Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Lewis

July 21, 2021 • 9:15 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “Lord”, comes with the note: “Look, it’s a trope.”

The trope, of course, is C. S. Lewis’s (in)famous “Liar, lunatic, or lord” passage from his book Mere Christianity, also known as Lewis’s Trilemma. Here it is:

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 patronizing 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.

Now isn’t that convincing?

I remember when I read the book as part of my research for Faith Versus Fact, and I read it because Mere Christianity is supposed to be the best selling and most popular book on Christianity save the Bible itself. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that there are other possibilities beyond Lewis’s three, including Bart Ehrman’s thesis that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who may have believed what he said, but didn’t claim he was God himself.  You can see other criticisms at The Secular Web.

All in all, I was pretty appalled that people were taken in by C. S. Lewis’s arguments for Christianity in the book. It was like The Little Golden Book of Jesus for Brits. Grania, a lapsed Catholic, always said that Lewis was popular simply because he was one of the few theologians who could write for the average person.

But on to the strip, in which Mo gives Jesus a zinger:

20 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Lewis

    1. Yes, I’ll go for the “Legend”.
      There is no contemporary evidence whatsoever he ever existed, and the later evidence we have is all from Christian sources (except for a short passage in Josephus, which most experts consider a later insertion, a falsification, in other words).

  1. How nice that Luna is prominent hanging in the sky in front of them, while the word “lunatic” was left hanging in the conversation!

  2. Yeah, I remember reading that and feeling quite disappointed by Lewis’s supposed argument. I’d thought he was smarter than that. But he was also–rather like Francis Collins, I guess–really prone to “motivated reasoning”. He WANTED to believe and to convince himself that it was reasonable to do so.

    1. I rather suspect that he already believed emotionally and wanted to find justifications rationally.

      I’ve noticed many believers believe first and then assert arguments from that starting point. It sounds convincing (to them) but sounds like retrospective public relations to others. Spiritually motivated spin, as it were.

  3. I’ve never read the book before. Given the excerpt here, I’m not remotely impressed. Sort of disgusted actually. Disgusted that believers are such suckers as to be taken in by this nonsense and disgusted that they expect me to be impressed by it.

    Lewis’s set up of the problem is not so bad. He’s right on the money about Jesus sounding like a nutjob or an evil get. But then he resolves it like this . . .

    “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.”

    No reasoning as to why God is the correct answer, let alone evidence. Just that “it seems to me obvious,” and “I have to accept.” Of course this is SOP for all theology when you boil it down or back them into a corner. Reasoning is not the way, it doesn’t work, it will lead you astray, you just have to accept it in your heart. Then you’ll know.

    In a way this is quite honest. “We realize this is so stupid that convincing you by rational argument to accept it as true is next to impossible, so instead we aim to convince you that reason and rationality are inappropriate tools and discourage you from applying them to this issue. Instead we aim to condition you to believe that you must simply blindly accept it as true and that doing so is the most wonderful thing that a person can do.”

    1. No reasoning as to why God is the correct answer

      Lewis takes as an operating assumption that Jesus claimed he was God. Which leads to the three choices of: he knew he was making a false claim (liar), he was mistaken and making a false claim (lunatic), or the claim is true (lord).

      But everything about this logic is questionable. The mythicists argue no such figure even existed. Biblical scholars argue over whether Jesus ever really claimed to be God. It’s not hard to think someone lied about claiming to be a prophet or god – we get those all the time. We don’t necessarily equate religious claims of revelation with full-on insanity – we get those claims every day too, and nobody seriously suggests that all televangelists should be locked in an insane asylum. And of course lastly, even were the claim true, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the Catholic church or some other Christian sect has their theology correct. Lewis himself broke with standard Christian theology on several points, so even if you arrive at “accepting Jesus as lord”, you’ve got the problem of different people disagreeing on what that means in terms of actions and beliefs.

      Like most apologetics, the liar-lunatic-lord argument should probably be thought of more as an argument aimed at Christians who may be doubting rather than aimed at nonbelievers. It’s a pat-sounding way to help shore up beliefs already held and assuage emotional doubt, not engender new rational belief.

  4. I used to explain patiently to Christians the difference between gospels writers claiming Jesus said he is God thirty years after the fact and what the historical person on whom their character was based might actually have said.

    I’ve got tired of that and now I just say “I’ll go with liar”.

    It never ceases to amaze me that any modern Christian would think that having to believe a bad thing about Jesus is any kind of deterrent to denying his divinity.

    1. I think “lunatic” (sense : person suffering from major schizophrenic hallucinations”) is the most likely explanation. But “deliberate, conscious liar”, attempting to secure a followership of the delusional for his financial and/ or sexual exploitation remains a plausible interpretation. It has so few precedents – every month.

      There is no depth below which I can conceive of the religious sinking. As a caver. finding and exploring such metaphors may require dealing with damaging heat – being extremely subterranean. But I am sure my fellow troglodytes can plumb their depths.

      1. I’m no psychologist but I don’t see any reason in the new testament to think ‘major schizophrenic hallucinations.” There are lots of people running around that claim God speaks to them, through them, or that they have divine revelations. A historical Jesus could just have been the Kat Kerr of his day – wacky yes, but not lock-him-in-a-rubber-room wacky.

        That’s one of the flaws of Lewis’ argument. Sincere wrong belief that one has a connection to God does not require gibbering at the moon madness. Therefore, pointing out that the NT doesn’t portray Jesus as gibbering at the moon mad, is not reason to reject the possibility of sincere wrong belief.

  5. Fun strip.

    Kinda funny how believers can bristle if their beliefs are called irrational or unfounded by skeptics, yet accept the “if incorrect, he had to be a liar or lunatic” logic. They’re in the same position: if Bob can be ‘merely mistaken’ about God without being considered full-on bats**t bonkers, why can’t we think of Jesus as being like Bob?

    1. Take not the name of Bob in vein! For values of It (“he” mostly, but it is unimportant). in small volumes, not including anything related to reality.

  6. My collection of “careful where you wear them” T-shirts includes one with a nice rendition of Jesus in a straitjacket. I occasionally feel the need to explain that it isn’t really sacreligious, it’s an homage to a well known Christian apologist.

  7. Another option (my favorite) is there never even WAS a real person Jesus of Nazareth. At all. Sort of like Luke Skywalker except not a good story like Star Wars.
    The ONLY contemporaneous records of his existence are from the Gospels and all of them were written much later. And all the contradictions.
    For some reason this theory *really* excites the cross worshippers when I’m drunk and stupid enough to posit it to them. 🙂

    The whole thing sounds like a fairy tale – written by a committee – made up of a pastiche of ancient Palestinian conmen and lunatics blowing around that cursed period of time. Utterly ridiculous.


  8. The general consensus among historians (of all religious beliefs and none) is that there was a real Jewish preacher called Yeshua of Nazareth who founded the Christian religion.

    See for example:

    Most notably, anti-Christian commentators living in the early era did not deny that Yeshua was a real person, although they might have leaned towards seeing him as a “liar or lunatic”.

    1. The thing is, the first Christians didn’t think Jesus was an actual human being whom anyone could possibly have seen or heard. The figure of Jesus-as-a-human only appeared many decades later as an allegorical character in the gospel of Mark, and it took centuries of debate and bloodshed to for that idea to become orthodox. It’s true that the mainstream view among today’s historians is that Christianity was founded by some kind of charismatic individual who taught groovy new ideas and was unjustly executed ca. AD 30, but keep in mind, the scholarly field of Christian origins is entirely dominated by currently- or formerly-devout Christians — they’re not giving the mythicist theories a fair shake.

      If you’re interested in this question, you owe it to yourself to read up on both sides of the debate. I’ve written a paper on the topic which you might find enlightening.

      1. I have read both sides. Jesus Mythicists strike me as being like Anti-Stratfordians (people who believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays accredited to him). They’re both fringe theories. Certainly it’s possible that they’re true, but the weight of evidence and scholarship is against them.

        Of course just because the guy existed doesn’t mean he was the Messiah, born of a virgin, walked on water, etc. There are only a few facts that we can say are probably true (like he probably was crucified, because that is mentioned by Tacitus and also because it was unlikely his followers would have invented such an ignominious end for their messiah). There’s certainly a lot of fiction and contradiction in the stories — but the same is true of many people we know of from ancient times, such as Socrates and Bodicea.

        There is no contradiction between being an atheist and saying that Yeshua of Nazareth was a real historical man. Indeed, many scholars of the era are atheist or Jewish (see the historyforatheists link). Just as there is no contradiction between saying that Joseph Smith was a real guy but his visions were not direct messages from God!

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