The Lord, Liar, Lunatic Trilemma

The Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma has been proposed by several Christian apologists, including the noted layman’s theologian C. S. Lewis. It seeks to argue that Jesus Christ was Lord, Savior, and all those other wonderful things he said he was in the New Testament. It goes about this by proposing something of a trilemma regarding Jesus:

Assuming that Jesus existed, and that he said he was the Lord, there are three possibilities regarding his claims: what he said was either (1) true—he was LORD; (2) false because he was a lying; or (3) false because he was insane, as only a lunatic would believe that he were the son of God if it were not true. Since his words are very profound, they can hardly be discounted as the words of a raving lunatic. He could not have been a liar because he was willing to die for his beliefs, as were many of his followers; this hardly seems like the acts of a liar. Therefore, since the other two options have been eliminated, he must have been LORD.

There are a number of flaws with this argument, starting at the most fundamental level of the assumptions. The assumptions need not be accepted at all; there are a number of other options. If the historical figure of Jesus did not exist at all (which is possible, but not necessarily plausible), then the argument is superficially ludicrous. If Jesus did exist, then he may not have ever said he was LORD, but rather the early Christians such as St. Paul and the New Testament Gospel authors merely fit his person to their Messiah god Xristos. One possible scenario, for instance, is that he never said he was LORD in the sense that Christians mean it, but was merely a Jewish religious reformer and faith-healer, who called himself by names which have been misinterpreted by later Christians (“Son of God” is a common term in Jewish religious literature for people who are very important to God, such as King David) and that his teachings were encrusted and embellished with miraculous life narratives and salvation myths as his followers shifted from the original Jewish reformers to the apocalyptic mystery cult of Christianity.

The next significant flaw is that of a false trichotomy: the argument proposes only three options when there are in fact more. One of the most likely is that Jesus’s followers sincerely believed what they said, but were not correct. Falsities could be introduced into the record by any number of means other than direct lying or insanity; exaggerated tales transmitted through the oral record, confusions of parables with actual events (such as with the fig tree incident, which is portrayed in one Gospel as an actual act of Jesus and in another as a parable), and interpolations introduced by Gospel authors who were more concerned with religious inspiration than historical accuracy may all play a large role in what has come to us as the stories of Jesus’s life. It is quite possible that, whether Jesus ever said anything about being LORD or not, St. Paul and the various other authors of early Christian books sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah in the form of Xristos.

The final significant flaw in this argument is that it seeks to eliminate the options of liar and lunatic, but fails to do so adequately. The argument simply dismisses them out of hand without any particularly objective standard. If Jesus was delusional as to his godhood, that does not in anyway preclude his abilities to make profound moral and religious observations; delusions of godhood do not rule out functional sanity in other fields of life, and even were he totally insane there are still several cases of insane or marginally loony people putting out observations that seem profound to some (E.G. Friedrich Nietzsche, who produced his final works the last year before he became clinically insane). The argument against liar is even less convincing; there is no reason to presume that Jesus or the early Christians deliberately acted knowing that they would die for it, and even had they, history has been littered with people making huge sacrifices for liars and lunatics. David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, and the many other founders and leaders of lunatic-fringe cults could all be defended on the same grounds as Jesus, since there is no standard other than personal incredulity given for dismissing the options of liar and lunatic.

In fact, the argument could just as easily be applied to most other would-be prophets and saviors. Many have fought and died for Muhammed, and his moral teachings could be argued to be as profound as those of Jesus. Somehow I doubt, however, that our friendly apologist will rush into submission to the Will of Al-Lah.

This essay is a revision of an earlier version that dates back to 1997. —C.J. 2006-07-09

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  1. Darlene Melcher

    In researching the Trilemma, I came across your article dated Sept. of 98. At first glance your questions and doubts are thought provoking. However, I hope that you are willing to apply the same level of skepticism to all areas of thought. It is well accepted among scholars that Jesus was a historical figure, even non-Christian historians mention him. And, in fact, the Bible is widely recognized as one of the most historically accurate and well preserved compilations of books. Of course you have the right to deny this, even though the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls validates its accurate preservation. However, as I said, I hope you are willing to apply this same skepticism to all areas of thought, like the existence and validity of Plato and Socrates. No one seems to question their historical contributions, yet there is much less evidence for either of their contributions to be accurate or historical. And on that same note, you would have to completely disregard the Bible’s validity, which is not usually done among even skeptical scholars, in order to purpose that it inaccurately captures Jesus’ life, his actions and his claims. No where in history do we see a person, of which four separate and independent letters/books are written that agree about his life and claims (the four Gospels), of which there still remains question as to the accuracy of the material recorded. Perhaps, there is not undeniable evidence to disprove that Jesus was either, liar or lunatic, but there is undoubtedly less evidence to claim that He was either of these things. History does record his claims to Divinity, his death and the report of witnesses to his resurrection, however, no document exists which suggest that he may have been considered mentally unsound, or some kind of evil master-mind. He is portrayed as speaking with authority and acting humbly. Even when people wanted to thrust him into a position of power, he resisted. I am not saying that there is no room to disbelieve his claims. You are right when you say that there is not conclusive evidence to disprove the other two options in the Trilemma. But, I hope you are also willing to admit how much less evidence there is to prove ideas such as the Big Bang Theory or the Evolution Theory. I continue to be amazed that educated people can hold fast to the denial of Jesus and his claims because of the so-call “intellectual suicide” yet jump off the bridge on the other side with scientific hypotheses with much less credible origins and less evidence. Of course you are left to make your own conclusions, while God offers many signs and clues to His existence and His purpose, he does not remove the element of faith from the equation. And as hard as faith may seems for some, we all equip this in our everyday lives. We constantly believe things we are not really sure about. As for me, it takes much less faith to believe the common sense of the Bible than to believe that the earth just exploded into being and luckily we emerged from primordial goo. As for comparing the early Christian martyrs to suicidal lunatic-fringe cults, it is not only disrespectful and inaccurate, but it is not even a good comparison. You are attempting to compare fanatic maniacs who killed others and themselves, to people who were hunted down, persecuted and unmercifully murdered only because they could not and would not deny what they had witnessed. These were innocent men, women and children who were set on fire and used as city lamps, and they at least deserve the respect not to be compared to modern-day psychologically defunct murders and maniacs. I hope you will continue to search for truth and have the integrity and consistency to apply the same amount of reason, skepticism and logic to all areas of thought.

— 2008 —

  1. Craig Brown

    I just saw your posting.

    If I may summarize your argument, you appear to make two points:

    1. It is possible that Jesus did not make the claims on which the Trilemma is based. Maybe the Church - starting with Paul and others - wrongly attributed those claims to Jesus.

    2. The first two options of the Trilemma - liar and lunatic - are not adequately explored by the proponents of the third option - King.

    To your first point, I would say - okay. Go ahead and make it a Quadralemma, if you like, and add in an exploration of Biblical authoriship, accuracy, authenticity, and interpretation. This is done exhaustively in Biblical scholarship all the time.

    But the fact is, as you point out, the Trilemma assumes that Jesus said the things that are attributed to Him. It begins with the word “IF”. “IF Jesus said these things, then He is either a liar, lunatic, or King” The Trilemma is never intended to be a comprehensive apologetic confronting every argument about Jesus that could be raised.

    When I say, “If we assume that Jesus said …” and you say, “But what if He didn’t say them?” then you have not addressed the topic, which is the logical conclusions that follow IF Jesus actually made the claims of Messiahship on which the Trilemma is based. You have stepped out of the rhetorical bounds of the Trilemma, set by the word “IF”. That simply changes the topic. Which has no bearing on the original topic.

    Regarding your second point, that the “liar” and “lunatic” options are not adequately explored by the proponents of the “king” option, I would say this. The point of the Trilemma argument is not to discount the first two options, but to make the logical point that you cannot simultaneously affirm Jesus and deny His claims to divinity (assuming He made them). If He made those claims, you must account for them in your conclusions about Him. And if those claims are not true, then Jesus does not come out looking good. If He made those claims, and they are false, can we draw positive conclusions about Jesus? The Trilemma concludes that if Jesus made the claims and they are false, then none of the possibilities for His character are positive. He is either sadistically manipulative or deluded.

    So, the Trilemma is designed to place people in a logical trap and force them to choose. It does not go so far as to make the choice for people. If people wish to conclude that (a) Jesus made the claims, and (b) they are false claims, then the Trilemma simply points out that from that perspective Jesus is hardly admirable. If Jesus decide that the claims are true, then the Trilemma points out that from that perspective, Jesus is nothing less than what He claimed to be.

    For people to come to their conclusions, they must go beyond the Trilemma to research, converse, explore, and so forth. The Trilemma simply points out peoples’ need to do so, and to not simply reach the bland, vague conclusion that Jesus was just a really nice, really wise guy.

    So, in conclusion, it would be interesting to see how you would actually address the Trilemma on its own merits and within its limits, rather than changing the topic or trying to make the Trilemma do something for which it is not intended.

    -Craig Brown

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