Liar, Lunatic or Lord
The liar, lunatic or lord argument attempts to present a case through process of elimination of all other options, that Jesus Christ must have been god.
Even a number of theologians have pointed out that the liar, lunatic or lord argument is unsound. Apologists such as William Lane Craig cite this argument as a good example of a bad argument for Christianity. This argument has also been referred to as the "trilemma" by Josh McDowell.
Despite this, the argument is widely used, and widely loved, by the more general Christian audience, as are many of Lewis' other equally flawed arguments such as the argument from desire.
C.S. Lewis version
- "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."
- p1. Jesus made certain claims
- p2. These claims are of a nature that has certain implications about his character
- a. Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was
- b. Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway
- c. Lord: Jesus was telling the truth and is God
- p3. Through process of elimination we can exclude the possibilities of lunatic and liar
- a. Existential evidence
- b. Textual evidence
- c. Historical evidence
- c1. Therefore Jesus was/is the the lord and God in human form.
False premise p1: Unfounded Assumptions
The first problem with the argument is that it assumes the efficacy of the bible. It assumes that the depiction of Jesus in the bible is historically accurate and an accurate depiction of his character, including (but not limited to) the words and claims attributed to him.
There is no first hand contemporary evidence that the words attributed to Jesus are his own as the earliest account was written after 60 AD. It can also be argued that due to the discrepancies between accounts no quote in the bible can be held as the true words of Jesus. However, the fact that a person called Jesus was crucified for blasphemy is regarded by some new testament scholars to be one of the most certain claims of ancient history (Bart Ehrman). As this is the biggest claim verifiable evidence can conclude, Occam's Razor states that it should be assumed that Jesus held no divine relationship or power unless additional evidence can be provided.
False premise p2: False dilemma
Based on the shaky grounds of the first premise, the argument creates a false dilemma to suggest that Jesus as appearing in the gospels is either telling the truth or not. This of course neglects the obvious possibility that he is a legend, in which case his claims (or those claims attributed to him) are neither true or false, but partially or entirely fictional.
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, to the extent that his teachings were good he may have copied ideas from other people.
The premise also ignores hybrid possibilities. For instance, 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). At heart, the dilemma commits the genetic fallacy, of assuming that an idea from a bad source is itself inevitably tainted.
Finally, the premise also ignores the very real possibility that Jesus existed and did say some of the things attributed to him, but may have been misinterpreted. 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. (In fact "Son of God" meant a righteous man, the Messiah or a prophet. Incidentally Christians sometimes describe themselves collectively as children of god while believing that they are ordinary human beings. This did not in any way mean the "physical" son of God, a very pagan belief that Jews considered very blasphemous.) Additionally, the term 'Lord' is a term of nobility and respect that has subsequently been confused to be synonymous with 'God'. When the disciples call Jesus 'Lord' they are not necessarily confirming a belief that he is God.
False premise p3: Unsupported evidence
Even accepting the first two false premises, the so called evidence for the exclusion of lunatic and liar possibilities is questionable at best.
Many apologists, including some who are qualified psychologists, attempt to show that Jesus could not have been a lunatic. There are two major problems with this.
- First, is a complete lack of evidence. The idea of performing a real psychological diagnosis on someone that has been presumed dead for 2000 years, based solely on a few scarcely descriptive tales, from the very book that purports to reveal the truth of his divinity, is nothing short of laughable.
- Secondly, they make a case of special pleading. Despite the fact that Jesus isn't depicted as a rabid, uncontrollably raving maniac, doesn't mean he was necessarily sane. Any of the psychologists who attempt to claim Jesus was not insane would have no hang ups about committing a person today that made similar claims. Indeed if Jesus made his claims today, he would fit right in at the asylums full of other people that think they're God, Jesus, Napoleon etc.
Jesus could also have been a liar. Lewis disregards this because he claims Jesus was a great human teacher. However, much of Jesus' advice was bad advice. And regardless of his lesson content, being a great teacher doesn't by fiat logically exclude the possibility that he could lie. Jesus also had great motive to lie. Despite the trouble Brian found himself in, there are presumably a great many selfish benefits to being mistakenly considered a human deity.
Additionally, some forms of the liar, lunatic or lord argument further commit the fallacy of begging the question, by accepting the 'biblical miracles as evidence for the lord' option, which of course a priori assumes the conclusion of Jesus' divinity that the very argument attempts to prove.
Other counter arguments
- Lewis makes the straw man presumption 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.
The reason for the use of dilemma in False premise p2. rather than the titular trilemma, is due to the fact that despite there being three options, two of those have effectively the same outcome as far as the argument is concerned. The multiple options are really nothing more than a red herring, as the argument's outcome is that the claims of Jesus are either true or not true.
Additionally, formal logic deals exclusively with dichotomies, not trichotomies. The overall argument attempts to prove he is the lord. So to actually express all three options, logistically it would need to be presented as two separate, but hierarchical dichotomies. (lord:(liar:lunatic))
- The main dichotomy: That he is either the lord or not-lord.
- The sub dichotomy if he is not-lord: That he is either a liar or lunatic.
- The main dichotomy: That he is either the lord or not-lord.
Stature of Jesus
Jesus is perhaps the most famous, beloved and revered figure in the Western world today. In this context, any suggestion that he was even a little bit deluded, dishonest, or misrepresented seems like a much graver accusation than if made about one of the more obscure messiah-claimants living in ancient Rome. The trilemma is not a circular argument, but it occurs in a circular context; the argument's emotional weight is almost entirely due to the significant pre-existing influence of Christianity on culture, yet Christianity's validity is the very thing being argued for.
An example of this may be found in this Tektonics apologetic essay discussing the trilemma. The essay examines the counter-argument that people can falsely believe themselves to be God incarnate without being thoroughly "insane" in other areas. The author cites a case study of three patients with a messiah complex, and quotes them to demonstrate how overtly delusional they are. One of the patients, Clyde, says: "Why, there's money coming from heaven and from the old country and from the sea of heaven. The carloads, trainloads, and boatloads... 7700 cars a mile and that runs from upper Stock Lake... God marked eight of our trails himself." What in this quote suggests insanity? Well, there's a semi-incoherent mixture of the physical and transcendent (money coming from heaven, God personally marking some trails), and some detailed and nigh-hallucinogenic imagery.
But what about this quote from Jesus? "The sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the peoples of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones from all over the world -- the farthest ends of the earth and heaven." Outside a Christian culture, this sounds like the elaborate fantasy of a schizophrenic, guilty not only of the same things as Clyde's quote, but some astronomical and geological errors as well. Inside a Christian culture, passages like that one are either a valid reason to prepare for the End Times they describe, or a very poetic metaphor — depending on the manner in which one wishes to present Jesus as a sane and respectable man.
The "Lord" portion of the "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument is a condensed expression of a very extraordinary claim: that in Roman Palestine there was born a person literally identical to the omnipotent being who created the cosmos, and that this person demonstrated his unlimited superpowers through miracles such as raising the dead, walking on water, and so forth. Given the extremity of this claim, it seems odd to even consider questions about this person's mental state.
Suppose Alice tells Bob she can magically fly. Bob tells Claire about this, and adds that he's inclined to believe Alice. Claire is trying to determine whether or not Alice's claim is true. Should Claire's first question to Bob be "Well, has Alice ever lied or seemed crazy to you? Or do the things Alice says tend to be true?" That would be an absurd line of inquiry, almost irrelevant to the matter. Even if Bob and a thousand other witnesses attest to Alice never having been incorrect about anything in the past, Claire does not have a decent reason to think that Alice can fly; what she needs is direct or indirect evidence of Alice actually flying.
Yet "Alice can fly" is a much smaller claim than "Jesus was and is God". It's one thing to trust the judgment of apparently trusthworthy people, and it's another to grant their judgment with infinite evidential weight.
Incidentally the leaders/founders of other religions can be postulated to be -whatever their religion claims-, liars or lunatics in a similar way and the different religions of the world cannot all be simultaneously true.
Furthermore, many religious claims are of an extraordinary nature if taken literally, but it does not follow from this that all believers are either liars or lunatics. Though some faith healers are secretly dishonest, many of them do think they have access to miraculous powers and are visited by thousands who believe themselved to be healed. For the most part, neither the "healers" nor the "healed" are clinically insane. Instead, they are guilty of confirmation bias and compartmentalization, and the stories experience exaggeration in a similar mannar as urban legends. These are all possibilities regarding Jesus's own faith healing and other miracles; mystics and shamans from antiquity to today have used classic magician's techniques while still believing themselves to have supernatural abilities.
- The Trilemma-- Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? by Jim Perry at infidels.org
- Liar, Loony, or Lord; Or, How Atheists Make C.S. Lewis Cry by Greta Christina
- Lewis's trilemma – Wikipedia article on Liar, Lunatic or lord