Back in the early 1940s, world-renowned scholar, beloved author and one of the most quoted Christian apologists ever (at least of the modern age), Clive Staples Lewis gave a memorable series of BBC radio broadcasts that were later collected and formed into what has become one of the most read and revered books on the foundations of Christianity ever published. The radio messages entitled, “The Case For Christianity” (1942), “Christian Behavior” (1943), and “Beyond Personality” (1944) were originally published as three separate pamphlets, before finally being released as the book “Mere Christianity” in 1952. The book is still widely read, debated and taught today….and mostly loved as a true Christian Classic.
Three things, in my opinion, make these messages quite special:
1) They came at the height of World War II, while the world was looking for answers and, more importantly, some form of hope that would endure beyond the darkness that surrounded them at that time in their lives.
2) They came came at a time when Lewis was a highly regarded professor at Oxord University in London. The interesting thing about Lewis’s journey was that he came to be one of the most famous Christian authors and philosophers after spending most of his life as an atheist.
3) And so for me, the icing on the cake was that this book became the “go to book” for those who were new to the faith and those who were seeking to know more about God and the one we call our Savior, Jesus Christ. In these messages, Lewis focused on the core values and basic principles of the faith to make his case (and he did so quite convincingly), while shying away from the more controversial aspects which might only cause more confusion and skepticism.
But there is one section from this book that seems to get quoted and debated as much as any other theological quote I can think of. He proposes a line of reasoning regarding the central issue of whether Jesus Christ was actually “God in the flesh” (as it appeared He often claimed to be) or was He something else altogether. Lewis presented what he saw as three possible views of Christ’s words and by boiling the possibilties down to these three options, I’d say it was a masterstroke of genius because the reader is quickly relieved of the need to sort through a much larger basket of possibilties by focusing on just a few choices that neatly bundle all the others together, making a final choice easier to arrive at. And is that not the primary goal of these messages, to bring the reader closer to a decision that is not only spiritually wise, but logically wise, as well?
What is also interesting about this “three-pronged theory”, or “The Great Trilemma” (as it has come to be known), is that Lewis was not the first to offer up these three options as a way of helping us to zero in on the truth. Around 1860, a Scottish preacher named John Duncan formulated what he called “the trilemma.” His three choices were “a fraud, self-deceived or Divine.” Then, in 1936, famous Chinese preacher and author Watchman Nee (in his book “Normal Christian Faith”) gave us three similar choices…”madman or lunatic, liar or God.”
But what makes Lewis’s version so memorable and endearing, I believe, is his frank and relatable way of writing (or speaking, in this case since these were originally radio messages). There was way in which he made his thoughts clearly understandable to the common man (pretty amazing for a man of his intellect and stature, I think), while sharing some pretty deep thoughts in the same breath. Here is his version for you, in case you never heard or read the whole thought process before. It is pretty entertaining, if you ask me:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [that is, Christ]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” [C. S. Lewis from “Mere Christianity” 1952]
So, I thought it would be fun to do a deep dive on these three possibilties and see not only what we can make of them, but what the people of Jesus’s time thought about Him, as well.
1) Jesus was a lunatic, a madman or just plain crazy.
Well, in the days when Christ walked the earth, there were all kinds of fanatics spreading all kinds of “belief systems”. Not just the Jews, of course, but many others as well. And many of them were not thought to be “playing with a full deck,” if you know what I mean. There were spiritualists, conjurers, magicians and makers of potions…all claiming to have some inside track on revelations regarding God and how we were to relate to Him.
There had been golden cows, graven images, goddesses, false prophets and just plain old “false dieties” that could be found and worshipped in the days leading up to and during the time of Christ. So I guess we could not really blame some of the people and the Pharisees for trying to pass him off as just another “flavor of the month.” But, many of them sure hoped He was.
Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. [Luke 11:14-16 ESV]
So, if nothing else, they were trying their darnedest to “cut this guy down to size” (as many still are today), because if His claims of being God in the flesh started to get traction with the people, their traditions, their feasts and the religious stranglehold that the Jewish hierarchy had over them would all loose their power. The gravy train would be over and they were not about to let that happen.
2) Jesus was a liar, both intentional and flagrant.
The word they used back then for misrepresenting God, for claiming to be sent from God (when you were not) or especially claiming to be God in the flesh, without valid proof of such claims was “blasphemy.” It was a charge that was punishable by death and, in fact, it was the charge that the Jewish leaders used to turn Jesus over to the Romans to be put to death.
You see, when He said things like “I am He” to the Samaritan woman at the well or “Before Abraham was, I am” as He did in John Chapter 8, plenty of eyebrows were raised by people saying, “Who does this man think he is? God?” Keep in mind, in the Old Testament, the words “I AM” (short for “I AM WHO I AM”) were known as the name of God, the name God revealed to Moses [Exodus 3:14]. So yeah, people did not say “I AM” loosely (at least in references to God) for fear of being charged with blasphemy. If, in fact, you did not have evidence to back up your claim, you did not want to go there. And Jesus knew this, of course, but He also knew the truth and He was well aware of his fate. He had a mission to complete and nothing on Earth or in Heaven was going to keep Him from accomplishing that which He was sent to do. But none of that, of course, kept the people or the Jewish and Roman leaders from doubting His words.
3) Jesus is who He claimed to be, Lord and God (“Immanuel..God with us” from Matthew 1:23).
The people who walked among Christ in those days certainly had a daunting task ahead of them. Could they afford to quickly write him off as a liar or a lunatic? Afterall, their eternal fate depended on their decision? And for that matter, so does ours, today. What about all the miracles, the healings and raising people from the dead? What about the power and authority that seemed to accompany His words of wisdom to those who heard Him speak (and for us..when we read them even today)? What if He was God? Refusing to believe Him would probably not end well, in the long run.
This was and is, in fact, a great trilemma….and the stakes could not be higher. Our place for all of eternity depends on which answer we choose to believe.
If nothing else, I would think a close and thorough look at all the facts is merited.
You certainly would not want to find yourself before the judgement seat of God saying, “Yeah, you are right, God. I should have probably looked into it all a little deeper. My bad.”
C. S. Lewis closed out this famous quote with a pretty convincing final point, if you ask me:
“But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher (or just a liar or a lunatic). He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
No…if you look at the whole Gospel message and consider the complete body of work of Jesus Christ, the first two options seem verily flimsy with very little evidence to back them up.
The third option, though, that Jesus is indeed Lord and God seems extremely credible. His divine words and His miraculous works, not to mention the fact that He walked through this world without committing a single sin or dishonoring His Father even once…makes it all pretty hard to just toss aside. I am fully convinced that the evidence bears Him out.
And if, in fact, He is who He claimed to be…..what choice do we have but to “fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God?”
I see no other choice. And after thirty-eight years of contemplating this “great trilemma,” the choice has only become clearer and clearer over time…to the praise of His glorious name.
I believe it with all my heart.
(Author of “Unlocking Creation” and “The Red Letter Parables”)