On the Trilemma: Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?
[Modern Abuses of the Argument] [The Logic Behind the Trilemma] [Jesus the Liar?] [Jesus the Honestly Mistaken?] [Jesus the Lunatic?]

The so-called "trilemma" question has been abused by all sides of the discussion. On the one hand, it is often presented without any consideration of the titles and claims of Jesus, merely assuming that a mere claim "Jesus said..." is enough. But it isn't: We have to give good reason to suppose that Jesus DID say what He did; otherwise, the argument goes nowhere. Craig [Crai.ApIn] rightly points out:

It is naive and outdated to simply trot out the dilemma "liar, lunatic or Lord" and adduce several proof texts where Jesus claims to be the Son of God...(I)f this apologetic is to work we must do the requisite spadework of sorting out those claims of Jesus that can be established as authentic, and then draw out their implications. This will involve not only mastering Greek but also the methods of modern criticism and the criteria of authenticity...
(The argument) is often more effective when used defensively than offensively...used offensively to convince someone that Jesus was divine, this apologetic can become derouted...Many people will say Jesus was a man from outer space...I think that it is more effective to argue that Jesus' claims provide the religio-historical context in which the resurrection becomes significant, as it confirms those claims...

On the other hand, attempts to refute it have tried to confuse the argument by adding one or more options, or by saying that the options already stated are not clear enough.

On the one hand, this seems a bit of a vain exericse. To argue that the trilemma is refuted by showing the horns not to be clear-cut and distinct possibilities is correct only if one can prove all of the horns to be such. But, for example, if only two of the horns are "fuzzy" but the third one "tight", then the trilemma has simply converted to a powerful dilemma and the problem is still the same.

At the same time, arguing that the trilemma is refuted by showing that there are more than three possibilities simply turns it from a bothersome trilemma into a bothersome tetralemma. Skeptics who continually say that the trilemma is "refuted" whenever another option is added miss the point. Only the "tri" part is refuted - the "lemma" is still there, whether is a tri-, a quadra-, a quinto-, or whatever number you please.

Of course, attempting to lump options onto the 'lemma is a valid course of argument, but we will see that the attempts put forward are fairly thin. We should also note that the trilemma is built on certain assumptions, such as that Jesus existed. Putting forward a "legend" option (saying Jesus did not exist) is a matter external to the critical function and purpose of the trilemma argument itself.

Let us forget, for a moment, the very word "trilemma" and make this consideration: Even without the formal structure of the trilemma argument, the possibilities break down thusly:

  1. Either Jesus claimed to be divine, or He did not. If He did not, words were put in his mouth by someone else. We have already addressed this in this essay. If He did make such claims, then:
  2. Either Jesus was right about those claims, or He was wrong. If He was right, Christianity is true. If He was wrong, then -
  3. He either knew He was wrong, or did not know He was wrong. The first phrase is the "liar" option of the trilemma. As for the second:
  4. If He did not know he was wrong, He lacked knowledge because of an error in judgment. Errors in judgment have only two sources: A properly working mind, or an improperly working mind. The latter is the "lunatic" option. The former is the "honestly mistaken" option, the most common skeptical attempt to add to the trilemma.

Therefore, the basic formal logical structure of the argument remains sound - and the trilemma must be reckoned with one way or the other. To that matter, we now turn.

Jesus, the Noble Liar?

The idea that Jesus simply lied about His identity is not new. Craig [ibid.] cites these examples:

Karl Barhdt theorized that Jesus belonged to a secret order of the Essenes and wanted to get Israel to abandon the idea of a political Messiah in favor of a purely spiritual one. To this end, He claimed to be the Messiah, arranged His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and planned to fake His death and resurrection. Luke the physician was on hand to administer drugs which would help Jesus survive the rigors of crucifixion.
Karl Venturini proposed a simpler version of Barhdt's theory. He posited that Jesus was a member of a "secret society" who wanted to shift attention from an anticipated political Messiah to the idea of a spiritual one. His plan backfired when He was crucified, but He was placed in a tomb alive. Fellow "secret society" members dressed in white scared off the guards at the tomb and rescued Jesus.

Others suggest Jesus may have felt that his teachings on behavior were so important as to validate falsely claiming special authority from (or at an extreme, as) God in order to persuade people to follow him. Jesus could have believed in all sincerity that following his teachings would lead people into the kingdom of God and/or eternal life, and said what he thought was necessary to get people to follow him. In doing so, to the extent that such a lie was against those teachings, he may have thought he was forfeiting his own eternal security.

But there are many problems with this explanation. If Jesus was so noble as it implies, why did He choose the ignoble method of trickery to get people to follow Him? Were not more noble methods available? If Jesus was so noble, but had no divine power, why did He claim to be able to heal people when He could not?

More importantly, where is there any historical precedent for such alleged actions as Jesus'? The true historical precedent for Jesus' actions - if we are to delineate any - is the Exodus and the miraculous signs at Sinai. God indicates that He displays His wonders so that His people would obey him, and realize that He truly was I AM. This, of course, is not lying to trick people into believing in a supernatural authority or to incite them to correct behavior; this is confirmation of true authority.

Similarly, in Jesus' case, miracles were used to prove His deity; then, and only then, could Jesus appeal to the people to follow His ways. This position fails to acknowledge that it would be much more difficult to get Jews to believe a human was God incarnate than it would be to get them to adopt morally superior principles - many of which, we should add, they would have agreed with anyway. Indeed, being that Jesus based his teachings on a true understanding of the OT, what need was there to go as far as trickery and blasphemy?

Finally, there is this question: Why would Jesus go to such great lengths for the sake of teachings that (other than His claims to divinity) were not that radical to first-century Jewish ears in the first place? There would be no point in dying for ethics that everyone already knew about and generally agreed with.

There are two other considerations to the "liar" supposition. First, if Jesus' main concern was to get as many people into the Kingdom of God as possible, then this would have been the worst way to do it. If Jesus had lied like this, then everyone who followed Him would worship Him, rather than the true God of Israel. That's a one-way ticket to damnation in Jewish eyes.

Second, If Jesus were only a man and claimed to be God, was He an atheist himself? Did He think that the God of the Old Testament - who said, for example, "I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols," (Is 42.8) and "I will not yield my glory to another," (Is. 48.11) - would not judge Him according to these standards?

Also, how is it that Jesus, if He was a liar, somehow passed on standards of truth to Paul ("...we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God." [2 Cor 4.2]; "For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you." [1 Thess. 2.3])?

To have lied about being God, Jesus would have had to have had no fear of God whatsoever. He must have had some assurance that YHWH wasn't going to incinerate Him for claiming to be divine and accepting the worship of others. To not fear God, Jesus would have had to have been an atheist - or else have had it "in" with the Father, which is precisely what Christianity claims of Him.

Let us make it clear: By Jewish understanding, to have accepted someone as the divine who was not would have been idolatry. To claim that you were divine when you were not would therefore have been unspeakably evil. As proof of this fact, we only need recall that the Jewish reaction to claims by the Roman Emperor to deity was quite extreme - so much so that the mighty Romans granted the Jews leave of the requirement to accept the Emperor as a god. Romer notes [John Romer, Testament, 132] that Jewish commentaries during the Roman occupation of Judea presented the theme that "there was but one Temple and one God, and that he was not the emperor of Rome, and that even to pretend for a moment that he was a deep sin."

If Jesus made false claims to be divine in this social context, He would have been perpetrating what was viewed as a "deep sin" - an unspeakable evil - upon others. By Jewish belief, He would have been risking His followers' damnation by having them violate the primary commandment against idolatry.

No Danger of Hell

Critics may say, "But the Jews were simply mistaken--no one is damned at all, and for Jesus be REALLY evil, he must have caused greater 'damage' than just theological error! ALL OF THEM were misled, so what difference could Jesus' claims have made anyway?"

Of course, evil cannot be correlated with mere error in belief or misplaced hope, unless it can be demonstrated that belief/hope structures were somehow very consequential in themselves, which is indeed the Christian position. Obviously, Jesus' deception would only 'misguided' if ALL of them were wrong (and it would be malicious in the extreme); if belief does affect eternity (a central tenet of Jesus) and if He is correct, THEN it would have been unspeakably evil for Jesus to act and speak as He did.

In summary, the whole idea of Jesus as a noble liar is intuitively fishy, highly speculative, and runs against the grain of every social and historical aspect of the situation as we know it. That is why the propositions of Barhdt and Venturini have been wafted away on the winds of history and are now only available in old textbooks or as citations in apologetics manuals: They are purely speculative and totally counter-evidentiary.

Indeed, who in history has gone to their death for the sake of something like this that they knew was a lie? Many have died for principles they believed were true and righteous - Socrates, for example, and the noble souls who hid Jews in their cellars to protect them from the Nazis - but where has there ever been someone so "noble" that they perpetrated the most outrageous possible lie, something they KNEW was a lie, and died for it, even a lie that was beneficial?

"Whoops! I Thought I Was God..." - Jesus, the Honestly Mistaken?

And now there is this slight variation, one almost, but not quite, good enough to turn the trilemma into a quadrilemma: Was Jesus simply honestly mistaken about being who He was? And was it not really that crazy to claim to be a Savior or to be divine or to be Messiah? After all, weren't there a lot of Messianic pretenders in that time period?

As for the latter, I have seen no indication that ANY Messianic pretender of the time made the same type of claims. Outside of Judaism, we do have the word "savior" used in Greco-Roman terms; indeed, there were "levels" of demi-gods and saviors in the polytheistic cultures. But this level of imprecision was not operative in 1st-century Jewry. Their problem was quite the opposite: Their rather precise monotheism was not to be compromised with "ambiguous" incarnations at all.

Is it possible that Jesus was a "mistaken messiah"? Hardly. If one takes oneself to be messiah, and/or divine, then eventually one must ACT like a messiah - righting wrongs, coming to the rescue, healing disease, raising the dead, trampling the military opposition, kicking Romans into oblivion, and so on. If one fails in said attempts, then eventually the rug is pulled out from underneath, and we must either face facts and find a job sorting laundry, or else drive ourselves to a frenzy trying to make ourselves be the messiah we want to be.

I simply see no way for this option to hold water - if Jesus went about doing the things that He did, He would have been VERY lucky to get as far as the Crucifixion; and then we have the Resurrection appearances and the work of the Apostles to explain.

Bottom line: The character and nature of the claims of Jesus are such that proof of being mistaken would all too easily come to pass.

Please note: It is not enough to vaguely appeal to ancient claims of "saviorhood" or "ruling the world" without dealing in specific claims by specific persons. In order to make these claims even remotely problematic, the critic must show that they were on the order of those of Jesus - and I have seen no indication that ANY Messianic pretender of the time made the same type of claims. Some Greco-Roman figures called themselves "saviors" in a general sense (as one might call a foreman who rescued us from a burning building a "savior") but this is not on the same leve; as the claims of Jesus.

Likewise, it is no argument to appeal to other historical figures who have claimed to be a manifestation of God such as the Bab, Meher Baba and Sai Baba. Such figures maake their claims within an entirely different view of reality (pantheism, or in the case of the Bab, a less stringent definition of "manifestation") -- not within the parameters of exclusivistic Jewish monotheism.

New York City!

One Skeptic has made an argument as follows about the Trilemma:

Joe claims that Sally was born in New York City. He makes this claim based upon what he considers to be justifiable evidence. Sally told him that she was born in New York City. Further, Sally has fond memories of growing up there and when asked, her mother supports Sally's claim. Sally even passes a lie-detector test when asked whether or not she was born in New York City. Joe is also convinced that Sally is a sane person and not prone to telling lies. Therefore, Joe's third-person claim to knowledge demonstrates that Sally is (1) telling the truth, (2) not purposefully lying, and it is clear that (3) he does not misunderstand Sally's assertion.

Unfortunately, Sally was born in London rather than New York City. Sally was given up for adoption at birth and her legal mother does not want her to learn of her true origins. This counterexample demonstrates that at least one situation exists where all of the premises are true and yet the conclusion is false. I am sure that the clever reader can think of several others.

Unfortunately, there is a basic category mistake here. The fact of being "born in New York City" is not quite the same as "being God the Son" or "being God incarnate". To demonstrate this, let us substitute words to see what the argument above requires:

Peter claims that Jesus was God incarnate. He makes this claim based upon what he considers to be justifiable evidence. Jesus told him that He was God incarnate. Further, Jesus has fond memories of being God and when asked, His mother supports Jesus's claim. Jesus even passes a lie-detector test when asked whether or not He is God. Peter is also convinced that Jesus is a sane person and not prone to telling lies. Therefore, Peter's third-person claim to knowledge demonstrates that Jesus is (1) telling the truth, (2) not purposefully lying, and it is clear that (3) he does not misunderstand Jesus's assertion. Unfortunately, Jesus was actually Zeus incarnate rather than God incarnate. Jesus was actually descended from Zeus and His mother does not want Him to learn of His true origins.<

Thus the analogy does not hold, and the problem remains: How could one be mistaken about being God incarnate? The character and nature of the claims of Jesus are such that proof of being mistaken would all too easily come to pass -- unlike the location of one's birth. Moreover, someone making such claims would certainly be asked for clarification (indeed, robustly challenged) -- - as, indeed, Jesus was often questioned by the religious authorities regarding His claims about Himself.

Jesus, the Candidate for Psychiatric Medication?

The "lunatic" option is not quite as fishy as that of the "noble liar." As Moreland points out, it is "open to say, as Albert Schweitzer did, that Jesus was mentally deranged and had a mistaken view of himself," although such a claim would be difficult to prove, for Jesus "consistently behaves under pressure as one in complete possession of his faculties" [More.ScCy, 155].

The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels does not square with the lunacy theory, except by argument from silence. We may speculate, as Nikos Kazantzakis did, that Jesus was subject to periodic episodes of dysfunction that simply were not recorded in the Gospels. But as will be shown, if Jesus was mentally deranged, then He was surely the most peculiar and unusual case of lunacy in general - and the "Messiah complex" in particular - in history.

Some may note, in support of this idea, that the Gospel of John records that some thought that Jesus was mad:

At these words the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, "He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?" But others said, "These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?"

How interesting that these verses (John 10:19-21) present a microcosm of the pro and con sides of the lunatic option! Now of course, none of the people present were licensed psychologists or psychiatrists, so when they said that Jesus was "raving mad," it was undoubtedly an emotive expression of their outrage at what Jesus said and how much it offended their sensibilities - not an actual psychological evaluation.

Indeed, what mental health professional would today suggest demon-possession? Are we to accept that evaluation as competent also? And what of the contrary opinion that Jesus was not mad? So, this passage is hardly useful as evidence of Jesus being insane.

More broadly, it may be objected that even "crazy" people gain followers today - what about Manson, Jones, and Koresh? Their own followers would portray them in a positive light, so why could not the disciples of Jesus have merely presented the "best side" of their Master and covered up His problems? Could not someone with this sort of disorder appear perfectly "normal" at times?

This argument fails for two major reasons.

First, Manson, et al. did not achieve the sort of following that Jesus did and as quickly as He did. They had only a few hundred followers, at most; Christianity gained thousands in just a few months. Christianity did not grow up in a vacuum, or among people who had never seen or heard Jesus in person; it began in Jerusalem and flourished in Judea, places where Jesus spent a great deal of time and was known by many people. Christianity's rapid spread, and the full-blown Christology we have mentioned elsewhere, is testimony to this.

Second, this argument relies on a lack of knowledge of the nature of the psychological disorder in question. This is not a case of with rather simple beliefs in their alleged talents, attractiveness or inspiration; despite claims to the contrary, the data indicates that a normal, healthy human psyche cannot sincerely hold the sincere conviction of its own Godhood.

In response to these claims, this author interviewed a psychiatric doctor who has had a broad range of experience dealing with a variety of serious delusions, including the "Messiah complex" (the term is not used often now), or the belief that one is God, Jesus, or even Buddha or Mohammed. The psychiatrist was not told about the nature of this project, and is not known to be a Christian; the Messiah complex was discussed generically. The psychiatrist made several points which serve as rebuttals to the argument above.

Further information and confirmation was gathered from one of the few case studies of the "Messiah complex" ever published, Milton Rokeach's book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. [Roke.3ChrY] Rokeach brought together three sufferers of this complex and had them interact with one another, to see what might happen if three "Christs" came together, and if logic would compel them to realize that they all could not be right. One comes to realize in reading this material that if Jesus truly had suffered this sort of delusion, He was indeed a most unusual case - unlike none other ever recorded.

Let's look at some of the aspects of this rare and peculiar disorder.

First, while many delusions, such as believing that the government is after you, do not keep their sufferers from leading an otherwise normal life, the delusion that one is divine represents another level of pathology entirely. The Messiah complex is consistent, does not lend itself to periods of lucidity, and does not (according to both the psychiatrist and the information in Rokeach) develop slowly over time. It is accompanied by other serious behavioral problems, none of which we have evidence Jesus exhibited.

Rokeach's three "Christs" illustrate this fact amply. Each had some problems before the Messiah complex set in, but none were as severe as the Messiah complex itself - they were no more than everyday problems, such as difficulty dealing with loved ones. Rokeach's attempt to get through to the Christs met with only marginal success, and in only one case, temporarily. They evidenced many other severe behavioral problems, and the citations below serve as exemplars. The three Christs were named Leon, Clyde, and Joseph.

Leon (5) identified himself with a Latin title that translated to "Lord of Lords, and King of Kings, Simple Christian Boy Psychiatrist." Among Leon's wise sayings were comments of an explicitly sexual nature which are too vulgar to reprint here.

A wise saying from Clyde (9): "Why, there's money coming from heaven and from the old country and from the sea of heaven. The carloads, trainloads, and boatloads...7700 cars a mile and that runs from upper Stock Lake...God marked eight of our trails himself."

Another morsel of wisdom from Leon (49): "Why see the mite in another man's eye when there is a bean in your own?"

The Christs were asked about the identities of their two companions. >From Joseph (50-1): "I'm the only God. Clyde and Rex (Leon) are patients in a mental hospital and their being patients proves that they are insane." From Leon (51): Joseph is a fallen angel and a reincarnation of Davy Jones; Clyde is a reincarnation of King Mathias. From Clyde (51): "The other two are just machines talking from inside human bodies."

Clyde (51) insisted that he was not a patient in the hospital, but the owner of the hospital and adjoining lands, and he was just there to check things out.

Wisdom from Leon, who was the most "Christlike" of the triad (55): "I believe in truthful bullsh*t. There are two types of bullsh*t. The genuine is truth and truth can be compared to dung. It looks like dung, smells like it, and acts like it. When you put it on top of soil, it makes it grow." To Clyde he later says (57): "My father was a white dove and so was my mother, and later she became a witch. But your foster father was a sandpiper."

Rokeach notes elsewhere incidences of physical violence. The above comments are typical of those found throughout the study.

Second point: a patient of a divinity complex is not likely to fool many people, and not for very long. That is, of course, assuming that they are not locked up in a mental ward somewhere and are only fooling their fellow patients! (Perhaps some would like to say that the Apostles were crazy, also?) The teachings of someone with a divinity complex may include sound morality, but that morality is obviously parroted from other sources, showing almost no creativity. The remainder of the subjects' teachings include esoteric, obscure, or even nonsensical ideas, such as Manson's hateful racist rhetoric. (One particular proclaimed "Jesus" in a mental institution quoted from the Gospels, but also preached on the virtue of murder!)

Manson, Jones and Koresh fooled only a few people; Jesus had thousands of followers, who would have been familiar with Him, within a few weeks after His death and resurrection. This would not have been likely to happen if He had had any peculiarities in His teaching or behavior, as the divinity complex requires - especially among pious Jews.

Think, again, of our Ypsilanti Christs. Can we imagine the reaction if Jesus suddenly started making sexual allusions or started referring to "truthful bullsh*t" and different types of dung in the Sermon on the Mount or on the steps of the Temple? Wouldn't incidences like that be wondrous grist for the Pharisaic mill? How long would it be before Jesus' followers disappeared and He was sitting on a hillside preaching to ladybugs and blades of grass?

Third, subjects of the Messiah complex generally demand attention and are very egotistical. While they may also exhibit generosity and kindness, subjects of a divinity delusion will try to make themselves the center of attention and display extreme selfishness and self-promotion. Jesus does not exhibit this type of behavior in the Gospels, but as we see from the above, the Ypsilanti Christs did.

Consider, then, these questions in light of the above:

In short, while we may argue that Jesus was deranged, it can not be in any way proven from the evidence that we have in the Gospels - and as the above shows, if He was deranged, then He was certainly the most unusual case of the Messiah complex ever recorded!


The trilemma, once the information is set before us, is well-nigh irrefutable. One can paste options to it, of course, and make it a "higher"-lemma; and one can also speculate. But I have yet to see a new option that is viable - the "honestly mistaken" routine has yet to satsify.

For answers to further, more arcane objections, see here.


  1. Crai.ApIn - Craig, William Lane. Apologetics: An Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
  2. More.ScCy - Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.
  3. Roke.3ChrY - Rokeach, Milton. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.