Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?



C.S. Lewis popularized the “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument as follows:

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. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma#Lewis.27s_formulation)

To one unacquainted with biblical criticism, this may appear to be a sound argument. But, in fact, it is logically fallacious. Lewis has committed a false trilemma by limiting us to only three options, when there is indeed a plausible alternative: Legend. The Gospels were written decades after the supposed death of Jesus, so we cannot simply assume that they accurately portray the words and deeds of the “Savior.” To make matters worse, they are undeniably works of fiction, wherein the authors had plenty of creative license. Classicist Matthew Ferguson explains:

The Gospel authors are silent about their identities and give context about their relation neither to their sources nor to the events they contain. The Gospel narratives instead just read like novels, told from a camera-like perspective, that merely follow around the characters with no critical analysis whatsoever … [They] are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject … Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not concerned with being critical or investigative, but merely serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them. (Matthew Ferguson, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament‏,” is available online at: http://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/ancient-historical-writing-compared-to-the-gospels-of-the-new-testament/)

Case in point: How do we know what Jesus prayed while away from his disciples on the Mount of Olives, with no one nearby to hear him (Luke 22:39-46)? Because Luke made it up. Without knowing what, if anything, can actually be attributed to Jesus, we can make no assumptions therein. Lewis’ argument falls apart on that basis.

But, if I had to take a shot in the dark as to who the historical Jesus was, assuming there was one, I’d follow John Loftus and Paula Fredriksen in estimating that he was an apocalyptic prophet, heralding the coming Kingdom of God in the tumultuous, political climate of 1st century Judea. “The end is nigh” may well have been his message. So, where does that place him within Lewis’ triadic scheme? This is a question we cannot answer without considering cultural and historical relativism. For his time, Jesus would have been pretty run-of-the-mill. But, by today’s standards, he’d be on par with David Koresh and Jim Jones. For the sake of sparing Lewis any “patronizing nonsense,” I’ll answer him within a 21st century context: Lunatic.



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