C. S. Lewis’s formulation, as he notes in his essay, is based on the medieval Latin aut Deus aut homo malus: “Either God or a bad man.”
"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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (Mere Christianity)
Brief Digression: I briefly mentioned in February getting into online arguments about this. People object to this trilemna, insisting that there are other alternatives that could apply. Perhaps Jesus was honestly mistaken. Perhaps some in-between is correct, in that he had later delusions of grandeur superimposed on an earlier depth of moral sanity. There is also the objection that Jesus never really, really claimed to be God. Fascinating objections all, and I mention them here only to note what I said previously, all other possibilities eventually resolve into one of the horns of the trilemna (must be a triceratops). Other explanations appear possible at first, but wind their way down like a grand logical pachinko game into those three piles.
Back To Topic: What has puzzled me more, however, is how quickly Christians zip through this to come to the prescribed Sunday School answer. No one would dare say Jesus is a bad person or a crazy person, so voila, he must be God. Wow. Great small group, let’s have pizza.
There is a failure to engage the real words of Jesus in this. Nearly everything he said was puzzling, unexpected, or outrageous. People in his time thought all three choices very real possibilities. Nicodemus recognises that Jesus is from God in some way and wishes to understand. He can make no sense of the idea of being born again – and rightfully so. Who would? We have such familiarity with the words and concept now that they do not alarm us. Yet hearing them for the first time, who would understand? If we cannot hear with those ears how strange and radical an idea this is, I wonder if we understand it.
The first place we are tempted to reject Jesus’s teachings is their extremity. Did he really tell the rich young ruler to sell all his goods? If we turn back from the plow even once are we actually unfit for the kingdom? Do even the thoughts of murder and lust ruin us? But these are at least understandable concepts, though they seem out of reach. The Beatitudes seem at first reading to be variations on the theme that those who suffer now are nonetheless loved by God and will be rewarded in the next life. That’s a little counterintuitive in a culture that regarded wealth as a gift and sign of favor from God, but most people can get their minds around that pretty quickly. Jews in 1st C Palestine were certainly familiar with the religious ideas that the poor were valuable, even if their culture didn’t lend much support for it (few cultures do).
But taking those comments from the Sermon on the Mount apart a little further, they take odd turns. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Do you mean now, Rabbi Jesus, or later? If it’s only in heaven, then what’s the earth got to do with it? Are we coming back here again? Does God give us this as a reward, or does giving something up make it come back? “Blessed are the peacemakers…” You mean peace with Rome? I have no control over that. Peace in my home, peace in my village? What if I give up my rights but there’s still no peace – is that my fault?
These are not merely extremes, or simple reversals. These are head-scratchers. What’s he mean by that? Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe we should stop following him around Galilee. We should go back to a simple faith: say our prayers, give to the poor, make the sacrifices – this Rabbi may be onto something, but he makes no sense.
The Pharisees certainly thought the “liar” possibility was there. The modern cliché that they wanted to kill Jesus because they didn’t understand him is almost entirely backwards. They understood his claims well, better than the Sadducees and the Romans, and found them blasphemous. There was dispute over whether he was claiming to be God, or the Son of God, or the Messiah, or the King of the Jews, but they were pretty clear that he was announcing an authority higher than theirs that God himself had granted. Their intent was to show that it wasn’t true, and thus the sign they wanted put on the cross “He said he was the king of the Jews.” Thus the guards at the tomb, because he had claimed he would rise again somehow, and they needed to show it was not true. They thought demon possession a possibility for one who did miracles, claimed to speak for God, and made such alarming statement.
We need to imagine these possibilities as well, because the world around us is tempted to those conclusions and we need to see them clearly. What if Jesus had stumbled upon some godly wisdom and decided the only way we would listen would be if he claimed deity? Would that fit with what else he said and did? Could someone who lied like that be trusted in other things? We have to play those thoughts out, following those pachinko balls down through many bounces and turns, to see what pile they end up in.
Update: Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos, who I am sure will be honored to share the spot with C. S. Lewis, comments today (right on cue):
If you take certain statements of Jesus out of context, you will end up with a deranged and evil morality that is no better than the King of all Spiritual Hucksters, Deepak Chopra. Of our "primitive" Western morality, he has written, for example, that "America leads the world in executing criminals and is among the few Western countries that still retain the death penalty." Obviously the operative word is criminals, although to be accurate he should have said murderers. In the countries we are fighting, the criminals are in charge and murder the innocent, so he has hardly drawn a legitimate comparison.
The title of that whole post, BTW, is "An Eye For a Wedgie." How can you not click through to that, though it be long and challenging?