Liar, Lunatic, Lord

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The argument's flowchart.

Liar, Lunatic, Lord, also known as Lewis's trilemma, is a Christian argument commonly attributed to C.S. Lewis, but the argument predates him by about a century. It can be succinctly presented as, "Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. The Gospels do not depict him as a liar or a lunatic, so he must be the Lord." The flowchart to right depicts the questions implied by the argument and their potential implications. Although many Christians have espoused this argument as being iron-clad, it actually has many known flaws.

I remember hearing this argument in my teens. I was still a Christian then, so I immediately saw it as a meaningful confirmation of my beliefs without thinking very much about it. However, when I started reading the works of people who question Christianity, I realized the arguments gaping flaws. Even as I worked on this page, I noticed a couple new ones that escaped me earlier.

History

Arguments attempting to defend the accusation that Jesus was a liar are as old as Christianity itself, and are even included in the Gospel of John, but the formation of this specific trilemma didn't appear until the 1800s.

Mark Hopkins, 1846

In his book, Lectures On the Evidences of Christianity Before the Lowell Institute, published in 1846, which is based off his lectures from 1844, the Christian preacher Mark Hopkins describes, in a rather lengthy appeal, if Jesus wasn't one with God, he was either a deceiver or insane:

And now, is it possible that he was deceived or a deceiver? Was he sincere in making these claims? ... No mere self-exaltation or enthusiasm, nothing short of insanity, can account for such claims. When I heard this man, apparently so lowly, saying ... that he was one with God ... I felt that I had evidence either that those claims were well-founded, or a hopeless insanity. — p254-256

William Knight, 1870

William Knight, an acolyte of Christian preacher John Duncan, wrote down many of the preacher's words while he was living with him from 1859-1860. Ten years later, after Duncan's death, Knight compiled his notes into the book Colloquia Peripatetica: Deep-sea Soundings ~ Being Notes of Conversations With the Late John Duncan, published in 1870. Knight's account of Duncan's argument is the first clearly-presented version of the trilemma:

Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or he was himself deluded and self-deceived, or he was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable. — p109

Others, 1900-1940

Over the years, many other Christian preachers used this same argument, each formulated in their own way. Some of the more famous accounts include:

  • Christian preacher Reuben Archer Torrey, Sr., in a sermon titled, "Some Reasons Why I Believe the Bible to Be the Word of God," c.1918.
  • Presbyterian preacher William Edward Biederwolf, in an essay titled, "Yes, He Arose," c.1867-1934.
  • Writer and lay theologian Gilbert Keith Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, 1925, which inspired C.S. Lewis.
  • Christian preacher Watchman Nee, in his book, The Normal Christian Faith, 1936.

C.S. Lewis, 1942

In a BBC radio lecture, writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis invoked the trilemma. Later, in 1952, he published a book about his lectures titled, Mere Christianity. He described the trilemma thusly:

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. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

Obviously, countless preachers have put forth their own version of the argument since, but this is the most famous attribution, so I won't list them all.

Argument

An informal construction of the argument is below with additional notes for the various premises and conclusions:

P1: In the Gospels, Jesus claims to be God.
P2: Jesus can either be lying, a lunatic, or telling the truth.
P3: He does not appear to a liar or be a lunatic.
C1: Therefore, he is telling the truth and sane.
C2: Therefore, he is the Lord.

P1: In the Gospels, Jesus claims to be god.

Christians cite various passages from the New Testament, mostly from the Gospel of John, to demonstrate that Jesus personally claimed to be a god. The majority of Christians accept this interpretation.

P2: Jesus can either be lying, a lunatic, or telling the truth.

A lot of people have claimed to be a god, however, they're usually either insane or lying to get money or power. However, it's possible that one of them could be telling the truth.

P3: He does not appear to a liar or be a lunatic.

Christians are quite confident that there isn't a single place in their bible which describes Jesus telling a lie or exhibiting anything but sane behavior.

C1: Therefore, he is telling the truth and sane.

Since there isn't any evidence that he is a liar or a lunatic, Jesus cannot be either.

C2: Therefore, he is the Lord.

Everything else has been ruled out, therefore, Jesus must be the Lord.

Criticisms

False Dilemma

A false dilemma is a flaw in logic where an argument is presented as though only a set number of possibilities exist, when, in fact, more are possible. The "liar, lunatic, or Lord" argument is a false dilemma because there could be other possibilities. Early versions of this argument only used two possibilities, that Jesus was either lying or the Lord. The fact that a third option was added later (lunatic) demonstrates that the original was a false dilemma.

You might ask, what possible fourth option could there be? But the thing about false dilemmas is, they're flawed even if nobody can't think of another possible option because their flaw is in how the argument is structured. This shows there is a problem with C2. However, in this case, a fourth option readily exists, and conveniently even continues the pattern of starting with the letter L; see below.

Legend

A flowchart that more-accurately examines the possible questions and their implications.

A fourth possibility is that the story of Jesus is a legend rather than being historically accurate. This suggests that parts of the Gospels, particularly those which depict Jesus having supernatural abilities, are not accurate. Christians are generally not allowed to believe this, but historians have pointed out many good reasons for why the Gospels are unreliable. The authors of the Gospels are anonymous and not eye witnesses, which means their content is, at best, hearsay. The Gospels weren't written until 50-70 years after events supposedly took place, when most of the actual witnesses would be dead and those who still survived would have been only children at the time. When the authors agree, they agree practically verbatim (indicating plagiarism), but when they disagree, they contradict each other wildly (indicating a false history). The Gospels are not written in the style of historical accounts, but as exaggerated religious propaganda full of pious fraud. There are known fraudulent passages like the end of the Gospel of Mark and the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John. The bottom line is, the "liar, lunatic, or Lord" argument only works if the Gospels are trustworthy, but they aren't. This shows there is a problem with P1, P2, and P3.

Jesus Could Be a Liar

Christians examine the quotes of Jesus in the Gospels, fail to find anything they would consider to be a lie, and conclude that Jesus was not a liar. However, the entire written history of Jesus's life in the Gospels only accounts for, at best, a couple hours of dialogue. The rest of his 30 years are unaccounted for. To conclude that someone can't be a liar because you don't see a lie from only a couple hours of dialogue from their 30-year life, is ridiculous. The fact that Christians are so eager to dismiss this possibility with so little evidence shows that they don't take seriously their burden of proof. And, if you already presuppose Jesus was the incarnation of an all-good god incapable of lying, you won't expend much energy considering this point.

Of course, what we've seen from Christian charlatans like Peter Popoff, it's shockingly easy to convince millions of religious people that you have god-given supernatural powers. You can even convince them so strongly they'll claim you healed their life-long afflictions and throw away their medicine. This shows a problem with P3.

Jesus Could Be Lunatic

A large amount of the dialogue attributed to Jesus in the Gospels demonstrates him to be quite mentally unstable. I'll make a full page for this in the future, but here are just a of couple examples: Jesus tells his followers to drink poison and play with venomous snakes, he kills trees for not having fruit out of season, he tells people they can literally move mountains simply by telling them to move, he claims he can see and speak to demons, he tells his followers to dismember their own bodies, and claims he can raise people from the dead. All of these things are what we would expect from a lunatic. This shows a problem with P3.

Jesus Could Be Wrong

If a person honestly believes something that isn't true, we don't say they're are a liar or a lunatic, we simply say they're wrong. Of course, the objection here is that the claims Jesus made would be considered lunacy coming from anyone who wasn't actually a god, but I don't necessarily agree.

The word "lunatic" has no medical use, instead, psychologists gauge whether a person is mentally ill based on whether they're incapable of functioning in society. Many people live normal lives even though they hold all sorts of supernatural beliefs. A person can believe ghosts roam the earth, that they were abducted by aliens, that distant stars somehow influence their life, that miracles are real, that they are the reincarnated soul of Cleopatra, but, as long as they live an normal life in society, we don't say they're mentally ill. A person can even honestly believe they are the child of a god, in fact, part of Christian theology is the belief that all humans are made in the image of Elohim, but that doesn't mean they're a "lunatic." This shows a problem with C2.

Jesus Didn't Say He Was God

The majority of Christians alive accept the theological position of trinity and believe that Jesus and the god of the bible are the same person presented in different forms. They base this on their interpretation of various passages from the Gospels which they believe show Jesus claiming to be God. However, throughout history, there have always been many Christians who disagree with the trinitarian interpretation, pointing out that Jesus frequently speaks in analogies and uses metaphor and never explicitly refers to himself as a god. This means, even if the Gospels are entirely reliable, we can't say with any degree of certainty Jesus ever actually claimed to be a god. This shows a problem with P1.

A person can still be a god even if they don't claim to be one, they might not even know themselves. It could be argued that all the supernatural things that are attributed to Jesus demonstrate that he's a god, but all the other prophets of the bible perform similar such supernatural feats and are not considered gods. Either way, in order for the argument to work, Jesus must have claimed to be a god.

Links

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