Was Jesus Merely A Good Man?

I’m teaching several World Religions sections at the moment, and it is always interesting to me that students have a tendency to agree with other religious traditions when they assert that Jesus was merely a good man (perhaps an avatar, cf. Hinduism) or a prophet (cf. Islam), but he was not truly a divine person Himself.  I often have to explain why these positions are problematic given what we know about Christ and what is recorded of his words.

I fall back to C.S. Lewis’ argument on the trilemma of Christ as presented by Stephen Davis.    This is the question of the trilemma: Was Jesus a morally corrupted human being, an insane person, or God?  David proposes a logical form the argument:

(1) Jesus claimed, either explicitly or implicitly, to be divine.
(2) Jesus was either right or wrong in claiming to be divine.
(3) If Jesus was wrong in claiming to be divine, Jesus was either mad or bad.
(4) Jesus was not bad.
(5) Jesus was not mad.
(6) Therefore, Jesus was not wrong in claiming to be divine.
(7) Therefore Jesus was right in claiming to be divine.
(8) Therefore, Jesus was divine.

As laid out by Davis, the seven premises the argument lead to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed divine—given that one affirms premises (3), (4) and (5) of his argument.  Davis realizes this, but argues that these premises should be accepted (and are commonly accepted) since a plausible case can be made for their truth.  Davis then proceeds to defend premise (1) which he believes is the one most vulnerable to criticism.  I think Davis is right here and I think he did a brilliant job of defending the premise, but his failure to dive deeper into premises (3), (4), and (5) is a bit disappointing (though I do not know the limit and scope of his project).

The reader can read Davis’ own paper for his full argument, but here I want to note that given what is argued, it is unreasonable to insist that Jesus was a wonderful moral teacher but was not God.  If we are to accept the words of Christ as profoundly true and wise beyond human understanding, then we must come to admit that Jesus is God.

Overall, however, I think the trilemma argument is quite effective to demonstrate the rationality of belief in the incarnation of Jesus.  Not only so, but it forces reflection for people who admits “I don’t believe Jesus is God, but I think he’s a great moral teacher.”  As the argument suggests, Jesus was either crazy, lying, or divine; one cannot affirm a function of the person whilst ignoring the belief the person holds of himself and the very person from which the functions proceed.  While the argument is seemingly at best probable, it nevertheless is something to ponder since, like the ontological argument by St. Anselm, there is much more to it than meets the eye.

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5 comments on “Was Jesus Merely A Good Man?

  1. “This is the question of the trilemma:”

    Sadly, Lewis missed one of what should have been his quadlemma.

    Liar, Lunatic, Lord or LEGEND.

    • gotdewy says:

      Thank you for your comment, and this is something that others have observed before, although I think Lewis had something else in mind. I don’t think there is a serious scholar out there that disputes the historical existence of the man Jesus. If this is the problem that one takes up with Jesus, then one is dealing with another sort of question: whether or not Jesus walked this earth? This is strictly a historical question and not a theological one; at least not one that falls within the scope of fundamental theology.

      However, when one accepts the historical existence of Jesus–as most religious traditions of the world do–one is then faced with the trilemma. The criticism normally advanced towards the trilemma is to attack premise (1) of the above logical form. However, I think Davis has done a wonderful job to defend that premise.

      • “” I don’t think there is a serious scholar out there that disputes the historical existence of the man Jesus.”

        Disputes it? No. Takes it for granted? Also no.

        There are no contemporary reports of Jesus’s existence. So while he probably existed, we can’t take the extraordinary claims made years after the fact about him at face value.

        We know that Caesar existed. It was claimed he was the descendant of the goddess Venus. We can believe one without believing the other.

        “one is then faced with the trilemma.”

        No. As I pointed out, existing doesn’t remove you from the possibility that a legend could be made out of you. Particularly in the case of Jesus where we have no writings confirmed from when he actually was supposed to have lived.

      • gotdewy says:

        You’re right. I actually misunderstood your “legend” as disputing the historical existence of Jesus. To your point, however, I think Alexanderschimpf makes a keen observation: “For the trilemma to work well, one needs to first establish the general historical accuracy of the Gospels”. Otherwise, you’re indeed correct in that there is a fourth option.

        Again, I’m generally not convinced by this argument, but it is a good starting point for reflection and dialogue, and I think it is quite valuable.

  2. alexanderschimpf says:

    The comment above makes a good point, although I’m not sure that the “The divinity of Jesus as the invention of the early Church” argument was as commonly expressed in Lewis’s day.

    That is to say, for the trilemma to work well, one needs to first establish the general historical accuracy of the Gospels.

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