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 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 defence 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 God.

The trilemma defence 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 that if one were to follow His teachings they would find the Kingdom of God and/or eternal life. But to use such a massive lie to get people to listen? If Jesus really was a noble and humble teacher who wanted nothing more than to aid the Jews, why resort to such abhorrent trickery and deception? Jesus’ lie goes entirely against the theory’s portrait of Jesus. If He was nothing more than a noble moral teacher, why make such extraordinary, unprovable claims such as the ability to heal people from diseases or even to raise them from the dead? If He was a noble liar He would have known that such feats were impossible for Him.

This goes to beg the question of how Jesus persuaded His listeners to believe and follow Him at all. A mere 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 eternal 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 teaching was not contrary to the Old Testament at all. He based His teachings on a true understanding of the Old Testament so there would have been absolutely no reason to lie about being God incarnate. In fact, this lie would have been the worst way to get someone to listen to you because if you couldn’t back it up you 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 (talk about a “duh” moment!).

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, claiming His identity, 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 make clear to everyone listening that He was, in fact, 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 laughed out of Jerusalem or, even worse, suffered death on a cross.

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, although it can appear to be somewhat convincing on the surface, 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?

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