C.S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity that Jesus Christ must have been one of the following: Insane, Lying, or God. Those weren’t his precise words, of course, nor was the phrasing of “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.” Lewis proceeds to argue against Liar or Lunatic.
The key problem with this argument, as Joe Martyn Ricke once briefly noted in my presence, is that it is a fallacy.
When I was waffling about whether or not to ask Kristen to marry me, my friend John told me “It sounds like you need to either commit, or run.” He left out “leave things as they are” because he preferred I not consider it.
In the same way, Lewis excludes the possibility that what’s in the Bible and what Jesus said may not have been precisely identical.
The gospel writers occasionally differ on what Jesus said. In Mark, which scholars agree is the oldest of the scriptural gospel accounts, Jesus is not recorded as having claimed divinity at all! Mark refers to Jesus as “the Son of God,” but being the son of God and being God are different things, in much the same way that I am the son of my father, but I am not my father.
I still remember my college philosophy professor telling us, “There are many terrible arguments for God that nobody should ever use.” Lewis’ Trilemma is one of them.
But why go after the Trilemma, and why now? It’s because of this post from thinktheology.co.uk in which Andrew Wilson argues against Steve Chalke’s reading scripture with a “Jesus lens” to make Jesus nice.
Reading through the Jesus lens… involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.
The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to. (Emphasis mine)
Wilson then quotes several troubling passages from the New Testament, leaving our atheist friends applauding that finally some Christians have noticed that Jesus, as represented in scripture, seems rather appalling sometimes.
This is why I’m attacking the trilemma: both Lewis’ argument and Wilson’s assume the gospel-writer’s accounts are entirely factual and accurate. But the gospel accounts were written by different authors with different agendas at different times for different audiences with different circumstances and issues. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable, but that’s not the same as it being accurate in the way that a history book is accurate when it recites what year Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean to
discover invade the “New World.”
Adam Hamilton used the image of the two great commandments as a colander, or sieve: We keep scripture that agrees with them (Love God, Love Neighbor), and wrestle with what doesn’t. Notice I said “wrestle,” not ” [dump] unceremoniously on the saucer.”
And I believe we must interpret all scripture through this colander – even the scripture that talks about Jesus.
But back to Lord-Liar-Lunatic, because even apart from Andrew Wilson, it’s important.
We American Christians have, in recent years, so thoroughly adopted modernism in its addiction to certainty and set of proofs that we have little space for mystery. We bought into the modernist insistence that if a thing is true then it can be proven true beyond any doubt.
But God is not like that. God, to borrow from Second Isaiah (Isaiah 45:15), is “a God who hides.” God is, for many of us, someone whose absence we feel more often and more profoundly than God’s presence.
We can’t prove God with logic. (God is difficult to disprove as well, but that’s not the same as proof.) Jesus never argued for God with logic. The apostles used some logic, but even Paul said he didn’t come with words of human reason, but that he preached Christ crucified. He preached the Kingdom of God exemplified in a God whose son died for his enemies, which trips up pure monotheists and leaves everyone else chuckling at your idealism and clinging to their guns and their second-amendment rights, thank you very much.
I am not against logic, as I hope you know; I am against bad logic and the smug certainty prevalent in American Christianity today that leads to apologetics that, per Neil Carter, “isn’t for the lost; it’s for the saved.”
There are plenty of decent arguments for God, but Jesus did not teach us to make arguments. Jesus taught us to love God with our minds, and I don’t think that entails accepting stupid arguments for God, such as those presented in the recent display of Christian idiocy and misportrayal of atheists God’s Not Dead.
Our apologetic is our practice. Our argument for God is our behavior. Many an atheist has been warmed over to Christianity, not by solid logic, but by the warmth of the fire of love. Ironically, they then start writing books arguing that not believing in God is stupid, which makes no sense because logic isn’t what won them over.
The logic is there, of course, but God hides. There are plenty of truthful and honest reasons not to believe in God, but we live in the tension of believing without knowing. When we know for sure, it is no longer faith, but certainty, which Peter Enns calls the opposite of faith.
Is Jesus Lord? I say yes.
Is it because he was not a liar or a lunatic? No. This is shoddy logic.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
6 thoughts on “The Lord-Liar-Lunatic Fallacy”
Mark has the passage 12:35 and following, arguing for Jesus’ preexistence.And Mark was not an eye witness. (In fact, the gospel according to Mark came arguably from various hands, as the other canonical gospels).
Some apocryphal gospels may be historically more accurate than the canonical gospels, but the former have doctrinal problems and no church transmission.
Dang it!! My trilemma t-shirt is one of favorites! Seriously, bringing it back to certainty gives focus to the whole of the post. In my youth it seemed that certainty of God/Jesus/Bible was the most important thing for faith and best way to make converts. But I have experienced that it is as Peter said, just the opposite.
Hey David, I think there are some fairly easy ways to fix the argument and I think we should try to represent the argument as charitably as we can. There are lots of background assumptions that Lewis’s argument is working with (just as you point out the gospels have as well). So we need to consider those as well. In fact just about every argument for anything (and we reason all the time so we are in effect constantly involved in arguments of various sorts) Perhaps something like the following fix would help:
A1. The Bible gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the person, Jesus.
A2. This portrayal the Bible gives of Jesus is of someone who claims to be God in some sense
A3. It is agreed that Jesus is a wise and wonderful person and teacher
With those assumptions in the place, the argument has a lot more force, it seems. Of course we can argue about the assumptions; Lewis knew that. He wrote about some of them elsewhere. But his point was that if someone grants the assumptions (or has them already), then the trilemma has some considerable force.
Anyway, a lot has been written about this argument from some fairly sophisticated thinkers. If you are interested in reading more about it, let me know.
A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still. Sound logic speaks to the mind, not the soul.
I’m very late to the party here but thought I’d still drop a couple of cents worth.
Mainly that Lewis’ argument in that whole section of thinking/writing isn’t really to try to prove that Jesus is God’s Son through discrediting the idea that he is a liar or a lunatic. If you read the whole section it is clear what he is trying to argue against – not that he’s a liar, nor that he’s a lunatic. He’s arguing against the idea that Jesus was just a great moral teacher. Someone who had no special authority or divine mandate, just a kind of inspirational leader and generally awesome dude.
Lewis says that’s not really an option. When you look at the things he said (not just the things that the authors said about him) about being the Son of God or at very least the prophecied Messiah, either what he’s saying is true, or it’s not (either because he’s lying or just deluded). Lewis isn’t trying to set it up as some apologetic check-mate to prove that Jesus is God, just to shake people out of an illogical apathy that sees Jesus as a great teacher.
FWIW, in response to Bryan’s comment above, I do think that logical discussion can be a significant step in people coming into relationship with God. Lewis would actually be a pretty obvious example of that. If nothing else, plenty of people are argued out of the faith by pretty flimsy arguments, so even if apologetics is just aimed at dematerialising some of those ideas it still is a valuable pursuit. No-one can be argued into a relationship with God, but helping people see that faith isn’t some irrational superstition can be a vital hurdle for some people.