CS Lewis once famously proposed a trilemma argument in support of the divinity of Jesus. He said that either Jesus was a lunatic, a liar, or the son of God.
What makes this argument so compelling is that there are a considerable number of people, perhaps even a majority of people who are prepared to say that they think Jesus is a great moral teacher and guide, but not the son of God. But this is exactly what you can’t say about someone who claims to be of divine origin.
Jesus claimed to have come down from Heaven, he acted with an authority that everyone knew only God had, and when his followers confessed that he is the son of God, he affirmed them in this revelation.
Now a person like that, if they are not divine in nature, cannot be described as a good moral teacher. A good moral teacher doesn’t lay claim to the most audacious origin story imaginable if it isn’t true. He would have to be either a lunatic, a liar, or truly what he claims to be.
And based on the kind of person Jesus was in his teaching and life, the first two conclusions seem to be wholly incompatible which is why so many people quickly jump to this incoherent alternative without realizing how self contradictory it is.
But some people like to add a 4th alternative. They say, maybe it’s all legend. Maybe his followers crafted a highly sophisticated conspiracy to convince the masses that Jesus said and did all the things that are claimed about him in the New Testament.
What I find interesting about this explanation is that there are plenty of case studies from history for us to use to get a glimpse of what that would look like. These would be examples where devotees of powerful and influential people tried to manufacture a persona that would compel the general populace to treat that person with a similar devotion.
And in those cases, we often find a couple things that are characteristic of these attempts. They often involve very powerful people with extensive resources that can be dedicated to the deception and no matter how sophisticated their attempts to produce an effective conspiracy, they never hold together, especially with the passage of time and scrutiny of history.
Take world leaders like the emperors of Rome who attempted to position themselves in the cosmos along side the gods. But they all died, revealing their mortality, and were replaced by someone else making the same claim until, eventually, their empire fell to the same fate of all temporal things.
Or how about a religious figure like Mohammed, the founder of Islam. After struggling to win adherents as a peaceful preacher in Mecca, he moved to Medina where he quickly grew a militant following and reset his aims of conquest back on Mecca and neighboring regions and in the process of conquering these regions, gained huge spoils of wealth and power as a warlord.
Once securing this power, he acted in a way that anyone might expect of a powerful man. He indulged his carnal appetite by taking wives for himself, even more than the Qur’an allows, one of whom was only 9 years old and still played with dolls when he consummated their union.
He personally bought and sold slaves and he killed his enemies mercilessly, at one point executing hundreds of Jews in Medina. He also attempted suicide at one point. Eventually, he was poisoned by a woman whose family he killed.
Now maybe, none of that bothers you from a historical perspective. This is fairly typical behaviour from powerful historical characters. But that’s the point. If he was a prophet of God, someone who enjoyed intimate direct revelations from God, don’t you think there would be something different about him rather than the typical kind of fare we see from those who acquire and possess great power and wealth?
A more contemporary example might be found in the cult of personality among dictators of the 20th century with figures like Joseph Stalin who was portrayed as a wise, strong, and compassionate leader who in fact, didn’t seem to lose any sleep over the millions of Ukrainians he deliberately starved to death, or the countless personal associates who seemed to disappear from history altogether as he purged anyone he suspected as being a threat to his control.
The phenomenon of this kind of modern communist leadership is summarized well by Elena Gorokhova in her memoirs of living under Soviet tyranny when she said, “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they're lying, they know we know they're lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.”
The point is these conspiracies, fashioned with huge resources and countless willing accomplices, still couldn’t manage to hold together. Falsehood is a fragile thing compared to the truth.
So as an explanation for the claims of Jesus, here’s where it becomes a problem. The earliest followers of Jesus had no wealth, no sophisticated academic training, no political power, and by their own accounts recorded in the Bible, they were incompetent and cowardly AND, they were few in number.
And somehow, with none of the resources, none of the learning, none of the political power of the other examples we can identify, they crafted a conspiracy far more sophisticated and convincing than any of these other examples.
And think about what this conspiracy entails. It’s one thing to just make up a story, but it’s quite another for that story to be coordinated with hundreds of years of prophesy and religious tradition. The Old Testament is a library of books written and compiled over hundreds of years with multiple authors.
It makes mention of a messiah, but even the scholars of that day didn’t know exactly when he would come or what he would do. But somehow, the disciples of Jesus managed to coordinate their conspiracy with all those dead prophets and writers so that it would all point to Jesus. That’s impressive.
The Old Testament makes dozens of prophetic statements about the messiah including that he would be a Nazarene, born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem, that he would be rejected and abandoned by his own people and disciples, and that he would suffer and die.
But these details are spread out through a vast narrative hundreds of years in the making so it would have taken an incredibly shrewd and attentive person to tie them all together so that they were able to point to Jesus.
So, are we to believe that Jesus’ disciples who were mostly illiterate fisherman and tradespeople could weave such an intricate narrative together without any theological, philosophical, legal, or literary training? That seems like a really absurd explanation on the face of it.
Next, they had to somehow make Jesus’ body disappear so that they could claim he came back from the dead. They had to do this without being caught and under the diligent surveillance of Roman soldiers and the Sanhedrin who were guarding the tomb and highly invested in making sure that this very thing did not happen.
Then, they had to convince their contemporaries that Jesus came back from the dead, which they did with great success.
Now let’s indulge the conspiracy theory for a second. Maybe Jesus never even existed or never did any of what’s claimed about him. Put yourself in the conspirators’ shoes. Imagine you go out in the place and time you live and start claiming that a great public teacher, who was publicly executed, came back from the dead and has ascended to Heaven and that hundreds of people anyone could personally ask have seen him resurrected from the dead.
If Jesus never existed, don’t you think their listeners would be like… I think we would have remembered this person you’re talking about but clearly no such person ever existed.
It’s not the kind of thing that would win a lot of sympathy, let alone new followers. A lie like that is pretty easy to poke holes in if it’s coming from someone who lives in the place and time you do.
But new followers they gained, by the thousands. Would that have happened if it would have been as easy as pointing out that nobody’s ever heard of this Jesus guy until now? So, clearly he existed and people were familiar with him.
The next thing you’d want to do is scrutinize the claim. They claim there are hundreds of witnesses who all saw it simultaneously. That should be easy to scrutinize as well, but it held up to that scrutiny. On that ground, nobody was able to discredit them.
Lastly, when nothing else would work to suppress this movement, they threatened them all with imprisonment, torture, and death if they didn’t recant their story.
Again, put yourself in their shoes. If you’ve been fabricating this whole thing for motives that still aren’t really clear, are you going to suffer torture and death for it? So far, you haven’t gained anything from it. No wealth, no power, no child brides, no honor… just trouble from the authorities who now want to kill you.
And these are the same people who openly admitted that they ran away and abandoned Jesus when he was tortured and executed. Now, suddenly, they aren’t afraid of the same fate that before they couldn’t even watch?
What could possibly compel them to act this way? A lie? Really? Do you think they would do that just to cover for a lie. Them and the hundreds of other witnesses?
Because that’s what they did. They all met a gruesome fate. St. Peter was crucified upside down because he didn’t want the honor of dying like Jesus. St. Bartholomew was skinned alive, St. Stephen was stoned to death, St. Paul was beheaded, and the list goes on and on.
So, among the alternatives we have to consider who Jesus was, we have lunatic, liar, legend, or the son of God. The first two seem very unlikely. The legend explanation would be based on a fabrication from his followers who had nothing to gain and everything to lose…
and they did lose everything, even their lives over it. Who would do that? It’s so unprecedented that it deserves to be dismissed faster than it was conceived.
In closing, I know some people reply to that by saying, lots of people go to their deaths over religious or political convictions and that doesn’t prove their right.
Yes, but were not talking about a mere belief in an idea or religion. We’re talking about being eyewitnesses to something.
The followers of Jesus who claimed they encountered him resurrected from the dead were making an eyewitness testimony.
If a witness in a court case said that they would die for the honor of their testimony along with dozens of others giving the same account, I imagine most reasonable people would consider them credible. It’s certainly not comparable to people who believe something that they were not eyewitnesses of. That’s the difference between the followers of Jesus and those who die for other causes.
So, what are we left with? If all the other possible explanations are mired by irrational deductions, than the one that remains is that he truly was the son of God. And what makes that so unlikely? Because it’s a supernatural claim?
Why is that so hard to believe. First of all, most people believe in God so why is it so difficult to believe that God would reveal himself in human form in order to close the gap between him and us? If God is all powerful, he could do that. If God is love, it’s not unreasonable that he would do that.
We need to stop being embarrassed by supernatural claims especially when we consider how many people believe in ghosts, how many people believe in fate, how many people believe in horoscopes, how many people believe you can send good energy to other people like radio signals by thinking it?
If that’s all socially acceptable, then so too should the very rational conclusion that Jesus was a great moral teacher who was also of divine origin.