Adherents of, say, Hinduism would be inclined to agree with Christian ethics only insofar as that intersects with Hindu ethics. Same with Muslims, and even for non-Christians. Most secularists, for example, have a view of human rights that is extremely similar to the Christian conception of men and women being made in the image of God. While secularists and Christians have some disagreements about the outworkings of this view, there is basic agreement, and a secularist will support Christianity insofar as it agrees with their view.

There is, however, a very strange phenomena when it comes to the person of Jesus. When you look across the spectrum of religious and ethical perspectives, nearly everyone holds Jesus in extremely high regard. Muslims will say that Jesus is one of the greatest men ever to live, most secular people would also say that Jesus was a very good moral teacher. Jesus’ goodness often winds up in such high regard that, when Christians disagree with those other groups, the other groups have a tendency to think that Christians are misrepresenting Jesus.

Isn’t that odd? You don’t find that level of assumption of goodness in any other religious figure. I cannot think of any other religious figure in history whose teachings are generally both well-known and well-accepted by those outside of the religion. Even people who do not believe that Jesus is God do tend to believe that he was one of the greatest moral teachers in history, even if they also happen to think that his followers have distorted some of those teachings over time.

The Problem

Ok, so what is the issue? This sounds perfectly reasonable at face value. However, when you look at Jesus’ teachings more closely, we run into a problem. Jesus was not just a moral teacher – his mission actually wasn’t even primarily to be a moral teacher. His ministry had two main goals – to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, and to proclaim his Messiahship and His Divinity. Just read the Bible – you find a lot of moral teachings, but you find a lot of what would now be called eschatological preaching and lots of claims to be God Himself. Although often these claims are hard to see immediately from our cultural context, Jesus claimed very clearly to be the God of the Universe. Consider as just one example Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leaders:

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?  You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64, ESV)

Notice that the response of the Jewish leaders to his statement is that Jesus committed blasphemy. Why? To understand this requires some Old Testament background. Jesus actually claimed to be God three times in his statement. First, Jesus’ use of I am is an indirect reference to Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses from the burning bush that I AM is His name. Though perhaps you think this is a coincidence. Very well, what about his claiming to be “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven?” The Son of Man is a figure prophesied in the Old Testament, more specifically Daniel 7:13-14, and the Son of Man is portrayed in that passage as divine – he receives authority over all creation and is worshipped as God by all mankind. Finally, in Psalm 110, we read that “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Again, notice the sitting at the right hand, and notice that there are two figures who are Lord in this passage. Jesus is claiming to be one of them.

Thus, Jesus is claiming to be, quite literally, the God of the entire universe. This is a problem for anyone who views Jesus as a good moral teacher because that just isn’t the sort of thing that a good moral teacher would say about himself. If a random person on the street claimed to be God, then you very likely would not label him a good moral teacher. You’d probably call him a cult leader. And yet people don’t tend to say that about Jesus.

The Quadrilemma

When C.S. Lewis presented his argument based on this observation, he began with the proposition that Jesus is a real historical figure and that the Bible correctly records the basic message he taught his followers. While there were some people at Lewis’ time that rejected this. As a professor of English literature and well-studied in reading medieval and ancient writings, he found the idea that Jesus never lived to be completely unreasonable. All the reports you have of Jesus’ having been a real human being – in ancient sources both secular and Christian – the idea that there never was any such person just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It amounts to a conspiracy theory. There are lots of arguments for this point – but I won’t rehearse those now because that takes us too far afield from the main goal. So, for the rest of the argument, we take for granted that Jesus lived and that the four gospels record his teaching correctly (notice that we are not assuming he actually rose from the dead, just that Jesus’ words prior to his death are accurately recorded).

We now have a few well-agreed-upon facts to work off of:

  • Jesus was a real person that lived around the years 0-30 AD.
  • Jesus is recognized by nearly everyone as a good moral teacher.
  • Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh and his followers believed this about him after his death.

Now, we run into a bit of a problem. Let us consider Jesus’ claim to be God. Jesus either believed this was true, or he did not. If he did not believe that he was God but claimed to be God anyways, then this is an abhorrently immoral and deceptive lie. But this contradicts everyone who views Jesus as a good moral teacher, and so doesn’t make a lot of sense. Therefore, the most reasonable assumption to make is that Jesus sincerely believed that he is God. Now, continuing in the logical progression, this is either true or false. Either Jesus really was God, or he was not. If Jesus was not really God, and yet he believed he was God, then Jesus is a lunatic. But lunatics are also not taken to be good moral teachers, and so this also doesn’t make sense. Therefore, the only option that still makes sense is that Jesus claimed to be God, really believed that about himself, and that this is really true.

But this is the message of Christianity! If Jesus is actually God, then Christianity is true. There is no longer any room for debate if we get this far. If you come to the conclusion that Jesus is the God of the universe, then the only reasonable response is to worship and follow him. Notice too that the three bullet points from earlier are all we started with – there are a large number of people who do not claim to be Christians who believe these three things. Any of those people, then, should become Christians by C.S Lewis’ reasoning.

A Deductive Form

To conclude, I will put this argument in a deductive form. In other words, I will summarize the reasoning in the form of a step-by-step process using basic rules of logic and supporting the hypotheses with evidence.

  1. If Jesus was a real person, then Jesus claimed to be God and Jesus is a good moral teacher.
  2. Jesus was a real person.
  3. Therefore, Jesus claimed to be God and is a good moral teacher.
  4. If Jesus did not believe he was God, then Jesus is not a good moral teacher.
  5. Therefore, Jesus did believe he was God.
  6. If Jesus is not God, Jesus was insane.
  7. If Jesus was insane, Jesus was not a good moral teacher.
  8. Therefore, Jesus was not insane.
  9. Therefore, Jesus is God.
  10. If Jesus is God, then Christianity is true.
  11. Therefore, Christianity is true.

Now, let’s take the argument step by step:

  1. This is based on the fact that the cumulative evidence of the Bible, other ancient historical writings, lead us to conclude we have accurate reports on Jesus’ actual teachings.
  2. Every respected professional ancient historian on the planet who studies this era of history believes that the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence is too strong to be rationally denied.
  3. This follows from (1) and (2) by the basic rules of logic.
  4. This is grounded in the basic moral fact that intentional deception of this sort is clearly evil.
  5. This follows from (3) and (4) by the basic rules of logic.
  6. This comes from the basic intuition that a normal human being who believes he is God must either by God or suffer from a severe mental illness.
  7. This comes from the basic intution that people who suffer from severe mental illnesses that cause delusions of this sort, while not necessarily bad people, do not have sufficiently reliable cognitive faculties to be trusted as great moral leaders.
  8. This follows from (3) and (7) by the basic rules of logic.
  9. This follows from (6) and (8) by the basic rules of logic.
  10. This is essentially the definition of Christianity.
  11. This follows from (9) and (`10) by the basic rules of logic.

In this logical reasoning, the only points that need to be supported with evidence are 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 10. But even 10 doesn’t really have to be supported, because 10 is a definition. Ever other point can be established by what looks like pretty basic reasoning about either history, reading comprehension, ethics, or psychology. So, it seems like if you don’t agree with Christianity, there is some explaining to be done.

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