Liar, Lunatic, Lord

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Liar, Lunatic, Lord, also known as Lewis's trilemma, is a Christian argument commonly attributed to C.S. Lewis, although 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 argument has many known flaws in both its formulation and logic.


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 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 and based off his lectures from 1844, the Christian preacher Mark Hopkins describes, with a rather lengthy appeal, the idea that, if Jesus wasn't one with God, he was either a liar 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," 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 included the trilemma 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.


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.
C2: Therefore, he is the Lord.

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

Christians usually cite various passages from the New Testament, mostly from the Gospel of John, to demonstrate that Jesus claimed to be a god.

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

A lot of people have claimed to be a god, most of which are either purposely lying or simply insane. 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.

Since liar and lunatic have been ruled out, all that is left is Lord.

C2: Therefore, he is the Lord.

Therefore, Jesus must be the Lord.


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, lunatic, was added later, demonstrates that the original was a false dilemma. This shows there is a problem with C1.

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 their structure itself. However, in this case, a fourth option readily exists, and it even continues the pattern of starting with the letter L.


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 false. Christians are not allowed to believe this, but the data point to this being the case. 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, so most of the witnesses would be dead. 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 no written in the style of historical accounts, but as exaggerated religious propaganda full of pious fraud. There are known false passages added 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 relies on the gospels being 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 entire 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. Of course, if you already presuppose Jesus was the incarnation of an all-good god incapable of lying, you won't expend much energy considering with this point.

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

Jesus Is a 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 for a couple examples: Jesus tells his followers to drink poison and play with venomous snakes, he yells at 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 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. Indeed, there are a handful of passages in the gospels which can be interpreted as such, but, throughout history, there have always been many Christians who disagree with the trinitarian interpretation. Jesus never explicitly refers to himself as "God," and, he frequently speaks in analogies and uses metaphor, so, even when he talks about his "father," it doesn't even guarantee actual parentage. This shows a problem with P1.