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Mad, Bad or God?

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)


There’s an old argument, popularised by C.S. Lewis, that Jesus had to be either mad, bad or God, and the choice is obvious.

All I think I’ve written on this topic is the brief aside in the middle paragraph1 of the “Alternative Explanations” section of “Problems with the Christian Worldview”. “I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.”

I ought to expand a bit on this, so here goes. The argument is that someone who said the extraordinary things that Jesus said would have to be either mad, bad or God. Since he clearly wasn’t mad or bad, he must have been God. There are lots of places this argument can break down. Some are:-

  1. We might accept that Jesus was either mad or bad. This is the orthodox Jewish view; not one I’d go along with, nor one that’s terribly popular with Jews these days.
  2. We might deny that what Jesus said was that extraordinary. The Gospels don’t represent Jesus as going round saying “I’m God, don’t you know”. However, there are some passages in John’s Gospel that have been taken to suggest this claim (certainly that Jesus claimed pre-existence, and may have ascribed the tetragrammaton to himself in the “before Abraham was, I am” passage in John 8:58; but all this can be disputed – see, eg. Web Link (http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/722) Defunct; this looks quite an interesting site).
  3. We might attempt to distinguish between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history. That is, we might pare away the passages in John that seem a bit odd or discordant with the synoptic Jesus. This isn’t my preferred option either. In the absence of contemporary revelation, we’re totally dependent on the NT for knowing what Jesus was like, and we could easily pick and choose or distort the record until we got one we liked. Note that there’s a subtle difference between what Jesus said or did, and what was claimed that he said or did, but we ought at least to stick to the claims without ignoring or distorting them. As I don’t enthuse over the miraculous, I have to argue that what was claimed of Jesus didn’t always happen in the way claimed, but I don’t want to claim this needlessly of the sayings just to get a more likeable Jesus.
  4. We might deny that Jesus claimed to be God. I think this is true, as alluded to above.
  5. There might be more options than the three suggested. This is equivalent to …
  6. We might accept that someone can make extraordinary claims without being mad or bad (or God).
Maybe we should focus a bit on the “mad” and “bad” claims. Taking “mad” first, presumably the idea is that someone making such claims would have to be deluded, like the madman who claims to be Napoleon. If I remember correctly, Lewis says that inappropriate claims to deity are as mad as claiming you’re a fried egg. But is this so? Setting aside whether or not Jesus thought he was God in the sense of identity (rather than being chosen, adopted, made of equal honour, or some such), there’s an example of a Greek philosopher who thought he was (a) god. To quote the famous doggerel “Great Empedocles, that ardent soul; Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole". And he did. Apparently he left his sandals on the edge of the crater as though going for a dip (so said Anthony Grayling; knowing him, he may have made that bit up). Yet Empedocles wasn’t mad in the “fried egg” sense. He had all sorts of interesting and revolutionary philosophical and scientific ideas; some right, some wrong. He evidently had a high opinion of himself and believed deity was something that could be empirically demonstrated. He was proved wrong in a rather nasty way, of course, but many sane people are proved wrong, admittedly less dramatically, all the time.

As for “bad”, presumably this means that Jesus knew he was making false claim, yet persisted in the claim, deceiving his disciples and many others besides. This is clearly not on. However, it is not even necessary to be certain of one’s claims to avoid being a deceiver. Everyone has self-doubts and it is possible for someone to have doubts and yet not be bad. We’re not told anything about this aspect of Jesus’ psychology, though we gather that he had to work things out (the temptations in the wilderness). I don’t know whether the various so-called false prophets were what we’d call bad people. They were just wrong (we think). We imagine that THE false prophet is a bad person, because he intentionally deceives, but this isn’t so of those who think of themselves as prophets, but aren’t (at least not in the sense of being sent by God). Take Muhammad. Obviously he didn’t claim to be God, but he did claim to have spoken to the angel Gabriel. It used to be popular to say that Muhammad was mad or bad (before saying such things became illegal and dangerous to one’s health), but isn’t it just fair to say he was wrong (with respect to being a prophet), and maybe right and good in much else?

I think the Lewis trilemma is a fair sort of question to ask. It’s just a bit glib. We do need an explanation of how someone as obviously good and honest as Jesus could have said the sort of things he’s said to have said and been wrong (on the sceptical account, and assuming he did say them). In the dialectical context of my argument, I don’t need to say which of the sceptical alternatives is the correct one. There are too many unknowns for this. All I need do is provide a selection that might be true, and that undermines the argument that the trilemma is the only option.



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Date Length Title
29/11/2007 18:56:10 6044 Mad, Bad or God?



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18/12/2010 19:58:05 767 (Mad, Bad or God?) None

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