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Answering C.S. Lewis

December 30, 2005

In the Narnia movie, the younger brother tells the professor that he does not believe his younger sister’s story about a magical land in the back of the wardrobe.  The professor says (best I can remember from the movie) “I don’t know what they’re teaching as logic these days.  If your sister is not lying, and she has not gone mad, then logically she must be telling the truth.  So why don’t you believe her?”

This is a mini-version of Lewis’ famous “Lunatic, demon, or God” argument (see notes below for full text).  In brief, Lewis says Jesus must be God because if he were not, he could only be a madman or a demon.

I can’t remember the technical term for this fallacy, but Lewis is forcing a conclusion from too few possibilities.  The full range of possibilities for Jesus’ claims runs more along these lines:

  • Jesus was a great human teacher but the Bible adds claims he never actually made

  • Jesus was a great human teacher but also a bit touched in the head
  • Jesus never existed – he’s a fictional rabbi invented to present revolutionary ideas in Judaism without getting the author into possibly fatal trouble with the authorities
  • Our understanding of Jesus’ claims, either by cultural context or translation, is incorrect
  • Jesus was a huckster and a liar
  • Jesus never existed – he’s a bunch of myths mixed up with the life of some rabble-rouser from a turbulent period in the history of Judaism and Classical/Roman mythology
  • Some combination of the above
  • Jesus was the Son of God borne to a virgin Jewish girl
  • Jesus was a demon
  • Jesus was an alien
  • Jesus was a time-traveller

Certainly the range of possibilities is wider than Lewis presented.  But even within his own construct, is it necessary to believe that Jesus is the Son of God?  Lewis thinks so, mainly for the reason that he is not ready to entertain his own alternatives (let alone the wider range I have presented here).  He does not like the notion that humans may be responsible for constructing a workable ethical standard, or that the universe may have no more meaning than its own inhabitants can accumulate in their brief lives. 

Lewis’ reasoning may be valid for one’s person’s own philosophical satisfaction, but not as normative constructs.  If you want to make a compelling argument for belief, you will have to do better than that. 

Nothing I have said here stands against anyone believing in God, or even in the way of liking C.S. Lewis, which I certainly do.  But let’s not get too misty-eyed about his status as a logician.  He was a Medaeval historian and a reasonably good storyteller.

The range of possibilities I have listed above is not in order of probability.  The actual probability you might assign to each one depends on your frame of reference. 

Notes:


You can decide for yourself if I am being unfair to Lewis if you read Mere Christianity and some of his other didactic works.  Here is the full text of his argument about Jesus’ credibility.

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 patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.
- Mere Christianity, First Touchstone Ed. 1996, p.56

Categories: Religion
  1. December 31, 2005 at 00:07 | #1

    I’m often reminded of the God Squad, at least prior to making the statement that I’m going to make :) , and the rhabbi and priest who are friends and go on and talk about their respective beliefs together.  Sometimes, DOF, you get reffered to as my ‘Atheist friend’ :) (lovingly, of course)…

    I think the argument good ol Clive inteded to make was directly from Jesus’ teachings and I think it is an either/or sort of thing if you look at it from that lens.  His impact on society is duely noted (regardless of how you see him).  But from a purely claim standpoint, I think he’s right in that there is two ways to see Jesus. 

    I could walk into work on Monday (do we go back on Monday) and say I’m Bill Gates.  Obviously, you’d think I had a bit too much Baileys on Saturday night :) , but you wouldn’t believe me and rightfully so because I don’t look like Billg@microsoft.com (for the spammers in the audience :) )…Jesus’ claims themselves force one of two ways of looking at things, IMO.  But then again, I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew that I was going to say that :) .

    —pete

  2. PeteJ
    December 31, 2005 at 00:10 | #2

    “He does not like the notion that humans may be responsible for constructing a workable ethical standard, or that the universe may have no more meaning than its own inhabitants can accumulate in their brief lives.”

    Where does it come from then?  Where does the basis for being good to anyone lie?  Why do we not just ban the sick and the old to the wilderness to die…isn’t that what happened in the march of the penguins? :)

    —pete

  3. December 31, 2005 at 09:00 | #3

    “Sometimes, DOF, you get reffered to as my ‘Atheist friend’”

    Thanks!  :-)

    If you walked into work on Monday (Sorry, I think we do go back) and said you were Bill Gates, I could think of a half-dozen explanations ranging from carrying a joke too far to “Ol Pete has slipped a cog”.  But hey, long as you’re there, could I borrow a few million dollars? ;-)

    “Jesus’ claims themselves force one of two ways of looking at things, IMO”

    Nope, I came up with 11 different explanations for those claims and wasn’t even trying very hard.  Lewis proposes only 3 and picks the one he’s most comfortable with.  That was my point, that he is committing a logical fallacy with no structural integrity.  If you want to believe in Jesus, fine – but best not rely on this particular weak-kneed argument from Lewis.

    Using a theistic cosmology as the basis of ethics is weak-kneed too, as it can be applied to justify any desired outcome including but not limited to ‘being good to people’.  I’ve touched briefly on that topic before but sometime I’ll do a longer post on it and we can thrash it around.

  4. December 31, 2005 at 13:02 | #4

    Actually, the main problem is that Lewis’ false dilemma (or trilemma) depends on a set of alternatives that Lewis presumably took as axiomatically settled:

    A.  The story of the Gospels is, as presented, complete and accurate and fully understood.

    B.  It is either incomplete, inaccurate (in part or in whole), misinterpreted (in part or in whole), or otherwise insufficiently understood to be accepted as a given.

    I think that if you take (A) as a premise, then Lewis’ alternatives work.  But that’s a huge “if” (and one, frankly, I’m not willing to take).

  5. zilch
    January 12, 2006 at 15:31 | #5

    ***Dave has got it, and that’s the reason that Pete’s story about Bill Gates is not applicable- we could be present and see Pete, with our own eyes, claiming he’s Gates, and then the trilemma would make sense.

    More or less.  There are always possibilities other than just truth, lies, and madness: drugs, acting under threat, sleeptalking, a 3-D film, and the old standby, being a brain in a vat.

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