The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

A popular way of thinking about God among evangelical Christians is C. S. Lewis’ forced choice strategy: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God (pp 52-53). Chuck Colson, Nixon’s hatchet man, was sentenced for obstruction of justice. He spent seven months in prison, and there become an enthusiastic evangelical Christian.  It was this choice between mad, bad, or God, he said, that convinced him to become a Christian (Silliman, p 120). 

What does Lewis mean?

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 . . . . 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. (Lewis, p 52)

Right away the equation of madness with thinking you’re a poached egg, while amusing, biases the question. It assumes that there is only one degree and type of madness, total bonkers, and that madness today looks like madness then. What if Jesus was neither mad, nor bad, nor God? Why are these the only three choices? What if Jesus were mad in a way that was a socially recognized, even acceptable, form of deviance?  

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Around the time of Jesus, there were a number of men running around Judea and the Galilee claiming to be the Messiah predicted in Jewish scripture. After the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally published (in the late 1980s), Israel Knohl wrote The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  There he refers to the “son of God” text, one who would be “great over the earth.”

These are exactly the terms in which the archangel Gabriel described Jesus in the annunciation to Mary (loc 789-790).

He would be “the son of God and son of the Most High.” (loc 793-794)

Michael Wise has made a similar argument in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus, also based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His point, like Knohl’s, is that the idea of the suffering servant of God would have been available to Jesus during his lifetime. It was not a subsequent invention. If this is so, then Jesus could have been filling a socially recognized role, badly needed during the turmoil following Herod’s death (4 BCE). 

Most Biblical scholars hold that the claim that Jesus was the son of God is a later development. Jesus did not understand himself in these terms.  He was the creation of those who wrote the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke). However, if the Dead Sea Scrolls are correct, and they are amplified by a three-foot-tall stone tablet from the time, which refers to a messiah who will rise after three days,* then Jesus himself may have thought of himself in these terms. He would have been mad in our culture, but not in the culture in which he lived, which invited certain marginal figures to take up this role.  

Unhampered by social convention, certain types of mad people see the world around them more clearly than others. Shamans are common in many cultures, and the role is often filled by one who would be relegated to the mad were that outlet not available. Of course, shamans do not always see the world more clearly.  Differently would be a better term, seeing forces at work invisible to others.  

Was Jesus mad?

It depends on which Jesus you mean. The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount promoted a social ethic shared by many today. It would make little sense to call it a rational social ethic, but it was a human one, entirely explicable in terms of ordinary (or at least widely accepted as ideal) social relationships, such as that between the rich and the poor. It is for this reason that it is the centerpiece of Thomas Jefferson’s redaction of the New Testament, from which he removed all supernatural elements.  

If Jesus were not the son of God, then it would be mad, at least in our terms, to say that “before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:48-59)**  Jesus was careful, in the Synoptic Gospels, never to explicitly claim he was the son of God. But he made enough allusions to this possibility (Matthew 16:15-17).  

If Jesus was mad, he was mad in a way that was socially acceptable and understandable in his day.  It’s possible that he was extraordinarily gifted in seeing the contradictions and immoralities of his day, and courageous enough to call them out in an ingenious way.  That’s a rare combination. He need not have been a God to do it. Jesus combined moral and ethical insight with a preexistent tradition of the suffering savior, going back at least to Isaiah (52:13-53:12). “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Where Lewis and evangelical Christians go wrong

A likely, but by no means guaranteed possibility, is that Jesus may have understood himself in the messianic tradition of the day, but that many of the messianic elements were added by the Gospels beginning with Mark about forty years after Jesus’ death. 

The identity of Jesus with God is so important to Lewis and other evangelicals that they would create the forced choice, Jesus either God or mad. (Bad, I assume, means knowing one is not the Messiah, but pretending to be one.) In so doing they ignore the history of the Gospels. But if Jesus is allowed to be a man, while still recognizing that he was no ordinary man, then the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an outstanding character who may have identified with the role of the Messiah, which was available for the taking. This would not have made him crazy. Nor would it have made him God.  

Conclusion

It’s an error of judgment to use a logical trick to prove Jesus is God, while completely ignoring the social, historical, or Biblical context of this “trick.” To be sure, more is known about this context than when Lewis wrote in 1952, especially regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls which would not have been available to him. 

But one doubts if it would have made any difference.  Lewis was not out to understand the historical context of the claim that Jesus is the son of God, which includes an understanding of when and why the Gospels were written. Nor was he out to understand what it is to be mad in a different culture. He was out to come up with a baby logical proof of the divinity of Jesus. When that goal comes before the goal of understanding, then the author becomes a poor apologist.

______________

* https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/world/middleeast/06stone.html)

** John is not considered one of the Synoptic Gospels.  It was written twenty to thirty years later and uses different sources. It is the most Christological of the Gospels, meaning that for the most part, it adopts a “high Christology,” equating Jesus with God. As noted, this equation is never made explicit in the Synoptics.    

References

Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  Smithsonian Books, 2011.

Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls, translated by David Maisel. University of California Press, 2000.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. HarperCollins, 1952.

Daniel Silliman, Reading Evangelicals. How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith. Eerdmans, 2021. 

Michael O. Wise, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus. HarperOne, 1999.

painting by Marc Chagall

8 thoughts on “The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God”

  1. I have been puzzled when I was younger about how someone who was a professor at Oxford could have such a simplistic view of Christianity
    It reminds me of something Wittgenstein wrote (I think) about how you would use a ladder to get to a certain place but then you would remove the ladder.
    It seems is Lewis was trying to build a ladder after he’s got to a certain place He hasn’t used the ladder himself.
    He got there by some other meansHele wanted to make a ladder that other people could use.Is that a good idea? It seems lazy to come up with these clever little arguments like mad,bad or God.
    It doesn’t require a great intelligence to construct those things I think at certain schools or universities people enjoyed such silly arguments. I have to confess that as I was a Catholic at the time I torch I don’t need to bother about what non-catholics are writing
    I suspect that Catholics still feel like that now but since CS Lewis has a following maybe since he wrote most movingly about his wife’s death and his is terrible grief I think it is worth doing what you have done because there will be a lot of interest in certain places. I think Jesus probably was very very intelligent with a penetrating mind that pierced common sense or common ignorance for the time in which he lived
    I think that he may in some people’s minds have become a symbol for creative intelligence wisdom and love.
    Even people who don’t believe in God still have that link in their minds especially a love that suffers for those that he loves.
    There have been other people who have sacrificed their lives for
    others like Bonhoeffer
    And it just seemed their Faith played an important part

  2. Er. excuse me, but Jesus of Nazareth MAY have had knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls. BUT: there is no doubt that He read the prophet Isaiah (upon whose writings He gave His first sermon).

    I’m amazed that this never occurred to you.

    1. I think the possibility that Jesus read Isaiah actually strengthens my argument, for it means that he would then have certainly been familiar with the idea of the suffering savior. Whether Jesus read the Dead Sea Scrolls or not really doesn’t make any difference to my argument. Finally, I’m not picking a fight with Jesus, but with the argument of C.S. Lewis. Thanks for your comment. It made me think. Fred

      1. Thank you for your response.

        If one’s assumption is that the Gospels are historically accurate, Lewis’ statement is justified. The historicity of the Gospels is the springboard for most discussions regarding Christological issues: “sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper.”

        1. I’ll have to think about this some more, but I think the Gospels could be historically accurate while still lacking the social-historical context (actually, that’s our job, not that of the Gospels) that makes it more than a choice among three options. BTW, I know that Latin quote as the Gloria Patri. We said it in my Reformed church when I was a teenager. I don’t think we say it in my Episcopal church now, but I should really know shouldn’t I? Fred

  3. Your whole argument is based on the teachings of Jesus in what he taught and that he followed the texts he would have had access to in order to live his life as the suffering servant. But wasn’t the main reason for his possible madman status because He claimed to forgive sins? Something that only God could do. Therefore he is claiming to have the power and status equal to God. Isn’t that what Lewis is using when describing him as a madman?

    1. I’m more inclined to see his claim to forgive as evidence of bad, not mad. But the main point is that Lewis should have been more specific. I’m critical of Lewis, not Jesus. Lewis is, in my opinion, intellectually sloppy. Thanks for the comment. Fred

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