Argument # 8: The Trilemma Argument - Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?
This is one of the favorite arguments of Evangelical literature, posing a Trilemma for the non-believer. It was made popular by Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and apologist William Lane Craig. This situational trilemma is basically stated like this:
“Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh, that he died for your sins, and that your eternal destiny depends on whether you accept him as your Lord and Savior or not. Now, for someone to make such cosmic claims to deity, you would have to conclude that he is either 1) Lord – who he says he is, 2) Liar – a deceiver, or 3) Lunatic – an insane man. He could not just be a great moral teacher. All of us have to make the decision of what to do with Jesus’ claim to our eternal souls. We have to choose from one of these three choices. This is a very serious matter, the most important decision of your life, because your eternal destiny hangs on it.”
C.S. Lewis states it like this in his book Mere Christianity:
“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.”
He then goes on in the same book to elaborate as to why you could not view Jesus as just a great moral teacher:
“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.”
The apologist claims that we cannot just say that Jesus was a great moral teacher because he claimed to be God and that the eternal destiny of our souls was in his hands. No moral teacher would make such claims, they argue. Only a lunatic, liar, or God himself would say such things. Those are the only three choices they claim. The Christian apologist tries to logically rule out the Liar conclusion by claiming that everything Jesus said came true, so he was honest, especially in his claim that he would rise from the dead. And also that Jesus showed high impeccable morals as well, which a liar wouldn’t do. He then tries to rule out the Lunatic conclusion by claiming that no insane man could utter such words of wisdom that are out of this world, such as the Beatitudes and other teachings of love. Therefore, they claim, a sensible man could only accept that he is Lord and God, like he said he is.
What they are trying to prove, is this:
1. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
2. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic.
3. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.
However, there are some HUGE problems with this.
1) First of all, these apologists do not successfully rule out the Liar or Lunatic choices. Their attempts to do so are based on shabby conjecture. One can say wise things and be honest, yet still be insane in some of their beliefs, for example. Also, just because someone is generally honest doesn’t mean that 100 percent of everything he said must be honest as well. It can even be argued that not everything Jesus said came to pass, since as mentioned in Argument # 3 he stated many times that he would return in the lifetimes of the First Century Christians, to rapture the end of the world, and he didn’t. Furthermore, the apologists do not rule out the possibility of Jesus being a great moral teacher either, since a) being crazy does not make one immoral, and b) you can lie and still preach great morals in principle (US Presidents and politicians have done that throughout history in fact).
2) Second, again there is no evidence or reason to believe that the Gospel accounts are historical facts. The term “Gospel” means “good news” and were written for an agenda. Therefore, we have no basis for assuming that what the New Testament claimed about Jesus’ life and ministry ever even happened.
3) Third and most importantly, the Trilemma argument TOTALLY IGNORES a fourth and more likely explanation than the other three, which is that the Jesus of the Gospels is a legend. In fact, as mentioned earlier (in Argument # 6), that fourth explanation is the official position of most secular unbiased historians and of the Jesus Seminar. But the Trilemma argument completely ignores it altogether! How convenient.
For an indepth analysis and debunking of the Trilemma argument, see the following articles:
Chapter 7-- The Trilemma-- Lord, Liar or Lunatic? By Jim Perry
Lord, Liar or Lunatic? An Analysis of the Trilemma By James Still
Beyond Born Again-- Chapter 7: A False Trilemma By Robert Price