The Trilemma Defence: The Mistaken Messiah?

If Jesus wasn’t a liar could He have been honestly mistaken about His divine identity instead?

The trilemma defence has been traditionally separated into three distinct possibilities for explaining the origin of Jesus’ divine claims. Of course, the trilemma could, theoretically, be turned into a quadrilemma or more, but no matter how many possibilities we extrapolate or how many prefixes we place before the ‘lemma we still have a very basic set of possibilities, which we outlined in the “liar” article (link 1 below). Either Jesus made divine claims about Himself or He did not. If He did He then He was either correct, was mistaken, or else was a liar. Let’s take some time to address the “Mistaken Messiah” possibility and see if we can explain the divine claims that way.

As I explained in the previous article, it would be insanely unlikely for a perfectly sane man to wake up one day and decide to identify Himself with the God of Israel, YWHW. He could have made up a divine identity for Himself and called Himself a god or a demi-god. He would have found little resistance from polytheistic cultures if He chose to take that route. But He didn’t. He explicitly identified Himself with YWHW, the God of Isreal, in a strictly monotheistic culture whose monotheism would not be compromised with an ambiguous incarnation.

Perhaps, then, Jesus wasn’t perfectly sane? This possibility bleeds into the “lunatic” part of the trilemma so we’ll refrain from diving too deeply into that here. For now, we could theorize that perhaps Jesus witnessed a dream one night wherein God called Him to be the Messiah. Believing that His dream was actually a call from God, He wakes up one morning and begins identifying Himself as the Messiah. However, if He claimed to be YWHW incarnate, Israel’s expected Messiah, He would be expected to perform a certain set of duties (forgiving sin, healing disease, raising the dead, freeing Israel from the Romans and conquering their military opposition, etc.).  If he couldn’t perform these or at least some of these, He would not have gained a single follower or believer. The rug would be pulled out from underneath Him and the ugly truth would have to be accepted or somehow dealt with. Yet, even anti-Christian philosophers like Celsus claimed that Christ really did perform miracles, even if Celsus attributed those miracles to acts of sorcery (see Origen against Celsus volume 2.).

Another interesting note is that if Jesus’ divine claims could be explained by a dream or vision, from where did knowledge of the crucifixion come? If He thought God was communicating with Him in a dream to become the Messiah He would have immediately discredit the idea as soon as He was told that He was to be crucified (wouldn’t we all?)! Jesus told His disciples of His death and resurrection numerous times and every time they didn’t understand Him, didn’t believe Him or else vowed to stop it from happening altogether. The Messiah wasn’t expected to die but to conquer, so if God had told Jesus in a dream that He was going to have to be crucified and beaten by the ones He came to save I doubt Jesus would have accepted it unless God provided a sign much more significant than a mere dream. It is even more likely that He would attribute the dream to a demonic spirit rather than God.

What of doubts about Himself and/or His calling? If at one point someone did not receive healing, surely He would question Himself or at the very least the God who called Him? Yet, that is not what we read in the Gospels. Never mind the Gospels, that is not what we read in any anti-Christian response at all. We have no evidence contemporary to the time of Jesus that someone came forth and confessed to having witnessed Jesus doubting Himself or having no confidence in His ability to perform miracles.

Finally, we have the claim that Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15, 2 Cor. 5:21, John 8:46). In order for such a claim to be a made up lie, it must first be able to convince those who hear it (especially the Jews and Gentiles) and to have multiple sources to confirm it. If Jesus received the dream just before His ministry the claim could be easily refuted. If he received it as a child, well, at what point? At 10 years old? Was He sinless before then? 8? 6? Are we to believe Mary would willingly allow her son to eventually be sent to His death for something she knew wasn’t true. Children can disobey a parent’s instruction from as far back as two years old, as I can shamefully attest to. If we say He was sinless from the beginning, well, we’d be agreeing with the Christian position.

The Mistaken Messiah theory simply cannot support its own weight. If Jesus was honestly mistaken about His identity He certainly would have never reached the point where people would start calling Him the Messiah.

Link 1 on addressing the liar theory.