C.S. Lewis’s trilemma

Timothy George wrote Jesus Came Preaching in First Things a while back. It tries to draw out both the purpose for which Christ came and the reason he remains a notable historical figure:

In the Gospels, Jesus not only proclaimed the kingdom—he was the bearer and the inaugurator of it. This was seen both in what he said—his claim of a unique filial relationship with the heavenly Father (Matt. 11:25-30; John 10:30, 14:11)—and in what he did. He despoiled the reign of Satan through the exorcising of demons, he offered forgiveness to sinners and celebrated the eschatological banquet with them, and he asserted divine moral authority in many ways including the striking “but I say unto you” sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. Thus from the beginning, the content of early Christian preaching was neither a new philosophical worldview nor a code of ethics to improve human behavior, but rather Jesus Christ himself: Jesus remembered in his words and deeds, Jesus crucified, buried, and risen from the dead, and Jesus yet to come again in glory—all of which is included in that earliest of Christian confessions, “Jesus is Lord!”

“Thus from the beginning, the content of early Christian preaching was neither a new philosophical worldview nor a code of ethics to improve human behavior.”

I was out at National Mechanics in Old City Philadelphia a year or so ago with a friend of mine who subscribes to the “Christianity as philosophy” school of thinking, which basically respects Christianity as a philosophically important force. But ever since reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Lewis’s “trilemma” has convinced me against thinking of Christ as simply a great moral teacher. The trilemma:

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma…”

Lewis bases this on the fact that Christ didn’t simply come to preach love for one’s neighborhood or ethics of reciprocal charity. Christ’s truth-claims were central to his preaching and were the basis for his arrest and trial. Lewis illustrates this in Mere Christianity by highlighting some of Christ’s truth-claims, which Wikipedia conveniently bullets:

  • to have authority to forgive sins—behaving as if he really was “the person chiefly offended in all offences.”
  • to have always existed, and
  • to intend to come back to judge the world at the end of time.

Christopher Hitchens’s response illustrates the bind Lewis’s trilemma represents: “I am bound to say that Lewis is more honest here. Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it “moral”… to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a fanatic.”

The First Things piece tied together the conversation started at National Mechanics with the trilemma. I didn’t articulate it properly in conversation at the time, but I agree with Lewis that it’s not intellectually compelling to describe Christ simply as a “great moral teacher”—as if his contributions were primarily philosophical rather than morally revolutionary. Christ’s appearance in history demands one take a real position on him, specifically in relation to his truth claims. So to describe him merely as a teacher seems to me to skirt the real question, which is something like “Do I believe Christ was who he said he was?”

Christ wasn’t killed, like Socrates, for corrupting the youth. He was killed for claiming to be God’s son. To paraphrase Flannery O’Conner, if Christ’s purpose was merely philosophical, then to hell with the faith.