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What is the quintilemma concerning Jesus Christ?

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A lemma is “a secondary proposition used to demonstrate another proposition.” When we deal with two, usually difficult choices, we face a dilemma; three choices form a trilemma, etc. A quintilemma consists of five choices. In theological discussions, the quintilemma concerning Jesus Christ is the presentation of five options concerning His person.

Who is Jesus? In answer to that question, C. S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, gives a famous trilemma:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone 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 the 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 any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Macmillan, 1952, p. 55–56).

So, Lewis’s trilemma concerning Jesus presents us with three logical options of who He is: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. The quintilemma simply adds two more alliterative options: Legend and Lama (as in guru, yogi, or religious sage). Phrased as a quintilemma, Jesus must be one of these things: Liar, Lunatic, Legend, Lama, or Lord.

The idea that Jesus is a Legend—nothing but a mythical personage—is held by some atheists. The problem with choosing this proposition among the five of the quintilemma is that there is substantial proof of Jesus’ existence; in fact, there’s more proof of His existence than most other historical figures. He affected the world in a way that no man or woman ever has or will. His life split time in half. Whether one uses BC and AD or the more politically correct BCE and CE, the dividing point of history is still the life of Jesus Christ.

Some choose the Lama, or guru, option of the quintilemma, saying that Jesus was an insightful spiritual leader but nothing more. Some even say that Jesus lived in India for a while and came back with special knowledge. The obvious problem with this theory is that Christ was an expert in Judaism, not Indian or Asiatic wisdom. Why would Jesus go to India to master the Law of the Israelites? Everything Christ taught came from the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the Jewish Messiah, and, while some wondered where He got His wisdom, the Jews were familiar with Him and knew Him (Matthew 13:54–56; John 6:42), which means He had lived among them. To put it bluntly, if Christ traveled to India and became an Eastern guru, He returned a rather worthless guru, as He retained absolutely none of the foreign teaching He acquired.

The quintilemma is sometimes used by skeptics who think that, by adding to Lewis’s trilemma, they will make Jesus’ claims the more indefensible. At the same time, Christians often use the quintilemma in apologetics as a defense of the gospel. The value of the quintilemma lies in its ability to start people on a road of logical thinking concerning the claims of Christ. Walking someone through the quintilemma will not “prove” Jesus’ deity or lordship, but it will give any fair-minded person food for thought. In the end, we must always point people to Christ and the good news that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

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What is the quintilemma concerning Jesus Christ?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022