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God is an Anarchist

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Many Christians who attempt to provide themselves with some understanding or defense of their beliefs eventually run into the “liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument provided by C. S. Lewis, and made popular by Josh McDowell. Lewis originally coined the argument in radio broadcasts and later in his book Mere Christianity. McDowell popularized the argument in his book More Than A Carpenter.

At first glance and study, the trilemma tends to look rhetorically sound. However, Lewis and McDowell commit the same error that Blaise Pascal committed with his famous wager about whether an individual should believe in God. Like Pascal, Lewis framed the argument with limited boundaries, and most people who study those options incorrectly assume that the boundaries provided are the only options possible.

I admit that within the options provided by Lewis, the trilemma runs much as any individual would expect the argument to go. Many people do not want to label Jesus of Nazareth as a lunatic or liar; thus, people are left with what seems to be one remaining conclusion.

Thought problems are mere arbitrary human inventions to help humans understand the world around them. When humans create such problems, they arbitrarily define the boundaries, elements, and rules for how the elements relate to one another. A new system is defined by changing any parameter. The new system might look similar to the original system, but by definition, is not the same system.

This evaluative process can be used to analyze various logic problems. In the case of Lewis’s original trilemma, Lewis arbitrarily created a system with only three boundaries, and by defining those boundaries created only a few limited possible conclusions.

A flaw in Lewis’s famous trilemma is that Lewis assumes the Biblical texts are 1) accurate and 2) dependable, and that 3) Jesus actually existed, 4) the texts about Jesus are correct and infallible, and 5) he or other people have correctly interpreted those texts. The first four assumptions are historical concerns. The historicity of whether Jesus existed is not a primary issue for most people, and whether the texts attributed to him are accurate is for historians to prove. Second, should the documents someday be proven completely accurate, Lewis’s trilemma still must be confronted on the merits. Thus, although the historical concerns are valid, the fifth assumption is where Lewis can be challenged by anybody.

Understanding the Bible from a perspective of anarchy and property rights opens the door to discovering different ways to interpret Biblical texts. The third option offered in Lewis’s trilemma — that Jesus claimed to be Lord, is derived solely from Lewis’s personal interpretation of the Biblical text.

For example, was the statement “My kingdom is not of this world,” a statement claiming kingship, or merely a statement of non-allegiance? A claim of kingship obviously provides some substance to seeing the various quotes of Jesus in the light of claiming lordship, but a perspective of non-allegiance provides no such substance at all — even if the statement was indeed one of claiming lordship. With such a straightforward but different perspective in interpreting the texts, Lewis’s original proposition is flawed by providing only three options. Consider at least one more option: Jesus was a misinterpreted anarchist. Thus, the one option Lewis had tried to dismiss — that Jesus was only a moral teacher — is actually a viable option.

With a proper understanding of the word anarchy, look again at Jesus’ statement that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Any anarchist would deliver a similar statement. By definition, an anarchist recognizes allegiance to no human ruler. Because God is an anarchist and does not advocate the rule of one human over another, such a statement by Jesus is nothing more than a truism. Yet, truisms open the door to all kinds of potential misinterpretations. Other statements written as uttered by Jesus are similarly subject to the same interpretation challenges.

In other words, there exists the possibility that what Jesus is recorded to have said is misinterpreted. If so, then the presumption that Jesus is God is no longer is a solitary option. Without that presumption, Lewis’s trilemma loses substance. Lewis’s famous trilemma artificially closed the door to other possible options.

This is only one flaw with Lewis’s argument. There is no reason why a lunatic cannot utter great truths, or why a liar also cannot do likewise. Perhaps too Jesus (if he is not God) was sincere but honestly mistaken in some of his statements. Consider the possibility that Jesus was a mythical legend. Consider that some or many of the sayings attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him, or perhaps have been embellished over the years.

I am not arguing that Jesus is not Lord, nor am I accusing Lewis of nefarious motives, only that the starting foundations for Lewis’s argument are deficient. In other words, before Lewis can offer such an argument he first must firmly establish that the statements attributed to Jesus in fact provide foundation that Jesus claimed to be God. Yet, a perspective of true anarchy reveals that those same words can be interpreted differently than traditionally held. Lewis’s trilemma depends upon his original boundaries being the only three possibilities, yet, there are additional options.

Lewis’s trilemma also loses substance if the idea of salvation changes. The traditional foundation from which Lewis’s argument is given is that without accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior an individual is condemned to an eternity in Hell. This observation is an undisclosed premise of the argument. Yet, change those foundations, say, to universal salvation, and the urgency of Lewis’s argument loses importance.

As many rhetoricians know, control the boundaries of an argument then more often than not an individual also controls the outcome of the argument (which is why arguments fail that by analogy take place on islands — the game is rigged). Like Pascal’s Wager, Lewis’s argument sounds good and provides comfort to people who choose not to thoroughly evaluate theories, but from a perspective of logic and sound analysis, Lewis’s argument fails to provide proper foundations for a proper discussion. In other words, Lewis’s argument is rigged from the beginning and cannot be attacked from within those artificial boundaries.

Lewis is an author worth reading. Although Lewis was an excellent writer who provided stories such as The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, his “liar, lunatic, Lord” argument must fail on the merits.

Finis.

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