Gospel Disproof #15: Liar, Lunatic, or Leafy Green Fruit Plant

[Originally published July 23, 2007]

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.


  1. davidct says

    We only have Lewis’ word that the 3 Ls are all inclusive. That is accepted as fact by believers who never think that there could be a forth L for legend.

  2. InfraredEyes says

    Plus, as a Jewish friend puts it, “You couldn’t swing a cat in 1st century Palestine without hitting a Messianic preacher”. Any moral teacher who lived in that environment was likely to think in terms of being the Messiah or the Son of God. Doesn’t mean to say that any of them were right, but doesn’t strictly make them “liars” either. in other words, Lewis doesn’t allow for the honest mistake.

  3. sailor1031 says

    You know I’ve looked but I’ve never found a place in scripture where Yeshue bar Yussef ever claimed to be a deity. He sometimes referred to himself as “the son of man” – a human chosen by doG to come to judge everybody before the implementation of the new millenium, but never as “son of doG”. Definitely not doG or son of doG. But then C S Lewis wasn’t really good with facts especially when they got in the way of his preconceived notions.

  4. frankb says

    One of Brian’s followers: “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.”

    Brian: “Ok, I am the Messiah.”

    Followers: “HE IS!!! He is the Messiah!”

  5. sunsangnim says

    How much evidence is there that the historical Jesus existed at all, with or without miracles? To be honest, I know very little on the topic.

  6. Phillip IV says

    In C.S. Lewis’ defense, his argument wasn’t really tailored towards atheists, but rather toward a certain brand of ‘rationalistic’ Christians, quote: “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.” In this context, he was entitled to some of the assumption he makes as they were actually shared with the people he was debating.

    It’s still logically unsound and overstretches the evidence for Jesus even having claimed to be godly, but ultimately it comes down to something like: “There can be no non-metaphysical, non-supernatural Christianity because there’s just no way to separate the man from the mumbo-jumbo.” A statement to which rationalists, approaching from the other direction, can probably readily agree.

    The statements second lease on life as a bit of self-reaffirming glurge for American fundamentalist Christians says a lot more about their intellectual honesty than about Lewis’.

  7. Kevin says

    Um…”great moral teacher”?


    The morals allegedly espoused by Jesus were cribbed from many other sources, including but not limited to Rabbi Hillel.

    What great moral teaching did Jesus “invent”? Nothing.

    And then there’s the silence on subjects of great importance today. Why no condemnation of slavery? Or child rape? Where’s the great moral teacher’s pronouncement on universal human rights? Universal suffrage? Freedom of speech? Freedom of conscience?


    A great moral teacher who ALSO was the son of a god should have some foreknowledge of important issues that will be facing the world. From the sayings attributed to Jesus, we get only what a First Century semi-literate, totally science-illiterate naif would proclaim.

    But, of course, I think the evidence does not support the contention that Jesus was a “real” person. At best, he’s a concatenation of several 1st C Messianic preachers. At worst, an entirely fictional character, like Hercules. Just without as many muscles.

  8. kraut says

    The action of “sacrifice” is a the biggest lie in christianity, a lie that the whole concept is based upon.
    Assuming that christ was a facet of a triune god, and premising that there was some logic behind this so called blood sacrifice (to atone for the sins of humanity created sinfully by its creator in the first place) he knew before he sacrificed himself that this was just a scam, that as a god he could not die, he could only die in his form made flesh but would live forever anyway.

    In the same way, any believing christian commits the same scam by sacrificing his live for another – he believes after all that he only sacrifices this vale of tears for an eternal live to sing hallelujah on cloud 9 for eternity (I wish that any christian really had a concept of eternal life – a frightening concept to me if there ever was one)

    A christian sacrifice of his life for another is as cheap as the sacrifice of his alleged god christ – a worthless enterprise with no consequences, a concept that leads in Islam to suicide bombing, whereas fundy christians still like to rather kill other non believers without damage to themselves – see the actions of killers of doctors supplying abortion services.

  9. SAWells says

    Simpler version of the trilemma problem:

    GANDALF – liar, lunatic or wizard?

    See, neither a liar nor a lunatic could have successfully defeated the Balrog of Moria or defended Minas Tirith against the hordes of Mordor, so Gandalf is clearly a real wizard.

    This neatly brings out the central issue: the Gospel Jesuses are fictional characters, like all gods.

  10. Crommunist says

    Here’s the thing that’s always bothered me about this argument. Why exactly do we automatically rule out either liar or lunatic? Because it’s not nice? Considering the fact that Judea was apparently knee deep in Messiahs at the time, why wouldn’t we consider mental illness or delusion as likely explanations for the words and actions of Jesus, if we even grant that those things were said by any one person? Someone thinking that he’s a god today would be considered lunacy – why does an ancient Nazarene get a free pass?

  11. danielrudolph says

    @ Crommunist: because this was never meant to be an apologetic argument. It was meant as an argument against naturalist Christianity. (That is, people who considered themselves followers of Jesus, but rejected the supernatural ala Thomas Jefferson.)

  12. Bruce Gorton says

    The funny thing is – Jesus as a possibly fictional character is anything but morally perfect.

    He was a theif (ordering his disciples to steal a donkey, and whose crops were his disciples harvesting on the sabbath exactly?), a hypocrite (When Judas calls him out on that foot massage with exotic oils, Judas is actually right), an ingrate (Rich man donates half his wealth, Jesus demands other half on pain of hell), incited riots (The temple) destroyed longstanding family businesses (who owned those swine anyway?), actively sought to maintain systems of abuse (Turn the other cheek), his preaching amounted to glorifying anti-productive poverty (Be as the lillies of the fields), held thinking about sinning to be the same as doing it (he who looks at a woman with lust in his heart) which gets worse when you consider he was the one who brought in the idea of eternal punishment and he utterly failed to address slavery except to tell slaves to obey their masters.

    Jesus was not a great moral teacher, or morally perfect. Reading between the lines in the story the people didn’t call for Barabas because of temple bribes, but because Barabas was generally a better person.

  13. Sajanas says

    I would have really loved to ask CS Lewis whether he thought Mohammad, Moses, Buddha, or any other founder of a religion was a Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Surely he could recognize that other historical or quasi-mythical people existed, and were given the same sort of pass by their followers from not being liars and lunatics.

    What is really sad is that he lived until the 1960s…. the sort of Biblical Archaeology, textual analysis, and science that really kicks the Bible’s claims to truth in the teeth were all coming along nicely by then, he clearly just couldn’t be bothered to be involved in it (and my apologies if he did, and I’m just not aware of it).

  14. CJO says

    Reading between the lines in the story the people didn’t call for Barabas because of temple bribes, but because Barabas was generally a better person.

    This is sort of silly. Not only does it assume any such event as the trial before Pilate and the polling of the crowd actually ever took place, which is dubious, it assumes that the masses of Jerusalem were in a position to make a judgment about the respective character of the two accused and that the mob’s choice was based on such a judgment. The episode is likely a fiction due to the author of Mark and copied by the other gospel writers. The idea is to stress that Jesus was not a Messiah on the political-military model, and to lay the destruction of Jerusalem at the feet of its residents, who preferred violent insurrection over “the Way” espoused by the character Jesus.

    Most of the episodes you adduce to show that Jesus was not especially moral are similarly symbolic. I tend to agree that the gospels, insofar as they espouse an ethical system, do not present one that is greatly advanced beyond the standards of the time. But grumbling that the figure of Jesus, who is at best a mouthpiece character based on some dimly remembered exorcist/teacher/healer figure, is not a paragon of virtue by modern standards seems a bit obvious.

  15. danielrudolph says

    Sajanas, I take it you haven’t read a whole lot of CS Lewis. He seemed to take the position that all religions were really worshiping Jesus and didn’t know it. This makes his mainstream popularity as a theologian odd because this is generally considered heresy, but I think he gets a pass for being a much better writer than most.

  16. G.Shelley says

    If I hadn’t seen the argument used for so many years, it would astound me that people take it seriously. As you point out, it requires that our translation of the bible gives a historically accurate version of what Jesus said and did, and that the theological interpretations of this are correct. And once you have accepted that, there really is no need for such a trilema argument.
    Even if he had said all that is attributed to him, without the supernatural events, the argument still requires the words to be true in order to rule out the “liar” portion (ie getting people to worship or behave in a different way is only morally wrong if there is a “correct way”)

  17. Brian MI says

    CJO: The point of his argument is to argue within the context of the Lewis story. Of course, the stories in themselves are undoubtedly myths.

  18. Bruce Gorton says


    If I say “Gandalf did X” it doesn’t mean I think The Lord of the Rings is true. It means I am speaking of the fictional character of Gandalf – much as in my argument I am speaking of the mostly and possibly entirely fictional character of Jesus.

    Within the story Jesus actually isn’t a good person, and the bad things he does are things the community would have noticed fairly readily (Such as damaging their livelihoods.)

  19. CJO says

    In the case of your comment about Barabbas, though, which is primarily what I responded to, it makes no sense unless you assume there is some historical reality independent of the gospel accounts. What reality is it that you think you can discern by “reading between the lines” of the story? That the authors of the gospels intended the reader to come to the conclusion that the crowd at Passover preferred the murderer Barabbas because he was “a generally better person”? All we’re told about him is that he’s in prison for murder in a revolt, and there never was any such person; there are no other qualities that can be attributed to him other than what we’re told in the story.

    In the Gandalf example, it’s like you’re saying “Gandalf wore red boxers”. I’m just pointing out that, since there was no such person and Tolkien doesn’t tell us anything about his underwear preferences, there is no evidence on the matter one way or the other and no reality independent of the story that might be revealed on a closer reading.

  20. Steve says

    You’re overlooking the fact that Jesus was a liar. He promised the 100% efficiency of prayers, his return during the lifetime of his listeners, and the imminent end of the world, like Harold Camping. Jesus was a liar.

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