UPDATE: Thanks to the help of commenters, I’ve added some more options to the flow chart in this post (“Joker” and “Poet”). I’ve also tweaked one or two of the probabilities, and displayed the outcomes in a chart.
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, popularized an apologetic device concerning Jesus’ claim to be the son of God. Here it is in full:
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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
This has become known as Lewis’s Trilemma, because it offers us only three options. Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or “Lord”. It is not difficult to come up with further options that Lewis, for whatever reasons, left out of his argument. In the following flow chart, I’ve tried to expand the trilemma to cover the main options I think are available. Lewis’s three options are shown with green boxes.
All told, I come up with eight alternatives to “Lord”. Jesus’ claim could be the product of legend or, if he actually did make it, he might have been mistaken (out of ignorance or misinterpretation of the facts), coerced, lying, insane (mildly or severely), joking, or speaking metaphorically (“poet”).
Just for fun, I thought I’d assign what I think are likely probabilities to each branch in the flow chart.
The two probabilities for each YES-NO pair add up to 1. To work out the probability of a particular outcome, multiply the probabilities you encounter along the way. So, for instance, to find the probability that Jesus was a liar, we have to reject the legend option (probability 0.5), accept that he made the claim freely (0.95), that he was fully informed (0.9), but that he did not believe what he was saying (0.3), and he wasn’t using humor (0.9) or metaphor (0.3). The probability that he was lying is therefore 0.5 x 0.95 x 0.9 x 0.3 x 0.9 x 0.3 = 0.0346, or 3.46%.
Here is a chart showing the probability of each possible outcome.
For the math geeks: The above probabilities sum to 1 as they should.
Obviously the above probabilities shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although I think they are at least in the right ballpark. The point is that Lewis’s trilemma was quite obviously simplistic – a great example of the false dilemma fallacy (extended to a trilemma of course).
There is another problem with Lewis’s Trilemma. It uses extreme language to trigger an emotional response. Although I’d like to think that Lewis had a reasonably compassionate attitude toward the mentally ill, he certainly doesn’t show it in this apologetic, likening the “lunatic” option to a man who calls himself a poached egg.
Lewis is hoping that his reader will be so aghast at the notion of a “lunatic” Jesus (cue images of someone bouncing off the walls of a padded cell, screaming paranoid nonsense) that the idea will be instinctively rejected. But Lewis doesn’t actually provide a single argument (at least in his trilemma apologetic) for why Jesus should not, in fact, be considered to have been mentally ill. Looking at the behavior of several biblical characters, including Jesus (see here, too), it’s not actually hard to believe that he suffered from schizophrenia or some similar illness. And of course there was almost exactly zero understanding of the causes of schizophrenia in Jesus’ day, and certainly no treatment. Would it be surprising to see the delusions of some schizophrenics being taken seriously? Probably not.
It should be noted that the arrangement of my flow chart is not unique. The mental illness question could feasibly appear much earlier in the sequence, leading to greater probabilities being assigned to it. Once again, take the entire thing with a pinch of salt.
And maybe make your own, too?