This essay is part of a collection. If you would like to read the related essays, or download a pdf copy of this essay, please visit:|
Religious Essays on jefflewis.net
This particular essay originally appeared on a different portion of this site, and was adapted and edited to create this version. The original can be found at the following link:
Liar, Lunatic, or Lord … Or Something Else
by Jeff Lewis
There's a nice little saying that Christians sometimes use to defend the divinity of Jesus, 'liar, lunatic, or lord'. It's often attributed to C.S. Lewis , though the argument goes back further than him. The reasoning goes that anyone who spoke the way Jesus did has to fit one of those three choices. However, I think they leave off a fourth choice, (in keeping with the alliteration) 'legend' .
The triple L argument (more commonly known as Lewis's Trilemma), implicitly assumes that the gospel accounts are accurate. This is its biggest weakness. Obviously, if you accept the gospels as true, you'll also accept the miracles, such as raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus's resurrection and ascension to heaven, and the voice of Yahweh declaring Jesus to be his son. If you already accept all those claims, then the triple L trilemma is superfluous. But, if you question those miraculous aspects of the gospels, chances are you'll question the quotes from Jesus, as well.
So, what reason would someone have to question the gospels?
One question I've heard is, if the gospels aren't true, why would people have invented such fantastic stories, and why would others have believed them? First, I think this falls into a common mistake people make, assuming conscious intent where there is none . Just because the gospels may not be accurate, doesn't mean that the gospel writers were intentionally inventing the story. They were merely writing the story that had been passed down to them. Remember that the four canonical gospels weren't written until decades after Jesus's supposed death, so there was plenty of time for his legend to grow. And that’s assuming there was a historical Jesus the legend is based on, and that the story wasn’t already beginning to develop before the new millennium.
I think there are three good classes of examples to illustrate that it's entirely possible that a story such as the life of Jesus could be fictional. First, just look at modern day urban legends. A browse through Snopes.com, UrbanLegends on About.com, or StraightDope.com, shows just how many untrue things people believe. Most of the urban legends on those sites originated within the past few decades (and many within the past few years), so they show just how quickly an untruth can come to be widely believed.
You could also look to known legendary figures, such as Robin Hood, King Arthur, or Paul Bunyan. There may be people that these stories were originally based on, but they have certainly moved into the realm of legend, and at this point, it would be nearly impossible to discern whatever kernels of truth still remain.
The final good class of examples is to look around at the world's other religions. Now, one possibility is that they're all mostly right - that there are many, many gods, and they all intervene here on Earth. I don't think most people actually believe that, though (I certainly don't). I think most people look around at the religions other than their own, and assume them to be false. Still, the religions had to come from somewhere. They can mostly be explained by perhaps a few grains of truth, with a lot of exaggeration and embellishment as the stories got passed down - a divine telephone game.
This last class of examples leads into another important point. You have to consider the mindset of the early Christians, and the early converts to Christianity. The early church was not trying to win over atheists. It's not as if there were a bunch of skeptics who doubted the existence of gods. The very first Christians were Jews, so they already accepted Yahweh as their god, and it was only a small step to accept that Jesus was his son, the messiah. The gentiles were mostly Romans, who accepted the Roman pantheon. They already believed in many gods, so the hard part of Christianity was limiting their belief to just one. But both of those groups, Jews and gentiles, would have been ready to accept claims of miracles. It fit with their existing worldview. To someone who grew up believing in the labors of Hercules, it wouldn't have been hard to believe that a man turned water into wine or walked on water.
The final point I'm going to discuss, is that outside of the gospels, there is very little independent evidence for Jesus's actual existence, let alone his miraculous acts. In fact, some people doubt whether a Yeshua of Nazareth who became a preacher even existed at all, and think he's entirely mythical. In addition to the lack of evidence, they point to the many commonalities Jesus shared with figures from other religions, particularly Mithraism. Others have conjectured that Jesus may be an amalgamation of several historical figures, with a bit of embellishment, and a bit of borrowing from other religions .
Even if there was a historical Yeshua of Nazareth who served as the original basis for Christianity, I think it's clear that it would have been very easy for his story to be embellished to become the gospels that we're familiar with. So, in addition to the triple L trilemma options of liar, lunatic, or lord, I think we must add at least one more option – legend.
 I came up with the 'Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... or Legend' alliteration on my own, but clearly, it's a fairly obvious play on words. A little googling found that many others, such as Bart Ehrman, have used this one before me. Oh well. "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
 I discussed something similar in a blog entry on the origin of Arabic numerals: http://www.jefflewis.net/blog/2009/10/origin_of_arabic_numerals_was_1.html