Beyond Born Again

Section II-- The Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable?

Chapter 7: A False Trilemma

Once Evangelical apologists feel they have practically proven the resurrection, they attempt to get all the mileage out of it they can. The resurrection itself must be defended anyway. But wouldn't it be helpful to be able to use it as a stepping stone to get an unbeliever to accept a couple of other articles of faith? Like the "deity of Christ," for instance? The apologist goes on to argue that Jesus before his death "claimed to be God" and predicted that his claims would be verified by his resurrection from the dead. "The conclusion? Jesus did rise, and thereby validated his claim to divinity"[1] (Montgomery). Often another similar argument is used in conjunction with this one, though it is logically independent. This is the old "liar, lunatic, or Lord" argument, also known as the "Trilemma." Perhaps the most famous summary of the Trilemma argument comes from C. S. Lewis:


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.[2]

Though I certainly do not want to dissuade anyone from believing in the deity of Christ, simple intellectual honesty compels us to ask how cogent this argument is.

First, it must be said that Jesus' "claims for himself" are not quite as clear as they need to be for this line of reasoning to be compelling. Apologists frequently point to Jesus' exalted "I am" statements in the fourth gospel ("I am the light of the world" [John 8:12], "I am the bread of life [6:35], etc.) as evidence of his self-assessment. Modern biblical scholarship at least makes it a debatable question whether such statements represent the words of the historical Jesus or the inspired theology of John himself. This consideration must weaken the evidential value of such Johannine texts for the question, "What did the historical Jesus say of himself?" Even if these texts do preserve claims Jesus made to be God, this must yet be demonstrated. Since it is itself a matter of debate, it cannot be adduced as unambiguous evidence for something else.

John is the principal but not the only source for Jesus' supposed claims to be God. Recently some apologists have pointed to Ethelbert Stauffer's interpretation of Mark 14:62, to provide another such claim. According to Stauffer, when Jesus answers his accuser's question with the phrase "ego eimi," or "I am," he is actually referring to the Jewish liturgical theophany formula "Ani (we) Hu" ("I and he," meaning "I am he"). Thus, Jesus is supposed to be claiming possession of divinity. Stauffer comes to this conclusion from investigating extracanonical literature. [3]. This line of argumentation is summarized and applauded by Buell and Hyder [4] and Yamauchi. [5]

All this may be news to the reader, since this is not quite the first impression one receives in reading the text. Isn't it more natural to assume that when Jesus is asked, "Are you the Christ?"


and replies "I am," that he simply means to reply to this question in the affirmative? While there is some difficulty in harmonizing the reply understood in this way with the Matthean-Lucan version "You say that I am ," this latter version is certainly more nearly equivalent to a simple affirmation than to a claim of divinity, as those apologists read it! Besides Stauffer's suggestions arrived at by his own detective work on Jewish literature, would hardly have been apparent to Mark's audience without explanation. They even needed to have simple Jewish dietary laws explained to them (Mark 7:3-4) for Jesus' words to make sense. Could they have understood the complex allusion suggested by Stauffer?

But the high priest tore his robe, as if in response to blasphemy. Before running off with Stauffer to investigate various extrabiblical texts, may l suggest that Buell, Hyder, and Yamauchi take a closer look at the Marcan text in front of them? Jesus claims in the same breath that he will be "seated on the right hand of Power" (14:62). l dare say that most readers of this text naturally assume that this statement was the alleged blasphemy in question. And I think they are right.

If one still wants to go in search of extrabiblical corroboration, it is there to be found. Rabbinic literature refers to a Jewish "binitarian" heresy, whereby some claimed that "There are two Powers in heaven." This binitarian heresy was particularly associated with the idea that one of God's servants should be so highly exalted as to be enthroned by his side. According to one rabbinic text, a scholar suggests that David will occupy a throne next to God. A colleague reproaches him: "How long will you profane the Shekinah?" In the late book III Enoch, the exalted Enoch is given the divine Name and a throne next to God's. A later redactor tries to tone this down for fear of binitarianism. [6] What we can see in all this is that Jesus' claim to be enthroned by God's side could be taken by hearers as blasphemy even if not intended as a claim to be God.

In the examples just referred to, the binitarian divinity claim was a conclusion drawn not by the original speaker (or writer) , but by his opponents who feared what they saw as the implication of his words. We might be justified in reading the "blasphemy" charge in the Marcan text as one more example of this. My appeal to Jewish literature merely supports what l believe to be the natural' reading of the Marcan text. Stauffer's on the other hand serves to interpret the text in a way that is rather less than obvious. In short, once again, it is not at all clear that we must reckon with a "claim to be God."

Reference is often made in this context to certain "indirect claims" to divine authority made by Jesus. One wonders, if these claims are admittedly indirect, why apologists feel so free to use them as direct and unambiguous evidence! Surely the favorite is Jesus' "claim to forgive sins" in Mark 2:1-12. For instance, Pinnock writes: "The claims of Jesus were not all direct ones. His assumption of the right to pronounce forgiveness shocked the onlookers (Mark 2:7)." [7] John R. W. Stott says that "The claim to deity advanced by our Lord was made as forcefully by indirect as by direct means. ..The first is the claim to forgive sins." [8] It is remarkable that apologists find themselves agreeing with the interpretation, if not the evaluation, of the "bad guys" of the passage, i.e., that Jesus is


claiming to be God. "From this [i.e., the scribes'] response it seems clear that the most obvious interpretation of Jesus' words in Mark 2:5 is that they imply use of his own divine authority." [9] Stott agrees that: "the bystanders raised their eyebrows and asked, `Who is this? What blasphemy is this? Who can forgive sins but God only?' Their questions were correctly worded." [10] Aren't these apologists aware of the New Testament writers' recording of the opponents' misinterpretation of Jesus' words to use it as a springboard to set forth the true interpretation? For instance, do the apologists agree with the scribes that in allowing his disciples to glean wheat, Jesus is "doing what is illegal on the Sabbath" (Mark 2:24)? But at any rate, let us return to the text at hand.

A paralytic is brought to Jesus to be healed. Jesus pronounces that his sins are forgiven and goes on to demonstrate his authority to do this by healing the man. The idea is that the man had been stricken with paralysis for some sins he had committed (cf. John 5:14). For Jesus to have lifted the penalty (i.e., cured the paralysis), he must have been able to absolve the sins that caused it. But is Jesus in effect claiming to be God by doing this, as the scribes think? Not necessarily, any more than Paul and Barnabas are claiming to be Hermes and Zeus by healing the Lycaonian cripple in Acts 14:11. Perhaps the scribes, like the Lycaonians, are jumping to conclusions. Jesus' reply, like that of Paul and Barnabas, may be an attempt to correct the mistaken assumptions of his hearers.

Geza Vermes, in his book Jesus the Jew calls attention to a document from Qumran which sheds some light on the religious context of the debate we see in the Marcan passage. In "The Prayer of Nabonidus," the stricken king relates how a human agent (Daniel) cured his ulcers when he "pardoned my sins." [11] Jesus then seems not to have been alone in his belief that human beings ("the son of man") have authority on earth to forgive sins. The scribes in the Marcan passage represent the opposing viewpoint which considered this tantamount to blasphemy whether said by Jesus or other sectarians. It should be noted that in the Matthean version the conclusion of the whole incident is in accord with this understanding. The crowd rejoices, not because Jesus' divine authority has been vindicated, but because "God...had given such authority to men" (9:8). Here, as in other passages such as Mark 2:27-28 and Matthew 12:32, "son of man" may be best understood in its generic sense of "man" or "mankind." Jesus' declaration in the Marcan text under consideration ("the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins") is parallel in ideas to a text from Psalms 115:16. "The heavens are the Lord's, but the earth he has given to the sons of men." Also cf. this hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, "The son of man has no more right than that he should have a house wherein he may live, and a piece of cloth whereby he may hide his nakedness, and a chip of bread, and water." [12] That is, earth is the sphere of man's proper function, where in this case he may even pronounce God's pardon for sin. Notice, incidentally, the "divine passive" - "Your sins are forgiven," i.e., "God forgives your sins." Jesus is not exactly saying "I take it upon myself to forgive your sins."

Let us assume, however, that the "Son of Man" reference here was originally meant by Jesus as a messianic self-designation, as is certainly intended at least in Mark's redaction. In this case Jesus


would probably be defending his own private prerogative. Yet this would still not mean he is "indirectly claiming" to be God. The scribes may charge him with this, but Jesus' rejoinder could be understood not as, "You're right! God alone can forgive sins, but it's OK since I happen to be God." Rather he counters with the claim that God has delegated authority to someone else, i.e., the Son of Man, to forgive sins on earth, so that he is not usurping God's authority. It is not "God alone," therefore, who forgives sins. In a similar manner, Jesus is reported to have delegated to the disciples the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23). Yet I know of no apologist who understands this to mean the disciples were God!

In this idea of delegated authority we have an important distinction that is conveniently ignored by Evangelical apologists. It is no secret that in Jewish apocalyptic the Messiah was, so to speak, the vice-regent of God. He was to be God's representative on earth, acting in God's stead. This is quite a different thing from the Messiah being God. It seems to me that the arguments appealing to Jesus' assumption of divine prerogatives (e.g. Jesus claim one day to judge the world in Matthew 7:21-23) ignore this crucial distinction.

These exegetical suggestions on passages like Mark 2:1-12 are not hereby proven to be superior to the interpretation offered by the apologists. But when passages such as this one admit of several other viable interpretations it is illegitimate for apologists to use them as unambiguous evidence that Jesus "claimed to be God."

Among Jesus' "indirect claims to be God," there is another that is so indirect as to be almost indetectable. George Carey invites us to


"Consider the sense of mission [Jesus] so undoubtedly had. The Gospels reveal him as under divine constraint...There is no hesitation concerning this, no fumbling or uncertainty; instead, there is clear direction, even when it entails the reality of the cross. Now if Jesus were a man only, . . we would be hard pressed to find a reason for this assurance. [13]


What kind of an "argument" is this? Leaving aside Carey's obvious neglect of such texts as Mark 14:34-36, this must be judged as an extreme case of special pleading. When self-assurance and single-minded zeal become sufficient qualification for Godhood the Trinity is going to become much more crowded than it already is!

Jesus' "claims for himself" are not quite so unambiguous as they would have to be to make the Trilemma argument the "open-and-shut case" it is supposed to be. However most scholars would agree that there is at least some implicit claim in Jesus' words and acts for messianic authority, or to be the "eschatological Prophet." This much could be safely assumed by anyone in debate.

Hardly anyone would suggest that Jesus was a conscious charlatan making grandiose claims he himself knew were false. Therefore we can dismiss the "liar" option and move on to the question of "lunacy." Apologists argue that most people claiming to be God, or in our day even to be Jesus Christ himself, are insane and demonstrate it by various other erratic behaviors. They go on to show that Jesus did not behave insanely, despite his great claims. Thus he must have been sane and therefore correct in his claims. These


apologists are too quick to ignore some other options. As Albert Schweitzer shows in his dissertation, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, one need not judge Jesus to be paranoid or psychotic even if one doesn't believe in his messiahship or divinity (as Schweitzer himself, strictly speaking, did not). He shows that the analyst needs much more biographical background information than is available on Jesus for such a clinical judgment. He reminds us that what would appear to be delusions from our perspective may seem entirely reasonable in the worldview held by the allegedly insane subject. The Trilemma argument trades on the strangeness to modern ears of claims to saviorhood, messiahship, world-rule, etc. Such claims are so outrageous, it is implied, that the claimant must be either crazy or right. Who else would dare say such things? But in Jesus' day and culture such things were not at all outrageous. They were part of the inherited religious worldview and seemed as real and natural as "the Rapture" does to Evangelicals despite the incredulity of outsiders.

Granted, though most people believed in the Messiah, Son of Man, etc., not everyone would conclude that he himself might be entitled to that status. Jesus did, whereas obviously most did not. But this is unusual in a very different way than implied in the Trilemma argument. It is more analogous to a modern American concluding that he will someday be president of the United States than concluding he is, say, Napoleon.

What about other historical figures who have claimed to be a manifestation of God, the Messiah, or the eschatologicaI Prophet? One may certainly point to some who may have been frauds, though the number might decline if we tried to penetrate hostile propaganda besmirching their reputations (cf. Mark 5:22). Also, certainly some have been mentally ill, e.g., Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and Sabbatai Sevi, who seems to have been manic-depressive. But it is equally true that others such as Muhammad, the Bab, and modern eastern "god-men" like Meher Baba and Sai Baba were apparently neither charlatans nor paranoid psychotics. According to the Trilemma argument, shouldn't their claims also be accepted? I doubt that Evangelical apologists would welcome this prospect.

If the Trilemma argument were valid it would prove too much. The underlying assumption here seems to be that a normal, healthy human psyche cannot sincerely hold the sincere conviction of its own Godhood. The hidden implication of the Trilemma argument seen this way is that Jesus must have been insane even if he was right, since the orthodox apologists believe that the incarnate Christ did have a healthy, "fully human" psyche! If a human psyche cannot sanely believe in its own deity, this must apply regardless of the truth or error of that belief. The alternative is to say that Jesus had a qualitatively superhuman psyche, which is however to deny the "full humanity" of Jesus. This is Apollinarianism, a heresy to which most users of the Trilemma argument would probably not want to subscribe. But, again, it is not demonstrable that a grandiose belief in one's own messiah ship or divinity is tantamount to insanity as the Trilemma argument alleges.

Parenthetically, one may suspect that part of the fundamentalist hysteria over Martin Scorcese's film The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) was due to the clarity


with which it illustrated precisely this point. Though many viewers (or rather, non-viewers) did not relish the way Jesus was portrayed, it is hard to deny that the film depicts a strong doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus, attributing to Jesus much stronger statements to this effect than any to be found in the gospels. The trouble was that the film depicts the struggle of a genuine flesh-and-blood man to come to grips with such a shattering truth: Jesus is shown as the victim of seizures, hallucinations, and moods of self-reproach, since, at first, as a good Jew he can scarcely take the inner voices whispering the secret of his own deity as aught but demonic blasphemy. I say that here we have depicted something of the unseen and distasteful psychological implications of the Trilemma argument.

The Trilemma argument falsely presents us with a set of comprehensive and mutually exclusive alternatives. It cannot prove that Jesus cannot have been a conscientious but mistaken would-be messiah.

Among the "childish things", a mature Evangelicalism must put away is what Albert Schweitzer called "the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics." [14] I conclude the chapter with a brief tale depicting the apologetical enterprise in its true, childish colors.


A Christmas Fable

Once upon a Christmas Eve long ago, three precocious children were sitting around the fireplace. They were waiting for cobwebs to fill their little heads so they could retire to dreamland until the morning, when Santa would have made his rounds. The three boys were named Rudy Bultmann, Johnny Warwick Montgomery, and Franky Schaeffer. Having exhausted the conversational potential of baseball, tricycles and cowboys, their minds turned to theology. One of them looked at Rudy and said, "Rudolf with your nose so bright, won't you open our discussion tonight?"

Rudy began, "Friends, as you know, I have been asked to speak on the subject of Santa Claus. My response is `Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,' but only in "Geschichte", not in "Historie", of course. There are many elements of the traditional Christmas story which are clearly mythological, and therefore unacceptable to the modern child. After all, can we really believe that anyone today would wear a red suit? And flying reindeer-modern zoology and aerodynamics assure us that this is impossible! And where would Santa get all those toys? Surely, if he makes them in some North Pole workshop, he must be infringing on all kinds of patents! No child who has to go to a toy store and pay for a doll over the counter can possibly believe in a miraculous appearance of toys beneath the Christmas tree!

"Indeed, there may well have been a historical `Saint Nicholas of Myra,' and he may even have been a charitable fellow. But all this about a `Santa Claus' who magically flies around the world giving presents...! Surely this is primitive mythology! All the historian can document is the Christmas Morning Faith of the original elves. And, of course, what really matters is that Santa flies around in my heart!"


Johnny quickly became agitated, as he frequently did, and replied, "The trouble with you, Rudy, is that you don't give enough credit to the hard, historical facts! Look at the sources for our knowledge of Santa! They're just as good as the documentation for any other historical figure, maybe better! For example, take `The Night Before Christmas.' It describes Santa's `belly, which shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.' Obviously, this kind of vivid detail is an internal confirmation of the poem's claim to have been penned by an eyewitness!

"Another thing, Rudy. You operate with an obsolete picture of the universe as a closed system of cause-and-effect. You assume reindeer can't fly just because you've never seen them fly. Why, you've probably never seen any reindeer period!

"And how do you explain the empty plate? We all know that kids put out a plate of cookies for Santa, and the next morning the cookies are gone! And don't give me that old argument that it was really the parents who ate them! Unless it was Santa himself, the historian can't explain the tremendous change in the Christmas tree! How else could all those presents have gotten there? It would be psychologically impossible for the parents to put them there. Why should they spend hundreds of dollars on those gifts just to perpetuate a myth? If Santa didn't really come it would be much cheaper to expose the deception!"

Franky chimed in, "Well said, Johnny! I can see that Rudy is making an upper-chimney leap. He thinks he'll end up on the roof, but really he'll find himself back down in the fire! All he's gonna get in his stocking is coal! Of course, the decisive argument against Rudy's position is that he can't really live on the basis of it. He inevitably finds himself acting as if Santa does come in space-time history. He wouldn't get up tomorrow morning and go look under the tree if he was consistent with his presuppositions. And besides, if Santa wasn't coming to town, Rudy would have no metaphysical standard to tell him he'd better not pout or cry! Actually, there's a dangerous cultural shift in this very direction. I can prove it by showing the gradual replacement of Santa by other motifs on recent Christmas cards!"

They decided to settle the question by staying up till Santa did or didn't come. So they all found good hiding places and settled down to wait. But, alas, the little fellows soon fell asleep. And the next morning, sure enough, the plate was empty and they all had presents.

[Footnotes For This Chapter] [Table Of Contents]

"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.