Apologetics,  Culture,  Theology

The Either-Or Fallacy and the Christian (with Examples)

Logic is the systematic study of reasoning and inference—the process of drawing valid conclusions from given information or premises. Everyone gives lip service to logic’s importance. For example, any time someone appeals to “common sense” they are actually saying there is a logical thought process by which everyone should arrive at the same basic conclusion (i.e., common sense).

Although most people acknowledge the importance of logical thinking, logic has fallen on hard times. Lazy thinking abounds. This is partly driven by advertising and social media culture, but also through lack of discipline and being driven by emotions. As Christians, God commands us to discipline our minds. We are to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5), and to set our minds on what is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8). Controlling how the mind thinks is a crucial Christian discipline.

Yet I’ve observed much sloppy Christian thinking lately. And I’m sure you have too!

The Either-Or Fallacy in Theological Discussion

Sloppy thinking can be identified under the heading of a logical fallacy. A logical fallacy is a flaw or error in reasoning that weakens an argument, making it unreliable or invalid. Of all the flawed thinking out there, the one I see quite often in theological and biblical discussions is the either-or fallacy.

The either-or fallacy, also known as the false dilemma, is a logical fallacy that presents only two options when more alternatives or possibilities exist, thereby oversimplifying a complex situation. This happens, unfortunately, all the time! Consider the following examples of the either-or fallacy.

Example 1: “If you’re not a Calvinist, you can’t interpret any passages of Scripture correctly!”

The assumption behind this statement is that either you are a Calvinist, and have a certain specific understanding of God’s sovereignty, OR you will not interpret any Scripture correctly. But the reality is that someone can understand God’s sovereignty in a variety of ways and still be correct OR incorrect in how they handle a variety of other passages. The issues of interpretation are complex, and one’s status as a Calvinist does not guarantee correct or incorrect interpretation of texts.

Example 2: It’s either faith or reason; you can’t rely on both to understand the mysteries of God.

It is false to pit faith and reason as polar opposites (though many do inside and outside Christianity). One can (and should) have faith and reason. In fact, faith is informed by reason. They are not mutually exclusive.

Example 3: It is either Christ or Chaos!

This is a famous mantra today, but it is obviously fallacious. These are not the only two options (as have been shown throughout world history). Now, it is possible that some people use this statement rhetorically as short hand to mean that humans can follow Christ or they can follow any of the other myriad of human ways. But that would be better represented by, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” So theologically, it is either Christ or not-Christ. But chaos is not guaranteed.  

At this point I should make the note that many either-or fallacies are used as rhetorical devices to stir the emotions. They are used in speeches, social media posts, memes, etc. They do a good job of rattling people, even if they are not correct.

Example 4: Either Matthew 24 has been fulfilled, or Jesus is a false prophet.

Again, these kinds of statements are made to be rhetorically powerful, but they actually do more damage than good. These are not the only possibilities. It is a false dilemma. It is also possible that Jesus was speaking to an eschatological generation, as the context seems to indicate.

The point is, these false dilemmas abound in theological discussions. Christians need to be sharp thinkers and point out these either-or fallacies when they show up.

Why the Either-Or Fallacy Flourishes

Perhaps you have noticed an increase in the use of the either-or fallacy as I have. What could be the reason for this? Although I think there are a variety of factors that influence culture, I think one factor stands out more than the rest—the use of social media.

First, the very nature of social media promotes non-nuanced, abbreviated statements. Shorter and more concise statements are more likely to misrepresent an issue, or at least not deal with the issue in its full complexity. Plus, let’s be honest. Do you really read the longer posts? You might read some of them, but if you’re like most people, you will stop reading half way through and move on. Social media culture rewards brevity and not thoroughness.

Second, social media algorithms themselves promote controversial and rhetorically charged statements. Statements that get more comments and responses are weighted more valuable (because more time spent from the user), and therefore they are shown to more users. Thus the cycle endlessly repeats. And believe it or not, the posts that are most commented on, are the ones that we disagree with. So, by the very nature of either-or fallacies—because they are so sloppy and offensive to the critical thinker—they prompt more engagement from the audience!

I’m not sure there is a way out of this death spiral we are on as a culture. My only hope is that Christians can right their own ship and we can have some internal checks to learn to think properly and engage well with one another.

How to Spot an Either-Or Fallacy

The standard for the either-or fallacy is whether there are actually only two possibilities. Ask yourself this: “Is it true that the only options are (A) or (B) and that there are no other possibilities?”

Either-or fallacies do not always need to follow the “Either X or Y” wording either. It can be the presuppositional framework that undergirds a thought as well. For example, “If we don’t learn theology today, we will never learn it!” The implication is EITHER we learn theology today, OR we never learn it. But those are not the only possibilities. So, just remember, either-or fallacies can take other forms, but the presuppositions always indicate the belief that there are only two possibilities.

For clarification purposes, I should add that there are legitimate either-or classifications. For example, the Bible does teach that the eternal destiny of humanity is either heaven or hell. Or with regard to human biology, there is either male or female. Binaries do exist. However, we need to allow for complexity where complexity exists.

I hope this article has helped us become better thinkers. I would like to see an inundation on social media where people just start labeling either-or fallacies. That would make me happy. But even more than that, a change in the way we think might allow Christians to actually go back to having beneficial and helpful engagement with one another instead of trying to score more likes or shares. Afterall, truth is not determined by likes and shares. But I still hope you shared this post… 😉

Photo credit: Envato Elements

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Aaron

    Dr. Goeman,
    Thanks for your response. I think your current phrasing is excellent. It totally avoids the either-or fallacy by specifying that the disagreement between Calvinist expositors and non-Calvinist expositors is about a “specific understanding of God’s sovereignty” – not the orthodox belief that God has total authority over all things (i.e., that God is sovereign).

    Thanks for interacting with me!

  • Aaron

    Dr. Goeman,
    This is a well-written article about a much-needed topic! I appreciate your tone and the graciousness toward those who make the error you’re addressing. However, you allowed a common either-or fallacy to slip into your article! It’s one that I hear often.

    In response to your first example of the either-or fallacy, you wrote, “The assumption behind this statement is that either you are a Calvinist and believe God is sovereign, OR you will not interpret any Scripture correctly. But the reality is that you can get God’s sovereignty wrong and still be correct in interpreting other passages.” That response commits the either-or fallacy by assuming that a person is either a Calvinist who believes God is sovereign or he is not a Calvinist and does not believe God is sovereign. Of course, it could be correctly stated that a person is either a Calvinist who believes *Calvinist doctrines related to God’s sovereignty* or a non-Calvinist who does not believe *Calvinist doctrines about God’s sovereignty.*

    No one could reasonably argue that church history and the modern church are not filled with faithful theologians who would affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over creation and deny the Calvinist doctrines about how God expresses his sovereignty. It would require patient, thoughtful interaction to understand how they would articulate their differences with Calvinist doctrines and how they arrived at those differences, but the people I described certainly exist. Although Calvinists will disagree with non-Calvinists’ understanding of how Scripture testifies that God expresses his perfect sovereignty, their disagreement has no bearing on whether non-Calvinists believe God is perfectly sovereign over all things. In sum, another common occurrence of the either-or fallacy occurs when someone assumes that a person must either be a Calvinist or not believe God is sovereign.

    I enjoyed your article. We need more in-house debates and dialogue that are characterized by your tone. Good work!

    Aaron La Rue

    • Joel

      Agreed 100% Aaron. I would generalise the fallacy here by noting that it’s even possible that someone can get the understanding on the Scriptures wrong precisely by arriving at the Calvinist conclusions. So the premise itself is already faulty by assuming the Calvinist reading on God’s sovereignty must have been a correct one.

      Of course as a Free Grace post-Calvinist I don’t see TULIP manifested in the Scriptures at all. I do think there are places where a Calvinist teacher may interpret more biblically than someone who is Free Grace. The one where the argument goes wrong is to use Calvinism or Free Grace theology belief as a yardstick for measuring orthodoxy for any other areas of theology.

      Hope this helps clarify the issues. :-)

    • Peter Goeman

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Aaron. I especially appreciate you taking the time to offer up some helpful criticism. I am having a hard time understanding the critique, so let me see if I’m tracking this correctly.

      My statement was: “The assumption behind this statement is that either you are a Calvinist and believe God is sovereign, OR you will not interpret any Scripture correctly. But the reality is that you can get God’s sovereignty wrong and still be correct in interpreting other passages.”

      Your comment was: “That response commits the either-or fallacy by assuming that a person is either a Calvinist who believes God is sovereign or he is not a Calvinist and does not believe God is sovereign.”

      I am struggling to understand how it is an either-or fallacy. I was simply trying to say that just because someone disagrees on issues of Calvinism or God’s sovereignty does not disqualify their ability to interpret a given text. I actually intended the phrase, “you can get God’s sovereignty wrong” as an open-ended statement (from either perspective of Arminian or Calvinist).

      I think I was a bit unclear in how I worded it (sorry bout that). Perhaps you are more sensitive than I to how Calvinists and non-Calvinists will argue with one another. I was not trying to make an assessment regarding Calvinism as much as I was trying to show that someone who made the claim in example 1 was not categorizing things correctly.

      To avoid this confusion I have reworded that section of the article. I would appreciate feedback if it makes more sense and clarifies things. Thanks again for the valuable feedback!

  • Luke Caporale

    Important topic and helpful article.

    I very well may start posting the name of this fallacy when I come across it in social media posts. lol. It’s surprising how often the study of logic is neglected despite it being foundational to proper reasoning. I’ll be adding ‘On Christian Doctrine’ to my reading list as suggested by George in the prior comment.

    Thank you for writing this, I appreciate you Peter!

  • George Crawford

    Good work.

    For an excellent discussion on the importance of logic in our study of the Scriptures, see Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, Book II, chapters 31-35 A sound grasp of logic both helps us understand the Scriptures and also guard against egregious and tragic error. The former is seen in Paul’s brilliant and intricate defense of the Resurrection (I Cor. 15:12-20); the latter is seen in the “snake handler” error based on an illogical reading of the doubtfully valid Mark 16:17-18.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *