The Trilemma Defence: Jesus the Lunatic?

In the final instalment of our look into the famous trilemma defence, we address the theory that Jesus was a lunatic not unlike others who identify themselves the same way today.

There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings. And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him? Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind? (John 10:19-21).

There is one answer to the origins of the divine claims of Jesus that we have not touched upon yet that, on the surface, may not appear as far-reaching as other theories we have examined. The question is: did the divine claims of Jesus Christ arise from lunacy? This theory rings with a slight plausibility because, unlike the liar theory, which requires a person willingly suffer and die for something they knew was a lie, we have witnessed mentally ill people who have made the same, or else similar claims, to those made by Jesus. Such an illness is known as “The Messiah Complex,” where people claim to be either Jesus Christ in the flesh or else God Himself. Could Jesus have been but another subject suffering from this mental illness? Perhaps His followers deliberately chose to hide His more concerning behaviour in order to exemplify His good side? Could they have possibly attempted to deceive the world into following their cult by twisting the truth?

Knowing that such actions and tricks of deception aren’t unheard of today lends the theory more weight than the liar, moral teacher, or mistaken messiah theories have altogether. Even so, outside of the divine claims themselves, Jesus’ case is a unique one that creates some rather high hurdles the lunatic theory has to climb over before we can consider it a serious possibility.

The first hurdle to climb is that Jesus accumulated thousands of followers within a couple of months. This is quite a far cry from the number of followers of Jim Jones, for example, who were tragically deceived over the years and led to mass suicide. Jesus’ ministry was not created in a vacuum nor was it spread to places where people wouldn’t know Him from a bar of soap. His ministry and following began in Jerusalem and spread throughout Judea. He taught in places where He spent a lot of time and was widely known, especially by His enemies. What is undoubtedly true is that Jesus was a hugely controversial figure. That Christianity grew at such a rapid pace and held a fully-formed Christology shortly following His crucifixion provides testimony to this.

A critic may argue that the reason Charles Manson or Jim Jones didn’t accumulate the number of followers Jesus did is that people in the enlightenment age are not as gullible as the people of ancient Israel. We believe in science, therefore, no God and fewer people to fool into superstition. The problem is that this is a question of identity, not the existence of God, so the argument is completely irrelevant. Furthermore, Jesus made His claims within the context of Jewish monotheism, which is far, far stricter than any sort of ideal founded by the enlightenment.

The second hurdle to climb is that people who have the Messiah Complex often end up saying nonsensical things to their hearers and/or contradicting themselves. One of the most interesting works I’m currently reading is a case study into the minds of three patients who suffer from the Messiah Complex. Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti follows the lives of three “Christs” named Leon, Clyde, and Joseph, who were put together in hopes that meeting other people who claimed the same identity would snap them out of their delusion. These people often exhibited contradictory and nonsensical behaviours, such as stating one thing one second and something entirely contrary the other, with no apparent knowledge that they had ever contradicted themselves. Indeed, one glance into the lives of these three will make it quite clear that, if Jesus was mentally ill, it was a one of a kind case.

A common thread among the christs was that their delusions started at the point where their lives were at their lowest. It wasn’t a slow process that developed over the years, rather, in these three cases, it was, in fact, surprisingly immediate. A sudden snap. They were also induced by certain behavioural problems (none of which we have evidence of Jesus ever displaying) that only grew more severe with time. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how these christs behaved and spoke.

  1. Joseph, at one point, claimed to have saved the Queen from being thrown off a bridge by two men (p. 94.)
  2. Leon would often say things of an explicitly sexual nature and would frequently relate the title and/or human nature of Jesus to things such as the male reproductive organs (p. 5). There are many more instances that are too vulgar to repeat here.
  3. Clyde would repeatedly deny the fact that he was a patient in a mental hospital altogether and instead claimed to be the owner of the entire hospital. (p. 12).
  4. When met with the reality that both Joseph and Clyde claimed to be Jesus Christ incarnate Leon would brush this away by calling them “instrumental gods” (p. 13). Other times they would merely shout or bicker at each other or even occasionally engage in physical violence.

It is one thing to be a tinfoil hat conspiracist, it is a whole other thing to claim to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and to engage in the undeniably absurd activities exhibited by Leon, Clyde, and Joseph. Are we to believe everyone overlooked such behaviour for virtually nothing in return? If Jesus suffered such an illness we would expect Him to have been left alone to chat with the lilies on the hillside, not garner a following so substantial and influential that it was written down in multiple texts and oral traditions and passed down through a history that was all but tolerant of its teaching.

There are a couple more hurdles the lunatic theory has to overcome before we can make certain its veracity. Suffers from the Messiah Complex, as examined in Rokeach’s three christs, frequently parrot phrases and articulation from those they were imitating with little to no creativity. Aside from that, any teaching made by the three christs was either nonsensical and unintelligible, obscure, or demonstrably false. With this in mind, who, exactly, was Jesus imitating, and how was He able to speak with such clarity and fluency? We may also ask how He was creative enough to tell parables that contained such extraordinary subtlety that if one pondered on them for a moment would catch its meaning and be thoroughly convicted or shamed. Can we imagine a man garnering such adoration and extreme vitriol if He were to suddenly speak about saving Ceasar from a burning building or wax poetic on how God relates to a male’s reproductive organs?

Finally, the Messiah Complex never hands its victims a dose of humility and meekness. On the contrary, victims of the illness (turning back to Rokeach’s three christs) tend to show signs of egotism, self-centeredness, and self-promotion. In an honour-shame culture, such grandiose claims to honour would not have been tolerated had they not been confirmed by a miraculous sign. Indeed, “Can a devil (or madman) open the eyes of the blind?”

If the Gospels paint an accurate portrait of Jesus Christ, the lunatic theory falls apart. The words and character of Jesus simply do not display any of the signs shown in case studies of the Messiah Complex today. The words of Christ contain rich, practical, and coherent human wisdom, He spoke the truth and never crafted fancy stories wherein He was self-promoted, He possessed creativity that was able to confound, He was able to show an abundance of love, compassion, and humility, and He astonished crowds of people that would have normally been hostile to Him. When met with taunts from His opponents He never once lost His balance or composure but instead responded in a way that spoke to their conscious and roared with conviction. He was fully human yet utterly perfect; able to understand and empathize with the human condition whilst rising above it. When He was arrested and sent to endure an agonizing and bloody death on the cross He was able to remain silent and composed in the face of enemies who mocked, laughed, and spit in His face. This, my friends, is not the actions or responses of a madman.

Is Jesus Christ a liar, a lunatic, or Lord? If His divine claims are not products of a legend, a lie, or a result of lunacy, then Christ must have been telling the truth. There can be no other alternative.