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At the Georgia Philosophical Society meeting this past Saturday, Dr. James Sennett presented a paper evaluating C.S. Lewis’ famous “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” argument. Very briefly, Lewis’ argument is directed at admirers of Jesus who would have us believe that even though Jesus was not a divine being, nonetheless he was a good moral teacher. In Mere Christianity, Lewis says that this is “the one thing we must not say” because, given the things that Jesus says about himself (e.g., to the effect that he is the Lord), Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic of the highest order, or else precisely who he says he is. If we reject Jesus’ claims to divinity as untrue, then there is no room to claim that he was a good moral teacher; for a person who falsely claims to be God is either liar or a lunatic on the order of someone who claims to be a poached egg.

Sennett argued that Lewis is appealing to a false trilemma; lord, liar, and lunatic-of-the-highest-order do not exhaust the possibilities. We can reject Jesus’ claims to divinity as the untrue, though sincere, delusions, not of a raving lunatic, but of someone suffering from a much milder form of delusional disorder. Sennett calls this fourth option “lunatic-lite.” The point is that if Jesus was merely suffering from delusion disorder of the grandiose type that would not necessarily impugn his moral wisdom or his moral character.

Undoubtedly Sennett is correct that the “lord, liar, or lunatic” trilemma is a false one. Others (e.g. Bart Ehrman) have suggested the possibility that the notion that the historical Jesus claimed to be God is merely the invention of early Christians (and thus we must add the option legend to the list). But I think that there is a serious flaw with the argument that has nothing to do with its logical form.  This has to do with what it means to say of Jesus that he was a good moral teacher.

When we say of someone that he is a good moral teacher are we expressing admiration for the person or for his teachings? If “Jesus was a good moral teacher” is meant to convey admiration for the content of what he taught, any concern with the man (or God) is completely irrelevant. There is no inconsistency in admiring Jesus for what he taught while simultaneously rejecting his claims to divinity. If Lewis believed that we cannot do this because, in rejecting Jesus’ claims to divinity we are committing ourselves to believing that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic, then Lewis is guilty of an ad hominem fallacy.

From this perspective, Lewis’ argument looks something like this:

(1)    If you believe that Jesus was not divine, then you believe that he was either a liar or a lunatic.

(2)    The moral teachings of a liar or lunatic are not admirable.


(3)    If you believe that  Jesus was not divine, you cannot reasonably believe that his teaching were admirable.

Premise (2) is clearly false and based on the fallacy that the truth of what a person says has something to do with the character of the person. But this is obviously not true; the truth of any claim is completely independent of the person who makes the claim. The content of most statements is something totally independent from the particular utterance of the statement (the exceptions involve certain peformative utterances that are successful only because of the person who utters them, as when a priest says “I now pronounce you husband and husband”).  Thus the moral teachings of Jesus can be completely divorced from the person and admired in their own right.


Jason Thibodeau

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