XFiles Friday: Liar, Lunatic or Liberal

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)

Last time we looked at what Geisler and Turek called Jesus’ “indirect” claims to deity, a rather disappointing demonstration for the most part, with several of their key examples turning out muddled and self-contradictory, and even non-existent. This week, they try to offer some more practical examples of things Jesus allegedly did that only God could have done, followed by their ace in the hole: C. S. Lewis.

As with the “indirect” claims (and even with the “direct” claims), the evidence cited by Geisler and Turek seems calculated more to disappoint than to document. For example, they cite Mark 2:5-11, where Jesus heals the paralytic, and says “Your sins are forgiven.” According to G&T, “The scribes correctly responded, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” Jesus forgave sins; therefore Jesus is God, right?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at a Bible passage Geisler and Turek didn’t quote.

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Who can forgive sins but God alone? Well, apparently Jesus thought his disciples could, or at least, the New Testament writers portray him as though that’s what he thought. The concept Geisler and Turek studiously avoid mentioning is the idea that a duly appointed agent might possibly exercise a delegated authority to forgive sins, even if he or she were not personally God.

Their next example is even weaker.

Jesus declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and then immediately gave a new commandment, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt. 28:18-19).

See, God is supposed to have originally given Moses Ten Commandments, so by referring to this passage as a “new commandment,” we’re supposed to jump to the conclusion that only God can give “commandments,” and therefore Jesus must be God, or something. We’re also apparently supposed to completely overlook the fact that Jesus says power and authority were given to him. Since when does God need to be given power and authority? And who is there who could give God any power and authority that He didn’t already have? This one seems to work against G&T.

I’ll skip the next couple examples, which are more or less as bad as the first two, and go straight to the last example. This one might actually sound plausible: Jesus, on numerous occasions, seems to have accepted, and possibly even commended people for offering, worship aimed at himself personally. Such tales might, of course, be embellishments added by the NT writers in recording their awe-struck recollections of how their “Savior” behaved, but taking the stories at face value, it seems fair to allow that Jesus did, in fact, promote the idea that he was to be worshiped as a divine person of some sort.

And that brings us to C. S. Lewis, and the famous “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument, sometimes called the “Trilemma.” It’s a topic we’ve discussed before, so I don’t want to rehash the obvious objections too much. Suffice it to say that, for the skeptic, the only problem posed by the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument is why we can’t pick both of the first two options.

One aspect of this argument that we haven’t discussed before, though, and which I think Geisler and Turek do a rather better job of bringing out, is that this argument isn’t really even addressed at skeptics.

What would you think about your neighbor if he seriously said those things [which Jesus said]? You certainly wouldn’t say, “Gee, I think he’s a great moral teacher!” No, you’d say this guy is nuts, because he’s definitely claiming to be God.

They follow this up with another quote from C. S. Lewis:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish things 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 rather 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.

It’s not the skeptics and atheists who are most likely to “accept Jesus” as a great moral teacher (though some say they do anyway). No, the people who are the principle target of Lewis’ argument are the casual Christians, the cultural Christians, the liberal Christians, who try to embrace what they see as all the good things about Jesus without being sucked into the evils of fanaticism. People who like Jesus and want to be known as “Christians,” but who stop short of surrendering themselves body, mind and soul to Jesus as their personal God and Master.

What Lewis is trying to do here is to confront the casual/liberal Christian with a contradiction between the nice things they want to say about Jesus, and the ridiculousness of actually saying them in the context of Jesus claiming to be God. Let’s pause here and savor this moment, shall we? Christians trying to get other Christians to confront the inherent contradictions in their beliefs, in hopes of getting them to acknowledge how inconsistent and foolish those beliefs are…?

Ah, such a treat.

Geisler and Turek, as Christian apologists, ought to know how futile it is to take this approach. All a “warm and fuzzy” believer needs to do is adopt a “warm and fuzzy” approach to interpreting what Jesus means, just as G&T themselves do if confronted with their own contradictions and inconsistencies. The “Trilemma” is not so much a rational case for the deity of Jesus as it is a rationalization of the desire to believe.

There are certainly any number of parallel counter-instances in the real world. Take Rev. Moon, for instance. He teaches moral principles that are in many cases the same moral standards Jesus taught. And like Jesus, he claims to be something more than just a mere man. Does this mean we must choose whether Moon is a Liar, Lunatic or Lord? He’s too wealthy and adept at politics to be crazy, and if teaching good morals means he can’t be a Liar, then we’re left with only the same choice as Lewis wants to leave for Jesus.

But in the real world, it’s not only possible, it’s regrettably common for men to preach a high standard, not because of any personal virtue, but because it makes the crowds easier to manipulate. Is there a Christian virtue preached by Jesus, or a moral vice forbidden by him, that is not many times more rigorously enforced in Muslim cultures than among evangelical Christians today? Liar, Lunatic or Prophet, which was Mohammed?

The Liar, Lunatic or Lord argument pretends to be a Trilemma, but it’s really a simple case of binary thinking, as Geisler and Turek point out by quoting Peter Kreeft.

There are only two possible interpretations: Jesus is God, or Jesus is not God… Jesus was either (1) God, if his claim about himself was true, or (2) a bad man, if what he said was not true, for good men do not claim to be God.

This is the binary choice that Lewis wants to force casual Christians into. There’s no possibility Jesus might have been misunderstood, or mis-reported, or even honestly mistaken. There’s no option allowing for Jesus to have thought of himself as “being God” in some special, spiritual sense of communion and harmony, no analogue to the marital metaphor of two becoming one in some intimate and personal commitment. There is only the binary choice: either call Jesus God, or call him Satan.

In the world of Lewis, Geisler, and Turek, Jesus does not want friends, nor does he want admirers. He wants slaves. Or “servants,” if you prefer a softer synonym that ultimately means the same thing. He has no use for fans or imitators. He must be your God, or be nothing at all. And once you accept him as your God, of course, you’ll need to obey him, which will be difficult since he’s not actually here to tell you what he wants. But don’t worry, in his absence, there are plenty of people who know just exactly what his will is, and who will be only too happy to share it with you, on his behalf, so you can obey them, er, him, too.

Ultimately, that’s the goal: force weak-minded believers into a binary choice that will leave them enslaved to whatever the leaders of the Church say Jesus’ will is. Admiration is not enough. Learning good morals is not enough. It must be unconditional surrender or nothing. The only thing Jesus hates more than an atheist is an independent believer.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Liar, Lunatic or Liberal”

  1. atimetorend Says:

    Excellent breakdown of the trilemma, both the logic and the consequences at stake. It is so important to determine the presuppositions in the apologetics before trying to pick them apart. I am trying to figure out if I take offense at Lewis’ apologetics because they sound like fundamentalist exhortations to believe at times, or if that is something I am reading into them because of my own conservative Christian past. I am tending to think the former. Geisler is easier for me to reject out of hand, both because of his presuppositions and the silliness of their arguments.

  2. Ric Says:

    Lewis’ logic is so bad it honestly makes me laugh. Good piece. Your second-to-last paragraph is quotable.

  3. Hunt Says:

    Great post. I’ll reiterate something I think you wrote about in another post somewhere regarding “trilemmas” and dilemmas. The average person, hearing the trilemma recited will assign uniform probabilities to each choice, therefore giving each one roughly 33%. Since the unflavored options have usually already been given a bad spin, this is an extremely effective tool of deceptive persuasion. But I could as easily say that either aliens have visited earth or they have not. As absurd as it seems, a lot of people will assign a 50/50 split to this proposition.

    But as you say, none of this is required to negate any psychological sway the “trilemma” may have. It’s just a false trichotomy.

    My personal opinion is that Jesus, if he was indeed historical , was probably a better than average bloke who got caught up in a situation that spun out of control. More than likely he didn’t fully understand the political environment he inhabited. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s happened more than few times since. There’s every reason to believe that Jim Jones also had virtuous qualities, but he lost control in a different, but no less disastrous, way. Jones probably represented the “lunatic” end of the spectrum a bit more than Jesus, but he wasn’t completely evil. Those who seek to depart from the status quo, as often as not, tend to end badly.

  4. Hunt Says:

    Make that “favored,” but if you must pick a flavored option, make it strawberry!

  5. valdemar Says:

    Given that Jesus believed in demonic possession (if he existed) he was not exactly possessed of cosmic wisdom. If he existed at all – I assume that one remains largely a matter of personal opinion?