In book II, chapter 3 of Mere Christianity, Lewis offers one version of the argument:
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.The reasoning actually represents a specific case of a more general argument. Anyone making any claim either (A) speaks the truth or (B) doesn’t. If the claim is not true, either (B1) the speaker knows it is not true, or (B2) he doesn’t. Three possibilities. When the claim is trivial – say someone claims to have enough money in her purse to buy lunch – B1 constitutes mild dissembling and B2 represents a sincere mistake in judgment. When the claim, though, declares the speaker’s equality with God, scenario B1 involves a very bad lie indeed, and scenario B2 changes from the statement of a sincerely mistaken person to the ravings of a lunatic. (The claim of equality with God also makes totally moot a trivial but logical fourth possibility: that the speaker tells the truth but doesn’t really know it. Surely God knows that He is God.) In the case of Jesus, the exemplary nature of his moral teaching and life rule out B1 (Liar) and B2 (Lunatic) and leave us only A: He is Lord.
The argument possesses great strength and has influenced Charles Colson, Ronald Reagan, and Bono. But it isn’t airtight. As Peter Kreeft points out (somewhere), a fourth option that isn’t moot exists: Jesus as Legend. The Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument doesn’t deal with the issue of whether Jesus actually said the things recorded in the first five books of the New Testament. I’ve wondered, too, if the meta-argument doesn’t need to include the possibility of Jesus as Lyric Poet. (It’s two words, I know, but it’s the best I can do while still starting with an L.) Maybe Jesus spoke figuratively, delivering a truth, but one that didn’t correspond literally with the meaning on the surface of the words. In the words of Poet Jack Gilbert:
Poetry is a kind of lying,Of course, I have reasons not to pick either Door No. 4 or Door No. 5. I have reasons to believe the words of the New Testament; if it says that Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and “Before Abraham was, I am,” then I believe that Jesus said these things. And I can’t see Jesus accepting the tortures of his trial and execution if He had meant his words only poetically. But still, the argument seems a pentalemma at least.
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.
Prof. Lewis’s version, though, involves only three options, and I believe I’ve discovered an important source. Wikipedia reports a number of nineteenth-century expositions of the trilemma, and the author of Mere Christianity may well have known about and read all of them. But I’ve found an interesting footnote in a book I’m sure Lewis read that may well have served as the fillip (two chances to use that word in one week!) to Lewis’s thinking about this important exercise of apologetics. In chapter XI of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon says in footnote 63:
Apollonius of Tyana was born about the same time as that of Jesus Christ. His life (that of the former) is related in so fabulous a manner by his disciples, that we are at a loss to discover whether he was a sage, an imposter, or a fanatic.Gibbon mentions Jesus Christ ostensibly only to establish an historical timeframe. Then he clarifies, with tongue in cheek I think, that the rest of the footnote has nothing to do with Jesus. But surely he suggests that it does; if Jesus’ disciples had not also recorded his life in a “fabulous” manner, Gibbon wouldn’t have needed to clarify. Neither would he have needed a clarification had he simply dated the birth of Apollonius by a numbered year. No, Gibbon sees the connection, and in the not-so-hidden parallel, he acknowledges three possible ways to view the central Character of the Gospels. Those three ways are almost exactly those of Lewis’s Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument. “Imposter” lines up neatly with “Liar,” “Fanatic” with “Lunatic.” But again, the specific nature of Jesus’ claims about Himself sharpens the horns of the trilemma: a Man saying truthfully, “No one comes to the Father but by Me,” is no mere sage.