Lunatic, Liar, Lord or Legend

By Joel Padgett

Connecting Faith and Life

As we are halfway through Lent, in the midst of preparing for the celebration of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, have you ever stopped to think about the fact that our entire Christian faith rests upon the reality of Christ’s Resurrection? St. Paul did. In fact, he writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. […] If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19).

If the sheer force of these words does not give you pause, I invite you to reread them.

Some 1900 years later, CS Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity,” gave a new take on St. Paul’s argument. Lewis formulated the argument as a trilemma, which is often referred to as the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument. It is well worth quoting in full:

“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.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to…. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

Since Lewis, this argument has been strengthened by ruling out a fourth option that is sometimes referred to as the “legend” option. Brant Pitre does an excellent job of this in his work “The Case for Jesus.” In brief, there are some people who say that Jesus never really claimed to be God and that the Bible isn’t historically true. However, after going through all of the biblical and historical evidence (which is too much to include in this short article), Pitre concludes that “if you are going to hold on to the theory that Jesus never claimed to be God, you had better be committed to eliminating a lot of historical evidence.” In other words, Jesus, a real person with proven historical existence, does in fact claim to be God. So we’re back to where we started: Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or he is in fact the Lord.

In a way, we find a similar situation in the Gospels when Jesus asks his apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). It is a question that any authentic Christian must answer with every fiber of his being and must strive to allow the consequences of that answer to mold his whole person. Let us not shy away from this question, but have the courage to face it head-on … and the humility to ask for the grace of faith. Let us take a serious look at the person of Christ as we find him in the Gospels; let us study what the Church teaches about him, and let us read what the saints have to say about him. The answer has the power to transform our entire existence.