Friday, 19 September 2014

Examining the Muslim criticism of C. S. Lewis’ Trilemma, Part I

How the Appeal to Liberal Critical Scholarship Discredits the Islamic Faith

Sam Shamoun

Most Christians who are involved in apologetics have not only heard of C. S. Lewis and are not only acquainted with his classic works such as Mere Christianity, but are also familiar with Lewis’ Trilemma. The Trilemma deals with Jesus’ Divine claims and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. As Lewis explained it:

Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.

One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned; the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.

“Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.

"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 a 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
.” (Mere Christianity, foreward by Kathleen Norris [Harper Collins Edition, 2001], Book 2. What Christians Believe, Part 3. The Shocking Alternative,
pp. 51-52; underline emphasis ours)

Christians aren’t the only ones familiar with Lewis’ Trilemma. Muslim polemicists are also aware of this and realize the ramification that Lewis’ apologetic has on the truth claims of Islam which denies the Deity of Christ. Not surprisingly these same Muslim dawagandists quickly run to critical liberal scholarship to undermine Lewis’ defense of Christ’s Divinity. They appeal to disbelieving scholars in order to attack the reliability of the NT so as to convince their constituents that the Divine claims attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are fabricated and were never uttered by the historical Jesus. However, these same Muslim “apologists” do not realize (or simply do not care) the kind of impact that such unbelieving scholarship has on their own Islamic beliefs. The Muslims are inconsistently applying the criticisms and arguments of liberal scholars against the Holy Bible and yet never bother to apply these same arguments against their own views; nor do they stop to think for a moment of how these assaults against the NT affect their Islamic beliefs concerning Jesus.

One such Muslim propagandist who inconsistently appeals to liberal scholarship is Bassam Zawadi. Zawadi has written a short “reply” whereby he seeks to show the fallacy inherent in Lewis’ reasoning.

He even quotes (more like misquotes) conservative scholars to prove that Lewis’s Trilemma is fallacious!

However, it is refreshing to see that respected Christian scholars - including the conservative ones - could see the fallaciousness of this supposed trilemma as I will show below. (
Examining C.S. Lewis' Trilemma)

He then proceeds to cite Craig L. Blomberg and Craig Evans, two noted Conservative NT scholars, to show that there are other options besides the three mentioned by Lewis, such as the assertion that the speeches of Christ as recorded in the Gospels are fabrications and do not accurately reflect the words of the historical Jesus. In so doing Zawadi and gives the misleading impression that they rejected Lewis’ Trilemma!

For instance, compare what Zawadi quotes of Blomberg,

The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is regularly denied, namely, that the gospels give entirely accurate accounts of the actions and claims of Jesus... This option represents the most common current explanation of the more spectacular deeds and extravagant claims of Jesus in the gospels. (Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Intervarsity Press, 1987), page xx)

With what he actually wrote in context:

The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is regularly denied, namely, that the gospels give entirely accurate accounts of the actions and claims of Jesus. One can preserve Lewis’s alliteration and introduce a fourth option – the stories about Jesus were legends. This option represents the most common current explanation of the more spectacular deeds and extravagant claims of Jesus in the gospels: they were the product of the early church’s desire to glorify him, and so it exaggerated its portraits of him above and beyond what the facts permitted. Unless one can successfully dismiss this alternative, one cannot appeal to Lewis’s apologetics. An examination of the gospels’ historical reliability must therefore precede a credible assessment of who Jesus was. (Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Intervarsity Press, 1987), p. xx; underline emphasis ours)

Blomberg clearly says that one must first refute the attacks against the historical reliability of the Gospels in order for Lewis’ Trilemma to be logically valid. And this is precisely what Blomberg and Evans set out to do, just as the titles of their books clearly show! (In fact, the name of Evans’ book which Zawadi quotes from is Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. The title gives us an idea of Evan’s purpose in writing this book!) These authors present conclusive evidence which establishes that the Gospels are historically reliable and that they accurately preserve the words of the historical Jesus.

In light of this there is nothing logically fallacious about Lewis’ Trilemma since both its premises and its conclusion are valid, just as the following syllogism shows.

- The Gospels are early historical documents that accurately preserve and reliably transmit the words of the historical Jesus.
- The Gospels report Jesus claiming to be the unique Divine Son of God.
- Therefore, the historical Jesus believed and claimed to be the unique Divine Son of God.

Hence, there is nothing logically fallacious with Lewis’ Trilemma once it is presented accurately. The only fallacy is Zawadi’s blatant distortion and caricaturization of Lewis’ argument.

What makes this all the more amazing is that one of the liberal scholars that Zawadi references admits that the Gospels are early eyewitness accounts! Zawadi quotes from the late John A. T. Robinson, a liberal scholar who wrote a book titled
Redating the New Testament. In that book Robinson argues that all of the New Testament was written before 70 AD, and that much of it was written earlier, before AD 64. Robinson based this partly on the fact that the New Testament doesn’t reflect firsthand knowledge of the Temple's destruction in 70 AD. Robinson assigns the following dates for the Gospels:

Matthew – at 40 to after 60 AD.
Mark – at about 45 to 60.
Luke – at before 57 to after 60.
John – at from 40 to after 65.

Robinson also believed that the fourth Gospel was actually written by the Apostle John and that Paul authored all of the books which bear his name. Robinson further argued that the epistle of James was authored by a brother of Jesus within twenty years of Christ’s resurrection.

This means that all of the New Testament books were all written within forty years of Jesus’ resurrection during the time when the first generation of eyewitnesses were still living. Not only were they written during the lifetime of friendly eyewitnesses who personally knew Jesus but they were also composed when the very hostile enemies of Christ were still alive! This establishes that what we have written is based on historically reliable eyewitness testimony since the NT authors could not have fabricated stories of Jesus or the early Church and gotten away with it since there were both friendly and hostile witnesses who would have corrected and/or exposed them.

In light of this one would naturally assume that Robinson would hold to the historical reliability of the Gospels, especially in reporting the words of Jesus. Yet such is not the case since Robinson questions whether Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, let alone God! He writes:

We are often asked to accept Christ as divine because he claimed to be so--and the familiar argument is pressed: ‘A man who goes around claiming to be God must either be God--or else he is a madman or a charlatan (aut deus aut malus homo)’. And, of course, it is not easy to read the Gospel story and to dismiss Jesus as either mad or bad. Therefore, the conclusion runs, he must be God.

But I am not happy about this argument. None of the disciples in the Gospels acknowledged Jesus because he claimed to be God, and the Apostles never went out saying, ‘This man claimed to be God, therefore you must believe in him.’ In fact, Jesus himself said in so many words, ‘If I claim anything for myself, do not believe me’. It is, indeed, an open question whether Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, let alone God. He may have acknowledged it from the lips from others–but on his own he preferred ‘the Son of Man’. In Mark 14.61 f., he is reported to reply to the question at his trial, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’, with the simple words, ‘I am’. But in the parallel passage in Matthew he gives an equivocal answer: ‘The words are yours’ (as he does in all the Gospels when questioned by Pilate)–and what conceivable interest would Matthew have in watering Jesus’ claims? We cannot be sure what titles Jesus claimed, and we should be wise, like the Apostles, not to rest our faith on them. Their message was rather that ‘God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified’. That is to say, through the Resurrection God vindicated and set his seal upon this man as the one through whom he spoke and acted in final and decisive fashion. He vested himself utterly and completely in the man Christ Jesus; in him all his fullness dwelt. What God was, the Word was. (Robinson, Honest to God [Westminster, Philadelphia, 1963],
pp. 71-73; underline emphasis ours)

To better appreciate what Robinson meant by the Word being what God is it is important that we quote him further:

But before we ask with Bonhoeffer, ‘What is Christ, for us today?’, we should stop and pose the prior question of what it is we have to reinterpret, of what in fact the New Testament is saying. For I believe that the supranaturalist, like the naturalist, estimate of Christ, whatever its intention, tends to be a distortion of Biblical truth. I do not say that it necessarily is, since the mythological-metaphysical framework can obviously provide the setting, as it has in the past, for an entirely orthodox Christology. But in practice popular preaching and teaching presents a supranaturalistic view of Christ which cannot be substantiated from the New Testament. It says simply that that Jesus was God, in such a way that the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ are interchangeable. But nowhere in Biblical usage is this so. The New Testament says that Jesus was the Word of God, it says that God was in Christ, it says that Jesus is the Son of God; but it does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that.

What it does say is defined succinctly and accurately as it can be in the opening verse of St John’s Gospel. But we have to be equally careful about the translation. The Greek runs: kai theos en ho logos. The so-called Authorized Version has: ‘And the Word was God.’ This would indeed suggest the view that ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ were identical and interchangeable. But in Greek this would most naturally be represented by ‘God’ with the article, not theos but ho theos. But, equally, St John is not saying that Jesus is a ‘divine’ man, in the sense with which the ancient world was familiar or in the sense in which the Liberals spoke of him. That would be theios. The Greek expression steers carefully between the two. It is impossible to represent it in a single English word, but the New English Bible, I believe, gets the sense pretty exactly with its rendering, ‘And what God was, the Word was’. In other words, if one looked at Jesus, one saw God–for ‘he who sees me, has seen the Father’. He was the complete expression, the Word, of God. Through him, AS THROUGH NO ONE ELSE, God spoke and God acted: when one met him one was met–and saved and judged–by God. And it was to this conviction that the Apostles bore their witness. In this man, in his life, death and resurrection they had experienced God at work; and in the language of their day they confessed, like the centurion at the Cross, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’. HERE WAS MORE THAN JUST A MAN; here was a window into God at work. For ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’. (Ibid., pp. 70-71; capital emphasis ours)


There is a paradox running through all the Gospels that Jesus makes no claims for himself in his own right and at the same time makes the most tremendous claims about what God is doing through him and uniquely through him. Men’s response to him is men’s response to God: men’s rejection of him is men’s rejection of God. And the fourth Gospel merely highlights this paradox (IT DOES NOT, AS IS USUALLY SAID, PRESENT QUITE A DIFFERENT PICTURE OF THE CLAIMS OF JESUS) when it combines the saying that the ‘Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing’ with the uncompromising assertion, ‘No one comes to the Father, but by me’. Jesus never claims to be God personally: yet he always claims to bring God, completely.

This paradox is the point from which our reinterpretation of Christology must start. As the summary of his ministry in the fourth Gospel, Jesus cries out and says, ‘He who believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And he who sees me sees him who sent me’. Jesus, that is to say, reveals God by being utterly transparent to him, precisely as he is nothing ‘in himself’
… (P. 73; capital emphasis ours)

One is left wondering how can Jesus not be God if, as Robinson asserts, he is more than a man and all that God is? If all the fullness of God dwells within Jesus then how can he be anything less than God?

Returning to the issue at hand, notice the circularity and inconsistency behind Robinson’s reasoning. He alludes to Jesus’ words from the NT to prove that Jesus either never claimed or even outright denied that he was God, thereby presupposing the historical veracity of such sayings. And yet Robinson’s statements clearly intend to cast doubt on any passage where Jesus does affirm his Deity! What makes this assertion all the more ironic is that Robinson himself cites Jesus claiming to be the Son who does nothing but what he sees the Father doing!(1)

Robinson’s question begging is further seen by his claim that we cannot be certain which titles the historical Jesus affirmed and accepted for himself. However, he doesn’t doubt and is absolutely sure that the Gospels accurately report Jesus’ supposed denials of being Divine!

Zawadi also appealed to philosopher John Hick, someone who is not a recognized NT scholar by any means. Be that as it may we will have more to say concerning him a little later.

Another dawagandist who appeals to liberal critics to undermine the NT is a Muslim who goes by the name ‘Captain Planet’. This Muslim left the following comments on Muslim “apologist” Ibn Anwar’s blog:

Captain Planet said
July 11, 2009 at 1:39 pm
If to die does not mean “cease to exist” and, therefore, we say that Jesus – who is supposed to be God, the second person of the Trinity – did not “cease to exist” even though he died, then his death was really not a permanent offering… in which case, how would that atone for the sins of mankind?

Trinitarians often play these word games. The fact they have to do this itself, for me, is sufficient proof for the falsity of the Trinity. It just does not seem reasonable that God would confuse humanity with such confusing notions about Himself.

I personally avoid having such discussions with Christians because even if we assume that the Trinity makes perfect logical sense – which it does not – it does not follow that it is right.

From a purely historical perspective – and I am attempting to talk here as a historian and not as a Muslim – it is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that Jesus, a Jew of first century Palestine, thought of himself as divine in any sense, let alone the second person of the Trinity. Moreover, there is no proof whatsoever that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a divine being, let alone the second person of the Trinity (they did not even entertain a Trinitarian concept of God, they were Unitarians!).

Historical Jesus scholars are largely agreed upon the above: that it is highly unlikely and most improbable that the historical Jesus was going around preaching his divinity to the people.

Catherine M. Murphy, Under the heading “Things Jesus Didn’t Talk About”, writes:

His own divinity: One of the cardinal principles of historical Jesus research is that the belief in Jesus’s divinity is a post-resurrection phenomenon. During his life, his acts of power were understood as signs that God (or Satan) was working through him – not that he was God.

The gospel of John presents Jesus teaching that he’s divine, but most scholars treat this as a later interpretation rather than a historical fact because it’s so much more highly developed here than in the earlier gospels and gospel sources...

Catherine M. Murphy, The Historical Jesus For Dummies, 2007, John Wiley & Sons, Indianapolis: Indiana, p. 178.

James White goes around conveying the impression as if he is representing mainstream scholarship. But the truth is just the opposite. The perspective on Jesus he is presenting is one which is widely dismissed by scholars.

Thus, if Jesus is most unlikely to have claimed to be God, then out goes the Trinity.

Does it now matter if the Trinity makes “sense?” It does not. It still remains historically baseless. (Ibn Anwar,
Response to Dr. James White)

What this Muslim forgot to mention is that this very same source claims that most historians believe that not only did Jesus never teach that he was Divine but that he also never claimed to be the Messiah!

The terms “MESSIAH,” “son of God,” and “son of man” from the preceding list become titles for Jesus AFTER HIS RESURRECTIONand come to bear meanings that they don’t carry in Jewish scripture, such as meanings tied to Jesus’ unique role as God’s son and thus is divine himself (see Chapter 15). Most historians think that these LATER Christological beliefs (theological views of what it meant to be Christ or messiah) WEREN’T AT STAKE DURING HIS ACTUAL LIFE. But by the time the gospels were written, these beliefs are at stake, and so the gospel writers focus the Jewish trial around the matter of Jesus’s identity. Had Jesus actually claimed divine power equal to God’s, he might have been guilty of blasphemy, at least as the Sadducees likely defined it (they were pretty strict about such things compared to the Pharisees; see Chapter 7). (Catherine M. Murphy, The Historical Jesus For Dummie [Wiley Publishing, Inc., Indianapolis, IN 2008], Part IV: Witnessing Jesus’s Execution and Resurrection, Chapter 14: Examining Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 232; capital and underline emphasis ours)

Murphy isn’t the only author who asserts that historians reject the claim that Jesus believed to be or called himself the Messiah:

Matthew and Josephus both refer to “Jesus who is called ‘Messiah.’” Matthew places the remark on the lips of Pilate at Jesus’s trial, while Josephus mentions “Jesus who is called Messiah” almost as a side remark in his narration of the death of James the brother of Jesus, who was put to death at the instigation of the high priest Ananus in the early 60s CE. Both of these authors are writing in the last quarter of the first century of the Common Era and refer to Jesus who is called “Messiah.” But by whom was Jesus called the “Messiah”? The obvious answer surely is, by Christians, and Josephus himself traces the name of the Christians back to the founder of their movement, Jesus, which implies that he was known as “Christ” (Ant. 18:64). Matthew, in contrast, would have us believe that Jesus was known as “Messiah” during the course of his final ministry in Jerusalem and in particular at his trial. While no one disputes Jesus was proclaimed and heralded as Messiah in the early church, the question as to whether or not he was recognized as such during his own lifetime is a much more complex and disputed topic. Moreover, it is equally debated as to whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and whether we can legitimately talk of a “messianic self-consciousness” on the part of the historical Jesus.

Scholarship on the Messianic Question
This “messianic question” as to whether or not Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah is a recurring riddle of historical Jesus scholarship. Julius Wellhausen wrote that of all the problems facing scholarship on the life of Jesus, “among the most important questions is whether and in what sense he [Jesus] believed and claimed himself to be the Messiah.” Similarly, H. J. Holtzmann said that the messianic consciousness of Jesus was “the main problem of New Testament theology.” The nature of the dilemma, as Albert Schweitzer recognized long ago, is that researchers have had to wrestle with the problem of the purportedly nonmessinaic character of Jesus’s public ministry in contradistinction to his messianic vocation and identity as affirmed by early Christian sources.

Primitive Christianity was a messianic movement that venerated a figure with the appellation Christos (Christ/Messiah/Anointed One), and followers of Jesus were given the name Christianoi (Christians/Messianists) to distinguish them from other Jewish sects. Did a self-professedly messianic claimant lie at the root of this messianic movement, or was the messianic identity of Jesus a subsequent development in the christological reflection of the early Christian communities that attributed the title to him in the course of their post-Easter theologizing? In the last one hundred years of historical Jesus research, mainly under the influence of William Wrede and Rudolf Bultmann, the CONSENSUS has largely rejected the position that the historical Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah. In fact, Martin Hengel goes so far as to state: “Today the unmessianic Jesus has almost become a dogma among many New Testament scholars. One is tempted to describe this phenomenon as ‘non-messianic dogmatics.’” Just in case one thinks that Hengel is exaggerating the state of scholarship, consider the following collection of comments:

For this is the truly amazing thing, that there is in fact not one single certain proof of Jesus’ claiming for himself one of the Messianic titles which tradition has ascribed to him…. Not a single one of his words speaks of the Messias designatus.8
Jesus is never once recalled as using the title “Messiah” of himself or as unequivocally welcoming its application to him by others.9
To claim that Jesus is the Messiah is absurd.10
There is not a single genuine saying of Jesus in which he refers to himself as the Messiah.11
It seems that before the passion Jesus did not openly claim to be the Messiah.12
Scenes in the Gospel in which Jesus is addressed or acknowledged as the Messiah are very few and acceptance of that title by Jesus is marred by complications.13
There is thus no certainty that Jesus thought of himself as bearer of the title “Messiah.” On the contrary, it is unlikely that he did so: all the gospel writers so regarded him, but they could cite little direct evidence.14
Jesus never chose to call himself “Messiah” or “Son of God” and even when others questioned him about his Messiahship, he usually declines to give a straight answer.15
As a possible role model he was more hostile than welcoming to the idea of the royal Messiah16.
The historical-critical work on the Gospels regarding the question of the work and the self-understanding of the “earthly” Jesus leads to the following result: Jesus did not designate himself as “Messiah.”17

Such skepticism is unsurprising given that Jesus in the Gospels never EXPLICITLY refers to himself as the Messiah, but he is called the Messiah, King, or Son of David by others, such as Peter (Mark 8:29/Matt. 16:16/Luke 9:20), Bartimaeus (Mark 10:47-48), the high priest (Mark 14:61), Nathanael (John 1:49), the Galilean crowds (John 6:15; Matt. 12:23), Passover pilgrims (Mark 11:9-10), and Martha (John 11:27). By itself such data might suggest that Jesus inspired messianic hopes but did not embrace the title himself...The notion that Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Messiah has thus remained a well-worn position in modern research, although it is probably not as strongly held as it once was…
(Michael F. Bird, Are You The One Who Is To Come? – The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, foreward by Stanley E. Porter [Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI 2009], Chapter 1. Jesus Who Is Called the Christ,” pp. 23-27; capital and underline emphasis ours)

8. Gunther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (trans. Irene McLuskey et al.; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), 172, 178.
9. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, vol. 1, Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 653.
10. Donald H. Juel, “The Origin of Mark’s Christology,” in Charlesworth, The Messiah, 453.
11. Eduard Schweitzer, Jesus (trans. D. E. Green; London: SCM, 1971), 14.
12. Dahl, “Crucified Messiah,” 40.
13. Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (2 vols.; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1994), 1:475.
14. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: SCM, 1993), 242.
15. Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (London: Penguin, 2004), 402.
16. James D. G. Dunn, “Messianic ideas and Their Influence on the Jesus of History,” in Charlesworth, The Messiah, 374.
17. Otfried Hofius, “Ist Jesus der Messias?” JBT 8 (1993) (Pp. 25-26)

Contiues on Part II



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