Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

False dilemma – Lewis’ trilemma and other failures of imagination

Posted on January 1, 2019


A false dilemma is a logical fallacy in which something is presented as an either/or situation when more than two alternatives exist. If your boss tells you, “My way or the highway,” that’s a dilemma, but is it a real dilemma or a false dilemma?

Your boss intends to impose a real dilemma by giving you only two choices, but are there other choices that your boss cannot eliminate? Can you go over your boss’ head to a bigger boss?

The “if by whiskey” fallacy is a false dilemma between two one-sided assessments to avoid answering a question. I mention “if by whiskey” because it is hilarious. Click on the hyperlink if you have never read it. You can also check out the “if by God” fallacy. 

Some logicians distinguish the false dilemma from the false dichotomy. A dilemma implies two equally unattractive options whereas a dichotomy generally means two opposites.

The term “dilemma” – equally unattractive options – does not perfectly describe the most common use of the fallacy. A person using a false dilemma usually presents his or her preferred option and a less attractive alternative. “You have a choice between A and B. You may not like A, but B is really bad. You better pick A.”   Although a choice between the lesser of two evils is quite logical if only two choices exist, the dilemma is false if you might also choose C or D.

False dilemmas can be appealing because people like simple choices. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were only one right and one wrong for any issue, and we all knew which was which? False dilemmas present a simple, definitive issue when the truth requires a more complex analysis.

The typical false dilemma presents only two choices, but limiting alternatives to three or more options may be equally fallacious. The fallacy of false alternatives occurs when we fail to consider all the relevant possibilities. In essence, the fallacy demonstrates a lack of imagination – failure to identify or create alternatives.

Apologists often employ false dilemmas that presuppose the Gospels’ accuracy. Apologist Gary Habermas and Michael Licona argue, “If Jesus did not rise from the dead, he was a false prophet and a charlatan whom no rational person should follow.”[1] Habermas and Licona present only two alternatives: Jesus’ resurrection (their preference) or Jesus was a scumbag (an unpleasant alternative). No one wants to think Jesus was a fraud. However, there is a third alternative.

Lewis’ trilemma – Lord, lunatic, or liar – adds another unpalatable option: Jesus was crazy. Lewis did not invent what we now call Lewis’ trilemma. Almost a century before Lewis, Scottish preacher John Duncan claimed, “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud; or he was himself deluded; or he was divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma.”[2] However, there is a fourth option.

Lewis’ trilemma is based on the assumption that Jesus said he was God.[3] John Warwick Montgomery adds another alternative – “Jesus never actually claimed to be the Son of God, though his disciples put this claim in his mouth. So, the disciples were charlatans, lunatics, or naive exaggerators.”[4] However, Montgomery’s quadrilemma still suffers from lack of imagination.

Critical scholars have proposed myriad explanations for why – decades after the Romans crucified Jesus – Christians believed Jesus was divine.[5] Even if Jesus actually claimed to be divine, he was not necessarily dishonest or crazy.

Real people are complicated. Like Jesus, L. Ron Hubbard cannot be pigeonholed as a liar or lunatic. Critics accuse L. Ron Hubbard of inventing Scientology to make money, but he devoted tremendous time and effort to his “spiritual technology” and seemed obsessed with developing a step-by-step pathway to universal salvation.[6] Hubbard need not have gone to such trouble if Scientology was a sham.

We have a lot more detailed information about L. Ron Hubbard than we do about Jesus, but we cannot be certain what made him tick. Anyone who thinks we can limit Jesus to three or four interpretations suffers from a serious lack of imagination.

[1] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus 27 (Kregel Publications 2004).

[2] J. Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica 109 (6th ed. 1870). 

[3] Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted 141 (HarperOne 2009).

[4] John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity 61 (Bethany House Publishers 1965).

[5] E.g. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (HarperCollins 2014).

[6] Lawrence Wright, Going Clear; Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief 120 (Alfred A. Knopf 2013).