Lord, Liar, Lunatic...or Legend?

Author Melinda Penner Published on 05/07/2014

The first time I heard C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma challenged was nearly 20 years ago. A local college professor invited Greg to speak to his philosophy class each term. The professor was a skeptic, but was happy to expose his students to good thinking even if he didn’t believe what the Bible taught about Jesus. After one class period, he chatted with Greg and presented his challenge to the Trilemma. It was incomplete, he said. There is a fourth possibility: The Gospels are legends.

So there’s a “quadlemma” to answer, and Tom Gilson has written an excellent new article in Touchstone. He considers this fourth possibility in an interesting way. It’s not only about how a legend about a man called Jesus developed. It’s about how four separate legends about a man called Jesus with a uniquely good character and great power developed independently and remarkably similar. It’s easy to miscalculate what this would require, and Tom thinks it through very carefully and in an extremely helpful way.

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.

Read his entire article and add it to your tool kit to answer this increasingly common challenge.