From the May/June, 2014 issue of Touchstone
The Gospel Truth of Jesus by Tom Gilson


The Gospel Truth Of Jesus

What Happens to Apologetics If We Add "Legend" to the Trilemma "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord"?

He did not leave us that option: he did not intend to." Thus C. S. Lewis closes out his famous "Trilemma" argument on the impossibility of Jesus being a great moral teacher and nothing more. The argument is beautiful in its simplicity: it calls for no deep familiarity with New Testament theology or history, only knowledge of the Gospels themselves, and some understanding of human nature. A man claiming to be God, says Lewis, could hardly be good unless he really was God. If Jesus was not the Lord, then (to borrow Josh McDowell's alliterative version of the argument), he must have been a liar or a lunatic.

The questions have changed since Lewis wrote that, though, and it's less common these days to hear Jesus honored as a great moral teacher by those who doubt his deity. Today's skepticism runs deeper than that. The skeptics' line now is that Jesus probably never claimed to be God at all, that the whole story of Jesus, or at least significant portions of it, is nothing more than legend.

Christian apologists have responded with arguments hinging on the correct dates for the composition of the Gospels, the identities of their authors, external corroborating evidence, and the like. All this has been enormously helpful, but one could wish for a more Lewis-like approach to that new l-word, legend—that is, for a way of recognizing the necessary truthfulness of the Gospels from their internal content alone.

Lewis was always more at home looking at the evidence of the Gospels themselves than at the historical circumstances surrounding them. In one classic essay (variously titled "Fern-Seed and Elephants" or "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," depending on where you find it) he delineates the Gospels as true "reportage" rather than fable, and concludes, "The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read."

It seems to me that the legend hypothesis can be rebutted in a similar way—a way that requires little technical knowledge of the Gospel manuscripts, their dating, and so on, but calls instead for something like Lewis's having "learned to read." As with the original Trilemma, one need only bring to the argument a good working knowledge of the content of the Gospels, particularly as they present the character of Christ, and a clear understanding of human nature—which is where I'll begin my argument.

A Search in Three Questions

Three or four questions concerning human nature have so caught my attention lately that I've taken to asking them of my friends and conference attendees. The first is this: Who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from those in the Bible?

The scope of the question is intentionally broad. I exclude biblical personages for reasons that will become clear later, but include everyone else: both historical and quasi-historical figures, as well as characters that are purely the products of human imagination, whether from literature, mythology, film, TV, or even comic books. And I define power in this context as the ability to do and/or obtain whatever one wants without constraint.

The answers I've received range from Andrew Carnegie to Zeus, and include both genuine and doubtful luminaries, such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao, and, occasionally, United States presidents. Superman is often mentioned.

My second question is of similar scope, but has a completely different set of characters in mind: Who in all of human history and imagination, outside of the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons you can think of?

The most common answers are Mother Teresa and "my mom." Sir Galahad and Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky's The Idiot have also been suggested, but the set of answers I receive to this question is smaller than to the previous one.

My next question is this: Can you think of any single person—again, outside of the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and imagination who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good?

If the second set of answers was small, this one is minuscule. Some of the best suggestions have been Abraham Lincoln, Superman, and Gandalf. Yet none of these characters really measures up as both supremely powerful and supremely other-oriented. Lincoln commanded an army, yes, but his army very nearly lost the Civil War. Gandalf, my own preferred candidate, was entirely dependent on a pair of hobbits, far beyond the reach of his power, for his mission's success. And so far no one has included him among the most self-sacrificial; his small, weak friends Frodo and Samwise Gamgee claim that honor above him. Superman remains an interesting case, for reasons I'll specify in a moment.

So, thus far in all my searching, I have not found anyone who's been able to come up with a really satisfying answer to question three. As to why this is, perhaps Abraham Lincoln explained it as succinctly as anyone has: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Of course, anyone can just invent a character who is both supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial; I can do it in two sentences: Marvin was able to do anything he wanted by his own powers. Marvin did everything for the good of others. But—need I say it?—there's nothing there beyond bald assertion. The challenge is not simply to invent a character and impute to him massive power and towering goodness, but to flesh that character out, to make him interesting and compelling—in short, to make him believable.

Shakespeare never created such a character. Homer didn't either. Dostoevsky never dreamed of such a person. In fact, none of the great poets and writers of any age created a figure who would satisfy question three. I don't know whether that's because they were unable to do so, or because they simply chose not to. But it seems safe to say that, if anyone ever did create such a character and make him believable, that author would have to be counted among the greats, if not as the greatest moral and literary genius of all time.

The Unique Perfection of Christ

And if that is true, and if the character of Christ were created and not rather recorded in the Gospels, then those who created it were those very geniuses. For when we open up the scope of my third question to include biblical characters, the answer comes instantly. Jesus Christ is the one character we can name who is both supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial.

Consider his power: Superman can fly through space; Jesus created space. Gandalf can command certain effects with a word; Jesus created everything and upholds it by his word. Lincoln saved his country's unity; Jesus saved all mankind.

There is likewise no comparison between Jesus' sacrifice and anyone else's. Yes, there is a storyline (the Doomsday saga) in which Superman died and was, in a sense, resurrected. Yes, Lincoln could be seen as giving his life in the service of his country. But neither chose his ultimate destiny. Lincoln didn't go to Ford's Theatre that night in order to lay himself down for his country. Kal-el, who became Superman, did not raise his baby hand and volunteer to leave Krypton so he could die to save the earth. Even Gandalf was trying to preserve, not sacrifice, himself when he fell into the chasm during his terrible battle with the Balrog.

Their sacrifices, while real within their contexts, pale beside the sacrifice of Christ, who did it all intentionally from the beginning. As Philippians 2 tells us, Jesus, from before his birth, laid aside the very glory, form, and prerogatives of Godhood, humbling himself to be born in the most helpless of human forms. He came among us as an infant, grew up among us as a boy, and then, once grown to manhood, sacrificed himself for us; and he did it all intentionally—not merely bearing with courage what happened to befall him, but choosing from the start to do what was necessary for our salvation.

Nothing brings the extent of Jesus' self-sacrificial use of power into such clear focus as this question: When did Jesus ever use his supernatural power to benefit himself? Superman used his heat vision to warm up his coffee. Perhaps Jesus drank of the wine at Cana and ate with the throngs for whom he multiplied the loaves and fishes, but he performed those acts for others, not himself. Three times he rebuffed the devil's suggestion that he use his power and position to benefit himself. He walked on water for his own transportation, yes; but did he need to be on that boat for his own purposes? No, he did it because his disciples needed him there.

Not everyone is fully enamored with the morality of Jesus. Some believe he should have more roundly condemned slavery or sexism, for example. Hardly anyone, though, would dispute that he displayed one virtue to a degree unmatched by any other person, whether real or fictional: unconditional, self-sacrificing love.

"The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve," he said, "and to give his life as a sacrifice for many" (Mark 10:45). This was the consistent pattern of his life, and in it there is both excellence and perfection. By perfection, I mean that there is no flaw in the consistency of the storyline, with respect to Jesus never using his power for his personal benefit.

Let's consider for a moment what this means for Jesus as a literary character. If there is truth in Lord Acton's dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely, then Jesus, the one possessor of absolute power in all literature, is also the one person who has turned the dictum absolutely upside down. Do not let that wash over you too quickly: it is one case where "absolutely" applies, well, absolutely. Jesus' power was more than just unparalleled; it was absolute. So was his freedom to sacrifice himself or not, a freedom he held from even before his birth. So was his decision to do so.

In short, the man portrayed in the Gospels as the eternal Savior of the whole world must necessarily be a towering figure, as much among literary characters as among historical figures. Jesus Christ is that extraordinary.

A Character of Legend?

The question then arises whether this makes his character more likely to be true, or less likely. Could such a man really have lived among us, or is he more likely the stuff of legend?

Notable among those who adhere to the legend hypothesis are Bart Ehrman, who has written several best-selling books on Christ and the Bible, and the ironically named Reza Aslan, whose best-seller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, just came out last year. These two authors speak with essentially once voice.

Ehrman assures us that his views are representative of many others': they "are not my own idiosyncratic views of the Bible. They are the views that have held sway for many, many years among the majority of serious critical scholars teaching in the universities and seminaries of North America and Europe."

While Ehrman recognizes (along with all other academically credible historians of the New Testament era) that Jesus was a real person, he holds that the most crucial parts of what we understand as the life of Christ never happened. In chapter five of Jesus, Interrupted, he takes specific aim at Lewis's trilemma: "I had come to realize," he writes, "that Jesus' divinity was part of John's theology, not a part of Jesus' own teaching. . . . there were not three options but four: liar, lunatic, Lord, or legend. . . . What I meant was that the idea that he called himself God was a legend, which I believe it is."

Legend theories come in many flavors. The highly skeptical Jesus Seminar holds that as much as 85 percent of the Gospels are later accretions upon the life of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it seems that every year some major newsmagazine comes out with someone's new "historical Jesus." And there are even a small number of self-proclaimed scholars who believe that the entire story of Jesus was made up, that there never was such a person in real life.

Sources of the Legend

But in order for the legend hypothesis to hold water, there must be a plausible explanation for the genesis of the Gospels. Somebody—or more precisely, four somebodies—put the Gospels in writing, and they got their information, or their ideas, from somewhere. And here we encounter a remarkable thing about the story of Christ: that it was placed in its final form not just once but four times, and that each of those four final authors (or author groups) got the crucial aspect of Jesus' character—his perfect power and perfect goodness—exactly right, without flaw.

For the Gospel authors to have produced generally compatible pictures of Jesus would be no surprise: we can certainly assume that they worked interdependently, borrowing sources from each other, relying on common tradition, and so on. In the end, though, they all worked independently to some degree, and yet they all produced a character of unparalleled power and self-sacrifice, with no mar or imperfection of any sort.

The implications of this may be more profound than is commonly recognized. For there seem to be only two plausible explanations for the Gospel writings: either Jesus Christ was a real man, and the Gospel authors painted a consistent picture because they recorded his life faithfully; or he was the stuff of human invention, at least in large part, and all four sources just happened to come up with a character of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination.

According to the most skeptical scholarship, the character and story of Jesus came about through processes of legendary development. The question is, who would have been involved in that, and what must have been true of them—and is it really likely that they could have accomplished such a feat of moral and literary excellence out of whole cloth? Let's consider what this legend hypothesis calls on us to accept as true.

Non-Communities of Cognitive Dysfunction

First, the legend hypothesis requires us to believe that the Gospels were produced by first- or second-century "communities of faith." Reza Aslan puts it this way in the opening chapter of Zealot:

The Gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, historical documentation of Jesus' life. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus' words and deeds, recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe.

This kind of language is typical of legend theorists. Nearly all of them believe that the Gospels were composed by "communities of faith." But this hypothesis, intended to alleviate the Gospels' implausibility, raises its own significant plausibility problems: could the magnificent character of Christ really have bubbled up from a fount of that sort? One gets an uncomfortable feeling, thinking about it: perhaps it's possible, but is it likely? Communities produce stories, yes; one thinks of Till Eulenspiegel, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Pete. A character like Jesus, however, is of another sort altogether.

Yet that only begins to describe the problem, for legend theorists typically go on to describe what they suppose these authorial communities to have been like, and these added layers of explanation tend to exacerbate the difficulties rather than alleviate them.

The Telephone Game

There is, for example, the "telephone game" version of community-of-faith authorship, a popular theory that has been endorsed by Bart Ehrman, among others. A mainstay of children's birthday parties, the telephone game consists of one child being given a message or story to tell to one other child, who then relays it to a third child, and so on until all the children in sequence have been told the story. As Ehrman notes, usually by the time the last child hears the message, "it's a different story." In Jesus, Interrupted he claims that faith communities came up with and developed their stories of Christ through just this method.

It sounds plausible enough on the surface perhaps—except that Ehrman emphasizes that this "game" was happening in multiple languages and multiple contexts. Thus, the story was produced by no real community; rather, it came about through dispersed processes of quasi-random serial distortion. By what magic does this loose, far-flung network earn the appellation of "community"?

Genuine communities can create good literature. I've already mentioned Paul Bunyan; growing up in Michigan, I loved reading the folk tales about the great lumberjack and his blue ox, Babe. Communities build and share such stories among each other, through personal, often face-to-face interactions. In such settings, stories grow in parallel processes.

What Ehrman describes is entirely unlike that. It's a serial process, not a parallel one, and the wide assortment of languages, contexts, and cultures involved denotes the very antithesis of community.

A Non-Community of Cognitive Deficiency

Then there is the matter of these stories being developed by communities of faith. Faith, for many skeptics—especially New Atheists—is a form of cognitive deficiency. It is "belief without evidence," or "pretending to know what you don't know." It is a "virus of the mind," an "epistemological illness," say authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Peter Boghossian.

On this view, the authorial source of the Gospels would better be described as a non-community of cognitive deficiency, developing its fables through a "telephone-game" process of ever-multiplying distortion. It seems an unlikely provenance for moral genius in literature.

Each distortion gathered along the way was, of course, another false version of what really happened. Fiction became inextricably mixed into fact. Indeed the fable was spread by the power of its fictions, for its most spectacular—and most erroneous—aspects were what most enticed people into believing it. Its untruths served the purpose of drawing more people to the same untruths. For all we know, some of the fictions were intentional deceptions, at least when first inserted into the fable's creative stream.

This, too, seems to militate against a "community of faith" being the originator of the character of Christ: deceivers, whether intentional or merely careless, are not the stuff of which moral greatness is made.

A Clarion Call

There is another theory, however, which relieves the Gospel originators of the charge of intentional deceit. Going under the rubric of cognitive dissonance theory, it lessens the moral severity of the deception, making it not conscious dishonesty, but rather unconscious distortion.

Cognitive dissonance is commonly spoken of, and almost as commonly misunderstood. I first encountered the term as an undergraduate at Michigan State University, in a course on the psychology of social movements. In a fascinating book titled When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger and others, we learned the true story of a certain Mrs. Keach (not her real name), who claimed to have received a message from the planet Clarion that the earth would be destroyed on December 21, 1954. Mrs. Keach gathered a group of followers around her whom she convinced would be saved from destruction if they sold everything, quit their jobs, and joined her household.

Their final instruction, for the night of December 20, was to wait obediently in parked cars, from which they would be whisked away by the aliens from Clarion precisely at midnight on the 21st. Midnight arrived on the fateful night; nothing happened. As the hours passed and the aliens still failed to appear, the devotees' eagerness turned to anxiety as they began to wonder if they had given up everything for a lie.

At 4:45 a.m., however, Mrs. Keach relieved them of their distress by relaying a new message from Clarion: the earth had been spared by reason of her followers' sincerity and faithfulness. They had been right all along; indeed, they had saved the world!

Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

It was all utter nonsense, of course, the whole affair a total con. How could Keach's followers have swallowed it so easily? Festinger explained it according to what he called cognitive dissonance reduction theory.

Cognitive dissonance reduction comes into play when individuals have made a significant, active investment of identity and resources in a belief that turns out to be undeniably false: hence the "dissonance" in cognition and the felt need to reduce it.

If just one person has been taken in, he will typically give up the false belief and do his best to live it down. But when a whole group of people have been deceived, they may instead support one another in reducing the cognitive dissonance without giving up the belief. One common means of doing this is for the group to "discover"—i.e., invent—a "fact" showing that they were right all along. Thus, Mrs. Keach's group "learned" that the aliens had decided to spare the earth, and this enabled them to continue believing that the aliens were real and that their investment in that belief had been worth it.

Not surprisingly, this is how some theorists consider the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection to have arisen. Kris Komarnitsky puts it this way: "The belief that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead may have been a way for Jesus' followers to reconcile in their minds his death with their previous hope that he was the Messiah." This rationalization "did not need to be perfect, but it did need to adequately answer what would seem to be the two most natural and pressing questions: why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah?"

Adding Up to a Bad Sum

What these theories add up to is that the surpassingly good and powerful character of Jesus Christ was produced by a community that was no community, expressing the cognitive deficiency called faith through the heavily distorting process of the "telephone game," for the morally dubious purpose of dragging others along into their false belief. Beyond all this (according to some theorists, at least), it was also the product of cognitive meltdown on the same order as believing that waiting overnight in a parked car could bring about the salvation of all mankind.

This, or something like it, is supposed to be the description of the authorial source of the one character in all human literature who was perfectly other-centered in spite of holding absolute power: a character expressing moral excellence like no other in all history.

It lacks, if I may say so, the ring of plausibility.

The One Real Option

But if the legend theory is hard to believe, we need another explanation, for the Gospels still came from somewhere and need to be accounted for. The one option we have left is that Jesus Christ was himself the model of perfection whose life and legacy explain the accounts we have in the Gospels. Is this option any more likely than the other?

Both theories can be evaluated according to how they fit with their own backstory, how they conform to their conception of reality.

As we have seen, the legend hypothesis presupposes that the world runs on a more or less uniform scale. Anomalies may arise, but they are statistical rarities: Shakespeare and Goethe were outliers. The character of Christ, if it were merely legend, ought at least to have been produced by just such an outlying genius. To ascribe it instead to a non-community of cognitive dysfunction promulgating intentional and/or self-deceiving falsehood is to stretch believability beyond the breaking point. Such a source simply is not one that we could reasonably expect to have produced such a perfect character as Jesus—not even once, much less four times. The legend hypothesis is unreasonable for just that reason.

In contrast, consider the other option's backstory. It posits an all-good, all-powerful God, and Jesus as the incarnation of that God. Jesus, the man of perfect moral excellence, fits perfectly in a reality like that. And it also makes sense that those among his apostolic witnesses who were called to record his life would have done so faithfully.

The life of Christ is just too good to be have been produced through legendary processes. It's too good to be false.

And so it seems to me that the "legend" extension of Lewis's Trilemma fails, just as the liar and lunatic ideas fail. I can't help wondering whether Lewis might also have said of the legend hypothesis, "He did not leave us that option: he did not intend to." •

Tom Gilson is the National Field Director of Ratio Christi, a student apologetics alliance with a presence on over one hundred college campuses. He is the co-editor of True Reason: Responding to the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel), and he writes the Thinking Christian blog at, as well as the monthly "Worldview and You" column at He, his wife Sara, and their two college-aged children live in Lebanon, Ohio, where Tom and Sara currently attend the Countryside Church of the Nazarene.

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