I present here what I take to be a more nuanced reconstruction of C.S. Lewis’ famous “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?” argument.
1. Either Jesus claimed He was God or He didn’t. (Tautology)
2. If Jesus claimed to be God, He was either correct or incorrect. (Assume-no other possibilities exist)
3. If Jesus was correct in His claim, then He is God. (Definitionally true from His claim to be God)
4. If Jesus was incorrect in His claim, then He is either a liar or crazy. (Assume-no other possibilities exist)
5. Jesus was not a liar. (Reasonable support)
6. Jesus was not crazy. (Reasonable support)
7. If Jesus did not claim to be God, then His disciples claimed He was God (Assume-no other possibilities exist)
8. If His disciples claimed He was God, then they were correct or incorrect. (Assume-no other possibilities exist)
9. If His disciples were correct, then Jesus is God. (Assume-no other possibilities exist)
10. If His disciples were incorrect, then they were either liars or crazy. (Assume-no other possibilities exist)
11. His disciples were not liars. (Reasonable support)
12. His disciples were not crazy. (Reasonable support)
13. Jesus is not a liar and Jesus is not crazy (5,6, Conjunction)
14. It is not the case that Jesus was incorrect in His claim (4,13, MT)
15. If Jesus claimed to be God, He was correct (2,14)
16. His disciples were not crazy and His disciples were not liars (11,12, Conjunction)
17. His disciples were not incorrect (10, 16, MT)
18. If His disciples claimed He was God, then they were correct (8, 17)
19. If Jesus claimed to be God, then He is God (3, 15)
20. If His disciples claimed He was God, then Jesus is God (18, 9)
21. If Jesus did not claim to be God, then Jesus is God (20, 7)
22. Jesus is God or Jesus is God (1, 19, 21)
23. Jesus is God (22, Simplification)
The argument is valid. Is it sound? The premises which I think need defending are 5, 6, 11, and 12. Here are some brief (although not exhaustive or conclusive) defenses:
Defense of 5:
Jesus did not appear to be a liar. It is doubtful that he would choose to undergo crucifixion rather than go back on his claims if He was lying. He would have nothing to gain by continuing to lie at that point. So we can conclude that he was not lying.
Defense of 6:
Jesus did not appear to be crazy. The stories told about him present him as a rather smart, wise, engaging, thoughtful, and loving person. Apart from his claim to be divine, he does not appear to say or do anything else that would lead us to believe he was insane. I would think that if he were insane, this would manifest in other ways besides calling himself God. Certainly it seems that his followers and close friends would not have chosen to die believing what he had taught them if they had suspected that he was crazy. So we can conclude that he was not crazy.
Defense of 11:
It is doubtful that his followers were liars. They believed he was divine based on their belief in his resurrection, based on the miracles he had performed, and his teachings and example. Nearly all of them died for their beliefs, having given up all claim to worldly possessions and power. They had nothing to gain by lying about Jesus, and clearly, by their actions, they believed what Jesus had said to be true. So we can conclude that they were not liars.
Defense of 12:
It is doubtful that his followers were crazy. Even if some of them had been crazy, surely not all of them were crazy. Based on their writings and what we know about these men, they all (or most) appear to be sane. And those who saw them and talked to them were convinced by them to follow Jesus as well, even to the point of death. So we can conclude that they were not (all) crazy.
Jesus isn’t a liar or lunatic or Lord. He was simply mistaken. Daniel Howard-Snyder makes this objection. The gist of his argument is that Jesus was simply mistaken in his claim to be divine. We are to imagine that we know Jesus to be a wise and loving person that we have never known to do wrong. We can also imagine that he had very good reasons to believe he was divine (e.g., his parents told him he was God, he had people around him that supported his belief, etc.). Would we conclude that he was a liar? No. Would we conclude that he was crazy? Likely not. But we might still think that he is wrong in his claim to be divine. We might say that Jesus was a great moral teacher instead, that he may have made some false claims perhaps, but he wasn’t crazy or a liar. Just mistaken.
Against 5 and 11:
Some people in fact do go all the way for something they know to be a lie. Maybe they care more about reputation and fame, so much so that they’d rather die or face complete failure than admit that they had lied. Hence, one can’t simply say that since Jesus and his followers faced death for their claims that they must have been telling the truth.
If Jesus was not God, then by the fact that he believed he was God is grounds for his being crazy. Jesus could only be considered sane if in fact he was God (if you believe that falsely believing you’re God is grounds for calling someone insane). If that is the case, then it seems we can’t use his supposed sanity for establishing that he was God, for we must already believe him to be divine in order to avoid calling him insane. Establishing the fact that Jesus was not crazy is supposed to be used as a ground for demonstrating that he was who he said he was (God). But you can only establish the truth of that premise if in fact he was God. It’s a circular claim.
Howard-Snyder notes some responses in his article. One which seems compelling to me is that a person who was wise and good wouldn’t claim to be divine. That is, one cannot combine a mistaken claim to divinity with an unsurpassed wisdom and goodness. While not logically contradictory, this would present a very unusual and improbable circumstance, for it seems that a very wise and sane person would know that he or she was not divine if in fact he or she was not divine. To be fair, Howard-Snyder does offer some objections, but I still think there is something to this response. I have a hard time shaking the idea that someone could be both sane and mistakenly claim to be divine. In fact, mistakenly claiming to be divine seems like it could be taken to be a prime example of lunacy. So this objection doesn’t grab me, but maybe it works for you.
Response 5 and 11:
I have a hard time believing that Jesus and most of his immediate followers would choose to be crucified for something they all knew to be a lie. I know I wouldn’t, and I bet you wouldn’t either. In fact, people often lie to avoid punishment and torture. It is easier for me to believe that they are all crazy or deluded. I can understand how someone would choose to be crucified for something he or she believed incorrectly to be true. It just seems to me that the nature of the death each person faced is so extreme that I find it very doubtful that someone would continue to lie at that point.
This is a fair response, and indeed, the original argument relies on this intuitive pull. I suppose I am ok with this. If the argument forces you to conclude that Jesus was either a liar, lunatic, or Lord, and if you opt for lunatic, then half the battle has been won for the theist apologist. Now he just has to convince you that Jesus wasn’t crazy (and so must be Lord). Between the two options, lunatic or Lord, I sketched an argument that Jesus wasn’t crazy, since his craziness would likely manifest in other ways besides calling himself divine. And I think that on the basis of the testimony of others who would be able to judge his character and sanity, since they did not take him to be crazy (particularly in their attitudes after his supposed resurrection), we can also conclude that he wasn’t crazy, despite the fact that he claimed to be divine. But I admit that this is a weaker response.
The argument is valid and I have offered some short defenses of the controversial premises and against objections in an effort to show that the argument is sound. Even if you don’t agree with the argument, the original intent of the argument was to exclude the possibility that Jesus was merely a nice, wise, moral guy. The point is to force a confrontation with Jesus as either being a liar, lunatic, or Lord. Some say he is a liar. Some say he is crazy. Others call him Lord. “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
Note: for Howard-Snyder’s full article on this argument, click here: HOWWJM.pdf (194.5KB)