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The Problem with Liar, Lunatic, or Lord


Do you think Jesus was a great moral teacher?

If you think this is the case would you mind blogging about it? Fundamentalist are using C.S Lewis approach in this matter. Apparently they are happier if people call Jesus a lunatic vs. a great moral teacher.

C.S. Lewis was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain.



In my last post I indicated what I think about Jesus as a great moral teacher: yes he was one, but completely and irretrievably in an apocalyptic context that we no longer share with him. In a future post I may deal with the question of whether it is possible to transplant ethical teachings of one context into a completely different one, without remainder.

In this post I want to take up the question about C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a great scholar of 17th century English and obviously a popular author of children’s books and Christian apologetics. He was certainly no fundamentalist himself, although fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals today continue to adore him and his work. I did too, for many years. I read virtually everything he wrote, in many cases (space trilogy; Narnia; Mere Christianity; Great Divorce, and others) multiple times. I was completely bewildered and puzzled when, at Princeton Theological Seminary, my philosophy professor dismissed Lewis as a complete amateur. But now I understand. When it comes to philosophy and theology, he really was an amateur. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t smart and extraordinarily clever. But he was not a master of every field he wrote in.

This post is not about his philosophical abilities in general, however, but about one of his most commonly adduced claims. Since Jesus called himself God, then he was either telling the truth or not. If he was not telling the truth, he either knew he was not telling it or not. And so there are only three choices. Jesus either was a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord. (A liar if he was not telling the truth and knew it; a lunatic if he was not telling the truth but thought he was; and the Lord if he was telling the truth.) Moreover, given Jesus’ great ethical teachings, it is completely unreasonable to think that he could have lied about the most important facet of his proclamation, his own identity; and given the tenor of his life as we have it recorded in our early Gospels, he was nothing like a lunatic, but was exceedingly clear and level-headed and thoroughly sane. The only logical and sensible conclusion then is that he was who he said he was. Jesus really was God. He must have been. There is no other choice.


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When I was a young evangelical this view seemed so logical to me, so clear, so certain.  There was no way around it!  It was only when I got an education that I realized why it was thoroughly problematic.

The problem is that in addition to not being a philosopher or theologian by training, Lewis also was not a biblical scholar.   And any biblical scholar on the planet who is not a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical will tell you that the problem with this “proof” is its major premise – namely, that (“since”) Jesus “called himself God.”

The problem is that the only Gospel of the New Testament where Jesus makes divine claims about himself is the Gospel of John.   In the three, earlier Gospels you do not find Jesus saying things like “I and the Father are One,” or “Before Abraham was, I am,” or “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”   These sayings are found only in the Fourth Gospel, as are all the other “I am” sayings, in which Jesus identifies himself as the one who has come from heaven to earth for the salvation of all who believe in him.

One needs to ask why Matthew, Mark, and Luke never portray Jesus as calling himself God, or equal with God, or one with God.   They certainly portray Jesus teaching a lot – for example, about God, and about the coming kingdom of God, and the apocalyptic crisis that is soon to appear, and what people must do in preparation for it to avoid the coming destruction.  But he doesn’t ever teach about his divine identity in these Gospels.  But how can that be?  If Jesus really was God, and if he knew he was God, or if, at least, the Gospel writers believed that he knew (or thought) he was God – wouldn’t they say something about it?  Did they just forget that part?   Surely it would be THE SINGLE most important thing to say and know about Jesus.   How could they possibly leave it out?

The most common way that scholars have explained this almost inexplicable omission in the Synoptic
Gospels is simply that their authors did not think of Jesus as a divine being who was equal with God and pre-existed his birth, who became incarnate as the God-Man.   They had different understandings of who Jesus was, for example, that he became the Son of God when God adopted him at his baptism (possibly the view of Mark) or that he became the Son of God when he was born of a virgin (which is the moment when he came into existence, as in the Gospel of Luke).

If this view is correct – I agree with it completely – then the earliest Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – did not understand Jesus to be a divine being who pre-existed his birth and was equal with God from eternity past.  Nor did the sources for these three Gospels (Q, M, L) understand Jesus this way.  Nor did the oral traditions lying behind these sources understand Jesus this way.   This way of understanding Jesus is only on our latest Gospel, written some 60 years after Jesus’ death.  It was a view that almost certainly developed within the Johannine community (this, again, is the majority view among scholars who are not fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals).   And the ultimate pay off is that this view of the Fourth Gospel is not the view of the historical Jesus himself.  It is a later view put on his lips by the author of John or his sources.

And so there is an easy response to the false conclusion that because Jesus called himself God, he *must* be a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.  The response is that the premise is false.  The idea that Jesus called himself God is not historical.  It is a Legend.   And so the choices are Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or Legend.   Not that Jesus himself was a legend.  Far from it!  But the idea that he called himself God is a legend.[\private]

Why Jesus?
Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher?



  1. Avatar
    lbehrendt  January 17, 2013

    Bart, what do you make of the “early high Christology” propounded by serious scholars like Larry Hurtado?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      It’s a long answer, I’m afraid; too much for a simple response. I’ll be dealing with the question in my next book How Jesus Became God. Short story: I think it’s a very big mistake to impose modern views of the relationship of humans and the divine on the ancient world. We think of GOD as completely other than humans. But most ancients thought there were numerous *levels* of divinity. It was a continuum, not an either or. Recognizing this is fundamental to seeing what it might mean for an ancient person to say that Jesus is God.

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    Adam  January 17, 2013

    Some argue that Paul, who wrote before the gospels, thought Jesus was in some way God (Phil 2:6, etc.). Do you think this is an accurate intepretation of Paul?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      I think Paul did imagine Jesus as some kind of angelic / divine being before being born. But he was not capital G “God”

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    KungFuJoe  January 17, 2013

    It always seemed odd to me, even while I was a fundamentalist Christian, that no one ever supplanted any other major religious figures into the Liar/Lunatic/Lord scenario.

    For example, the Dalai Lama has said a great many things about the nature of the universe. But I don’t think any Christian would subscribe to a Liar/Lunatic/Lama lemma.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      True — but the Dalai Lama is not talking about himself being God, and I think for the L, L, or L crowd, that’s the difference.

  4. Avatar
    ecbrown88  January 17, 2013

    But certainly Paul, who wrote before the Gospels, understood “Christ” to be “the Lord”, didn’t he? I read your recent book against mythicists, so if I recall correctly, your position is that this early(est?) writer knew of a recent historical person that he equiated with this divine Lord, did he not? Wouldn’t this provenence be more sound than even Mark’s?

  5. Avatar
    songster  January 17, 2013

    Thank you. You are brave to speak to this. It may get some virulent feedback, but I dig it.

  6. Avatar
    MicahStott  January 18, 2013

    Hi Bart,
    Has your wife ever shared her opinion about CS Lewis, especially as a scholar in her particular field? I’ve wondered before how he was regarded by other scholars in his own specialty.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      I don’t think anyone today relies on Lewis’s scholarship in his own field. Like most fields, his has moved on in the (many) years since he was active.

  7. Avatar
    timber84  January 18, 2013

    In an earlier post you mentioned that heaven and hell (vertical dualism) were not the original ideas of Jesus and his followers (who had the idea of horizontal dualism), but were later developments among Christian thinkers in later times. I was wondering how you reconcile this idea with Mark 9:42-50, where Jesus talks about cutting off your hand rather than going to hell.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      The questions are (a) is this something Jesus really said (hard to tell) and (b) what does he mean by “gehenna” (translated “hell” sometimes — but it’s probably a mistranslation; gehenna referred to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where they burned refuse)

  8. Avatar
    Joshua150  January 18, 2013


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    gregmonette  January 18, 2013

    What do you do with the “Son of Man” sayings in the synoptics? I don’t think the synoptics have the same gusto as John when it comes to Jesus describing a possible perceived divine self identify, but he does say and do certain things which certainly would have grabbed people’s attention not least is the “Son of Man” sayings scattered throughout which seem to hint back to Daniel 7:13 (and 1 Enoch etc.). Did you read Dale Allison’s chapter on christology in his new book “Constructing Jesus”? Allison is probably the leading Jesus scholar on the planet and he concludes by saying: “We should hold a funeral for the view that Jesus entertained no exalted thoughts about himself.” (304). Allison adds in another part of that chapter that “The resurrection alone cannot account for Christology, and Easter did not turn Jesus into someone or something altogether different than he was before. The resurrection, father, sanctioned and so reactivated beliefs previously held about him. That is, post-Easter convictions confirmed Pre-Easter expectations.” (243-44). Allison gives the most intellectually robust description on Jesus’ high self perception. What do you think of his work?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      Yes, I think that the Synoptics understood Jesus to be the Son of Man who was coming back from heaven, that at the resurrection he had been exalted to some kind of divine status (they did not think he pre-existed or that he was equal with God, though).

      Allison is a terrific scholar. And he and I disagree on lots of things! But thanks for the reference; I need to re-read that chapter for the book I’m working on now. My view is that Jesus did indeed have exalted views of himself. He thought he was the messiah who was going to rule the kingdom to be brought by the future Son of Man.

      • Avatar
        gregmonette  January 19, 2013

        Do you think Jesus thought he was the Son of Man or did Jesus think the Son of Man was like a doppelgänger in heaven?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 19, 2013

          Greg, You haven’t read my books on Jesus have you?!? 🙂 (In my view, Jesus thought of the Son of Man as a cosmic judge of the earth to come in fulfillment of the prophecies of Dan 7, and he was not talking about himself)

  10. Avatar
    gregmonette  January 18, 2013

    Also: Do we have any other examples of monotheistic Jews in the Herodian period who devoted their worship towards a human being? (*I know this is not an argument for Jesus’ divine self-perception). I’ve always wondered what it would have taken to convince a group of ‘shema’ quoting Jews to begin worshipping a human being to the point of martyrdom. If it didn’t start with Jesus, how and why did it start? Surely the resurrection didn’t begin the idea. We have many stories involving resurrection/resuscitation in the OT and the NT and those people are not worshiped after the fact. The resurrection (if it happened) simply would have said that God vindicated Jesus. But how did the idea of Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, become then GOD? Keeping in mind that the Jesus Movement was predominantly created by Jewish men and women.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      None that I know of. But I also don’t know of any Jews that believed their teacher had been raised from the dead.

      BTW: Philo does call Moses God. Don’t know if you’ve read Alan Segal, but he’s worth reading on the quesiton of monotheism among Jews.

      • Avatar
        gregmonette  January 19, 2013

        Good point! I should also re-read that section in Segals tome. I appreciate your responses Bart. Have a good weekend! Go Patriots! 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Billypaul49  January 18, 2013

    Do you think Paul believed Jesus was God or Son of God?

  12. Avatar
    JohnBradbury  January 18, 2013

    The work of C S Lewis still has an impact today. I’m reading The Language of God by Francis Collins an elite scientist who directed the human genome project. Collins was an atheist but became a devout Christian and he quotes some of the books of C S Lewis as being an influence in his change of belief. As an atheist myself I was curious about how such a change could happen, particularly when only 7% of elite scientists in the USA have any religious belief, a proportion which includes only about 5% of biologists. Unfortunately Collins believes that most of the New Testament consists of eye witness accounts, so for a scientist this is very shoddy research.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  October 29, 2014

      “Unfortunately Collins believes that most of the New Testament consists of eye witness accounts, so for a scientist this is very shoddy research.”

      Why would he think otherwise?

  13. Avatar
    bobnaumann  January 18, 2013

    If the historical Jesus had actually said those things ascribed to him in the Gospel of John, he most certainly would have convicted of blasphemy and would probably have been stoned. Did the idea that Jesus was God originate from John’s Gospel or was his Gospel written to support this concept that had already arisen in the proto-orthodox community?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      I think others had similar christologies, but John’s own is probalby unique to his community (the Word who was God who became a human)

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 18, 2013

    When I was a senior in a Catholic high school (1954-55), a priest taught a course in which he presented the “evidence” for the existence of God, the rightness of Christianity, and finally, the rightness of Catholicism. While he didn’t mention C.S. Lewis (whom I admit I’ve never read), or the “three L’s” summation, he used that exact claim to “prove” Jesus was divine.

    Throughout childhood, I’d dutifully gone along with Catholicism *in case* everything I was being told was true. I’d never been convinced of it. Young as I was, that priest’s arguments did convince me. Even after I’d endured two horrific years in a Catholic college, I remained a believing Catholic. But after a few more years had passed, and I’d done a lot more reading, I saw the flaws in the priest’s arguments (including those for the existence of God), and reverted to my innate(?) agnosticism. With no sense of “loss of faith” – I’d never had a “faith” I cherished, just an intellectual conviction.

    I doubt that priest was being dishonest with students. Did Catholic seminaries not even tell seminarians, in those days, what more objective scholars were saying? Do they tell them now?

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 18, 2013

    Thanks so much for this clarification. You have no idea how often I have heard this passage, with the argument you review, from C.S. Lewis quoted, with so much dogmatic certainty.

  16. Avatar
    tcc  January 19, 2013

    I used to think the Lewis Trilemma was a pretty good argument, but now…jeez. I’ve got to wonder–did Lewis ignore the fact that Jesus being a lunatic or a liar is actually more probable than him being the incarnation/son of the CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE? How did he accomplish a logic leap like that?

    He also ignores the option of legend, the gospels’ reliability as sources for Jesus’ real opinions, and (if the synoptics were supposedly written by eye-witnesses) Jesus denying that he’s god (“why do you call me good? Only god is good…”)

    Jack could’ve made the argument that Hercules was either “a fruitcake, a fraud or a freakin’ god” and it would’ve made about as much sense.

    • Avatar
      Felix  November 17, 2015

      “He also ignores the option of Legend”… Not quite! He makes that very clear in plenty of his writings.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 19, 2013

    About the belief that Jesus “preexisted” in some form…a few years ago, for the purpose of writing fiction, I poked around the Internet to learn what beliefs people have held about the Archangel Michael. (For example, that he bore a shield with the words “Quis ut Deus” – “who is like God.”) I was surprised to learn some have argued that the “Second Person of the Trinity” must have had some identity other than that before he incarnated as Jesus – and so, they’ve claimed he was previously Michael! Is there any reason to think that idea goes back to early Christianity?

    Of course, I know believers have differed as to whether Michael was God’s “right-hand man,” or merely the chief of the next-to-lowest of several orders of angelic beings.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 19, 2013

      No, to my knowledge there is no one in early Chrsitianity who claimed that Jesus was the incarnation of Michael in particular, although the idea that he was some kind of angel before the incarnation appears to have been held in some circles.

    • Avatar
      Adam  January 19, 2013

      It’s interesting that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was Michael the archangel before coming to earth. I think they also hold he’s Michael now, following his resurrection.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 22, 2013

        That is interesting, about Jehovah’s Witnesses!

        I remembered later that the Book of Daniel, which contains what I assume is the first reference to the “Son of Man,” also includes a prophecy that in some future time of need, *Michael* will come. (At least in the version I have, a Catholic Bible.)

        I’m sure I’ve read or heard that the Book of Daniel actually referred to events that took place long before the time of Jesus. But he still talked about the “Son of Man” as a Being expected in the future…

  18. Avatar
    kidron  February 13, 2013

    It appears to me that the phrase ‘son of man’ is used in two different ways in the gospels. In one instance is is a circumlocution to avoid saying ‘me’. In the other places it is used in reference to the ‘one like unto the son of man’ referenced in the vision of Daniel. I believe that on those occasions where the reference is to the vision of Daniel, Jesus is NOT referring to himself, but to an angelic figure who would lead the armies of angels. It is only later sloppy reading that suggests ALL the statements of Jesus re ‘the son of man’ refers to himself. This idea later conflated Jesus with the ‘son of man’ in the vision of Daniel and thus gives rise to all the ideas of Jesus’ pre existence and eventual divine status.

  19. Avatar
    prestonp  October 29, 2014

    “In my last post I indicated what I think about Jesus as a great moral teacher: yes he was one…” Dr Bart

    Dr., would you mind citing several passages (chapter and verse is fine) from the n.t. you find examples of his great moral teachings? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      How ’bout the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7?

      • Avatar
        prestonp  October 30, 2014

        Why do you believe Christ spoke those words?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 31, 2014

          I don’t think he did speak all of them. Raally, instead of asking me these kinds of basic questions so often, why don’t you just read my book about Jesus where I talk about it all?

  20. Avatar
    Felix  November 17, 2015

    Lewis never portrayed himself as more than an amateur on both Philosophy and Theology. Don’t quite understand why your professor made such an unnecessary comment. Does it really matter whether he was an expert or not in any of these fields? The truth is that he was as clever, logic and as influential as any expert in the field could be.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2015

      That’s probably why professors like mine make such unnecessary comments!

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