Who is Jesus? In which category of humanity do we place Him? Great teacher? Counterculture revolutionary? Beatnik pacifist? Liar? Lunatic? Or a class of His own—Lord?
The “liar, lunatic, Lord trilemma” is typically attributed to C. S. Lewis, but the argument has a long history with many reference points in Christian teaching. I first read it in Watchman Nee’s Normal Christian Faith my sophomore year in high school, which predates Mere Christianity by a few years. The long history of the argument really dates all the way back to the first century. The trilemma is found in situ in the Gospel of John, although scattered and disjointed. And so, over the years, out of the New Testament text itself, it was excavated, collected, arranged, presented, refined, and wholeheartedly adored by the Christian community.
My guess is that C. S. Lewis’ rendition of the trilemma has received the most adoration because it is more recent, witty, and literary than the others (for instance, “poached egg”). Great literature, however, is no replacement for great preaching, and a sermon’s effect on a congregation is not directly proportional to its literary genius.
A while back Kevin De Young gave this famous paragraph a comprehensive analysis. It’s a worthwhile read.
Below, I try to trace the development of the liar, lunatic, Lord trilemma throughout church history. I know there’s a lot more out there (I purposely stopped at Lewis), but this is just a brief survey. The development noticeably picks up steam in the 19th century and moves beyond the simple aut Deus aut malus homo (“either God or a bad man”) formulation.
There are some amazing quotes below, and I invite you to check out the sources for yourself. I had to leave out some lengthy gems so that this wouldn’t get too bloated.
John the Apostle, ∼90 AD
If I say that I do not know Him [the Father], I will be like you, a liar; but I do know Him and I keep His word. –John 8:55
Many of them said, He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him? –John 10:21
Thomas answered and said to Him, My Lord and my God. –John 20:28
Gaius Marius Victorinus, ∼358
Saying these things he was God, if he did not lie; if however he lied, he was not the work of God perfect in all ways.
Sir Thomas More, 1534
For surely if Christ was not God, he was not a good man either, since he plainly said he was God.
John Leland, 1773
There is no room therefore for charging what He did on the reveries of His own imagination. And there is as little pretense for supposing that He had a design to impose upon others, or to put a solemn cheat upon mankind, as there is for imagining that He Himself was imposed on… In a word, there was nothing either in His own temper or conduct, or in the scheme of religion He introduced, that had the least marks of sensuality, avarice, or ambition, or of any base selfish views, or of the maxims and subtleties of a worldly policy; so that it may be justly affirmed that there never was a character in the world more remote from that of an impostor than His.
Mark Hopkins, 1844
Either … those claims were well-founded, or of a hopeless insanity. … No impostor of common sense could have had the folly to prefer such claims.
‘Rabbi’ John Duncan, 1860
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.
Henry Parry Liddon, 1866
‘Christus, si non Deus, non bonus’
If He is not God, He is not a humble or an unselfish man. Nay, He is not even sincere; unless indeed we have recourse to a supposition upon which the most desperate of His modern opponents have not yet ventured, and say with His jealous kinsmen in the early days of His ministry, that He was beside Himself. Certainly it would seem that there must have been strange method in a madness which could command the adoration of the civilized world; nor would any such supposition be seriously entertained by those who know under what conditions the very lowest forms of moral influence are at all possible. The choice really lies between the hypothesis of conscious and culpable insincerity, and the belief that Jesus speaks literal truth and must be taken at His word.
R. A. Torrey, ∼1918
Jesus Christ was beyond peradventure one of three things. He was either the son of God in a unique sense, a divine person incarnate in human form or else he was the most daring imposter that ever lived or else one of the most hopeless lunatics… Was his influence upon subsequent history the influence of a lunatic? No one but a lunatic would say so. Was his influence upon subsequent history the influence of an impostor? No one but one whose own heart was thoroughly tainted with deceit and fraud would think of saying so. Not an impostor. Not a lunatic. We have only one alternative left. He was what he claimed to be, the Son of God, God the Son.
W. E. Biederwolf, early 2oth century
If, as the English poet says, the Syrian stars look down every night upon His grave, how are you going to explain His repeated claim that He would rise on the third day, except that He was a liar or a lunatic? He asked the Jews why they were stoning Him and they said, “Because you, being a man, claim to be God, and you are a blasphemer.” Well, He did claim it; and if He was in His right mind, it was either so or it was the rankest blasphemy.
G. K. Chesterton, 1925
This impossibility of letting in daylight on a delusion does sometimes cover and conceal a delusion of divinity. It can be found, not among prophets and sages and founders of religions, but only among a low set of lunatics. But this is exactly where the argument becomes in tensely interesting; because the argument proves too much. For nobody supposes that Jesus of Nazareth was that sort of person. No modem critic in his five wits thinks that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half witted imbecile that might be scrawling stars on the walls of a cell. No atheist or blasphemer believes that the author of the Parable of the Prodigal Son was a monster with one mad idea like a Cyclops with one eye. Upon any possible historical criticism, he must be put higher in the scale of human beings than that. Yet by all analogy we have really to put him there or else in the highest place of all.
Watchman Nee, 1936
How can Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God? Before going on, we have to pause for a moment to seriously consider the matter. It is not a light thing to claim to be God. A person who makes such a claim falls into one of three categories. He must belong to one of these three categories; he cannot belong to all three. First, if he claims to be God and yet in fact is not, he has to be a madman or a lunatic. Second, if he is neither God nor a lunatic, he has to be a liar, deceiving others by his lie. Third, if he is neither of these, he must be God. You can only choose one of the three possibilities. If you do not believe that he is God, you have to consider him a madman. If you cannot take him for either of the two, you have to take him for a liar. There is no need for us to prove if Jesus of Nazareth is God or not. All we have to do is find out if He is a lunatic or a liar. If He is neither, He must be the Son of God… Was Jesus insane? Did He speak pure nonsense just to cause people to kill Him? Or was He a swindler setting up some kind of a scheme? If so, what was He trying to gain? Was He trying to gain death?
C. S. Lewis, 1942
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 patronising 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.
1. Gaius Marius Victorinus, From the Generation of the Divine Word, cols. 1019c-36c, ref. col 1020
2. Sir Thomas More, translated by Mary Gottschalk, A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, 3.14, p. 227
3. John Leland, An Answer to a Late Book Entitled, Christianity as Old as the Creation: Part 2
4. Mark Hopkins, Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity, p. 255
5. ‘Rabbi’ John Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica, p. 109
6. Henry Parry Liddon, The Divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Bampton Lectures, p. 206
7. R. A. Torrey, Some Reasons Why I Believe The Bible To Be The Word of God, Online.
8. W. E. Biederwolf, “Yes, He Arose”, Great Preaching on the Resurrection: Seventeen Messages, p. 29
9. G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 129
10. Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Faith, p. 35-36
11. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 55-56