C.S. Lewis used the “Jesus was a Mad Man” argument (quoted at the bottom) based on the medieval Latin aut Deus aut homo malus (“Either God or a bad man”) which was probably aimed at Muslims who claimed he was just a good teacher since atheists were not outspoken in those times. Lewis says we had two choices: either Jesus was God or he was a mad man. Josh McDowell (a popular Evangelical apologist) co-opts his argument, however, to level at atheists in the form of “The Trilemma Argument” where the third choice was Jesus being a liar. Many Christians parrot McDowell’s trilemma argument. The logical weakness of the trilemma is being discussed today on Secular Outpost.
Christian friends sometimes pull out this ready apologetic tool to try and convince me that Jesus must have been divine. They try to force me to decide if Jesus was the Son of God, a liar or a mad man. There are many ways to refute this argument. One easy one is to simply claim that Jesus said nothing about his divinity but instead, his divinity claims were put in his mouth later by the writer of John and others. Thus we have for options: Divine, Liar, Lunatic or Myth. But below I want to tell of a fifth option — “Deluded like you and me”. Read how I replied recently to a Christian friend using this fifth option. Then leave a comment if you have a suggestion for a one-word name for this option !
So, a friend tells me, “You must choose: Either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic or divine!” And here was my reply:
I know you personally. I have seen you work well on your job and relate well with others, I know you have a stable family and you are happy. Yet I also know that you often squint your eyes, conjure up an imaginary friend, and talk to him in your head. You may argue that he is not imaginary and I know you are not lieing and that you truly believe yourself. But you and I know you can’t see Jesus, you can’t touch Jesus and you can’t hear Jesus — the best you do is try to perceive a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart and identify that with the stories you heard about your imaginary friend — you call that a “conversation” (talking to Jesus). My kids have talked to imaginary friends, so I know the deal. Moreover, I use to be a Christian and did the same thing. It even feels more real when you do it with a lot of people in a prayer circle. On top of all this, in these imaginary conversations you ask your imaginary friend to make magical interventions in this world. Of course the interventions never materialize but you keep it up week after week.
But you see, I don’t think you are insane nor a liar. I know you are a fantastic person who lives a good life. You just have this area of your life where you suspend reason so you can obtain other benefits. I think most of us do that in some form or other. All of us (me included) suspend rationalism when it serves our purposes and yet I don’t consider you (or myself) insane. I just think you believe a falsehood and actually act on it often, but that does not qualify you as insane — it makes you human. I believe Jesus was just that – human (not a liar, a mad man or a god). So if Jesus did claim divinity (though I doubt he did), he might have been like you: sane in every other way but that and yet still able to carry out a very good and loving life. So Jesus did not need to be put in a straight-jacket anymore than you or me !
Sometimes this approach helps some Christians to see that this apologetic technique question presents false choices.
For your reference, here is the quote from Lewis’ Mere Christianity (pg 40-41):
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.