Was Jesus Mad Bad or God or Merely Mistaken

Daniel Howard-Snyder

Apparently some of the Church Fathers argued for the divinity of Jesus on the grounds that if his claim to divinity was false, then he was a bad man; for if he was not divine, then either he was lying about who he was or he was mad, neither of which is true. This argument—sometimes called the Mad, Bad, or God Argument, or MBG, for short—is heard from contemporary Christian apologists in one form or another, perhaps most notably from C. S. Lewis:

I am trying to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.'' That is the one thing we must not say. 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. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.1

In this paper, I aim to assess the MBG argument. In section 1, I present a version of it that seems most perspicuous to me, followed by several stage-setting remarks, including two ground rules for assessing it. In section 2, I present the dwindling probabilities objection, a variation on an objection that Alvin Plan-

* ©Faith and Philosophy, vol. 21 (2004). Reprinted by permission of the publish 1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1952, revised ed), 55—6.

tinga uses against traditional historical arguments for the great truths of the gospel.2 In section 3, I drop the probabilistic machinery and grant every premise of the MBG argument but one, the premise that denies that Jesus was merely mistaken in his claim to divinity. I then assess the most compelling defenses of that denial and conclude that they fail. In section 4, I argue that we—or, at any rate, those who share my epistemic situation vis-a-vis that premise—should suspend judgment about it.

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