As I have said in previous Vox Apologias with this common theme – “useful, or useless” – all apologetics are merely tools. Every defense has an object, a particular use, and an audience best suited for it. I have also said that I disagree with the “you must only use a certain type” of apologetics approach. Be it presuppositional, evidential, or what have you. This is much the same way. It is a tool. As with most tools, it has a specific purpose, and will be quite useless if you attempt to use it for something other than it’s specific purpose.

My thesis: The Trilemma has a particular audience, and a particular application. If these two conditions are not suitable, the Trilemma will not be effective, or it’s effect will be severely limited.

No apologetic is a substitute for study, effort, and prayerful consideration. The Trilemma is no exception. This apologetic has a very specific purpose, and is an answer to a very specific assertion: That Jesus was only a great moral teacher. The apologetic rests on one presupposition: That Jesus claimed to be God.

When using the Trilemma, you must do two things. One, consider your audience. Two, have a definite application, complementing the apologetic. They must both coincide, or you are wasting your time.

The Audience:

Let’s take some examples. You have two possible people you could discuss Jesus with.

First, you have an atheist/agnostic skeptic you work with. He says that, while he feels Jesus had some great moral teachings, all of that “I’m God stuff” was probably just “added in later by His disciples, or the writers, to reinforce their claim.” He goes on to say that “scholars have proven that Jesus didn’t really perform any miracles, or anything. He was just a teacher. The rest was just sensationalism.”

Second, you have a friend of yours who is sincerely, and earnestly, telling you that they feel Jesus was a great moral teacher, but that they don’t think He is God, or anything. “I mean, it’s great to go to church, and all, but all of this stuff about calling Him God? Maybe they just don’t understand what He meant, you know?”

Now, let’s take the first case. Let’s notice a few things.

First, he denies that Jesus claimed to be God. Before you can use the Trilemma, they have to recognize the presupposition that the Trilemma rests on. If that is denied, you have to work on that before you can move on. So, right off the bat, this disqualifies your skeptic from being a good audience.

Second, he has been listening to Higher Biblical Criticism (HBC), when it comes to the Bible. You can peg that from the “scholars have proven” line, and from the “added in later”. it’s virtually assured. With the proliferation of “HBC” (the only type of biblical “scholarship” non-Christians will accept), which denies the supernatural, or any supernatural claims, we see that “scholars” presuppose the view that all Biblical matters must be filtered through human rationality (ala the Enlightenment), as well as being interpreted as such. An adherent of HBC, for the reasons stated above, will instantly reject the presupposition that Jesus claimed to be God; because human rationality, in their view, precludes any human being God – or that a claim that He said He was, was given. I won’t expand on that here, but I think you’ll find that is a true statement. Since they reject the underlying presupposition, you won’t get any farther. Thus, you again have the wrong audience.

So, let’s look at our second subject.

They don’t have any underlying reason (observable) to reject Jesus’ claim. They, in fact, recognize that some people say He did make it, from later comments.

You would have to do some basic groundwork here, as well. There is, however, one crucial difference. There is no outright denial of the presupposition. If you can establish the presupposition – that Jesus claimed to be God – you will have a foundation for this apologetic.

Once you have the foundation, you can progress to either Lewis’ “Liar, Lucifer, Lunatic” version, or McDowell’s “Liar, Lord, or Lunatic” version. Which, in McDowell’s version, includes “Lucifer” in the “Liar” arm of it. I’m not going into the mechanics of it, though. That’s not the question. When we ask “is it useful”; as always, the answer will be “it depends on the situation.” It is a specific answer to a specific claim – and requires a specific set of conditions. An audience who isn’t predisposed to reject the tenet the claim rests on is the key condition, so I addressed that one. There are likely more, but we’ll just use this one, as an example.

The Application:

When we think about our application, what are we really saying? I believe that we are saying “why am I using this apologetic, and for what?” Well, there’s several good reasons – and several bad reasons.

Take our two sample subjects above.

For the first, I can’t see many good reasons for even trying with them. However, two come to mind. First, for anyone watching the discussion, it may be a useful apologetic which *does* apply to them. This applies, especially, to an internet forum, or to a public debate. Many times we will not *really* be debating the person themselves; for their benefit, at least. We are debating for the benefit of the people watching. We could be interested in showing the fundamental departure from Christian thought and teaching which marks the HBC methodology, or we could show the importance of Scripture to a proper view of Jesus Himself. For the skeptic’s benefit? I doubt you would derive any from the Trilemma in that respect.

For the second, there are myriad good reasons. First, for evangelization. The initial obstacle to their belief is the mistaken belief that Jesus is not God. When you point out that he did claim he was, and that Christians aren’t mistaken in asserting that He did, you can show them what Jesus asked about Himself: “Who do you say that I am?” From there, the Trilemma does a very good job of forcing you into the yes/no antithesis that is formal logic. At that point, they are almost compelled to dialogue. When you explain the ramifications of every “branch”, and the fallaciousness of the alternatives to actually admitting he was, in fact, God – you can make some inroads.

It’s all in the goal. If your goal is to create a dialogue, and teach truth about the identity of Jesus to someone who really doesn’t know, or understand, who He said He was, it can be a powerful tool. When you are trying to win an argument with it, or trying to “convince” someone who already denies the claim, you are using the wrong tool for the wrong purpose.

Now, let’s address one more thing, before we close this out. There is a two-part, specific application for this apologetic, aside from the above. We touched on them both, briefly, but I want to make it very clear.

The primary application of The Trilemma is to contradict a specific claim. Using it for that purpose is using it as it was intended to be used. There is a secondary application, though, which I touched on as well. To begin a dialogue. The Trilemma assumes one major theological truth – that Jesus claimed to be God. That is an excellent discussion topic, and it leads into discussions of every possible aspect of Jesus, His teachings, and His life. Furthermore, because of the claim they made, you also have a ready-made opening for discussion of what Jesus actually taught. In my view, sharing truths about god is never a wasted opportunity, provided they are semi-receptive. As a tertiary application, it dispels the pluralistic claim, that Christianity stands side by side with other religions. As Chesterton says, to say that is only “reciting a very stale formula, contradicted by a very striking fact”. No other religion claims to be founded by God. Even Judaism was founded by a mere man – Moses. When you establish that Jesus claimed to be God, and that He was neither a liar, a lunatic, or an evil man – you can then show how He proved He was God, by His miracles, His wisdom, his other actions, and most importantly, by His Resurrection.

Like all other apologetics, it has a specific function; a function which must be used in cooperation with many others, to be effective. It is only a cog, not the whole wheel.