A Tale of Two Trilemmas

Guest post by Otheus



A famous biologist [1] once observed that an amalgamation of ideas functions like an organism within an environment, such as an invasive species on an island or as a virus inside a host [2]. From this analogy, it’s not hard to see that when such ideas are harmful to the host, it becomes good and necessary to inoculate the host. In virology, hosts are inoculated by presenting them with a non-harmful variant of the virus so that the host can adapt to it and later fend off the more dangerous variant. In this essay, I present such an inoculation against the core belief of the Christian evangelical. Such an inoculation will not work on an already-affected host — no, that would require more advanced techniques, such as a lobotomy, time-travel, or the resurrection of Carl Sagan. However, this argument may yet be of use to many whose minds are still capable of logic and reason, uncorrupted by the infestations of Christian evangelical apologetics [3].

The Lewis Trilemma

C.S. Lewis is best known for his Narnia novels, but within Christian circles, he is also highly espoused for his apologetics, i.e., the use of ideas and reasoning to persuade one that the Christian faith is ‘true’, or at least, preferable to other faiths. Lewis’s three most famous apologia are (1) his ideas on miracles, in Miracles,  (2) what it really means to be a Christian, from Mere Christianity, and (3) also from that same book, something called the “Trilemma.” The first two are pertinent, and I will return to them in a minute, but first the Trilemma: Jesus was either “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” It’s a clever argument that rests entirely on one’s willingness to believe that the Gospels (the first four books) of the New Testament are a reliable historical recounting of events. Through a reading of the Gospels, one might be inclined to believe that Jesus, having claimed that he was God and having roused up Jewish dissent against the Romans and religious leaders of the day, was either a raving lunatic, a clever conniving con man and liar, or the entity he claimed to be: Lord. That’s Lewis’s trilemma, which has been disseminated more recently by the likes of famed apologist Josh McDowell and prison evangelist Chuck Colson. I counter Lewis’s Trilemma with my own: Impossible, Improbable, or Insignificant.  Granted, it does not roll off the tongue as well as the Oxford-trained writer’s trilemma, but at least I also alliterate.

Quickly back to Lewis’s other ideas: In Mere Christianity, Lewis means to present what Christianity merely is, i.e., the core essence of the teaching which is common to all variants of true Christianity. (Just like all true Scotsmen are, in fact, Scotsmen, except those that you believe aren’t.) “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start… We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed” (p. 29).

Let me just now interject and say there’s nothing illogical or irrational about this. If you believe in God and in some concept of Sin, such a belief in Christianity is entirely consistent and logical. You could hold on to such truths and yet be more logical and rational in every aspect of your life than would be any among a million atheists.

It’s just that the evangelical Christian does not agree with Lewis. And neither does Lewis. In a talk entitled “The Grand Miracle” from 1945, Lewis says:

[T]he Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian. Conversely, once you have accepted that, then you will see that all other well-established Christian miracles—because, of course, there are ill-established Christian miracles; there are Christian legends just as much as there are heathen legends, or modern journalistic legends—you will see that all the well-established Christian miracles are part of it, that they all either prepare for, or exhibit, or result from the Incarnation. Just as every natural event exhibits the total character of the natural universe at a particular point and space of time; so every miracle exhibits the character of the Incarnation.

And in his book Miracles, Lewis writes:

The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography [in the form of the Gospels] comes later as a comment on it. Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.

And so, as an addendum to what is merely Christianity (or perhaps a clarification of “He disabled death itself”) is a belief that it is a fact that Jesus was resurrected from death. This is a key point.

The other key point from Miracles is the superiority of the supernaturalist worldview over the naturalist worldview. I’ll explain that. A naturalist is someone who believes that everything that happens within existence can be explained by “natural causes.” A supernaturalist is one who believes there is something “outside” of physical existence. To the naturalist, all things have a natural cause; to the supernaturalist, miracles can occur. Lewis understands that you cannot be a naturalist and believe in miracles, because by definition, a miracle is something that can only be explained as “an interference with Nature by a supernatural power.” Lewis does not stop at the tautology, but goes on and says that a naturalist worldview is internally inconsistent — a naturalist cannot logically be a naturalist. That’s not important here. What is important, though, is that a worldview that presupposes the possibility of miracles is more reasonable and rational than one that does not.

Let me interject here and say: I don’t agree with that, but I’m going to cede the point. That’s because if you, dear reader, are a naturalist, I’m not writing to you. If you are a naturalist, you do not, by definition, believe in miracles, and therefore you cannot believe in the Resurrection of Christ, and therefore cannot be a true Christian [4].


In the Foreword, I proffered the analogy of inoculation. Vaccines are commonly made by taking the original virus, rendering it harmless, and then introducing the harmless virus into the host. You’ve now seen the original virus. I will now render it harmless.

The Believer’s Trilemma

At the end of the last section, I said I would agree to a supernatural worldview. We can now dispense with the silly notion of naturalism. This means, of course, miracles are possible.

However, if you disagree that miracles are always possible, then you believe a miracle is impossible, then it cannot happen. It cannot have happened. You cannot believe a miracle could have happened and be logically consistent. Therefore there was no Resurrection event, and therefore you are not and cannot be a true Christian. Congratulations! You have bypassed the Trilemma [Impossible]!

But you are reading this and so you believe miracles are possible. Just how possible are they?

Many Christians today believe miracles are on-going events — they happen all the time, God is still very active in the lives of us humans, miracles are common.  You’re in your car fiddling with the radio when at the last second you look up and avoid a deadly accident.  You prayed for that child who suddenly recovered.  A refund came in the mail just as you were down to your last penny. Your favorite Christian sports hero led his team to the championship.  Miracles, all around. They’re everywhere. Fucking magnets, how do they work?

Sometimes this is referred to as mysticism. But whatever it’s called, the mystic must then explain why, if God performs miracles all the time, an event known as the Resurrection is in any way significant.  Sure, it’s significant in a theological sense, but not in a historical sense.  Since God performs miracles all the time, there’s no reason why He had to wait until the Roman occupation of Palestine, or why He didn’t simply wait until there were billions or more souls alive. Or why He doesn’t do it every couple of generations and in many different cultures?

And maybe He did. There have been numerous accounts [5] from numerous cultures of gods and people having come back from the dead. The most famous is Ra. There’s also Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus, Ishtar, Quetzalcoatl. Indeed, since the beginning of recorded history, every couple of hundred years, a culture develops a myth about their god dying and coming back to life. It makes sense that if God performs miracles today, and if He raised Jesus from the dead, He did it countless other times.

And not just to gods but to “mortals” as well. The most well-known was Lazarus (John 11:1-44). But there was also Jonah after spending three days inside a whale (Jonah 1 & 2). There was the son of Zaraphath in 1 Kings 17:17-22, the son of a Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:32-35, and a man whose body was touched by the bones of Elisha in 2 Kings 13:20-21. There was Dorcas in Acts 9:36-41 and Eutychus in Acts 20:9-10. And let’s not forget the documented cases of medically dead persons spontaneously coming back to life — 38 times in the last 30 years [6].

So whether you believe in miracles happening all the time or you believe in them only happening in the distant past as claimed by followers, you have to admit that it’s common enough and that there is nothing really special about the Resurrection. It was merely hyped up a bit, that’s all. The real dilemma for the mystic is why it doesn’t happen more often. Congratulations! You see the light of second coming of the Trilemma [Insignificant].

Throughout the history of Christian theology, the real difficulty for the Christian mystic is not in explaining miracles, but in struggling to explain why the Resurrection is unique.  On the one hand, she wants to believe that miracles are everyday occurrences, and on the other hand wants to believe that the one miracle critical to Christianity happened once and only once.  Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig, Josh McDowell, and C.S. Lewis himself have written countless words over the years constructing elaborate arguments as to why it couldn’t have happened yesterday, or why it didn’t happen right after the original sin known as “the Fall” (which would have precluded God from needing to flood the earth),  or why God doesn’t just re-send Jesus every couple of generations to die and rise again,  or why He doesn’t just do away with physical death altogether (rather than promise to do so eventually).  Why doesn’t God snap his holy fingers and voilà, Jesus enters the room and starts pointing out flaws in C.S. Lewis’ arguments? They have answers for all that, and for every argument you can imagine, and for some you cannot imagine. Jesus’ Resurrection must be significant, and therefore, the event must be unique.

But unique by definition is not never; it’s just another term for improbable. Very improbable. Sort of like winning the lottery. Now, let’s say Jesus was the only one in history to rise from the dead. There have been an estimated 95 billion people who have lived and died in the last ten thousand years. So Jesus’ resurrection can be deemed as a 1 in 95 billion lottery event. That’s very improbable. That’s ten times more improbable than your winning the mega-jackpot lottery twice in your lifetime [7]. Nearly anything is more probable than that: two snowflakes being exactly alike, people spontaneously combusting, humans walking on the moon, America electing a black man as President. In fact, all alternative explanations [8] to the Resurrection event are equally or more probable: disciples secretly replacing Jesus on the cross with an impostor; someone drugging the real Jesus before he got on the cross so he only looked dead; hundreds of dastardly believers overcoming centurions and coming to roll away the heavy tombstone, stealing his body, and then faking his after-life; or just lots of confused followers not knowing what to do after his death and making up fantasies to console themselves until those fantasies took a life of their own (so to speak) and then writing them down as facts 40 years later.  The same Christian apologists who go to great lengths to explain why the Resurrection is unique and therefore improbable, then go to further lengths to try and show why none of these alternate explanations is likely. And I agree with them: these explanations are unlikely. But they are, in fact, much, much, much more likely than a presumably unique occurrence.

Imagine you have an old fashioned scale (the kind with two plates suspended by an arm which teeters perfectly on a ledge) which can measure nanograms. Now, you know what a gram is. A nanogram is a billionth of a gram. Onto the left plate, you place a grain of any of the naturalistic explanations for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Some of them weigh in at a kilogram, others weigh in as a microgram, and some as a nanogram. Some of them might even be a half a nanogram. The scale tilts to the left from the weight of this tiny, improbable belief. Now onto the right plate, you place a grain of the belief of the Resurrection — estimated weight: one hundredth of a nanogram. The scale doesn’t move. The only way the scale can move is if you remove all natural explanations from the left plate. To do that, you would have to prove that all alternative explanations concerning the Resurrection are impossible. You’d have to prove a negative. But you can’t prove a negative. Congratulations! You have successfully risen above the Trilemma [Improbable]:

Consider yourself inoculated.


My apologies if this arguments proves to be unoriginal. One late night between 1997 and 1999, my father, by profession an evangelical missionary, and I got into an impassioned theological argument from whence this argument originated. It struck me as clear, logical, and convincing. But of course my father was unswayed, and so I never bothered to write it down. Through the years, I’ve mentioned it only a pair of times.  If others have since promulgated a similar argument, it’s likely just a coincidence.


1. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1976).

2. For a riveting and action-packed introduction to memes within a cyberpunk adventure, read the novel by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1992).

3. I do not intend to imply that all variants of Christianity lead to a lack of logic and reason.

4. Just as no true Scotsman would say I’m a Scotsman. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman.

5. Wikipedia, “Dying-and-Rising God,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dying-and-rising_god.

6. Wikipedia, “Lazarus Syndrome,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazarus_syndrome. The occurrence of spontaneous return of blood circulation “has been noted in medical literature at least 38 times since 1982.”

7. Roughly 1 in 260 million per event, assuming you play once each week for 50 years, your odds of winning it twice are nearly 1 in roughly 10.8 billion.

8. OK, not all. Equally probable explanations involve aliens, time-travellers, and comic-book-like superheroes.



About otheus

Otheus has been doing system administration since the mid-1980's, starting with an IBM-PC running d-BASE III, and professionally since the early 1990's on OS-9 (no, not for the Mac). Though his early aspirations included "programming", he now prefers the challenges and dynamism of system-level design and optimization. His passions include increasing stability and availability, optimizing performance, identifying issues related to security, and writing useful shell scripts.
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