C.S. Lewis,  Jesus Christ,  Logic

Liar, Lunatic, Lord or What?

Over at the Gospel Coalition, there is some debate over an old argument about the claims of Jesus made by C.S Lewis. The argument presents a trilemma: Jesus Christ’s claims to be God are believable (or not) depending on whether Christ is Lord, a lunatic who doesn’t really know what he’s talking about or he is masterful con artist.

Apparently, William Lane Craig argues that there is another possibility: Christ’s non-existence. If Christ didn’t exist then no one really claimed anything. Justin Taylor claims that this makes the argument unsound. I disagree. Tell me what you think (any Lewis experts should chime in either here or over at Justin Taylor’s blog).

Here’s why I disagree: The argument is not about Christ’s existence but the believability of his claim to be God (Lord). It goes something like this:

  1. If Jesus is not who he says he is, then he is either deluded or a con man.
  2. Jesus is not deluded and he is not a con man. 
  3. Therefore, he is who he says he is: the Lord.

The argument essentially says “if anything in the universe is a J, then if J is not an L, then it is either a D or a C.” The truth conditions do not imply existence of any J nor the claims he made. Jesus does not have to have actually said anything at all. Consider the parallel argument:

  1. If Lucy did not see Aslan, then she is either deluded or lying. 
  2. Lucy is not deluded and she is not lying. 
  3. Therefore, Lucy saw Aslan.  

Now, in this case, we know that Lucy (of Narnia, not my daughter who is called Lucy and does exist) and Aslan do not exist, but that doesn’t alter the truth of the statement. Does it? There is a lot tied up in that if.

One might want to make a separate argument for the existence of the historical Jesus, but the trilemma holds because it is not making any claims about existence.

See Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, p. 454–461.  

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.


  • Dave

    The fourth possibility Craig gives is not "Jesus didn't exist." It's "the Jesus of the Bible is not the Jesus of history." Neither Craig nor Taylor argues that the trilemma leaves out the possibility of nonexistence; both are arguing that it leaves out the possibility of misreporting. I think you would respond that the two options (nonexistence and misreporting) are equivalent for your purposes, and I can grant that.

    But the problem is that, if you're arguing that "Jesus does not have to have actually said anything at all" for us to believe "his claim to be God (Lord)," then you're arguing for a vacuously true conclusion. Why should anyone care that Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is fictional to begin with?

    This is why I vigorously assent to the first half of your conclusion, "One might want to make a separate argument for the existence of the historical Jesus," while also agreeing with Taylor that "the argument is completely valid … but to be persuasive, you have to show that the premises are true."

  • Ben Holloway

    Dave, thanks for this comment. I agree with you. The argument does not rest on Christ's existence (and, as you say, would be entirely trivial if he didn't). The point is: it is not unsound (as Taylor claims). In order for the argument to be unsound at least one premises must be false. But, as you concede, none of them are. If one accepts that Jesus claimed to be God, then the argument has some persuasive force. I agree that if one denies his existence, the argument is still sound, but trivial. But that doesn't make any of the premises false, so you don't have to show that they are true.