Liar, lunatic, Lord

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Liar, Lunatic, Lord, also known as Lewis's trilemma, is a Christian argument commonly attributed to C.S. Lewis, although the argument predates him by about a century. It can be succinctly presented as, "Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. The Gospels do not depict him as a liar or a lunatic, so he must be the Lord." The argument has many known flaws in both its formulation and logic.


Arguments attempting to defend the accusation that Jesus was a liar are as old as Christianity itself, and are even included in the Gospel of John, but the formation of this trilemma didn't appear until the 1800s.

Mark Hopkins, 1846

In his book, Lectures On the Evidences of Christianity Before the Lowell Institute, published in 1846 and based off his lectures from 1844, the Christian preacher Mark Hopkins describes, with a rather lengthy appeal, the idea that, if Jesus wasn't one with God, he was either a liar or insane:

And now, is it possible that he was deceived or a deceiver? Was he sincere in making these claims? ... No mere self-exaltation or enthusiasm, nothing short of insanity, can account for such claims. When I heard this man, apparently so lowly, saying ... that he was one with God ... I felt that I had evidence either that those claims were well-founded, or a hopeless insanity. — p254-256

William Knight, 1870

William Knight, an acolyte of Christian preacher John Duncan, wrote down many of the preacher's words while he was living with him from 1859-1860. Ten years later, after Duncan's death, Knight compiled his notes into the book Colloquia Peripatetica: Deep-sea Soundings ~ Being Notes of Conversations With the Late John Duncan, published in 1870. Knight's account of Duncan's argument is the first clearly-presented version of the trilemma:

Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or he was himself deluded and self-deceived, or he was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable. — p109

Others, 1900-1940

Over the years, many other Christian preachers used this same argument, each formulated in their own way. Some of the more famous accounts include:

  • Christian preacher Reuben Archer Torrey, Sr. in a sermon titled, "Some Reasons Why I Believe The Bible To Be The Word of God," c.1918.
  • Presbyterian preacher William Edward Biederwolf in an essay titled, "Yes, He Arose," 1867-1934.
  • Writer and lay theologian Gilbert Keith Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man, 1925, which inspired C.S. Lewis.
  • Christian preacher Watchman Nee included the trilemma in his book, The Normal Christian Faith, 1936.

C.S. Lewis, 1942

In a BBC radio lecture, writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis invoked the trilemma. Later, in 1952, he published a book about his lectures titled, Mere Christianity. He described the trilemma thusly:

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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

Obviously, countless preachers have put forth their own version of the argument since, but this is the most famous attribution, so I won't list them all.


An informal construction of the argument is below with additional notes for the various premises and conclusions:

P1: In the Gospels, Jesus claims to be God.
P2: Jesus can either be lying, a lunatic, or telling the truth.
P3: He does not appear to a liar or be a lunatic.
C1: Therefore, he is telling the truth.
C2: Therefore, he is the Lord.

P1: In the Gospels, Jesus claims to be god.

Christians usually cite various passages from the New Testament, mostly from the Gospel of John, to demonstrate that Jesus claimed to be a god.

P2: Jesus can either be lying, a lunatic, or telling the truth.

A lot of people have claimed to be a god, most of which are either purposely lying or simply insane. However, it's possible that one of them could be telling the truth.

P3: He does not appear to a liar or be a lunatic.

Christians are quite confident that there isn't a single place in their bible which describes Jesus telling a lie or exhibiting anything but sane behavior.

C1: Therefore, he is telling the truth.

Since liar and lunatic have been ruled out, all that is left is Lord.

C2: Therefore, he is the Lord.

Therefore, Jesus must be the Lord.


False Dilemma

Or, in this case, a false "trilemma." It assumes that Jesus can only be three possible choices, a liar, a lunatic, or the son of God and ignores essentially an infinite number of other possibilities. The fact that so many of the earliest arguments use a dichotomy of liar or Lord demonstrate that lunatic as a possible third option.


The gospels are religious propaganda. Although some of their details may be accurate, they are made up of known fraudulent passages, large sections of plagiarism, they're anonymously written, and not eye-witnesses, and not even written anywhere near when the events supposedly transpired.

This suggests a valid fourth option, Legend. The biblical account of Jesus is inaccurate, Jesus was misquoted, the authors of the bible confabulated Jesus's words, pious fraud led the bible's authors to alter it, the bible exaggerates the life of Jesus, Jesus's life is an amalgam of many other prophets, etc.

The Gospels Describe Jesus As a Lunatic

Much of what Jesus said really was crazy.

Jesus Could Still Be a Liar

It is impossible to show that Jesus wasn't a liar because almost thirty years of his life is omitted from the bible. Jesus could have became a pathological liar during that time.