Liar, Lunatic, or Leafy Green Vegetable

Apologetics is, by its very nature, an inherently bandwagon-y enterprise, so it’s not too surprising that David Limbaugh, in his foreward to I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST , can’t resist the temptation to toss in his own two denarius’ worth:

As C. S. Lewis observed, if Christ is not God, then he could not have been an exemplary prophet or a great moral teacher, because he claimed to be God. If he was not who he said he was, then he was either a liar or a lunatic, hardly a great moral teacher or prophet.

This is a classic piece of Christian apologetics, and quite widely circulated among Christians. It’s so popular, you’d think there was some substance to it. But is there?

Let’s consider another of Jesus’ famous sayings:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15:1-5)

Applying the logic of C. S. Lewis to the above statement of Jesus, we can see that one of three things must be true: either he’s a liar, or he’s a lunatic, or he’s a leafy green fruit plant. That’s it. Those are the only three alternatives that Lewis allows us, so one of them must be true. Right?

Lewis makes so many assumptions in such a short space. For example, he assumes that Jesus was a morally perfect man (and thus inconsistent with the “liar” and “lunatic” alternatives). But the assumption that Jesus was morally perfect is based on the assumption that he was the incarnation of a morally perfect God. Indeed, all the Gospel records of his life are written under this assumption. Lewis bases his conclusion that Jesus is Lord on the assumption that Jesus is Lord.

Lewis also assumes that when Jesus claimed to be God (IF he claimed to be God), he intended his words to be taken literally. For a man who called himself a door, a vine, a loaf of bread and a glass of wine, this is not necessarily a safe assumption.

Lewis also assumes that no liar or lunatic could have preached a gospel of morality and self-denial. History, however, has many instances of popes, prophets, and preachers who were strait-laced, outwardly moral, and inwardly corrupt and deceptive, whatever their followers may have claimed.

Even if Jesus were being honest (as far as he knew), he might still have been mistaken. Lewis assumes that if Jesus was of honest disposition, he could not be mistaken about the degree to which he was indwelt by God. Many have been, and have contradicted one another. Again, delusions are no guarantee that the deluded one will behave inconsistently with his idea of God’s righteousness. There might be occasional irrational outbursts (like, say, suddenly attacking vendors in the Temple complex), but by and large the deluded person stays as consistent as possible with his delusion.

In short, the “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” argument is simply an exercise in self-justification. The believer knows beforehand that he wants Jesus to be Lord; the “3 L’s” argument merely gives a pretext for doing just that.

6 Responses to “Liar, Lunatic, or Leafy Green Vegetable”

  1. gaysolomon Says:

    There are additional possibilities that Lewis did not explore. For example:

    According to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus may have been an historical person, but he was probably only a teacher of wisdom. In fact, the Seminar concludes that only 18% of the words attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels were actually uttered by him. The balance were put in Jesus’ mouth by the early Christian community, or were “borrowed” from other sources. Unfortunately, most of what can be directly attributed to Jesus is largely unremarkable, and hardly worthy of constructing a religion around.

    According to Daniel Dennett in his latest book, Breaking the Spell, much of the New Testament was probably the result of midrash. The historicity of Jesus is also doubted by Dennett.

    Lastly, Tom Harpur in his book, The Pagan Christ, concludes that Jesus is likely a mythical figure and not an historical person at all. Harpur identifies many parallels between the gospel stories and other religious traditions in currency around the time of the first century. Harpur hypothesizes that the New Testament is largely based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead and believes that Jesus is just another form of Osiris.

  2. The Professor Says:

    Personally I tend to favor the idea that Jesus was a real person, because there’s nothing particularly implausible about the idea that there was a religious teacher of some sort in Bronze Age Palestine. The character we know today as Jesus, however, seems very likely to be an eclectic mishmash of various Jewish and pagan ideas, mythologies, and wishful thinking. So in a sense I can agree that Jesus was a real (if unknown) person, and that Jesus as we know him today is essentially a myth.

    From an “unapologetic” standpoint, however, I start off by quoting the Bible and showing how Lewis’s argument is inconsistent with what the Bible says. The goal of unapologetics is to help the Christian reach a point where they realize he’s better off keeping his religious beliefs to himself (converting him would be nice, but it’s a lot to hope for). If I start by denying that Jesus was a real person, the Christian will label me as hopelessly liberal, giving him an excuse to ignore everything I say. If I confront him with his own Scriptures, however, then he’s got to either reject Lewis or reject “God’s Word.”

  3. Tekton Apologetics on the “Lord Liar or Lunatic” Argument « Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] ministries attempts to rescue CS Lewis’s most famous argument for the deity of Christ from its inherent flaws. He starts with a discussion of ways in which this argument has admittedly been abused by […]

  4. The D’Souza Shuffle « Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] he would have won if “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” were a valid apologetic. We’ve already seen (and more than once in fact) that the so-called “trilemma” is a fallacious argument. […]

  5. Marian Says:

    “Applying the logic of C. S. Lewis to the above statement of Jesus, we can see that one of three things must be true: either he’s a liar, or he’s a lunatic, or he’s a leafy green fruit plant.”

    Are you saying that Jesus’ claim to be God was a metaphor? You are right in questioning that Jesus claimed to be God. He never came right out and said it (as far as the gospels record, at any rate). He did leave some very broad hints from which we have inferred that he claimed to be God. So are those hints intended to be metaphorical? The claim to be a vine clearly is. The claim to be God isn’t so clear.

    “Lewis makes so many assumptions in such a short space. For example, he assumes that Jesus was a morally perfect man (and thus inconsistent with the “liar” and “lunatic” alternatives).”

    The assumption is not necessary to the argument. The argument leaves the option open that Jesus WAS a liar or a lunatic. It’s only if you rule out those options a priori that the argument proves Jesus was God. But I contend that those ARE the only options. If he was “mistaken” about his identity, then he was a lunatic. Someone who sincerely believes he is something he is not is , by definition, a lunatic (mentally ill in today’s parlance).

    • Gerald Fnord Says:

      >He did leave some very broad hints from which we have
      >inferred that he claimed to be God
      >Someone who sincerely believes he is something he is not
      >is , by definition, a lunatic (mentally ill in today’s parlance).

      Is Alice who sincerely believes that Bob were someone he isn’t a lunatic? No, she might be but mistaken. To assume that Bob, similarly mistaken, were necessarily a lunatic were assuming too much—we are told ‘Know thyself.’ precisely because we are so often ignorant or wrong. Now, believing oneself to be God when not were certainly of a different order of mistake to believing that one’s comb-over hifes one’s baldness (which never is true), but given that Jesus appears to feel un-Godly emotions, in particular trepidation and reluctance, and also appears to be liable to temptation (else his resistance to it were meaningless—though I know some Chistians would dispute the point), it would appear that the man Jesus might be able to sanely believe that he were God imposing a peculiar (in the original sense) set of restrictions on Himself as part of the plan of salvation.

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