Was Jesus simply a wise man with a mental defect?

Hello all. My father is not a Christian. He says he believes that there is a God but he is not religious in any way. I recently asked my dad what he thought about Jesus, and he responded that he thought Jesus was a wise man. I countered with the old argument that since Jesus claimed to be God, he was either a liar or a madman and therefore couldn’t be a wise man. My dad responded by chiding me for my “black and white” thinking and said why can’t someone with a mental defect otherwise be considered wise? I had no response to this. Any ideas? Thanks!

Well, I certainly wouldn’t bother listening to Jesus if I thought that about Him. His story is presented in the gospels. We either accept the whole thing: teachings, miracles, resurrection, or we dismiss it as another fairy tale.

You must ask your father why Jesus was wise, taking into account the many teachings ofJesus were centered upon himself (eg Mt 10:37, Lk 11:23 to name just a couple). If there was not something extremely important about Jesus, then he was a huge egomaniac. Not just a mental defect, wise men are never ego-centric. Tell your dad to find another example of a wise man who focused everything on himself. How can your dad make the claim Jesus was wise?

Well…but…why do you think the only options are those three: God, Liar, or Madman?
I can think of a dozen other possibilities beyond those three, as your father allows for as well.

He may have been a man of peace with a fertile imagination…he may have been misquoted by people…he or others may have exaggerated some of the drama knowingly for a bigger good to illustrate a point and lead people to peace…we may be misinterpreting him…the translators may have misinterpreted or miswritten his words…his followers may have misinterpreted his meanings…his quotes may have gotten muddled up after 40-80 years of being passed around verbally before they were written down…the scribes and writers may have used their own imagination as writers and artists do as they wrote…he may have said he was God, but meant that all of us are God (I think there is a quote to support that)…and, true enough, he may have had visions and heard voices that were part of his brain set-up and lead him to say words of peace in a charismatic way…he may have been, in a way, one of those off-center intellects/artists of his time…the point is, there are many, many options that are possible…not just the three.


In summary, you other options amount to: we simply don’t know much about him at all.
So the options are:

  1. God
  2. mad
  3. a complete unknown ( as nothing in the Gospels can be taken as reliable)

Well if somebody knocked on my door or claimed to be God or claimed to be a Zebra, I can almost guarantee nothing they say would be reliable or worth listening to. Insane people don’t suddenly just come up with the greatest moral teachings and most supremely emulateable character in human history. He is just avoiding the situation.


He claimed to be God and asked people to follow him to death.

He is either an insane megalomaniac or he is what he claims to be. There is no middle ground.


The problem is that your first premise may not be true, which means your second premise is certainly not true.

Here’s a short video (about 12 minutes) that adds a fourth L to C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument: Legend. It compares the story of Jesus with that of Heracles (Hercules), a real man whose legend grew as time went on. It doesn’t state in any way that Jesus couldn’t have been Lord, but it does show how false Lewis’s trilemma is.

Or Jesus as portrayed in the gospels is not what he believed about himself but what those Greek speaking Jews who converted to Christianity thought and came to beliieve ABOUT him. The gospels say more about what came to be believed about him not what Jesus thought of himself since he never wrote a preserved word of himsel. Plus the gospels were written decades later after the earhthly life of Jesus ended

The obvious problem is that (as far as I remember) we still do not get a legend in which Heracles claims he is a god (and that would have been a modest claim when compared with the claim of Jesus)… At best we get a legend where he is made a god. And we do not hear many stories of men who chose martyrdom rather than denial of divinity of Heracles… And, presumably, in case of Heracles, there was far more time to create a myth and to forget that it is just a myth…

Anyway, in “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli the argument is expanded to “Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Myth or Guru” (books.google.lt/books?id=1DH1ZPyyTkIC&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=%22Lord,+Liar,+Lunatic,+Myth+or+Guru%22&source=bl&ots=VuzcpvUPVx&sig=E-FyzVrmRM1UOggiVL32l8u7c7s&hl=lt&sa=X&ei=QkXDUtamLobrywOzp4GwDA&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Lord%2C%20Liar%2C%20Lunatic%2C%20Myth%20or%20Guru%22&f=false). That is, the other two possibilities still do not look that good when examined.

This is true. After completing the 12 labors, Apollo made him a god. But I think you’re missing the point. The basic idea is that there are two stories of men who likely existed for real. For one of them we know that the story was built up to exaggerate the quality of the man. The same could be applied to the second man. No, the same Ts in the story aren’t crossed and the same Is aren’t dotted; but there is a pattern here that can’t be ignored.

Now I am NOT saying that because Heracles wasn’t a god that Jesus wasn’t a god. I’m showing how C.S. Lewis’s argument is a false trilemma, that saying the only options are lord, liar, or lunatic requires ignoring man’s willingness to exaggerate the lives of people. It also requires ignoring numerous examples of that exaggeration in history (e.g. Alexander the Great and Vlad Tepish).

And, presumably, in case of Heracles, there was far more time to create a myth and to forget that it is just a myth

You should take a look at that video that I linked to. It notes Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose legend was built up within 20 years after his death to where some of his followers claimed that he was and is the Messiah. So time isn’t much of a factor. The video also notes the time frame with the Jesus legend, and how the christology expands greatly the farther away chronologically the writer is from the time of Jesus.

Anyway, in “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli the argument is expanded to “Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Myth or Guru” (books.google.lt/books?id=1DH1ZPyyTkIC&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=%22Lord,+Liar,+Lunatic,+Myth+or+Guru%22&source=bl&ots=VuzcpvUPVx&sig=E-FyzVrmRM1UOggiVL32l8u7c7s&hl=lt&sa=X&ei=QkXDUtamLobrywOzp4GwDA&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Lord%2C%20Liar%2C%20Lunatic%2C%20Myth%20or%20Guru%22&f=false). That is, the other two possibilities still do not look that good when examined.

I’ll see if I can take a look at that, but I have to say the “myth” possibility looks good when I examine it and lay out the facts. And again, I’m not looking to prove or disprove whether the tales of Jesus are real. I’m just showing that because there is at least a significant possibilty that they are not real, that the argument of “lord, liar, or lunatic” not only can’t be used but would foolish to use.

And I think you are also missing the point. Yes, making stuff up is not exactly unheard of (although I’d say that “Chuck Norris” jokes would be a better example of that). But in this case you have specific features that make this version less likely: 1) you need a claim of being God (not just a Greek or Roman god; Roman Senate treated that “title” as any other honorary title that could be given to the emperor), 2) you need almost everyone to forget that those stories were made up - to the point when one is ready to die rather than deny them, 3) you don’t have much time for that.

In other words, this version looks more plausible until you look beyond “It happened, um, somehow…” and start to look for details.

Yes, the argument “lord, liar, or lunatic” has been expanded to “lord, liar, lunatic, myth or guru”. It covers more “ways out” while keeping the same ideas. But I’m afraid we are getting a bit “offtopic”… After all, the original post discussed the “lunatic” option, not “myth”.

Well judges, kings, and even prophets were occasionally giv-
en the title of “god,” like when God appointed Moses as God
to Pharaoh, acting thus on God’s behalf, but only Jesus iden-
tified himself with the I AM, the First and the Last, etc.

That may help.

Yes, I think so.
I imagine the options would run the full gamut between God---->Mad.
And that gamut contains many, many variations of many different possibilites.

But…re the God option: A lot of people have thought they were God and a lot of people have been called God by others…do you feel it is then an option each time that happens?


The problem with the above, is…

  1. We have seen many people who choose martyrdom for a belief, even if that belief is not good or is not true. Each time, the person* believes* it to be true and good, though, and has faith that it is.
    But still, it doesn’t make it true. People do all sorts of things only based on belief and no fact–even die for it. The power of the mind is strong.

  2. Many “famous” stories of martyrdom in Christianity are more “tradition” it seems.
    The apostles, for example…how they died is later legendary info, there is no ancient source of information that is near reliable to support they died as martyrs…(if you know of any, please let me know–but I have asked this question of top Christian scholars and historians who have read every fragment of text from Antiquity onward and they say there is nothing that the claims/legends do not hold water).
    We don’t know how most of all of them died (except I think one or two of their deaths is noted in the Christian bible? Judas and one other?).


Generally, Mike, referring people to view a YouTube video that coincides with your views is less preferable than summarizing the views with which you agree in print. I can read a textual argument much more quickly than watching someone talk. Particularly as, if you’ll pardon my frankness, most atheist YouTube videos present some of the most turgid and preposterous arguments that I’ve ever wasted precious moments of my life watching. Sam Harris fans on the Internet owe me big time for suggesting that I listen to his endless droning on YouTube videos in support of whatever point they were trying to make. I’d rather gargle with peanut butter than listen to another Sam Harris lecture, or most any other New Atheist lecture.

But anyways, your argument is known as the Euhemerism thesis, and it was occasionally used by the early apologists (like Clement) as a defense of the Christian faith, to claim that the people worshipped as gods were just men with divine accretions added over time.

The problem your argument presents to you in applying this theory to the divinity of Christ is that the miracles that were ascribed to Christ, and which are presented as evidence of his divinity, were described as to place, relative time, and corroborating witness within a very short period. We do not have that with Heracles, who lived, if he was based on a mortal king, about 1260 B.C. (or possibly far earlier - Herodotus claimed that Heracles was an older Egyptian God, adopted and adapted by the Greeks, in his Histories, which would tend to discredit the idea that he was an historical figure.

We also have corroborating incidents from history in the Gospels that track pretty closely with what we know happened in the ancient world at that time, as well as incidents from the NT that tell scholars more about what was happening in that time and place. As it happens, I’ve read all the classical pre-Christian texts that mention Hercules’ mythical exploits. There are not many (Apollodorus, Hesiod, Diodorus Siculus, Hesiod, Ovid, and the Homeric Hymn). The post-Christian texts show the influence of the Neoplatonic move towards monotheism, in reaction to the increasing popularity and mass conversions under Christianity, and begin to describe him in messianic terms as a “Us, too!” pagan phenomenon. The classical texts on Heracles don’t give us that, reducing the probability that they are based in historicity. They read like fairy tales, which the Gospels don’t. If the same Euhemeristic process was taking place in both instances, we would expect to see historo-textual evidence of veracity in the Heracles texts. We don’t.

Euhemerism itself is not in much favor in classical studies, these days, BTW.

We also have textual evidence of Christian attestation as to the facts of the life and miracles of Jesus as the son of God within an extremely short time frame, within years after his death. We do not have that with Heracles, if he existed. We have oral histories from the apostolic generation collected by men like Papias, who corroborate the historical existence and divinity of Jesus. We have no textual evidence of an actual king named Heracles (or variants) or possessing any of his attributes.

We also have the witness of martyrdom - men who knew Jesus, and were in a position to witness the miracles He performed, accepted martyrdom rather than renouncing Him within a very short time after His death. That is unlikely in the extreme if Jesus did not display divine attributes, given what evidence we have for the length of time for a mortal to undergo a myth-making process. We certainly have historical evidence for followers being imprisoned or killed while fighting on behalf of recently deceased charismatic figures who claim to be prophets (such as Brigham Young) but not divine, and we have historical evidence that people commit suicide at the orders of cult leaders who claim to be divine, such as Jim Jones or Sai Baba, but then people killed themselves for pop stars like Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain. I even have examples of atheists accepting execution and torture from the state for their beliefs, although there were other factors at play in those cases that we don’t see in Christian martyrdom, and historically, we see the majority of suicide bombings committed by atheists, not jihadists. Those forms of death acceptance, like the suicide killings of jihadis, are quite different from the torture that the early martyrs underwent.

We would not expect to see that level of commitment in Christians if your argument were correct.

This specific argument does not depend on anything you question. All that matters is that some Christians were willing to die for the supposed “myth” during, let’s say, reign of Nero (54-68; the persecution is confirmed by Tacitus and Suetonius), and that this shows that they strongly believed the supposed “myth”. You seem to be ready to accept all that.

So, now, if that was a myth, how did it get from exaggerations like the ones told about Chuck Norris to something numerous men are willing to die for? And very soon - we should at least start from year 30, shouldn’t we…? That leaves 38 years at most…

Oh, and maybe we shouldn’t discuss “myth” version that much, given that the original poster was asking about “lunatic” version…

Liar, Lunatic or Lord.

Let’s start this way. Show me any real person, Liar or Lunatic, who has ever risen from the dead and we can talk from there. If you don’t start with he resurrection all other arguments seem meaningless to me.

Yes. Very much in agreement with this–as are many historians and those who have studied how and why Christianity evolved those first few centuries.
We must remember…there were Christian groups those first few hundred years that had very different views on Jesus and who he was.


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