C. S. Lewis and the Case of the Missing L’s.

I confess.

When I was a Christian, I was overly impressed with the writings of C. S. Lewis, and in particular, his ‘trilemma’, as presented in the book Mere Christianity:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 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 the 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 with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

While I still enjoy Lewis’s writing style, I can now see how he stacked the deck by limiting the options regarding Jesus to Lord, liar, or lunatic. One doesn't have to be much of a detective to see that there are a couple of missing L’s.

Bart Ehrman points out that there is a fourth option - legend - in his book Jesus, Interrupted. Not that Ehrman is a mythicist – he is just pointing out the inadequacy of Lewis’s argument.

To be fair, Lewis did address the ‘legend’ issue elsewhere:

“Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy; they don’t work up to things properly.”
C. S. Lewis – God in the Dock

Apparently, writing that is clumsy, unimaginative, and lacking in artistry somehow validates itself as historically truthful. I’m quite sure that verdict is not warranted!

The next time a believer tries to impale you on Lewis’s theological trident, it might be helpful to discuss with them the fifth ‘L’ which he neglected to mention. An ‘L’ which might show that Jesus and Aslan truly are related.

Literary creation.

The multiple, often contradictory, portraits of Jesus presented by the Gospels reveal him not to be the Son of God, but a character created by writers with differing religious agendas. A character based perhaps on an actual historical person, but fan fiction nonetheless. The words in the mouth of Jesus were the words that each gospel writer chose to place there, just as Lewis created the dialog of his Narnia characters. And, as Bart Ehrman has pointed out, Christians create a fifth Gospel when they form their own composite portrait of Jesus by picking and choosing what they like out of their readings of the four Gospels.

Now that the missing L’s have been located, it’s time to close the case on Lewis’s false trilemma. Every time the corpse of this argument is dug up, re-bury it by using the unreliable testimony of the Gospels against it.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says:

“Famously, as in his well-known slogan, “Liar, Lunatic or Lord,” he argued that Jesus must have been bad or mad or God. This argument has worn well in some circles and extremely badly in others, and the others were not merely being cynical… Lewis's overconfident argument… doesn't work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the gospels.”
Simply Lewis: Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years - Touchstone Magazine

Now that is some expert testimony I can agree with!

Written by J. M. Green