Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Legend?

By James M. Rochford

During his life, Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15) Two thousand years later, modern people are still asking the same question. Was Jesus a Liar, Lunatic, Legend, or Lord (LLLL)? This argument for the authenticity of Jesus’ divinity has been used by many Christians, but it was perhaps most notably used by C.S. Lewis in his hallmark book Mere Christianity. He writes:

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.[1]

This argument has been heavily criticized in recent years by skeptical thinkers. Atheist Christopher Hitchens criticized this argument from C.S. Lewis, claiming that this trilemma is much too simplistic—other options being possible.[2] Moreover, skeptic Jim Perry writes that this argument “is popular among amateur apologists for Christianity.”[3] Is the LLLL a valid argument for demonstrating the deity of Christ?

While this argument does not prove without a doubt that Jesus was God, it does narrow down our possibilities. Moreover, it demonstrates that the best explanation for Jesus’ life was that he was divine. That is, the deity of Christ (while not irrefutable) has more explanatory power than the other available options.[4]

Did Jesus Claim Deity?

Before we consider this argument, let’s ask the question of whether or not Jesus even claimed to be God. Skeptic Jim Perry writes, “Exactly what Jesus claimed is not known. The gospels are the closest thing we have to an account of his claims, and there is no explicit claim of divinity by Jesus in the gospels, let alone an unambiguous theological statement of what precisely it might mean for a man to claim to be God.”[5] Perry claims that we cannot know how Jesus’ words should be interpreted; therefore, we cannot know if Jesus claimed to be God. However, contrary to Perry’s claims, there are several lines of evidence that lead us to believe that Jesus believed himself to be God. For a full treatment of the deity of Christ, see comments on the article “Defending the Deity of Christ.” Given this evidence, let’s consider the four primary possibilities for Jesus’ claim to deity.

Was Jesus a LIAR?

Perhaps, when Jesus claimed to be God, he was simply lying. Certainly, modern religious fanatics have made similar claims to Jesus, and perhaps, Jesus wasn’t any different. However, this perspective lacks plausibility for a number of reasons:

First, liars usually crack under pressure. When push comes to shove, liars will usually change their story when they are under pressure—especially when their lie no longer is in their self-interest. However, Jesus testified to both the religious and political leaders that he was the Jewish messiah, and he went to his death in confirmation of his belief.

Second, liars always have a sufficient motive for lying. To lie on such a grand scale as Jesus did, he would need an enormous motive. However, contrary to having a positive motive, Jesus had only negative consequences for making his divine claims. That is, Jesus didn’t benefit for making his claims. Cult leaders usually gain power and control over others for money or sex or both! However, there is absolutely no historical notion that Jesus was ever married—let alone sleeping around (see comments on John 20:17). Moreover, Jesus was poor. He said, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Lk 9:58); he was too poor to afford a decent place to sleep! Jesus didn’t even have a coin on him to pay the Temple tax (Mt. 17:24-27). He also didn’t collect the most auspicious of disciples: prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans. Moreover, when the crowds tried to make Jesus a political ruler, he declined (Jn. 6:15). How different this is to power mongering religious leaders today!

Third, liars typically do not emphasize such remarkable moral virtues. Jesus himself emphasized telling the truth explicitly (Mt. 5:33-37), as well as constantly affirming the truth of his own words. Philosopher Douglas Groothius writes, “Could Jesus be both a great (many would say the greatest) moralist as well as the greatest liar of all time? The question answers itself.”[6]

Fourth, liars typically don’t stick up for the marginalized. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus stood up for the disadvantaged people in society. Why would he do this, unless he was actually good natured? This seems difficult to understand from this perspective.

Was Jesus a LUNATIC?

Some skeptics of the Bible argue that perhaps Jesus was a lunatic, pointing out that even some of Jesus’ original audience charged that he was insane (Jn. 10:20; Mk. 3:21). Regarding Jesus’ divine states, NT critic Marcus Borg writes,

To explain, what would we think of a person who solemnly said about himself, ‘I am the light of the world’ or “Whoever has seen me has seen God’? …As self-statements, these are highly problematic. Indeed, we have categories of psychological diagnosis for people who talk like this about themselves.[7]

To avoid a psychotic Jesus, Borg claims that Jesus never made any of these claims about himself (a view we will consider below). However, if Jesus really did make these claims, then perhaps Borg is right: Jesus was crazy! One stroll through a psychiatric ward will quickly demonstrate that many people are mentally unstable enough to believe that they are Napoleon Bonaparte, King Tut, or even God himself! Skeptics also point out that the Dalai Lama believes that he’s the reincarnation of past lamas (or teachers), but he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.[8] Therefore, according to the skeptic, perhaps religious people can still do moral things—even if their self-understanding is false. However, this view also doesn’t fit well with the evidence for a number of reasons:

First, the NT writers included this accusation. The NT writers must have felt as though this accusation contained no merit whatsoever; otherwise, they wouldn’t have included it (Jn. 10:20; Mt. 12:22-29). Groothius writes, “It is also worth noting that the Gospel writers do not shy away from reporting that some thought Jesus was insane. They had such confidence in his overall character that they were willing to record these contrary opinions without fear of tarnishing Jesus’ reputation.”[9]

Second, insane people do not speak the way Jesus did. Jesus’ teachings have resonated with billions of people over the last 2,000 years:

(Mt. 11:28) Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

(Lk. 9:24) For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.

(Mk. 8:36-37) For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 “For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

(Mt. 5:44) Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

(Mk. 10:45) “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Can we really believe that a lunatic could speak such words as to change the lives of billions of people for two millennia after his death? Is this possible? Yes. Is it likely? I don’t see how—especially, when we compare Jesus’ words with insane religious leaders. For example, when we read through David Koresh’s writings from Waco, the contrast becomes clear.

Third, Jesus’ claim to deity dwarfs all other major religious leaders. For instance, the Dali Lama’s claim does not compare, because Jesus’ claim was given in the context of first century Judaism. While the Dalai Lama’s claim was one of reincarnation of an enlightened consciousness, Jesus’ claim was one of incarnation from a divine being.

Fourth, we cannot assess Jesus’ moral teaching apart from his personal claims. Jesus said that he himself was the sole way to God and eternal life (Mt. 11:27; Jn. 14:1-6). Is it really plausible to think yourself divine and still give moral teachings on the level of Jesus?

Fifth, Jesus’ brother, James, became one of his closest followers. James is mentioned several times throughout the NT as the brother of Jesus (Mk. 13:55). Originally, he did not believe in Jesus (Jn. 7:5). In fact, Mark tells us that he originally believed Jesus was insane (Mk. 3:21). However, after Jesus appeared to James in his resurrected state (1 Cor. 15:7), James became a radical follower of Christ. In Acts 1:14, James was huddled with the early believers right from the beginning of the early Christian movement, and within a few years, James had become one of the “apostles” in the early church (Gal. 1:19). Paul even referred to him as one of the “pillars” in the early church (Gal. 2:9), alongside the other key apostles. In the book of Acts, Peter showed deference to James as one of the central leaders in the early church (Acts 12:17; 21:18), and James was one of the central leaders present at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).

Was Jesus a LEGEND?

Critic Bart Ehrman writes, “Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. But there could be a fourth option—legend.”[10] Was the notion of Jesus’ deity simply an exaggeration of the early church? It seems not for a number of reasons:

First, Jesus has more biographies written of him than any other person from the ancient world. Roman emperor Tiberius died in AD 37, and his earliest known biographies were written between AD 110-120 by Tacitus and Suetonius (~70 to 80 year gap). Likewise, Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., and his earliest known biography is from AD 130 from Arrian (~450 year gap). Jesus has four biographies of his life all written within a generation of his death. Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White argues that this was too quick for legend to accrue that would corrupt the main message of Jesus’ life.[11] By comparing Jesus’ biographies to other ancient secular history, we can measure the rate at which legend is added.[12] And Sherwin-White argues that one generation is too quickly for this to occur.

Second, Luke-Acts were written before AD 62. Historians date Luke-Acts before AD 62, because these books make no mention of the persecution by Roman Emperor Nero (AD 64), make no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70), make no mention of the death of Paul, Peter, or James the Lord’s brother. The book of Acts is very concerned with persecution and the death of the early Christian leaders (Acts 8:1; 12:2). However, it fails to mention these major events. The best explanation for this is that these events hadn’t occurred yet.

Third, the gospels are deeply concerned with history. In just one verse, Luke mentions 15 specific historical details that have been confirmed. He writes,

“Now in the [1] fifteenth year of the reign of [2] Tiberius Caesar, when [3] Pontius Pilate was [4] governor of [5] Judea, and [6] Herod was [7] tetrarch of [8] Galilee, and his [9] brother [10] Philip was [11] tetrarch of the region of [12] Ituraea and Trachonitis, and [13] Lysanias was [14] tetrarch of [15] Abilene.”

The Bible actually has an astonishing track record when it comes to historical reliability. Throughout the last 150 years, the modern science of archaeology has only confirmed—not denied—what we read in Scripture. World renowned scholar Gleason Archer authoritatively states,

As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archaeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself—or else by objective archaeological information.[13]

At the end of his Sarum Lectures, Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White stated, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming… Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”[14]

Fourth, ancient non-Christian historians believed that Jesus claimed to be God and the Jewish messiah. Pliny the Younger (an early second century Roman governor) writes that Jesus’ earliest followers sang hymns to Christ “as to a god.”[15] Josephus (a first century Roman historian) claimed that Jesus of Nazareth “was called the Christ.”[16] Lucian (a second century Greek satirist) writes that the early Christians “deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage.”[17]

Fifth, the writers of the NT weren’t prone to lying. The disciples didn’t change the story, even when it would’ve benefited them. The disciples wrote that they themselves were unintelligent (Mk. 9:32; Lk. 18:34), uneducated (Acts 4:13), uncaring (Mk. 14:32), cowardly (Mt. 26:33-25), and doubtful (Mt. 28:17). In fact, Peter was even called “Satan” by Jesus in the biography that he helped author, the gospel of Mark (Mk. 8:33).[18] The disciples placed women at the empty tomb of Jesus, as the first eyewitnesses of the resurrection in a day when women were second class citizens—unable to testify in a court of law.[19] If they were fabricating the story (and they were willing to change the details), they would never have placed women at the empty tomb; they would’ve placed themselves at the empty tomb.

The disciples wrote that Jesus was accused of being deranged (Mk. 3:21), deceitful (Jn. 7:12), drunk (Mt. 11:19), and demon-possessed (Mk. 3:22) by both his family and his enemies. They even recorded that many of Jesus’ followers deserted him (Jn. 6:66). It would’ve been far easier for the disciples to simply leave these details out of their accounts, but they were so committed to telling the truth that they didn’t tamper with the facts.

The early Christians had a number of disputes and disagreements with one another. They disagreed about the importance of circumcision (Acts 15:2), obeying the Law (Gal. 5:3-4), speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14), and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church (Eph. 2:11ff). And yet Jesus didn’t give any commands about these issues in the four gospels. Imagine how tempting it would’ve been to simply “add” a teaching or two from Jesus on one of these subjects. If the disciples were inventing the story about Jesus, it would’ve been easy to write that Jesus also taught on these issues. And yet the four gospels are strangely silent to these controversies.

Sixth, the NT writers knew the difference between mythology and history. They believed that they were writing history. Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). Here, Peter uses the Greek word muthos which literally means “myth.”

Seventh, the NT writers didn’t have a good motive for inventing a divine Jesus. Religiously, Pagans and Jews were hostile to the message of Jesus being God. Politically, the Roman Empire viewed the deity of Christ as subversive to the state, and therefore, they routinely killed Christians who wouldn’t bow to the Roman Emperor in worship. While this message brought the early Christians hope, it also brought them a giant target on their foreheads from the first century political and religious culture. Therefore, there wasn’t a strong motive for them to invent such a message or to spread it.

Further Reading

Groothuis, Douglas R. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. “CHAPTER 21: Defending the Incarnation.”

Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952. Book Two: Chapter Three: “The Shocking Alternative.”

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1999. CHAPTER SEVEN: “Significance of Deity: The Trilemma Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?”

Both C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell have been criticized for making a logical fallacy here in their trilemma: namely, there are more options than just Lord, Liar, and Lunatic. Perhaps Jesus was a Legend or a New Age pantheistic mystic.

Samples, Kenneth R. Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004. CHAPTER 8: “Is Jesus a Man, Myth, Madman, Menace, Mystic, Martian, or Messiah?”

Samples expands on Lewis’ and McDowell’s trilemma, exploring seven different options suggested by modern day critics.

[1] Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952. 54-56.

[2] See Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 120.

[3] Jim Perry “The Trilemma—Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?” (1995).

[4] This approach is sometimes called abductive reasoning, where the thinker looks for the best explanation from a number of different possibilities.

[5] Emphasis mine. Jim Perry “The Trilemma—Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?” (1995). See under, “Jesus claims to be God.”

[6] Groothuis, Douglas R. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 512.

[7] Borg, Marcus. N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1999. 149.

[8] Rule, Sheila. “Dalai Lama Wins the Nobel Peace Prize.” The New York Times. October 6, 1989. Article found here.

[9] Groothuis, Douglas R. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 518.

[10] Tucker, Neely. “The Book of Bart.” Washington Post. March 5, 2006.

[11] Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1963. 188-91.

[12] Sherwin-White writes, “Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1963. 195.

[13] Archer, Gleason L. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1982. 12.

To get a look at some of the more common contradictions cited and cogent explanations, see R.L. Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures: An Exegetical and Historical Study (Greenville, South Carolina: Acorn Press, 1995) pp. 94-122.

[14] White, Adrian Nicholas Sherwin. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. The Sarum Lectures, 1960-61. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1963. 189.

[15] Pliny the Younger Letters 10:96.

[16] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 20:197-203.

[17] Lucian The Death of Peregrine, 11-13.

[18] In roughly 140 C.E., Papias writes that Mark was supervised by Peter in writing this gospel. This was recorded by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15.

[19] Josephus writes, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.” Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15.