The Trilemma: Lord, Liar or Lunatic?

The atheist website hosts a critique of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. The article below responds to Jim Perry’s article concerning whether Jesus was God: ‘The Trilemma-- Lord, Liar Or Lunatic?’.

The Basis of the Argument

Before discussing the critique of the Lord, liar, or lunatic (LLL) argument, I think it is important to have a proper understanding of the LLL argument. The first step in understanding the LLL argument is to recognize that it is not a stand-alone argument and should not be used as such. It is highly dependent on the reliability of the Bible, and the Gospels in particular, and is limited in scope and application. If the Gospels do not give a generally reliable account of history, then it does not even make sense to discuss the LLL argument. There would not even be a need to critique it because it would be a work of fiction, not truth. This is why McDowell uses the first six chapters of Evidence That Demands a Verdict to build a case for the reliability of the Bible. In chapter 7, when McDowell introduces the LLL argument, he says "We have already seen that the New Testament books are historically accurate and reliable; so reliable, in fact, that Jesus cannot be dismissed as a mere legend." The LLL argument assumes that the New Testament offers an accurate description of Jesus and His words. Any critique of the LLL argument that does not take this into consideration is invalid because it is attacking a different argument.

Just about everyone would agree that when we come across invalid arguments, even when they support our position or come from respected people, we should dismiss them. However, before dismissing any argument, we need to properly understand it and consider the entirety of the argument. This is true whether discussing religious, scientific, or political viewpoints. Jim Perry, the author of the critique to the LLL argument, is clearly knowledgeable and put a lot of thought into his critique. He offers objections that Christians need to answer. On the other hand, the bulk of his critique can be answered by pointing out that the LLL argument is dependent on the reliability of the Gospels. Most of Perry’s arguments assume the unreliability of the Gospels, and are therefore invalid and irrelevant to the true nature of this argument.

The LLL argument assumes that the New Testament offers an accurate description of Jesus and His words

An example of this is Perry’s argument regarding additional options other than Lord, liar, or lunatic that could apply to Jesus. Perry says that perhaps Jesus was a fictional character, and therefore, does not have to be the Lord, a liar, or a lunatic. The problem with this is that it ignores the assumption that the Gospels are reliable. It is an invalid critique because Perry is no longer critiquing the argument put forth by McDowell, but a very different argument. In other words, Perry is critiquing a straw man argument and not the true argument. However, through correspondence with Perry, he said that his critique of the LLL argument was aimed towards those who were misusing the LLL argument by ignoring the assumptions and overstating its purpose; an unfortunate trend that he noticed at the time (1995). So although his critique of the LLL argument is partially invalid as it relates to McDowell’s version and assumptions, it was also necessary to answer Christians who were misusing the LLL argument.

The next step in understanding the LLL argument is to understand how to apply it. As C.S. Lewis said when he originally presented this argument, a person cannot seriously consider Jesus to be just a great moral teacher such as Buddha or Gandhi. This is because Jesus’ claims were so extreme that He has to be something more. McDowell offers three possibilities regarding the truth of Jesus’ claims, which lead to conclusions about what He was:

1) He was telling the truth and, therefore, is God;
2) He was not telling the truth, but did not know it and, therefore, is a lunatic;
3) He knowingly did not tell the truth and, therefore, is a liar.

Perry seems to agree with these three options regarding the truth of Jesus’ claims, but disagrees that the resulting conclusions are the only possible conclusions. In the end, the LLL argument is only useful and valid in instances when the general reliability of the Gospels or even Jesus’ existence is accepted but Jesus’ deity is not. Additionally, the LLL argument is not a logical argument that definitively excludes other options. What it does do is show that any other options, although theoretically possible, are so extremely unlikely that they are nearly impossible and do not reflect what we observe in reality.

What Did Jesus Really Mean?

Perry’s best argument is that perhaps we do not understand what Jesus really meant when He made some of His outrageous claims, specifically His claims to be God. This takes into account the assumption that the Gospels are reliable and, therefore, is a valid objection.

There are three answers to this objection. The first is that we now have the Scriptures in writing and have been studying them as a society for nearly 2,000 years and individually for about 500 years. Our collective knowledge and the availability of powerful study tools (concordances, cross-references, historical knowledge, etc.) allow us to gain a deep understanding of Jesus’ words, perhaps in some ways even better than the people to whom He spoke. Admittedly, some of His words would have been more clear to an audience that understood what He said in the context of their culture and period of history, but we can also recognize this and grasp what He meant. Although I do not know if we have a complete understanding of what it means that Jesus claimed to be God, it is clear that Jesus did claim to be God.

The second answer to this objection comes straight from the Bible. Mark 4:33-34 (NASB) says "With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it;and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples." The words ‘to hear’ at the end of verse 33 come from the Greek word akouó, which implies, especially in this usage, understanding or comprehension. This suggests that the people of Jesus’ time could at least partially understand what He was saying which means we likely can as well.

perhaps we do not understand what Jesus really meant when He made some of His outrageous claims?

Additionally, verse 34 says that Jesus explained everything to His disciples in private, so they would have understood what Jesus’ parables and sayings meant (also see John 16:28-30). There is one instance where Peter does not understand what Jesus was saying, even though Jesus was speaking plainly, but then Jesus rebuked him for it (Matthew 16:21-23 & Mark 8:29-33). And then after the resurrection, Jesus taught His disciples even more about Himself (Luke 24:27 & 45). All these verses combine to make a very strong case that, at least by the end of Jesus' ministry, His disciples accurately understood His message. Further, it was Jesus’ disciples who wrote the New Testament and would have conveyed their understanding of Jesus in their writings (some of the New Testament authors such as Paul and Luke were not followers of Christ until after the Resurrection; however, they did confer with the apostles who were with Jesus during His three years of ministry).

So if Jesus’ disciples had an accurate idea of who Jesus really was, what did they believe about Him? Many verses (Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, 2 Peter 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1 and Titus 2:13) make it clear that the apostles understood Jesus to be God. Probably the clearest verses are John 20:28-29 (NASB) because Thomas calls Jesus "God" to His face and Jesus affirms it, which further supports that the apostles did correctly understand Jesus. The verse says "Thomas answered and said to Him [Jesus], ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’"

The third answer is to concede (temporarily) Perry’s point that Jesus did not claim to be God. As I demonstrated above, I do not think this is the case based on Scripture, but I do think it is helpful to entertain this idea and see where it leads. So if Jesus did not claim to be God, then what are just some of the things He claimed about Himself? He claimed to be greater than Abraham (and implies that He’s greater than the other prophets) and exist eternally (John 8:53-58), to be greater than Jacob (John 4:7-14), to be the son of God (Luke 22:70), to be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), to be the only way to heaven or God (John 14:6), to give everlasting life (John 3:15-16, John 11:25, John 5:21), to be entrusted with all judgment (John 5:22), and He let others believe He was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16, Mark 8:28-29 and Luke 9:20-21). So what would all this mean if Jesus was not God? It would still mean God exists and the Bible is the Word of God. And so that would still mean we have to put our trust in Jesus to be saved. And so that would still mean that Jesus was much more than just a great moral teacher or just another spiritual guru. In fact, I don’t think it changes anything other than perhaps some deep philosophical questions – for in all this are we not still saying, in effect, that Jesus is God?

Did Jesus Tell ‘Noble Lies’

Another argument Perry introduces is the idea that perhaps Jesus was telling lies, but these were ‘noble lies’. I suppose this would be a possibility, but it also fails to account for all the information. To lie about being God in order to get people to follow you and live honorably might be considered by some to be a noble lie; however, Jesus did much more than that. He claimed the ability to perform worldly miracles and to forgive sins. This goes beyond nobility and borders on cruelty. Perhaps Jesus needed to claim these things in order to get people to believe Him? If Jesus knew He was telling lies in order to get people to listen to him, it would have been more likely that He would have claimed to be a prophet and not God. This probably would have given Him more support from the Jews and avoided so great a deception. He also may have ended up living longer since claiming to be a prophet of God would have been much less offensive to the Jews of the time than claiming to be God, something anyone of that time would have recognized.

It is unlikely, even for noble purposes, that Jesus would have been willing to die to maintain this 'noble lie'

It is unlikely, even for noble purposes, that Jesus would have been willing to die to maintain this 'noble lie' (it is true that people die for their beliefs all the time, but when they do this, they honestly believe they are correct). When under pressure, He most likely would have admitted to making it up in order to persuade people to be good. Finally, if He were telling a noble lie, then He probably would have made exceptions for other people to tell noble lies, but He did not. Jesus constantly said we should seek and speak truth (John 8:32, John 14:6, John 16:13, John 17:17) and not tell lies or give false testimony (Matthew 15:19, Matthew 19:18, John 8:44).

Was Jesus Mistaken?

The last of Perry’s major critiques to be addressed is the claim that perhaps Jesus was merely mistaken, but not on the level that would make Him a raving lunatic, which is the only option McDowell suggests. When considering the temerity of Jesus’ claims – that He is God, is equal to God, is the only way to God, can heal the sick, is the light of the world, and is the bread of life – it no longer seems likely that Jesus was just a little mistaken or just telling noble or white lies. These are major claims, way beyond the scope of saying "God told me to tell you to be nice to each other." If these claims are not true, but Jesus honestly believed them all to be true, this suggests He had major psychological problems. If He knew they were false, he would certainly have been a malicious liar, intent on controlling and manipulating other people.

Was Jesus Delusional but still a Good Moral Teacher?

Another critique of the LLL argument which I think needs to be addressed, even though Perry does not mention it, is the possibility that Jesus was a liar or lunatic, but still a good moral teacher. I confess that this is logically possible, but it is extremely improbable, especially considering the previous paragraph and how extreme His condition would have been. If He was a liar, He was a major liar. If He had a psychological disorder, it would have been extreme. Would you go to a psychiatric ward to look for moral guidance? Probably not. It is possible for someone with a psychological disorder to give good advice, but highly unlikely, especially when their advice is based on their delusions. Additionally, considering the vast number of statements Jesus made, none of his statements or advice are empirically or logically incorrect (people may not like or agree with some of the things Jesus said, but this is on the basis of opinion and their own presuppositions, not empirical evidence or reason). If He was a liar or a lunatic, we would expect some of His advice to be empirically or logically wrong, but it was not. All of His advice and knowledge was spot on and even holds true over 2,000 years later.

If Jesus was a liar, He was a major liar

We have real life parallels that can help us understand this point. John Nash is a famous mathematician who was the basis for the movie A Beautiful Mind. He is brilliant, yet suffers from schizophrenia which is characterized by delusions. Could Jesus be just another case of a schizophrenic who is really smart or at least highly functional? For several reasons, I do not think this is the case with Jesus. Unlike Nash, Jesus’ 'delusions' were witnessed by other people. When He was baptized, everyone heard God speak and declare Jesus is the son of God. Jesus performed genuine miracles, such as healing the sick and feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread, which were witnessed by others. The only other explanation would be mass hysteria, which is controversial and doesn’t really apply to visual or auditory hallucinations.


When considering the assumptions of the LLL argument and all the relevant information, it is very hard to escape the conclusions reached by McDowell. Is this argument ever going to convert someone to Christianity? I do not know. I can imagine situations where it might, or at least could contribute to someone’s conversion. However, the larger point is that we cannot just take things as we please. If we like the idea of Jesus as a great moral teacher, but are unwilling to call Him God, then we must recognize and confess that we are living in a world of make-believe and that we are not accepting the real Jesus who existed as part of history.

Further Resources

More resources on who Jesus was.
More resources on the historicity and reliability of the Bible.
For one specific article arguing that Jesus was both God and man, see Alister McGrath's The Divinity of Christ.

© 2013 Jay Medenwaldt
With thanks to Jay for responding to the original critique.