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).