The Trilemma Defence: Jesus the Liar?

Before we can begin to examine the divine claims of Christ themselves we need to first ask ourselves who Jesus really was? Was He a liar, a lunatic, or Lord? In this article, we’ll look at the first of those possibilities. Did Jesus lie about His divinity?

In our look into the divine claims of Jesus thus far, we have established two important facts. The first of those facts is that Jesus’ divine claims drew directly from what YHWH called Himself in the Old Testament. Jesus wasn’t looking to establish a new religion nor did He claim to be a new god. Jesus claimed to be the Son of the God of Israel, YHWH, the Word made flesh. This is an important point to keep in mind as we survey this popular objection.

The second fact we have established is that the claims themselves were not words put into Jesus’ mouth at a later date. The claims themselves and the belief that Jesus was divine date back to as close as a couple of years following His death. Not even the best skeptics and opponents of the Christian movement dared deny that fact. With this established, we needn’t worry about the first possibility of the trilemma that skeptics posit, that Jesus never said what we believe He said. The remainder of the trilemma has two traditional problems and one additional problem, all of which are worth looking into. The trilemma defense can be summed up thusly,

  1. Either Jesus claimed to be divine or He did not. This we have already answered in link 1 below.
  2. Jesus was either right about those claims or He was wrong. If Jesus was right Christianity, of course, would be true. If He was wrong…..
  3.  Jesus either knew He was wrong or else did not know He was wrong. The first possibility is the “liar” problem in the trilemma.
  4. If Jesus did not know He was wrong He either lacked knowledge or was not mentally sane. If He did not know He was wrong we have three possibilities to look at: He could have been honestly mistaken, He could have been mentally ill, or He could actually be the Son of God.

The trilemma defense is one of the most important questions any seeker could possibly ask. Was Jesus a liar, lunatic, or Lord? If He existed and if what was recorded about Him was true, then we must have an answer to this. If we refuse we consequently label ourselves as willfully ignorant or else indifferent to the most important question to ever have been asked. Who was Jesus?

One could easily answer this question by noting the places in the Gospels where Jesus does call Himself divine. But noting that “Jesus (or the Bible) says this….” is not enough for a skeptical world, and rightfully so. Jesus did make these claims about Himself, that much is historically certain, but why? Moreover, what caused Him to make these claims in the first place?  If Jesus lied about these claims He either did so for a noble cause or else He hoped to deceive others for His own gain. Let’s look at the noble liar theory first.

Perhaps Jesus was a revolutionary thinker but, because everyone’s theology was so embedded in Judaism, He needed to use their belief in a Messiah to get them to listen to Him. Perhaps His teaching was so important and beneficial to the Jews that to garner the appropriate attention He claimed that He had been given divine authority by God to speak such things. I agree that Jesus did believe He had something important to say and accomplish and that if one were to follow Him they would find the Kingdom of God and eonian life. But to use such a massive lie to get people to listen? If Jesus was a noble and humble teacher who wanted nothing more than to aid the Jews, why resort to such abhorrent trickery and deception? His lie goes entirely against the theory’s portrait of Jesus. If He was a noble moral teacher, why make such extraordinary, deceptive, and unprovable claims?

This also begs the question of how Jesus persuaded His listeners to believe and follow Him at all. A claim to divinity would not have been enough to persuade anyone, even the most gullible, to commit one of the greatest sins in the Torah.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)

Jesus would have needed to provide proof and confirmation that He really was who He claimed to be. No one was going to risk damnation and shame for nothing. We can look to Moses as he delivered the ten commandments on Mount Sinai for an example. To prove to the Israelites that Moses had divine authority, God performed signs and wonders so that His people would obey.

And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. (Exodus 20:18-20 bold added)

Could Jesus have reenacted or else performed similar miraculous wonders to confirm His claims if He knew they were nothing more than a desperate lie? It would be far, far easier to be a simple moral teacher who taught on the Old Testament. Indeed, Jesus’ teaching would have been accepted and believed by the Jews since, as I mentioned in the previous article, His teachings were not contrary to the Old Testament at all. He based His teachings on a true understanding of the Old Testament; there would have been absolutely no reason to lie about being God incarnate since He wouldn’t have had trouble finding an audience. In fact, this lie would have been the worst way to get someone to listen to Him because if He couldn’t confirm His claims He would have been immediately shunned and rejected. Or, if by some incredible chance someone trusted His claims, Jesus would then have someone who worshipped and followed Him rather than the one true God of Israel, which, for the Jews, was an act of pure evil.

Let us mention another important hurdle the “lying moral teacher” theory must address. Jesus not only claimed to have the power to forgive sins (something that was reserved for God alone: Ps. 51:4 and Deut. 32:35), but He also forgave people for sinning against others. Imagine a man, who himself was without sin, forgive you for your sins without waiting to consult the offended party. Of course, if we step on one another we can also forgive one another, but we do so on our own terms and in our own time. Jesus, however, is the person who intrudes upon our time and forgives both parties as if He was the one chiefly hurt and offended in all offences. What moral teacher would behave in such a manner? C.S. Lewis notes that,

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell….let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (p.52 Mere Christianity)

Moreover, in his 1950 essay What Are We To Make of Jesus?, Lewis notes that,

“In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion, which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are not looking for a piece of toast to suit you you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects — Hatred — Terror — Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”

There is another problem we run into if we explain Jesus’ divine claims with this theory and this moves into the idea that Jesus lied for personal gain. Jesus would have possessed some kind of assurance that the God of the Old Testament who said, I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other nor my praise to carved idols, (Is. 42:8) would not judge or condemn Him for stealing His glory and accepting worship from others. Could Jesus have been an atheist, then? Maybe His claims were just Him having a good laugh at the religious folk? This might be true if Jesus didn’t have extensive knowledge of the Old Testament in order to identify Himself with titles that would have made clear to everyone listening that He was, in fact, the Son of YHWH. If He knew what was written in the Old Testament He also would have known that, unless He could back up those claims, He would have been the one who was laughed out of Jerusalem or, even worse, endured death on a cross.

The theory becomes even more unsubstantiated if we turn to the common motivators for creating a lie today: greed, lust, or power. Throughout the Gospel accounts, we see not a single shred of evidence that Jesus had an interest in even one of these motivations. Jesus and His disciples weren’t wealthy and they often repudiated monetary gain, going as far as to instruct His wealthier followers to give what they had, not to Him, but to the poor. There is also no evidence in the Gospels or in any historical account on Jesus that He ever had sexual relations with women or that He ever mistreated them. As for the motivation of power, Jesus instructed His disciples to serve with humility rather than be served. Jesus would wash the feet of His disciples whilst teaching them to do the same (Matt. 23:11). None of these motivators was present in Jesus’ words and actions. Instead, what He taught was entirely contrary to these common lusts.

The first problem of the trilemma has absolutely no evidential support from the Jewish social and historical background. It’s a highly speculative position that may appear to be somewhat convincing on the surface but falls apart quite easily as soon as it is met with scrutiny. If we could refute the theory with one simple question it’d be this: who would willingly suffer and die for something they knew was a lie?

Link 1: are the divine claims a product of legendary development?