The following is adapted from a post on 20 April 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Liar, Lunatic, Lord?” It is a defence of the argument, popularised by C. S. Lewis, for the deity of Jesus Christ.
In his influential work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote the following;
“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 patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
This trilemma he proposes, sometimes called the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument, can be expressed like this in the following syllogism.
- Either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic or is Lord.
- He was not a Liar
- He was not a Lunatic
- He is Lord
Although he was not the first to offer this argument or something similar, C. S. Lewis is most famed for expressing it.
In defence of 1) Either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic or is Lord. I think it is intuitively obvious. These options seem to exhaust the possible alternatives as we have already discounted the possibility of Legend, though we could discuss this further.
In defence of 2) He was not a liar, there are five points I’d like to make;
- He has the wrong psychological profile. He was unselfish, loving, caring, compassionate, and passionate about teaching truth and helping others to truth. Liars lie for selfish reasons, like money, fame, pleasure or power. Jesus gave up all worldly goods, and life itself.
- He had no conceivable motive for lying. What Jesus taught bought him hatred, rejection, misunderstanding, persecution, torture and death.
- He could not have hoped that his “lie” would be successful, for Jews were the least likely people in the world to have worshiped a man, and Jesus, as a Jew, would have known that. In fact, we see him an every step of his life’s way fully knowing and predicting his own execution, and claiming that he came to earth precisely for that reason: to suffer and die.
- Deceitful men do not die for what they know to be false. When he was arrested all he needed to do was to say he was not God. Instead he was silent before his accusers and surrendered himself to crucifixion—the most brutal form of torture devised.
These reasons all apply to the disciples as well, who carried the message of Christ as God to the world. The following reasons are additional to the four above, but on their own will be less convincing reasons for the dedicated sceptic, but together to outweigh the view that Jesus was lying.
- Most recognise that Jesus taught the highest standards of morality ever taught, and great moral teachers would not teach lies such as he was God.
- Jesus had a positive impact on mankind like no other man, and a positive impact does not come from teachings based on lies.
- vii.Jesus’ miraculous life was proof that he was who he said he was. The supernatural element to Jesus’ life is confirmed in the extra-biblical historical record. The Jews of Jesus’ day attributed Jesus’ miraculous works to the Devil, and the Talmud says Jesus “practiced sorcery.”
- viii.His resurrection was genuine. Christ offered His resurrection as proof for His claims to deity (John 2:18-21; Matthew 12:38- 40). He claimed to be God and then proved it by doing what no mere man could do—He rose from the dead. We shall look at this in more depth in the next lesson.
In defence of 3) He was not a lunatic, there are seven points I’d like to make;
The “divinity complex” is a recognised form of psychopathy, and its character traits are well known. They include egoism, narcissism, inflexibility, dullness, predictability, inability to understand and love others as they really are and creatively relate to others. However Jesus’ personality was the polar opposite, displaying practical wisdom, tough love and unpredictable creativity.
- The psychological profiles do not match.
- Jesus inspired others like no lunatic could. His enemies were threatened by him because, next to him, they felt inferior. His devotees were personally challenged, and never bored. Lunatics do not give others the sense they are superior.
- He convinced many Jews that he was God, when no group in history was less likely to confuse the Creator with a creature. The Jews were the only people who had an absolute, and absolutely clear, distinction between the divine and the human, such that no Jew could sincerely think he was God unless he absolutely convincing. Lunatics are not absolutely convincing.
- Jesus was the greatest teacher that ever lived and insane people make lousy teachers. Jesus impressed everybody with his intelligence and ability to reason.
- Christ’s life and work were prophesied centuries beforehand. There are over 300 individual prophesies that Christ has fulfilled, but here I shall list only three which show that Jesus of Nazareth is the only candidate for the Messiah; – Daniel 9:24-17. That the Messiah would come before the destruction of the Temple that happened in 70 AD – Isaiah 53:3. That the Messiah would be rejected by the Jews – Isaiah 65:1-2. That the Messiah would be accepted by a wide gentile following
- His miraculous life was proof that he was not a lunatic.
- His resurrection from the dead was genuine. I have argued for this in more detail here, is “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” Part 1 and Part 2.
Having established that Jesus is not a liar or a lunatic, the only option that remains is that Jesus is Lord, which is to say that Jesus was divine, the unique and special revelation of the God of Israel. This brings us the principle weakness of the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument.
Having established that Jesus is not a liar or a lunatic, the only option that remains is that Jesus is Lord, which is to say that Jesus was divine, the unique and special revelation of the God of Israel.
This brings us the principle weakness of the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument, which will be the subject of a future post.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952)
 Mark Hopkins, Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1846), Lecture VIII
Such were the condition, the claims, and the character, of Jesus Christ. And now, is it possible that he was either deceived or a deceiver? Was he sincere in making these claims? If he was, and they are not well founded, then I ask, could a young man, poor, unlearned, brought up in an obscure village accustomed to a humble employment, make such claims, and not be utterly insane? Can we conceive of a wilder hallucination? Is there one of all the vagaries entertained by the tenants of our lunatic asylums that is more extravagant than these? . . . Did he, then, in the exercise of a sound mind, put forth those claim with the intention to deceive others? This, as I have just intimated, I hold to have been impossible. No impostor of common sense could have had the folly to prefer such claims. But, if this consideration is conclusive, how much more is that drawn from the moral character of Christ? . . . It only remains that I should refer to what has, indeed, been implied throughout the preceding part of the lecture – that gathering about the person of Christ of so many and such extraordinary circumstances; that clustering upon him of so many wonderful and diverse characteristics and appropriate insignia of a messenger from God; that accumulation of evidences which come in, as it were, from the four winds, and become as a crown of many stars upon the head of the Redeemer.”