Posted by: Ken Brown | June 29, 2009

What’s Wrong with C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma: Liar, Lunatic or Lord?

Old BibleImage by le vent le cri.

I think I’ve read more of C.S. Lewis’ work than any other author. I love his fiction, especially Narnia, Til We Have Faces and The Great Divorce, his autobiography Surprised by Joy, his non-fiction–especially Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Abolition of Man. The man was brilliant, and has shaped my theology in profound ways. But one thing he was not is a biblical scholar, and no where is this more evident than in his famous trilemma. As one of my tweeps appealed to it yesterday, Lewis argues that Jesus’ claims to be divine prove he must be either a “liar, lunatic, or Lord”:

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 a 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. (Mere Christianity pg. 52)

There is a certain plausibility to this, which no doubt explains it popularity. The Gospels are, after all, filled with claims that Jesus is “out of his mind” (e.g. Mark 3:21), demon-possessed (e.g. Mark 3:22; John 7:20), or the “Son of God” (e.g. Mark 15:39). John even calls Jesus “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Yet despite all this, the “trilemma” really is not a good argument.

The problem is that Lewis assumes Jesus really did claim to be God, which is far from unquestionable. If you already accept the Gospels as perfectly accurate then of course you are going to accept that Jesus is no mere man (liar, lunatic or otherwise), and you don’t need the trilemma to prove it to you. But whether the Gospels (especially the earlier ones) really do mean to imply that Jesus is “God” in the full Trinitarian sense is, shall we say, highly debatable. More importantly, whether the Gospel accounts of Jesus can themselves be trusted is precisely what is at issue, so it’s no use assuming what you are trying to prove.

To say that the historical reliability of the Gospels is disputable is an understatement. Virtually every aspect of Jesus’ life is questioned, with some denying that there ever was a historical Jesus in the first place. While most would reject such extreme skepticism, there is no doubt that the Gospels as we have them are shaped as much by subsequent Christian reflection as they are by the actual life and teachings of Jesus. They have been shaped and crafted–and edited–to present Jesus in certain ways, and it is hardly a foregone conclusion that the claims of divinity they do include–however we understand them–were actually spoken by Jesus the man.

The point is that there is no reason at all for a person who does not already accept the Gospels as inerrant to accept that Liar, Lunatic or Lord are the only options. A non-Christian can just as easily posit that Jesus was a well-loved religious leader and martyr whose followers later came to see as divine, and attributed such claims to him after the fact. Now there may or may not be good reasons to doubt this alternative explanation, but the mere fact that it is a possibility makes Lewis’ argument a false “trilemma.” As N.T. Wright notes:

It doesn’t work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels.

Christians really need to stop repeating it, as its effectiveness–if it has any at all–depends entirely upon ignorance of the state of historical Jesus research. Really, given how often the argument has been debunked, I’m shocked that Christians still appeal to it, but I could say the same about belief in young earth creationism or the idea that Jesus never existed, so what can you do?

UPDATE: See the comments for some clarifications on this post; I’ve also posted a follow-up here.



  1. But aren’t you just appealing to the “good moral teacher” argument by taking this position?

    In order to accept Jesus as a “good moral teacher” or indeed “historical figure” who has either been ‘edited’ or largely made-up you need to pick and choose which attributed sayings you believe he actually said.

    So, unconsciously, you end up editing the bible yourself.

    Is this not just the approach that the Jesus Seminar takes?

  2. Maybe, maybe not. The Gospels disagree on all manner of details–including how they word Jesus’ self-claims–so we have no choice but to “pick and choose” what is historical or not.

    The point, though, is that a non-Christian (or even a Christian who denies inerrancy) has no a priori reason to think the Gospels are historically accurate, so he or she has no reason to accept that Liar, Lunatic or Lord are the only options.

  3. I’d say that you just don’t get it. Lewis’ trilemma is exactly right.

    The Christ presented in the Gospels is the only Christ on offer.

    If one opts for “Well! We just can’t truth that those ancient texts have it right,” then one is asserting (passive-aggressively, perhaps, but asserting nonetheless) that Christ is a lie.

  4. oops … that was supposed to be

    Well! We just can’t [trust] that those ancient texts have it right

  5. They might be saying that the Gospels lie about Jesus (or merely that they unconsciously exaggerated or extrapolated from his teachings–lying implies willful deception, which need not be the case here), but even if so, that is different than saying Jesus was himself a liar, which is what Lewis is talking about. If the Gospels are themselves inaccurate–for whatever reason–then you cannot say: “Look, the Jesus in the Gospels doesn’t seem to be a liar or a lunatic, so he must be the Lord,” because the Jesus in the Gospels may have little or no basis in history. Whether we think it is any more plausible than liar or lunatic, there is a fourth option here–myth–that undermines the whole basis for Lewis’ trilemma.

    It was standard practice to summarize and interpret what an historical figure said in your own words, and there is ample evidence that the Gospels do so–just look at how Matthew, Mark and Luke differ in their wording–that doesn’t make the Gospel writers liars, but it does mean that you cannot assume that the things claimed about Jesus in the Gospels are accurate, especially in an argument aimed at non-Christians.

    As Christians we may believe the Gospels are trustworthy, and we may eve have good reasons to think so, but an argument aimed at non-believers cannot assume what they do not assume, and they do not assume that the Gospels are accurate–if they did, they’d be Christians!

  6. Dear Ken,

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I have heard concerns about Lewis’s “trilemma” many times. N. T. Wright is the only person, however, whom I have heard effectively express WHY there is a problem with the trilemma. A paper which I presented at a Lewis conference a couple of years ago may be of interest to your readers. They can find it here:

    However, I don’t think Lewis’s argument is quite as “dead in the water” as your post suggests. I have pointed out in my book “Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis” that Lewis did consider the historical reliability of the Gospels. Your readers can discover more about this in chapters 1 and 2 of my book. Perhaps instead of a trilemma we have a “quadrilemma”. Either Jesus was a liar, lunatic, legend or Lord. And by the way, “liar, lunatic or Lord” comes from Josh McDowell, not Lewis.


  7. Thanks very much for your clarifications, Will! That is a very fine article.

    I probably should have directly my criticisms less at Lewis himself and more at the way his argument has been co-opted by later Christians (including the twitter message and the article it linked to referenced in the post). Lewis’ phrasing is itself a bit too strident, but as you note, that could just reflect the constraints of the Broadcast Talks. The main trouble is when his quick summary is assumed to be all that needs to be said on the subject, as it often is.

    But I still think once you recognize that the argument rests on a debatable premise–the reliability of the Gospels–that does more than make this a “quadrilemma.” Once the possibility is admitted that (aspects of) the Gospels could be myth, legend, midrash, exaggeration–however you look at it–this doesn’t just give us a fourth possibility to set alongside the other three–it undercuts the whole foundation for thinking there are only a limited number of options to choose from (two of which are clearly false). There could be any number of possibilities of varying probability.

    Perhaps Jesus really was a good man, whom his followers divinized. Perhaps Jesus really was half-crazy, and the Gospel writers whitewashed his life. Perhaps Jesus did claim to be divine in some lesser way than the Gospels (or later theology) imply. Perhaps “Jesus” never existed, and the stories derived from various individuals and myths. Perhaps a hundred other things. Granted, I think cogent arguments can be advance against all of these, but not airtight ones. And as long as such things are at all possible, you cannot assume that “bad, mad or God” are the only options.

    That said, my problem is not so much with Lewis’ argument itself, but with the assumption that this is a knock-down proof of Jesus’ divinity. One could, after all, build a reasonable case that 1. the Gospels are reliable, 2. they reliably record Jesus’ claims of divinity, and 3. these claims are better understood as true than as lies or delusions. In fact, one could almost read Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God as just such an argument, as it claims that many of Jesus’ parables point to his divinity, and are very likely to be authentic. But building such a case requires a great deal more argumentation than it tends to get in articles like this one (Wright needed 500 pages), and by no means does it all reduce to an undeniable logical proof.

    All that said, however, I still prefer Lewis’ Mere Christianity to Wright’s Simply Christian. 😉

  8. Whether we think it is any more plausible than liar or lunatic, there is a fourth option here–myth–that undermines the whole basis for Lewis’ trilemma.

    Ken, I must respectfully point out that this premise is blatently wrong – I don’t care if it was NT Wright who came up with it.

    Lewis is not addressing those who dismiss the gospel as myth – he is addressing those who accept the reality of Jesus as a person, but who dismiss his claims as God or miracle worker.

    Someone who dismisses Jesus as myth but accepts the moral lessons, are really proposing that someone ‘moral’ wrote the bible as a storybook – that Jesus was not real but made up from other sources.

    Even for someone who dismisses the miracles but accepts the historical ‘real’ Christ cannot take some of the words of Jesus but reject the other words – that’s simply lying to yourself – picking and choosing what to believe.

    The Jesus seminar does such a thing – but if we accept Jesus said *sentence a* from one source – and the other source says he also said *sentence b* then Lewis is taking for granted that we cannot just decide for ourselves he said *a* but not *b*. Therefore if we accept *a* we must accept *b* – therefore he was moral for saying *a* but a lunatic/liar/God for saying *b*.

    Myth is something else – this was not the audience that Lewis was addressing.

  9. I should like to add that, sometimes intelligent people overthink a solution to something which really *is* that simple.

    Thinking something is too simple is not a reason to dismiss it.

  10. I would finally like to add that dismissing ideas that CS Lewis thought up is trendy right now.

  11. Lex,
    Lewis is not addressing those who dismiss the gospel as myth – he is addressing those who accept the reality of Jesus as a person, but who dismiss his claims as God or miracle worker.

    You are almost certainly correct, but his argument is not qualified in that way and when it is–as it must be for anyone who has studied the Gospels critically–the argument begins to wear thin. It is also important to note that my ire is directed more at those (like the tweet that sparked this post) who treat this as a catch-all proof of Jesus’ divinity. I don’t dispute that Jesus is much more easily understood as the Son of God than as a liar or a lunatic!

    Even for someone who dismisses the miracles but accepts the historical ‘real’ Christ cannot take some of the words of Jesus but reject the other words – that’s simply lying to yourself – picking and choosing what to believe.

    We all pick and choose what to believe. If a non-Muslim reads the Koran, they are going to accept certain claims it makes about Muhammed and reject others, just as a non-Christian reading the Gospels will accept some claims made about Jesus but not others. They might do so for good reasons or bad, but there is nothing inherently illegitimate about such picking and choosing, especially if you have good historical reasons for supposing that the document in question was written based on earlier sources whose quality we cannot directly measure, by people who had biases of their own.

    Again, I’m not saying such is a necessary conclusion from the study of the New Testament, but it is a possible one, and–frankly–one with a great deal of plausibility. Certainly it has more plausibility than that Jesus never existed, or really was a mad-man whose followers blindly worshiped!

  12. Ken, I agree with you that Lewis was great but that apologetics needs to move on from the trilemma. Many people who use this argument often follow up with an “I Am” statement from John without realizing that John has a very different portrait of Jesus from the Synoptics. Or again, one of Lewis’ big arguments is that Jesus takes on a divine prerogative in declaring sins forgiven in Mark 2, but it is at least equally plausible that Jesus’ use of the divine passive (your sins are forgiven) only means that Jesus is taking on the authority of the priests in the temple in pronouncing God’s forgiveness. In the end, I think Christians can make a case that Jesus had an exalted self-understanding, but you are right that no one who is informed about Gospel studies is going to be convinced by boiling a complex argument down to 3 simple alternatives.

  13. Good discussion, everyone. This has really got me thinking.

    The point is that there is no reason at all for a person who does not already accept the Gospels as inerrant to accept that Liar, Lunatic or Lord are the only options

    Inerrant might be putting it too strongly. I think Alex’s point, which I agree with, is that it’s not principled to broadly accept Scripture’s reliability when it comes to what Jesus taught, but not when it comes to who he claimed to be. Thomas Jefferson apparently had a version of the Gospels with all the miracles edited out. Well, if Jesus’ sayings were left in, then the Trilemma is in business. In fact, as Ben Witherington III puts it in his chapter of Strobel’s Case for Christ, “the clues for a high Christological self-understanding of Jesus are present even in the attenuated twenty percent of Jesus’ sayings recognized by the members of the Jesus Seminar as authentic”.

    I think Christians can make a case that Jesus had an exalted self-understanding

    Right. Even if you don’t think that the fact that someone claims
    – that his starting his ministry means the arrival of the “Kingdom of God”,
    – that in the end he will judge the world,
    means that he thinks he’s God, these claims are definitely grandiose enough to be signs of madness or wickedness if they’re wrong.

    I guess my overall point is this: just because an argument has been used or presented simplisticallly doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Victor Reppert has some interesting points here: one, two.

    • I’d agree with most of that, and I think Reppert’s “modest trilemma” is good (it’s certainly much closer to what Lewis intended than the article linked above), though I’m still not sure it fully accounts for the complexities of the situation. For instance, the canonical gospels are not the only records of Jesus life and teaching. There are non-canonical Gospels as well, some of which are early and do indicate that Jesus was a moral teacher but not necessarily divine (i.e. the Gospel of Thomas–heh, I actually think Thomas makes Jesus sound half-crazy, but that’s another story).

      Again, a good case can be made that these are secondary and inferior to the canonical Gospels, but they cannot be dismissed with a rhetorical wave of the hand, and once they are introduced the number of “options” for what Jesus said and did widens dramatically.

  14. @Ken

    I’m familiar with the apocrypha, it was a long time since I read them last but regardless the apocrypha only *adds* to the gospels, it doesn’t take the Acts of God away.

    You need a biblical text, written by disciples that actually *disclaims* the miracles, not simply another document with some extra pearls of wisdom.

    Anyway, I can’t continue this debate, I am about to leave for the airport.

  15. I agree with Vaus (and I like his book on Lewis too!) that we have to present the argument as a quadrilemma (Lord, Lunatic, Liar or Legend) but I disagree with others that the argument requires prior belief in inerrancy. To dismiss the legendary view, it is only necessary to show that what the gospels say about Jesus to some degree reflects Jesus’ own words and actions. Also I recommend to those interested in a more detailed restatement and defense of Lewis’ argument: Stephen C. Davis, ” Was Jesus Mad, Bad or God” in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God ed by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins (Oxford U Press, 2004)

  16. I wonder if there’s still something valuable about the trilemma–even though you do well to point out its weakness as an apologetic device.

    Perhaps it can exhort us to appreciate Jesus on his own terms–both the comfortable and the uncomfortable aspects of him–and also to ask if we can accept much of his morality without some of the religious underpinnings of that morality. For example, if I don’t believe in a God who will take care of me or an afterlife, then I’m not going to give all my goods to the poor, give my cloak to someone who asks it of me, not worry about my life, etc.

    You’ll probably point out that the definition of “Jesus on his own terms” is precisely the question under dispute. That would be a good point, but I think historians should take heed not to create Jesus in their own image.

    Anyway, I hope you can find something valuable in my rambling here. Here’s a post I wrote a while back on it:

  17. Lex, Gresham and James,
    You all make a good point about the need to take-it-or-leave-it when it comes to Jesus. I’ll continue to insist that treating the trilemma as a proof is extremely precarious, but treating it as an impetus to taking Jesus seriously as a whole package is surely legitimate.

    Thus, I think the best context for using the trilemma would be in private conversation with someone you know well who already accepts that Jesus was a good and moral teacher, but isn’t quite willing to buy the whole divinity thing. In that context, the trilemma could be useful to urge them to consider the matter more carefully (in fact, if you haven’t clicked on those automatically generated “possibly related posts” above, this one does that fairly well), it’s only when someone treats this as an proof that can be given to any old atheist that it becomes problematic and quickly collapses under the weight of qualifications. Still, abusus non tollit usum.

    Anyway, thanks everyone for your comments. I can see now that I was a bit too abrupt in my dismissal in this post (ironic, I know)–but I’m glad it got us talking! 😉

  18. Ken, sorry for the late entry into an already well-trodden discussion.

    It’s delightful to hear a believer point out a problem with an argument for belief. The trilemma has been put to me before, and it is sometimes difficult to think of a diplomatic response when someone excitedly trots it out as a knock-down bit of reasoning.

    As a non-Christian with a passing familiarity with the gospels, I provisionally suspect that Jesus was an actual person, probably a moral teacher of some sort, whose life was highly mythologized in the decades before the gospels that come to us were written down. From this perspective, the trilemma is a non-starter.

    Whether I’m right or wrong about that, though, it’s cool that you see the flaw in the trilemma argument. It is always difficult to notice a logical flaw in an argument whose conclusion one agrees with.

  19. […] Ken Brown dealt harshly (and quite right too) with CS Lewis’ “mad, bad or God” argument. As he points out, it only works if you accept the gospels (and mainly the fourth one) as verbatim accounts. […]

  20. […] the very Sunday after I posted a critique of C.S. Lewis’ “trilemma”, our pastor used almost the same argument in […]

  21. […] your posts, many of which are free to use through Creative Commons (such as the two on these posts). I plan to include an image with all my substantive posts from now on (the one above is […]

  22. I agree that you shouldn’t use the “trilemma” with a skeptic, because you must first establish the reliability of the Gospels (that can be done, but first things first).

    The argument is best used against those who pay lip service to Jesus (“great teacher!”). Just ask them why they think He is a great teacher. It will usually expose that they don’t have a clue about him and are just repeating a politically correct sound bite.

    But if they say it is because of what He taught as documented in the Bible, then it is not that hard to demonstrate that He thought He was God. I realize you think that is debatable, and technically it is, but there is ample evidence that Jesus claimed to be divine —


  23. I think this complaint is a bit unfair to Lewis. I don’t think he’s presenting this argument in a vacuum. It’s got a premise: that the picture of Jesus in the gospels is generally correct. Some might reject that premise, but I’m pretty sure Lewis would recognize that those who do so are not rejecting one of the three options but are rejecting the premise the whole thing is founded on. He wasn’t addressing this to biblical scholars who are skeptics about what Jesus was like. He was addressing it to those who recognize that the gospels are an accurate presentation of what Jesus was like.

    As such an argument, I think it’s a pretty good one. In fact, it’s pretty easy to construct a trilemma that doesn’t assume that in order to generate that premise. The apostles, including Paul, were conveying this information about Jesus, and it follows that they were either immoral liars, deluded lunatics, or followers of the real Lord. Immoral liars wouldn’t die for the faith they were making up, and deluded lunatics wouldn’t have the kinds of insights of moral teaching that fit so squarely with the human condition: both accepting unpopular truths that we wouldn’t want to accept and yet seeming so right even though they’re unpopular. So we’re left trusting them. I think this is what the Lucy argument that you discuss in your followup is in fact doing. It’s establishing the reliability of the premise of the Mere Christianity trilemma.

    Now as with any argument, there are places someone can get off. But that’s going to be just as true of the skeptical arguments as it is of this kind of argument. Any argument moves from premises to a conclusion, and anyone can question a premise if they really want to bite the various bullets required for doing so. The point of these arguments is to show what you’re driven to if you want to reject something. So I find them valuable at least for that reason, and most people won’t want to be the die-hard skeptics that rejecting these premises would require.

  24. Personally I’m pretty convinced that the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus did indeed think of himself as God. I know some question the validity of these arguments but I find their questioning very unconvincing and usually require some pretty sophisticated tricks of logic to make their point. I’m really not convinced that the argument that if you are a bible scholar you understand that the claim that Jesus believed he was divine is very debatable. Bible scholars, and I consider myself to be one, love to debate but sometimes, quite frankly, we struggle to see the wood for the trees. I think the Wikipedia entry on the trilemma and modern scholarship’s opinion of Jesus’ self understanding is misleading on this point.

    I’d like to appeal somewhat in defense of Lewis on the grounds of context. His logic was fine given his audience and what he has already established in his previous debates, or what he had to assume to make his points. He wasn’t involved in a University College debate on the meaning of everything but was addressing lay people on issues very important to them. Sometimes there just isn’t the luxury of starting with pure thought and working up from there (especially with a lay audience).

    The trilemma does actually work if certain things are accepted as true to begin with (e.g. the gospels are accurate historical accounts about Jesus and that Jesus did believe he was divine).

    The only way it can fail is if there are alternative ways of thinking about Jesus given these assumptions (e.g. not all options are covered). With some basic assumptions it seems to me that they are (these have to be assumed or how will you ever talk to anyone about anything?). It is the basis for the argument that has to be established and this is where some atheists get stuck, it has nothing to do with the validity of the argument itself – at least in my opinion.

    I don’t think apologists should be ashamed to use this argument in the right context or with the right qualification.

    As has already been said the more modern aggressive atheists are determined to knock Lewis down because he has been such a potent force for promoting the Christian faith (atheist turned Christian is galling to atheists). Of course he is easy fodder because being dead he can’t answer back.

  25. In the paragraphs preceding the trilemma, Lewis makes a case from the New Testament for Jesus’s deity. He did not make the trilemma statement in a vacuum. Personally, I think he made a very strong case. As an authority on ancient literature, Lewis had a very high view of the New Testament as an accurate historical document, and I think the reasons he set forth for that view are even more applicable today. From the preceding context Lewis did not leave open the alternative that Jesus did not claim to be God. Without the context, we must add one other alternative – that it was legend, words put into the mouth of Jesus.

  26.’s done it again! Great article!

  27. Ken Brown says: ” … there is no doubt that the Gospels as we have them are shaped as much by subsequent Christian reflection as they are by the actual life and teachings of Jesus.”

    Note that “no doubt”.

    So: we can’t trust the gospels, and therefore can’t trust Lewis’s trilemma – but we can attain inerrant truth on a key point in the argument by being critical scholars of some fashionable school.

    As Lewis showed in his classic 1959 piece on New Testament criticism, critics had tried this type of analysis on the genesis of his books – with an error rate of 100%.

  28. David,

    I’m afraid you have missed the point of the post. I did not say the Gospels cannot be trusted, and I most certainly did not claim their untrustworthiness is “inerrant truth”! I said that the trilemma is a bad argument because it presumes what it means to prove: the truth of the biblical portrait(s) of Jesus.

    Yes of course IF you accept that the Gospels are trustworthy (and that they intend to provide strictly “historical” accounts, which is a separate question) then the trilemma “works,” but the average non-Christian does not accept that the Gospels are trustworthy, so the trilemma is meaningless to them.

    Please do not miss the follow-up post, however, where I clarify how Lewis’ trilemma is in fact valuable after all, here.

  29. … I said that the trilemma is a bad argument because it presumes what it means to prove: the truth of the biblical portrait(s) of Jesus.

    Except, of course, that it does not such thing.

  30. Indeed it does.

    It’s point is that Jesus is in fact God, as the Gospels claim, yet it rests on the assumption that the Gospels are accurate. But of course if the Gospels ARE accurate, then their claim that Jesus is God is, ipso facto, accurate as well, and the trilemma is just window-dressing; whereas the moment the assumption that the Gospels are accurate is removed, the core claim that there are only three options collapses, and with it the whole argument. Thus the argument is circular, though perhaps subtly so.

    That said, I could have phrased myself more carefully. My main target here is less Lewis’ own purpose with the trilemma (again, see the follow-up post) and more the popular apologetic use of it as a straightforward “proof” of Jesus’ divinity.

  31. In fact, since the days of Lewis, textual scholarship in strictly secular academia has proceeded much further, to the discomfort of many a believer. The original Koine Greek texts — gospels and epistles and non-canonical texts like Thomas, etc., and pagan texts — have all been subjected to the most intense philological and linguistic analysis ever. So far, what has emerged have been distinctly polyglot patterns, involving everything from sharply colloquial sequences to some really high-flown flights of fancy. The Greek is seen being tested, stretched, in a process of distinct flux throughout the fifty to a hundred odd years these texts emerge — canonical, non-canonical and pagan alike.

    It’s suggestive that the more self-consciously high-flown and “literary” sequences tend to have the most far-fetched magic ingredients in them (like well over half the gospel of John and the two virgin-birth narratives in Matt./Luke, etc.). But the most colloquial sequences tend to have little or nothing that is magical in any way. In fact, the Greek in these humdrum non-magic sequences is distinctly conversational. Fundamentalists especially don’t like hearing that.

    Since rigorous textual analysis now appears to show that Mark was used in slightly different ways in both Matthew and Luke, and since that would appear to indicate that Mark probably pre-dates the other two, and since Mark is also significantly more colloquial and conversational in its style than the other two, some scholars now suppose that a useful rule of thumb is to relegate the more high-flown and “literary” sequences in these texts to later chronological strata. This is also borne out by the curiously casual style in much of the earliest Pauline material as well.

    Frequently, the most casual and conversational linguistic tics of all are apparently found in the direct quotes of various Jesus remarks that Matt. and Luke have in common (sometimes called the “Q” sayings), as well as a number of remarks found in Mark. Unfortunately, these distinct stylistic differences are all smoothed out in translation — especially the KJV!

    It was only a matter of time until the most skeptical scholars, viewing these patterns, would come round to the plausible view — which troubles some believers — that in the conversational colloquial passages we see various quite early oral traditions and in the more high-flown (and heavily magical) passages we see self-conscious literary embellishment of a much later date. This has enabled scholars to come much closer to answering a variation on Lewis’s query: Lord, Liar or Lunatic — or Legend.

    Viewing the most colloquial and apparently oral textual traditions/strata found in these texts, one may have a clearer idea of just what Jesus may have really claimed or not claimed for himself. Passages like those in John (“I am the way”, “No one comes to God but through me”, etc.) are shown as totally literary, while much of the social commentary (“Love your enemies”, “He who is best of all must be servant of all”, “Lose your life in order to save it”, etc.) comes from the most colloquial strata of all. And it’s in the latter strata that we may finally get a glimmering of just what Jesus may have been trying to really claim or not claim for himself.

    Lewis writes at one point that anyone who claims that he is a poached egg will obviously be insane. What does Jesus really claim in the most colloquial strata, and must his claims still be taken as either insane or totally true, as Lewis maintains? In the more apparently oral strata, there are only a tiny handful of “sayings” that have any bearing on this question.

    A) In Mark: 3:31-35, we have —

    There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.
    And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brothers and sisters without seek for thee.”
    And he answered them, saying, “Who is my mother, or my brethren?” And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”

    Mark: 14:22-25 reads —

    And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, “Take, eat: this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

    Mark: 14:61-62 reads —

    But he was silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

    B) In 1 Corinthians: 11:23-25, we have —

    The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

    C) In the parallel sayings in Matt./Luke sometimes termed Q, Luke: 10:21-22 reads —

    In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will. All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

    Luke (or Q): 22:28-30 reads —

    “Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

    D) Finally, the non-canonical gospel of Thomas happens also to have an extremely colloquial oral style, even though scholars are more sharply divided on whether or not it is as early a stratum as the other three. In Thomas: 61, we have —

    [Jesus] “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and other will live.”
    Salome said to him, “Who are You, man, that You, as though from the One, have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
    Jesus said to her, “I am He who exists from the Undivided. I was given some of the things of my Father.”
    “I am Your disciple.”
    “Therefore I say, if he is , he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.”

    Thomas: 99 reads —

    The disciples said to Him, “Your brothers and Your mother are standing outside.”
    He said to them, “Those here who do the will of My Father are My brothers and My mother. It is they who will enter the Kingdom of My Father.”

    That’s it. Out of 25 odd texts and some of the most extravagant embellishments imaginable throughout the NT, this is all we’re left with, once modern scholarship sifts out the earliest apparent strata for things that Jesus said of himself.

    It’s intriguing to think just how Lewis in his atheist stage would have responded to these isolated passages had these been all he’d read on Jesus’s claims. Is there still a “substrate” (so to speak) of God “son-ship” in these isolated passages? Or would posterity — and Lewis in his atheist period — have never thought twice about these isolated remarks in the absence of the far more explicit passages now shown to be a lot later (like all the extravagant “I am” sayings in John, etc.)? I don’t pretend to know the answer.

    I only know that I’d find it fascinating to know just how people from another planet — say — might view these isolated sayings in the absence of any knowledge of Christian traditions. And it’s obviously useful knowing which of the implicit Jesus claims are the most likely to be early in the various textual strata.

    Do our readers here still find that even these isolated passages still show Jesus claiming to be a direct son of God in some specific way that the rest of us aren’t? Do I myself find that to be the case in viewing them in this isolated way? Frankly, I can’t decide. I don’t know if I do or not. But I’m very interested, please, in others’ takes — on, specifically, the 8 sayings extracted here, putting everything else ever quoted from Jesus entirely aside.

    Thank you,


  32. Hey, slightly left field here perhaps but…how does everyone feel/think… this relates to the Hebrew (first/old) testament; in that the prophesies of a messiah matched to Jesus… and so the apostles matched up a lot of their growing theology with things like (what Jesus asked the Pharisees: “how can you blame me for claiming divinity when even in the old testament it says “The Lord said to my Lord”…(Matt. 22.44; psalm 110:1)… Thus, the validity of the old testament (archaeologically its looking good), could play an important part in one’s assessing reliability/validity of these claims.

  33. […] This made a lot of sense to me at the time. It may have been while reading something written by Bart D. Ehrman that an objection was presented to me that was obvious in retrospect: “What if Jesus did not say anything about being God? What if this is something his later followers attributed to him?”  (Excursion: Ken Brown’s 2009 post on this topic titled, “What’s Wrong with C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma? Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?”) […]

  34. Some interesting points, just a thought, if we reject or question Jesus as a historical figure (or at least what is attributed to Him) then surely we must still also with that reject any notion that he was a good moral teacher. Because if we reject the historicity of the Gospels then we cannot say Jesus is a good moral teacher- either because what He said does allow that (due to Lewis’ trilemma) or if we take the Gospels as unreliable we still cannot call Jesus a good or moral teacher since we know nothing of what He really said. So whilst the trilemma does not remove the possibility of rejecting Jesus (or His sayings) altogether through historical scepticism, it most certainly does mean that we can safely say that He was not a good moral teacher because He either was a lier, lunatic, Lord or we just don’t know.

    • Thanks for the comment Ben,

      It is not an all-or-none question when it comes to the “historical accuracy” of the gospels. Read Mark and John side by side: They disagree on all manner of details regarding both the actions and self-claims of Jesus. If you try to harmonize them into a consistent “historical” picture it will not look like ANY of the gospels we actually have (e.g. Jesus cleared the temple TWICE, even though each of our gospels only say he cleared it once…). Some amount of picking and choosing is inevitable, and this applies as much to Jesus’ actions as his words (e.g. Jesus never says anything like “Before Abraham was, I am” in the Synoptic gospels). The point, though, is not that the gospels are wholly unreliable and we can’t know anything about the historical Jesus; it simply means that we cannot assume that everything attributed to Jesus is a verbatim record of what he said, which is what the trilemma would require.

      What we have instead are several accounts of Jesus’ life, written by people who loved and were deeply committed to Jesus and his teaching. That implies two things that I think are important to remember: First, that such people are bound to present Jesus as they have COME to know and love him, including through later tradition (i.e. they are not unbiased historians nor were they recording Jesus’ words and actions on the spot), but also second, precisely because they did know and love him they are likely to have tried their best to give a faithful picture of what he was actually like (i.e. the gospels are not invented out of whole cloth, their “inaccuracies,” if you want to call them that, are part of their attempts to clarify and illustrate who the disciples really believed Jesus was and did). Thus in the end it still comes back to a question of trust, as I argued in my follow-up to this post.

  35. Wait, which gospel says the temple was only cleared once? And why assume accuracy requires that writings in another language that presumably give summaries of longer speeches are giving verbatim reports? Ipsissima vox vs. ipsissima verba.

    That being said, you certainly can have the view that the gospels are mostly reliable but sometimes wrong. And such a view undermine the trilemma somewhat. But I think such a position does lead to skepticism about which parts of the gospels are reliable. But as I said way above, I don’t think that kind of view undermines the use of a similar argument for the apostles.

  36. “If Jesus said he was the son of god, then he is either a madman, a liar, or the messiah”. IS a true conditional statement. But, the truth of the consequent is only guaranteed if the hypothesis is true. As you point out so well, this is where the argument falls apart: outside of the bible, there is no reliable evidence Jesus made this claim. This weakness is perhaps the reason Lewis tries to support his argument with statements Jesus supposedly made, despite the scant historical record of Jesus made during his life. I am always amazed that someone who was as smart as Lewis could be suckered into a freshman logic error.

    • “either a madman, a liar, or the messiah” is not Lewis’ trilemma but should be. There are numerous statements recorded of Jesus in the Gospels of Jesus confirming he is the Messiah including the ‘I am’s’ or ‘I am he’s’ There are no clear statements of him claiming to be God which is what we would expect as Messiah (the annointed one) was always expected to be, and indeed still is, never thought to be anything more than that, the annointed servant/King but a man nonetheless. A unique man for sure and never the dismissive ‘mere man’ of CS Lewis and well meaning orthodox apologists,
      If anyone thinks Messiah was to be or must de facto be God then they misunderstand this most basic element of biblical faith.
      Any passage in the Gospels used as evidence for Jesus’ deity can readily be shown to point to his true messiahship though to be fair it can take a bit of discipline not to read into the text assumed doctrine.

  37. I use the Trilemma in arguing for the veracity of Scripture, its infallibility(not ‘inerrancy’!). If anyone says or suggests that God has spoken to them or that they speak for God, then they are of necessity charged with being a “poached egg”, a madman, a nut, or the worst of charlatans, Liar; or they speak arightly.

  38. Your critique of trilemma assumes that it’s possible to strip the Gospels of all the places where Jesus claims divinity and still be left with something meaningful. But it isn’t. If all the places where Jesus claims to do what only God can do are removed from the gospels there is almost nothing left.

    Lewis was no inerrantist. But if the gospels are even vaguely reflective of some sort of reality about the historical person of Christ then there’s no doubt he DID claim to be divine.

    You can avoid the trilemma only by saying that the whole thing is entirely made up, which is philosophically respectable but historically implausible.

    • Hi Andrew,

      One problem here is the ambiguous word “divine.” Sure, there is plenty in the gospels that suggests that Jesus saw himself as “divine” in some sense, but in what sense? That he claimed to speak and act on God’s behalf (assuming he actually did so) hardly proves beyond reasonable doubt that he saw himself as the pre-existent Son of God in a Johannine or Trinitarian sense. It may have been surprising for him to make such claims, but not necessarily insane.

      For the trilemma to work as a logical proof Jesus has to have–unquestionably!–claimed something so completely radical and unbelievable that it would truly be insane or wicked to claim it, unless it were true. There is simply not that much in the gospels (outside of John) of which that is so. Read through Mark. Even if you accept that most everything attributed to Jesus is more or less accurate–which obviously not everyone accepts–you would be hard pressed to find much that Jesus would be truly insane to claim, and without that the argument falls apart.

      Remember though, the point of all this is not that Jesus was/is not God, nor even that he did not claim to be. The point is that as a logical argument, the trilemma offers no kind of certainty. It assumes far too much, and illegitimately limits the range of options. That doesn’t mean it does not have any value, though. Again, I would point to my follow-up post:

      Thanks for your comment!

      • “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words will never pass away” — Jesus, the Christ

        This is not simply claiming to speak for God, this is claiming to *be* God.

      • Is it? How about the next verse then: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

      • Ken Brown:Is it? How about the next verse then: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

        Jesus *also* said “I and the Father are one.” So, where does that leave this latest instance of proof-texting?

        You seem to be asserting that since the Gospels don’t record Jesus saying precisely the words, “I am God”, therefore he never claimed to be God. At the same time, you are ignoring that the people to whom he was speaking understood what he said, on multiple instances, to mean “I am God” … which is why they (as a mob) tried to stone him; which is why they (as the rulers) eventually arrested him and convinced the Romans to murder him.

        The sentence “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words will never pass away” is not the sentence “I am God” — but it means that. The sentence “Before Abraham was, I am” is not the sentence “I am God” — but it means that. The sentence “I and the Father are one” is not the sentence “I am God” — but it means that.

        Ken Brown:Is it? How about the next verse then: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

        You seem to be asserting the premise that the Son is God if and only if the Son and the Father are the same person, and arguing from that premise that as we can see that the Father and the Son are not the same person, then ergo the Son is not God — So, whether or not you’re willing to realize it, you are claiming that Jesus is/was a liar, for he did, indeed, claim to be God.

        And thus, we see that, in contrast to your earlier atempt to correct him, Lewis’ trilemma stands, after all: it is complete as given.

        However, getting back to your implicit argument agaist Christ being God, your assertion/premise that the Son is God if and only if the Son and the Father are the same person can certainly be denied, therefore, your implicit argument may be rejected.

        Where is the contradiction beween “I am the Son” and “I am claiming for myself attributes that properly apply only to God (that is, I am hereby claiming to be God)” on the one hand, and “The Son is not the Father” on the other? Where is the contradiction between “I and the Father are one” on the one hand, and “I am not the Father” on the other?

      • Ilion,

        I would ask you not to put words in my mouth. My point is NOT that Jesus is not God, nor that he did not claim to be God. It is certainly not that there are no sayings in the Gospels that could imply that he is God. Obviously the Gospels taken as a whole (especially John) say a great many things that assert and imply that Jesus claimed to be God. If you accept that the Gospels are true then you certainly should accept that Jesus is the Son of God, and you don’t need the trilemma to prove it to you.

        But if you do not already accept that the Gospels are a perfectly (or at least largely) accurate record of what Jesus actually said, then it simply isn’t true that there are only three options–liar, lunatic or lord. There is a fourth option: that the exalted claims attributed to Jesus are largely if not entirely a product of early Christian reflection on who Jesus was.

        My point is not that the fourth option is true–I happen to believe that Jesus DID make claims that suggest that he saw himself as God, though probably not as explicitly as the Gospel of John suggests. My point is that the fourth option is a legitimate possibility, and indeed one that a many historical Jesus scholars accept. Indeed, there are even some people who would go further and suggest that there either never was a historical Jesus at all, or we can know almost nothing certain about him. I think that goes much too far, but you can hardly deny that the world is full of people who are skeptical of the Gospels’ claims.

        For the trilemma to “work” as an apologetic argument, then, you must first prove to such people that the Gospels’ claims are themselves accurate. But if you succeed in proving that the Gospels are accurate, you don’t need the trilemma at all.

  39. This debate still misses the other, and what I have come to believe is the true biblical option whilst holding firmly to the faithfulness of the gospel records if not all in translation.
    Liar, Lunatic, Lord, Myth?
    Mad, Bad, God, Made up?
    How about the claim that Jesus did actually make consistently – son of God, son of man Messiah and the other title people recognised as synonomous,, King of Israel?
    It was his enemies who regularly misunderstood his claims and teaching who said he was making himself out to be God (probably better ‘a god’) and odd that many use this same mistake which Jesus was swift to correct as a main basis for his deity.

  40. Please remember that Jesus is referred to in the old testament as well:
    Jesus said that ‘That you search the scriptures (Old Testament) because you think that by them you have life, and these are the very scriptures that testify about Me, but you refuse to come to Me to have life.(paraphrase) Please have a look at Isaiah 53 for instance as that tells of the crucifixion 500 years before it took place. Jesus saves today, people are still encountering Him, there are miracles happening everyday, He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
    God bless you, in Jesus name.


Conversation is what makes blogging worthwhile. Leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: