The Trilemma

This past week I've been reading some of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The book made a big splash when it came out and apparently is taken quite seriously by the atheist crowd. Personally, I thought it was quite a disappointment. I thought it might have some serious philosophical points to make, but, as is so often the case with popular writings, it is not a scholarly treatment and it mostly repeats the same arguments in this long-standing debate between the neo-atheists and the Christian apologists. If you discard the informal fallacies of irrelevance, appeal to authority, begging the question and ad hominem attack contained in the book, there isn't much left. Furthermore, the presentation is biased, often failing to even suggest there is an equally well thought out alternative view available. Consequently, the book is not likely to convince anyone except those already convinced. So, if the book is not serious philosophy, what is it? The purpose of Dawkins' book is plainly stated in the preface where he speaks of "consciousness-raising."

[This book] is intended to raise consciousness – raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. That's the first of my consciousness-raising message.

My, my, how noble... Later in the preface, Dawkins makes it even more clear.

My fourth conscious-raiser is atheist pride. Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about…There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves.

HAH HAH HAH… (I feel like getting out my miniature violin and sawing away for a bit.) Yeah, it's the equivalent of the "gay pride" movement. (Dawkins actually uses that analogy at one point.) Given all the praise for this book, I thought it was going to be some real sink-your-teeth-in stuff, but it turns out to offer a litany of excuses for why an atheist should feel good about himself. That at least explains why so much of the book is slander against religion combined with ad hominem attack against anyone who believes in God. Honestly, you would not believe how much of it no more than antagonistic remarks about religion. In short, the book is not an objective intellectual discourse; it's not science; it's not philosophy; it's propaganda for the atheist pride movement.


Reading along in the book, I came across something that shows such a blatant lack of understanding that I want to write about it. My purpose is not to debate the atheists as this happens to be something that a lot of people get wrong, including some Christians. It has to do with something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, the "Trilemma". Dawkins wrote:

There are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God. A common argument, attributed among others to C. S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar: 'Mad, bad or God.' … The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal. But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Plenty of people are.

Before explaining what is wrong with Dawkins' statement, let's see what Lewis actually wrote:

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 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 with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis is not making an argument for the existence of God here, as Dawkins implies. No doubt, many Christians try to use the trilemma for that purpose, but that's no excuse for misrepresenting what Lewis wrote. Lewis' argument for the existence of God is given in earlier chapters of Mere Christianity. The trilemma is in response to people's opinions about Jesus. There are those who want to "rescue" the moral philosophy of Jesus without treating Jesus as divine savior and thus converting to Christianity. Despite appearances, Lewis is not making an argument here that you must believe in Jesus as God. Lewis is saying that if you don't believe in Jesus as divine, then you have no rational basis for treating Him as a "good and wise teacher." The claim that there is a fourth alternative, "honestly mistaken," does not work. A man who honestly believes he is God, but is mistaken, is a fool, one of Lewis' three options.

Likewise, there are those who claim the disciples reported it wrong. Dawkins' claim that there is little historical evidence to the claims of divinity falls into that category. But that doesn't affect the trilemma of Lewis. Doubting the authenticity of the Gospels, or claiming that the writers did not accurately report facts about Jesus, is not grounds for inventing a different Jesus. The only argument that can be made in that case is that we don't know what Jesus really said and therefore cannot judge one way or the other. Lewis is pointing out that you cannot take the Jesus of scripture and call him a wise moral teacher. If you remove the scripture from consideration, you have no argument to make about Jesus at all. Thus you still can't claim that Jesus is "honestly mistaken" unless you are merely projecting your own desires and attitudes onto the matter.

The claim that "there is no good historical evidence that he ever thought he was divine," shows the bias behind Dawkins arguments. This has become a modern day myth, and needs to be examined more closely. Here is some of what Dawkins wrote:

Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus' life. All were then copied and recopied…by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.

See what I mean about propaganda? No? Well …

The idea that there is an "overwhelming case" against the accuracy of the Gospels is stated as if it were an undeniable fact, without possible argument, and should be accepted blindly without really understanding the debate that has gone on. Whether or not you accept that as the case depends in large part which scholars you read, when they wrote, and how you approach criticism of the Bible text. Contemporary Christian scholars definitely don't take the position stated by Dawkins, but I guess they are to be dismissed without consideration.

How long is "long after" and what does that have to do with the accuracy of the text? If I write my memoirs when I am sixty years old and include descriptions of events when I was a teenager, would that be considered long after? Would that in and of itself make my writing questionable? Use a little common sense here. In any case, the claim that the gospels were written after Paul's epistles is not accepted universally. F. F. Bruce, for example, makes an argument that all of the gospel accounts were written prior to 70 A.D. Since Luke quotes Matthew and Mark, that pushes those writings back further. New Testament scholars also point to the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to quote from a common source, which scholars designate Q, and thus contain portions of even earlier texts that we no longer have available.

The fact that Paul doesn't describe the facts of Jesus' life has no bearing at all on the question of the accuracy of the synoptic gospels. Paul was writing to explain the meaning of the Gospel to people who had already converted. There would be no point in Paul spending time explaining the facts of the life of Jesus to people who were already familiar with those facts. It's an irrelevant point.

Likewise, notice the ambiguous and pejorative "fallible scribes" in reference to those who copied the scriptures. Of course they were fallible in the sense that we can all make typographical errors in copying a document. That has no relevance to the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts unless there were significant factual changes that we cannot detect. But men who have made lifelong careers studying all the available ancient copies of the Christian writings make no such claim. Read Bruce Metzger's writings for an example of what I mean. Likewise, the insinuation of "had their own religious agenda" has no bearing on the objective evidence of the accuracy of the documents. Of course they had a religious agenda. The copyists were, after all, copying sacred documents in order to preserve them and promulgate their beliefs. Their "agenda" would have been to accurately portray the claims about Jesus. But, in any case, the same point can be made about the atheists, including Dawkins; he has his own agenda to pursue as well and is every bit as likely to bias his presentation to meet his agenda. That is, in fact, exactly what happens when he mentions Lewis' trilemma and in his presentation of stories from the New Testament.

It's good to keep in mind that the only significant historical evidence we have of Jesus is that contained in the gospels. That is not a problem, despite the claims of the atheists and secularists. What we want to know first and foremost is whether or not the writings we have today are an accurate portrayal of the beliefs of the first century Christians. If we are honestly searching for the truth we can't just speculate on what might have been and take any purported scenario as establishing truth. (Unfortunately, that's what I have seen in the writings of many skeptics.) We have two issues to contend with—the textual accuracy and the historical accuracy. Without establishing the textual accuracy of the documents, arguing over their historical value is silly. But establishing the accuracy of the text can be done fairly easily by stepping backward through time using each generation's quotations of earlier generations' writings. In other words, today we quote writings from the last century, the last century quoted the previous century writings, etc. We can trace these quotations back to the second century with ease where we find the second century Christian teachers quoting the gospels and epistles found in the New Testament. Some of the second century teachers were taught directly by the original disciples of Jesus (e.g., Polycarp). Thus, if they regarded the writings as accurate, we can accept them as accurate as well, even if they were written "long after" Jesus. In addition, we have a sufficient number of available documents to compare and contrast in order to eliminate copyist errors as a source of textual error. But we have to be careful to avoid ambiguity here. A textual error is not the same as an error in historical fact, and any argument that confuses the two is fallacious (ambiguous middle term). Thus, although the textual accuracy is not an argument for the truth of the claims made in the writings, it is an irrefutable argument that the documents we have today are an accurate portrayal of first century Christian beliefs about Jesus. In fact, you will find that most skeptics quote liberally from the New Testament as their primary source of Christian beliefs.

All of the early Christian writings contain words that Jesus spoke, and statements made by his disciples, that cannot be taken as anything less that a claim of divinity. If you treat Jesus as an invented myth, you do so by ignoring the historical documents or dismissing them on the basis of speculation. Likewise, if you snip-n-clip the Bible to fit your thesis, you are not making an honest presentation of the Christian view. If you take Jesus as a historical person based on the only authentic writings we have, you can only consider him a fool, a deceiver, or a divine savior. Take your pick, but please don't fall for all this propaganda that passes itself off as critical thinking.

For another analysis of this subject see:

Tektonics (

Textual Reliability of the New Testament (


Bookmark and Share