Can the "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument be made to work?

Hi everyone. I’ve just written an article over at The Skeptical Zone, titled, Dr. Gavin Ortlund’s defense of C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” trichotomy, and Why I think it won’t work on skeptics. Comments are welcome.


Very well written and expressed, I would say. But I think it may not go where most of the skeptics would probably go. My own reaction to the sort of argument made by Lewis is that I simply do not have sufficient reason to trust, even minimally, the accuracy of any gospel account, and that even if I did trust them to some degree I certainly wouldn’t trust them to any level of detail such that I would closely analyze statements in them for implications like “is he saying he’s god, or that he has some attribute of god?” I would just figure that we are dealing with folkloric accounts modified by folkloric processes and that layers of lore-building have made it impossible to say with any confidence what, specifically, may or may not have been said.


The “Liar/Lunatic/Lord(/Legend?)” argument, among other problems, seems to ignore a fifth option: the unitarian option; namely, that Jesus is the uniquely-empowered human Messiah of God (but not ontologically divine). I could be wrong about this, but I always got the impression that “Lord” in Lewis’ argument is “Yahweh,” and I just don’t see that equation of Jesus with Yahweh in the New Testament.

Dr. Ortlund’s argument from the synoptic gospels seems particularly weak since, rather than numerically identifying Jesus as Yahweh, Mk Matt and Lk-Acts seem to be clearly portraying him as one who has been given authority (see esp. Mk. 2:10; Matt. 9:8; 28:18; Acts 2:22). Specifically, they are portraying him as the ideal Davidic king (Kirk 2016). If you carefully examine each instance where Jesus exercises divine authority in the synoptics, you can find parallels for virtually all of them in the OT literature.

John makes some prima facie stronger claims regarding Jesus’ identity, but from a historical perspective, that is of course too late to be certain that it is accurately conveying the words of the historical Jesus. So that wouldn’t be a good line of argument for someone trying to make a historical case for Jesus’ divinity, although it might if you’re arguing with someone who is convinced of the authority of Scripture.


This also runs into the issue that if you do trust the gospel accounts that much, you could go straight to their accounts of the Resurrection, which would appear to give more direct support of Jesus’ supernatural status than Lewis’ Trilemma. Using the gospel accounts in the argument therefore runs close to Begging the Question.


There are two more things I would like to say, though.

  1. To make the doctrine of the Incarnation credible to outsiders, Christians need to put forward a viable model that they can agree on. Right now, I can only see a bewildering diversity of competing models - and I recall Jesus’ saying about a house divided against itself.

  2. Closely tied to the doctrine of the Incarnation is the doctrine of the Trinity. Christians need to agree on a model for the Trinity, as well.

In unity, there is strength.


Hi @Puck_Mendelssohn, @misterme987 and @Tim,

Thank you for your comments. Regarding what Jesus actually said, there are some scholars who take the view that we can know next to nothing. Professor Francesca Stavrakopolou, author of God: An Anatomy, would fall into this camp. Others take the view that we can know quite a lot about what Jesus said and did. Professor Ben Witherington III, who has written over sixty books, is a notable exponent of this view. Nevertheless, there is a general agreement that many of the utterances by Jesus about himself in John’s Gospel are not historical: they are the product of several decades of theological reflection about Jesus. That said, it is undeniable that within two decades of Jesus’ death, there were a significant number of Christians who envisaged him as some sort of pre-existent being, who had lived among us, whose death had saved a fallen-away world, and who been endowed with God’s name and authority at his resurrection.

Regarding Jesus’ resurrection, it cannot, by itself, prove Jesus’ divinity. However, if God raised Jesus from the dead, that could reasonably be taken as a vindication of Jesus’ life and work, his teaching and his claims about himself. Cheers.

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I would ask what evidence we have for “significant” belief in Jesus as “some sort of pre-existent being” “within two decades of Jesus’ death”?

I would also question the probative value of even “a significant number of Christians” believing this, as I have read that significant numbers of early Christians that had widely differing views of Christology (e.g. the Ebionites).


Absolutely. There are so many different Trinity theories and Incarnation theories, mostly because the creedal language itself isn’t clear. Every attempt to clarify that language invariably ends up swinging close to a ‘heresy’ – or at least, some people invariably consider it to be a ‘heresy.’

(For example: if I recall correctly, you hold to a Latin Trinity theory on which God is a single self, and the Father is analogous to His mind, the Son is analogous to an idea in His mind, and the HS is analogous to His love. But many Christians would consider your theory to be modalism, therefore ‘heresy.’)

I don’t see that changing any time soon, though. After all, it’s been like this since the fourth century, so why would it change now. The same goes for the Incarnation.

Oh, sure. But if you are aiming an argument at people who do not believe any of the core beliefs of Christianity, it would probably be a mistake to assume that those people fall in that category; I would think that those who do would be extremely, extremely rare.

Taking that as given for the sake of argument, I think it would be a mistake to think that skeptics are likely to find that set of circumstances very helpful in regard to the trustworthiness of the gospels or of the underlying traditions.


What about ‘Lost in translation’, ‘Lapse in memory’, or ‘Largely allegorical’? I’ve always found the argument to lack in imagination for both alternatives and alliteration.


For me, it’s Lycanthrope, Lagomorph, or Lapidary?

I have always found the CS Lewis thing strange. For many decades, I only knew him to be cited by youth-group crazies. Every time I pick up one of his books, saying to myself, “this cannot be as bad as I remember it being,” I find that it can. His ongoing popularity puzzles me deeply.


I think that there are much broader problems that would need to be solved to get it to work on skeptics.

I think it relies on perjorative language and cultural respect for Jesus to rule out the possibility of a degree of fraud or delusion, when the evidence is inadequate to come to a conclusion.

I don’t think that there is any reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith, L Ron Hubbard and Sun Myung Moon were “liars” in the sense that Lewis’ argument must use to work - and Hubbard, at least, seems to have had mental health issues in later life.

But could we tell that if all we had were sources written by their respective followers ? (A problem that would likely be worse, if they had died within a few years of starting their movement as Jesus did)


Indeed. A very simple response is just to take Lewis at face value and reply, “OK, and since we have no good reason to believe anything like a ‘lord’ exists, then Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic. What is the problem?”


If I recall correctly, Lewis wasn’t really addressing this argument to ordinary atheists as such. My understanding of the Lemuriform, Lungfish or Lathe argument always was that it was aimed at those people (atheist or otherwise) who felt uncomfortable saying things that might cause offense to Christians. We all know the type, don’t we? They stroke their chins and they say, “well, Jesus may not have been the ‘son of god,’ but surely he was at least a teacher – a wise teacher.” They do this less because they are in doubt about the oogity-boogity parts and more because they feel that saying something starker would be taken as an insult.

Lewis mistakenly takes this attempt to be gentle as an invitation to an argument, and he tries to turn it into a gambit: “EITHER Jesus was a wise teacher who really WAS the son of god (hence Lemuriform), or he was a total piece of human garbage (hence Lungfish or Lathe). So I refuse to be not-offended. You must choose: either agree with my views on the paranormal, the demonology of the New Testament, and a thousand other monstrous and insane things, and be my friend, OR say it’s not true and let me be insulted by your arrogant denial of The Truth and the shocking insult to The Lemuriform.”

I always thought that was quite silly. The non-exclusive nature of the choices on offer is just one of the problems. The crappy state of the evidence is a bigger problem. I think that if I had this argument with Lewis at a party I would probably just give him a wedgie and leave, as it is the sort of thing which is unworthy of the attention of intelligent people.

But the greater lesson in it, perhaps, is that to people who are addicted to dogma, gentleness will rarely work. They’ll take it as an invitation to waste your time with the damnedest nonsense.


Yeah, and that gets to one of the core issues here. Nobody with a lick of sense takes text sources and derives, from them, a belief in the real-world existence of paranormal entities. Any argument for Christian faith which relies upon the Bible as its core source is dead at the starting line; any credible argument for paranormal entities existing has got to address those claims with evidence that bears on the factual issues themselves. Without that, the “there are no ‘lords,’ hence, if it’s got to be one of these three, it’s one of the other two” position is pretty well unassailable.


What do you think the probability is, that anybody can convince skeptics, that even the Synoptic Gospels, written decades after events, and in a different language from which Jesus would have spoken, convey Jesus’ words with sufficient accuracy to glean from the (generally ambiguous) recorded statements of Jesus, that he had in fact claimed to be “Lord”?

This claim is sufficiently preposterous, that I think it is ludicrously unreasonable to expect skeptics to accept this view, particularly when (i) it appears to be hotly disputed & (ii) experts whose viewpoints most closely match their own (e.g. Stavrakopolou) are the ones disputing it.

From this perspective the Trilemma is DOA on this aspect alone, even ignoring all the other problems that have been raised.

This is in fact a not-infrequent flaw in Christian Apologetics – the apologists make implicit assumptions, based upon Christian beliefs, that a skeptical audience will simply reject out of hand. This means that their arguments, not infrequently, may look compelling to their fellow Christians, but ludicrously flimsy to skeptics.

The Trilemma rests on acceptance of the veracity of (at least some of) the Gospels. Those who accept the veracity of the Gospels are, by and large, already believing Christians. Skeptics have no particular reason to accept the veracity of the Gospels. Therefore the Trilemma seems to lack a meaningful audience.


Now, to the extent @vjtorley appears, from the original post, to think the Trilemma cannot be rescued as an argument, I think we are all agreed there. But the question is whether the skeptic even gets to the issues as he states them, and I think the answer is almost invariably going to be “no.” The best reasons to reject the Trilemma depend in no way upon Christian theology.

Really, it’s a terrible argument, and in that way highly characteristic of Lewis. I think that he misunderstood: that when people say that they thought of Jesus merely as a human leader/teacher figure, he took this to mean that they were open to considering him to be some sort of paranormal ghost/human hybrid. In reality, those people were probably trying to dismiss Lewis politely, and they probably regretted having done so as they then had to listen to this nonsense and to be asked either to offend him by a more forthright denial or accept something they clearly had already rejected.


I think it may go beyond “trying to dismiss Lewis politely” (though there may be an element of that) – the existence of the Jefferson Bible would certainly seem to be evidence that at least some skeptics are genuinely willing to “accept Jesus as a great moral teacher” but “don’t accept his claim to be God”.

I think part of the problem here is that many Christians are unwilling to accept the value of a moral viewpoint, lacking a divine seal of approval. Thus "great moral teacher, and ‘not “Lord”’ seem contradictory.

However to a skeptic, who does not admit that such a seal of approval even exists, the value is in the moral teaching of the words alone, irrespective of if they were spoken by a “liar”, a “lunatic”, or written decades after his life by a posthumous ghostwriter. Thus there is no contradiction, and thus no need to accept Jesus as “Lord”, simply because they approve of his moral teachings.

Again, we appear to be running into “apologists mak[ing] implicit assumptions, based upon Christian beliefs, that a skeptical audience will simply reject out of hand.”


That’s true, certainly. My sense is that the number of those people is diminishing – my goodness, they used to seem to be everywhere. I think our culture was a bit more in “bargaining” mode at the time, and the rise of religious fundamentalism may have made some people less willing to bargain.

But, yes, the apologists routinely make assumptions, such as a tacit acceptance of the gospels as reliable accounts, without which their arguments don’t work. I remember the ludicrous old mountebank Josh McDowell coming to the University of Washington campus ages ago and doing his standard schtick about the resurrection being a real historical event, for example. It would be hilarious if it were not for the fact that it is all uttered in dead earnest.

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So glad to see you here. I just came across your article on the Biologos forum and commented there that for me Lewis’ argument never addressed the lingering skepticism I had as I was once convinced Jesus was a myth.

So this lingering skepticism about historical arguments in general helped me to find an overlooked apologetics passage in Acts 2:14-36. There Peter supports his conclusion of “therefore know for certain” with three types of evidence: OT prophecy, eyewitness testimony, and a self-evident work of the Spirit.

The book of 1 John also seems to have this threefold witness: the fulfillment of OT prophecy “it is the last hour,” eyewitness testimony “we have seen,” and the Spirit’s self-evident testimony “you have been anointed by the Holy One.”

Or how blessed (anointed?) will be those who have not seen and yet have believed.