While I’ve already laid out a variety of reasons for my faith position, the world of apologetics includes several popular arguments that I don’t find as compelling as most apologists seem to wish. Two of the most popular were both advanced by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (neither, so far as I know, was original to Lewis, but he is possibly the most popular or famous among their adherents). These are the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” (sometimes described as “Lewis’ Trilemma“)and the “Objective Morality” arguments.
Before we look at these lines of reasoning themselves, I would remind the reader of my Parenthetical Apologia in this series. As I pointed out then, part of my issue with conventional apologetics is the (I believe, indefensible) notion that by reason anyone can be backed into a corner where they must accept the truth of Jesus–either by presenting them with a solid argument for faith, or by rationally defeating their arguments against it. I do not accept this approach, and I am certainly not attempting to practice it. Rather, I am trying to explain how I arrive at or remain in the faith position I occupy today. So when I say that these two arguments are not compelling to me, I am actually saying two things. The first and most obvious is that they don’t do much to move me up the certainty scale of my own Belief Matrix. Your mileage may vary, as the car commercials say, but they simply don’t deflect the needle much in my case. But secondly (and the first is at least partly a consequence of this), I find both arguments logically flawed … which is an unfortunate thing for a line of reasoning that purports to be logical. If I, as a believer, find the reasoning weak, it comes as no surprise to me that many atheists find it laughable.
So to the first argument. Lewis said it thus in Mere Christianity:
“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.”
This argument was restated and re-popularized by Josh McDowell in his book Evidence That Demands A Verdict, as well as numerous lectures and presentations over the years (I recall seeing a version of McDowell’s lecture on 16-mm film in the 70s). It remains popular among Evangelicals; in fact, I heard a friend using it just the other day. Problem is, it’s just too leaky to hold water. First of all, it depends upon Jesus having actually said the things he’s represented to have said in the Gospels. If Jesus never said them–if, for example, the apostles embellished the story later–then the argument fails on false premises. I happen to believe he did say substantially what is written; I’ve written before that I hold Jesus’ words in the Gospels as the highest authority we have in the church. But I accept the testimony of the Gospels because of my faith, not the other way around. Early in this series, I said that from an evidentiary point of view, the Bible is inadmissible until the God of the Bible makes the text relevant. I stand by that statement. From an apologetic point of view, the premise “Jesus claimed to be God” is simply not accepted by many (most?) who are not already believers. As such, any line of reasoning that begins from this premise is dead on arrival.
A related problem with the Trilemma argument is that even when using the Gospels as authoritative texts, the claims Jesus made aren’t as open and shut as the apologist might wish. Take for example Jesus’ forgiveness of sins in Mark 2:1-11. With the scribes in Mark 2:7, both Lewis and McDowell ask “who can forgive sins but God alone?” and claim as a consequence that Jesus, in forgiving the paralytic’s sins, was claiming to be God. But that’s not what Jesus said. Rather, in Mark 2:10 he defends his “authority” to forgive sins by healing a man. He does not validate or dispute the scribes’ objection, he sidesteps it completely. So to presume that Jesus’ action in this case represents a claim of divinity, with all due respect to Lewis and McDowell, does not necessarily follow from the evidence.
One more objection is made quite cogently in Jim Perry’s article The Trilemma– Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? over on the The Secular Web (infidels.org). I encourage the reader to pay serious attention to Perry’s entire article, because the tone in which it is written is highly respectful and even-handed…not at all the hostility and contempt displayed by (for example) Hitchens or Dawkins. Perry states: “it is not the case that there are three and only three precisely-defined choices to be made here, but rather a vast continuum of possibilities.” He’s right. As he continues:
“We don’t know with any level of confidence precisely what Jesus as a historical figure claimed for himself, and in any event if whatever he claimed was false there are a great diversity of possibilities, which include liar and lunatic (which McDowell has not successfully ruled out) but which also include many other options which do allow Jesus to be considered a sage or moral teacher and no more.
The trilemma argument does not support any particular opinion one way or another concerning Jesus. If one already believes that Jesus was the Christ of the Christian faith and hence Lord, then naturally one is disinclined to believe that he was anything else, and may favor the idea that other options are untenable. This argument, however, provides no logical support for one who doesn’t already believe to choose the “Lord” option out of all the others. (emphasis mine)
So on to the second argument, that of Objective Morality. In simple terms, Lewis (again in Mere Christianity) argued that when humans refer to things they “know” to be right or wrong, just or unjust, they’re basing such claims not on their own subjective definition of right and wrong, but rather on an objective truth that stands outside us, and that all humans understand (with some variation to be sure) at a fundamental level. Lewis, and many before and since, take the fact that we refer to things as “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse,” as evidence that there really is a fundamental, extra-human standard against which we judge such things. He then goes on to conclude that for such a standard to exist, someone external, non-human (i.e. God, though not necessarily the Christian God) must have established it.
William Lane Craig makes the argument far more directly when he frames it as:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
This argument is formally correct; that is, the structure “If not A, then not B; Not B; Therefore, not A” does follow the rules of logic. However, I see two significant problems with this argument, and they are the two premises. Let’s start with number 1. As nearly as I can see it, premise 1 really states the desired conclusion in the premise. “If God does not exist, objective morals don’t exist” is true if, but only if, you have presupposed that the only possible source for objective morals is God. Or put a different way, upon what grounds is #1 is true? One possible basis for establishing Premise 1 would be:
- Anything that exists is created by God.
- Objective moral values and duties exist.
- Therefore, objective morals and values are created by God.
- And therefore, if God didn’t exist, neither would objective morals or values (or, for that matter, anything else).
And #4 really shows the impossibility of this line of reasoning, because it essentially leads us to “we exist, therefore God must exist,” which may mean something to the theist but is entirely unconvincing to the atheist. So once again, we find ourselves contemplating a circular line of reasoning…Craig has stacked the deck.
The second problem I have with the Moral Argument is Craig’s Premise 2, “Objective moral values and duties do exist.” While I instinctively believe this is probably true, instinctive belief is not sufficient for an argument based on logic. Unfortunately, it appears to me that the basis for most apologists’ acceptance of the truth of Premise 2 are emotional or intuitive, not rational. Lewis bases his argument largely on the fact that people who object to objective morality or “Natural Law” turn right around and prove by their behavior or arguments that, in reality, they do believe there are things that are right or wrong in other than a subjective, relativist way. It shouldn’t take much thinking to realize the fallacy of this argument. We as humans behave as if a lot of things are true, that we ourselves believe are objectively not true … for example, most people claim to believe that “money can’t buy happiness,” yet spend their lives pursuing money for the very purpose of achieving happiness (and believing they’d be happier if they were rich).
Craig’s own justification for Premise 2 is even more problematic: in the above-linked article he opines that “there’s no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.” That sort of argument only works with a logical foundation of true-till-proven-false. Just because we haven’t got the goods to deny objective morality, does not mean for a moment that we have established grounds to affirm it, and Craig should know better. And as nearly as I can piece together, Craig seems to acknowledge that moral ontology is rooted in God: i.e. that good is good because God said it’s good (with which I happen to agree); but then he turns around and says the existence of objective good (which we just said is rooted in God) can be known by other means (maybe, maybe not, I’m thinking) that then provide proof of God’s existence. There lies classic circular reasoning.
A third line of reasoning I’ve found a lot among those who advance the Moral Argument is a completely emotional one, and tends to run along the lines of “it’s horrible to contemplate a world in which raping a child is not objectively evil.” Since nearly everyone (myself included) agrees that raping a child is morally reprehensible, nobody stops to recognize that just because the alternative (prohibition of child rape is merely a relativist consensus of society) is awful or disgusting does not make a thing objectively true. In fact there is a great deal about our world that is awful and disgusting. Unfortunately, “it would be terrible if X weren’t true” is a completely insufficient basis upon which to conclude that X is objectively true.
And herein lies the real problem, not only with the Objective Moral Argument, but with most “gotcha” apologetics I have yet seen (I would add atheist apologetics are often guilty of the same fallacies) … arguments set up as exclusive possibilities, lists that aren’t at all exhaustive, or just plain nonsequiturs. Frequently, they’re as silly as saying that if the sky is not blue, it must be red…and while it’s true a non-blue sky may in fact be red, they completely ignore the entire remainder of the color spectrum.
One final caveat. I have not said, nor do I mean, that people have not come to faith through contemplating the Trilemma or the Objective Moral Argument. In fact I have personal friends for whom both have been quite persuasive. I appreciate what N.T. Wright said in a truly-excellent critique of Mere Christianity: “a lot of people have become Christians through reading Lewis and, though, like me, they may have gone on to think things through in ways he didn’t, they retain, like me, a massive and glorious indebtedness.” Just as many have found important truth through reading Lewis, many have been shown to Jesus through these two arguments, and not for one moment do I disrespect the path that led them there. But we must learn to make a distinction between things that may be helpful to some people (even things God uses), and intellectual arguments that establish the truth of our philosophies. As logical proofs, neither the Trilemma nor the Objective Moral Argument withstand the test.