Legend, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?
by Ryan Leasure
It’s virtually undeniable that Jesus was a great moral teacher. But what about his divinity? That’s a different story. It’s common, therefore, to suggest that Jesus was a good moral teacher but that he wasn’t divine. But is this a valid claim? This is an argument that goes back hundreds of years, and it was common during C.S. Lewis’ day. Lewis thought this type of reasoning was illogical, which consequently led to his famous trilemma:
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.1
NOT MERELY A MORAL TEACHER
Lewis argued that since Jesus made radical divine claims about himself, we’d be wrong to classify him as merely a moral teacher. After all, if someone claimed to be God and wasn’t telling the truth or was delusional, we wouldn’t classify them as good. We’d have a negative view of that person, not a positive one. For this reason, Lewis argued that Jesus was one of three options: liar, lunatic, or Lord — good moral teacher not an option.
Lewis’ trilemma is a popular argument among Christians, though skeptics have pointed out, and I think rightly, that Lewis left off at least one possible category — legend. In other words, for Lewis’ argument to be sound, he should have stated that Jesus was either a legend, liar, lunatic, or Lord. Does adding this category mean we’ll get to a different conclusion from Lewis? We’ll need to take a look at the different possibilities in turn to form our conclusion…