CS Lewis coined the memorable phrase ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ in his advocacy of the orthodox Christian dogma that Jesus of Nazareth was God, and his rejection of the view held by some less doctrinaire Christians that he may have been a man with some admirable teachings.
The argument appears compelling: Jesus said he was God, so either he was a liar, in which case we should reject everything he said, or he was deluded (a lunatic, in Lewis’s colourful, alliterative prose), in which case we should also reject his teachings, or he was actually God, in which case we should worship him. This analysis deliberately leaves no room for the ‘Jesus as sage’ interpretation. On the face of it, it implies that moderate Christians, who take a mostly metaphorical interpretation of Christian teaching, lack intellectual integrity, that they are guilty of wishful thinking at the expense of cold, hard rationalism – which is what Lewis thinks he practises.
Persuasive though this argument may sound, it is wrong. If Lewis had offered only two choices, we would call it a a false dichotomy. As he has offered three, let us call it a false trichotomy instead. The whole argument rests on the unstated assumption that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only choices available. But we can never be sure that the alternative explanations offered for any observation are exhaustive unless one of them is labelled something like ‘none of the above’, or can be proven equivalent to ‘none of the above’. Lewis never proved that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only possible explanations, and we can easily see they are not by considering two other possibilities.
Lack – Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth is fictional
The evidence that there was a single person called Jesus who lived in Nazareth around 0-30 CE and spent his last few years travelling around Palestine preaching and conducting healing ceremonies is fairly strong, but not overwhelming. There is little or no eye-witness mention of such a person from Roman historians, who chronicle many other less important events of that time and region.
The literature debating the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth existed is enormous, and there’s no need or space to review it here. But the very existence of significant debate on this topic amongst ancient historians, even if the ‘Jesus really did exist’ case is predominant, indicates that we cannot definitively exclude the possibility that there was no single Jesus of Nazareth that said all these things, in which case a lack of a Jesus character, implying that the New Testament stories are myths, needs to be added to the Lord, Liar and Lunatic options.
Libelled – Perhaps Jesus didn’t claim what they claim he did
Much more likely though, and not mentioned at all by Lewis, is that there was a single holy man called Jesus of Nazareth, who lived around that time, but he never claimed to be God.
It is undeniable that the Gospels contain some reporting errors, as the reports of the sequence of events on Easter Sunday contradict one another. So why shouldn’t the parts where Jesus implies that he is God be reporting errors? This could very easily happen, as there are very few passages that support such a claim, and most of what there is is vague and indirect. It is entirely plausible that the biblical reports of those implied claims were not based on eyewitness reports but on wishful thinking inserted later by a devoted disciple. After all, we know that the earliest written gospel – Mark – was written more than thirty years after the assumed date of Jesus’ death.
Further, Jesus is not reported in the Gospels as ever having directly claimed to be God. There are passages such as John 8:58 that are interpreted as implying such a claim, and others where he accepted worship (Matthew 2:2, 14:33, and 28:9; John 9:35-38). In some passages Jesus describes himself as the “Son of God”, but it requires some heavy-duty interpretation to accept these as claims of divinity. After all, the Bible also tells us that we are all sons of God, but most non-pantheists don’t interpret that to mean we are all God.
Now maybe these interpretations are correct and maybe they are not. Maybe they are all historically accurate and maybe they are not. But it is undeniable that there is a great deal of presumption required in order to conclude that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. It is at least equally likely (and seems much more likely to me) that he was Libelled by the gospel writers.
After all, I could place an article on Wikipedia entitled “Obama Divinity Claim” and say in it that President Obama has claimed to be God, and that hence he must be either Lord, Liar or a Lunatic. Since he clearly isn’t a Lunatic and hasn’t shown evidence of being an egregious Liar (and that would be a most egregious lie), according to Lewis we must then conclude that He – President Obama – is indeed our Lord and God.
Of course that would be nonsense. The correct interpretation would simply be that I had libelled the president, by claiming he said something that He (sorry, ‘he’) didn’t.
Why does this matter?
The purpose of this essay is not to undermine anybody’s belief that Jesus was God. Right now I have no interest in disputing the divinity of Jesus, Krishna, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithra or any other purported incarnation of a deity. If someone wants to believe in any of those things, I am entirely supportive of their decision to do so, as long as they don’t use it as a basis for vilifying or otherwise tormenting others who don’t believe the same thing, or who don’t conform to a set of rules about victimless crimes, purportedly made up by the said deity.
What I wish to do here is to champion the intellectual honesty and integrity of moderate Christians such as John Shelby Spong, Richard Holloway or John Dominic Crossan, who regard the Gospels as a source of some wisdom, but deny that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. I have a particular fondness for people of moderate religious belief, who accept the claims of their chosen religion that they find plausible, and reject the rest. By doing this they can avoid having to ‘disengage their brain’ in order to accept all the beliefs they find implausible. Although I believe no religion, and doubt there are any gods, I am convinced that religion will always be with us, as it is an easy way to address a number of deep psychological needs. Since some people must be religious, surely it will be more conducive to the peace and harmony of humanity as a whole, if those that are religious are mostly of the doubtful, open-minded Spong, Holloway or Crossan variety rather than the devout and utterly convinced bin Laden, Ahmedinajad, Westboro Baptist, George W Bush or Pat Robertson variety?
To these liberal Christian theologians, we can also add many Muslims and Jews as people who reject the Lord, Liar or Lunatic hypothesis, choosing instead to regard Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet or holy man, whose sayings are worthy of contemplation, but denying his divinity. I have as low an opinion of Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists as I do of Christian ones, but many members of those religions are not fundamentalist, do not regard their scriptures as inerrant, and are comfortable accepting some of the sayings attributable to Jesus as another source of wisdom upon which they can draw.
Lewis’s false trichotomy would paint Spong, Holloway, Crossan, and anybody else that likes some of what Jesus is alleged to have said but is not convinced that he was God, as wishy-washy and self-delusional, holding contradictory beliefs for irrational, emotional reasons. I want to suggest the contrary. A moderate, partly metaphorical, ‘cafeteria’ approach to Christianity, or any other dogmatic religion, is the only one that is logically defensible, as the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, like any other long religious texts, contain many internal contradictions, as well as claims that are contradicted by science. What matters is not so much which bits they choose (although I’d rather they rejected the homophobic, misogynist, pro-slavery, pro-genocide bits and the threats of eternal hellfire) as that they accept that it is reasonable for somebody else to accept different bits, bits of a completely different religious text, or none at all.