Liar, Lunatic or Lord

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C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

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 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 any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

This argument has also been referred to as the "trilemma" by Josh McDowell.


  1. The trilemma has conveniently excluded additional options, such as "Legend". Nearly everything that is "known" about the life of Jesus, or his claims of godhood, come from the Bible, which Christians regard as inerrant but atheists do not. Jesus may not have existed, or he may not have said all the things that were attributed to him.
  2. The "trilemma" ignores hybrid possibilities: e.g. that Jesus may in fact have been a lunatic who said true things (much like an insane person who thinks he's Napoleon may still be able to tell you the correct day of the week or the prevailing weather conditions) or that he might have been the Lord and a liar (unlikely, but inconvenient for Lewis' intended point), etc. At heart, the "trilemma" commits the genetic fallacy, of assuming that an idea from a bad source is itself inevitably tainted.
  3. The "trilemma" ignores the notion that Jesus may have been misinterpreted. E.g. many believers will refer to themselves as "Children Of God" (or similar phrasings), but they presumably do not mean this literally; in a similar fashion, if Jesus did refer to himself as the "Son Of God," he may have intended it as a metaphor that was misunderstood by subsequent audiences.
  4. The "trilemma" is based on antiquated and discredited notions of mental illness: the presumption behind the "trilemma" is that lunatics speak falsely, rave without moments of clarity, never say anything worth paying attention to, etc. In truth, one may suffer from a delusional belief or fixation and function adequately or even superlatively in society. Jesus could have claimed to be God and simply been mistaken.

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