The Trilemma ‘Lord, liar or lunatic?’ argument

by Jay Medenwaldt

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.

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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…

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