The Lord-Liar-Lunatic Fallacy

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.

trilemma

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.

About David M. Schell


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8 responses to “The Lord-Liar-Lunatic Fallacy”

  1. George Staelens Avatar

    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.

  2. Noel Avatar
    Noel

    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.

  3. David Alexander Avatar
    David Alexander

    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.

  4. […] https://davidmschell.com/lord-liar-lunatic-fallacy/ offers the criticism that “Lewis excludes the possibility that what’s in the Bible and […]

  5. Bryan Wright Avatar
    Bryan Wright

    A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still. Sound logic speaks to the mind, not the soul.

  6. Will Avatar
    Will

    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.

  7. Simon Hill Avatar
    Simon Hill

    I do not agree with your assertion that Mark is the oldest Gospel. Where on earth did you get that idea? Mathhew and Luke are both longer than Mark and they both have big chunks that appear to be quoted, almost verbatim, from Mark. It therefore seems logical to assume that Mathhew and Luke both had a copy of Mark in front of them when they wrote their Gospels, although another possibility might be that Luke used Matthew.

    Another reason for thinking that Mark was written before Matthew and Luke is that Mark’s Greek is pretty shoddy, whereas Luke’s is more polished and elegant. This suggests that Mark was written earlier and that Luke was written later, with Matthew somewhere in between.

    Even if you are right to suggest that Jesus never claimed to be God and that all of the verses in the Gospel that say that he was (and is) God were made up and invented by Christians much later, you still have three other problems.

    Firstly, Why did Jesus go around saying to people that their sins were forgiven? If he was just an ordinary man, he had no right to say that at all.

    Secondly, although there are accounts of Old Testament prophets performing miracles, I do not think that anyone else in the Bible did quite as many miracles (or such spectacular ones) as Jesus did.

    Thirdly, if Jesus was just a religious teacher and an ordinary man, why did the Sanhedrin want him to be crucified? And why did his disciples falsely claim that he had risen from the dead, when they knew perfectly well that he was just a normal man?

    1. David M Schell Avatar

      Hi Simon! I don’t understand why you disagreed with my observation that (most) scholars believe Mark is the oldest gospel, then followed up with two arguments for… why it is likely to be true? (When I wrote this I thought scholars agreed; they don’t, but I believe it’d be fair to say that a *majority* of scholars agree that Mark is the oldest of the four canonical gospels.)

      In response to your three other problems, I would say:
      1. I’m a pastor. I tell people their sins are forgiven almost every week, and so do… I don’t know how many churches have confession of sins and assurance of pardon in their services, but a LOT – including the entire Catholic church – a lot of others, too. None of us are claiming divinity when we do that.

      2. Jesus having done more miracles than anyone else is also not a claim to divinity. Before Christ, that award might have gone to Elisha, who neither of us believes to have been divine in the same way we believe Jesus to be divine.

      3. If you look up the narratives in Matthew 26, Luke 22, and Mark 14 (I believe; I had typed this up and then accidentally clicked the back button), you’ll see that none of them give the stated reason as “Jesus claimed to be God.” It’s always that he claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One. John 11 has them say,

      “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place[h] and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

      Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10 say Pilate knew they had delivered Jesus up because of envy.

      My argument here – and perhaps I didn’t thread that needle as well as I thought I did – is not that Jesus wasn’t divine – I do believe that – but that it can’t be proven via unbreakable logic, particularly via C.S. Lewis’s Lord-Liar-Lunatic trilemma.

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