We’re all familiar with Pilate’s question of Jesus, “What is truth?” He was responding to Jesus’ statement, “For this purpose I have been born . . . to testify to the truth” (John 18:37-38).
In context, I believe Pilate was mostly being sarcastic, though with a shred of genuine curiosity. Pilate was raised in a pagan society that worshiped Caesar as God during a time of many opposing philosophies. In that day, people did not recognize absolute truth. In other words, it was in many regards much like today, a day when the notion of truth has become controversial. A day in which most people consider there to be no such thing as absolute truth; that truth is always relative.
Like the Romans of the first century, a terrible cynicism characterizes modern-day life. That cynicism is reflected in the diminishing moral values of our society. Paul wrote to the Romans, “They exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. . . . For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions” (Romans 1:25-26, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible). We’ll come back to that, but first we need to define truth.
What is truth? Truth, as used in this article, is defined by that which conforms with fact or reality. It is genuine. It is objective. It is real. Theologically speaking, it is that which is consistent with the mind, the will, the character, and the being of God. When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6, emphasis mine), he meant that he was the self-disclosure, the very revelation of God himself in human flesh. Theological truth is very narrowly defined; Jesus said he was “the way,” not one of the ways, to the Father. So when the Bible speaks of truth, it describes that which corresponds to reality; it describes what is factual and absolute, not relative. That makes the inerrancy of Scripture all the more important. For inerrancy not only affirms absolute truth, it also affirms the authority of God’s Word.
However, philosophically, we need to recognize that truth is often defined by the world in other ways:
Propositional Truth:By definition, propositional truth is a statement regarded as true as opposed to false; but it may in fact be either. The Bible is stated propositionally, but it is also objectively true. That’s why the psalmist wrote, “The very essence of your words is truth” (119:160, New Living Translation). It’s why Jesus prayed for his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Bible is filled with language that communicates absolute truth in propositional terms. That’s why Paul wrote to his young protégé, “All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Subjective Truth: The world also uses the word truth subjectively. In our house I often say, “Wow, it’s hot in here,” while my wife may say, “No, I’m freezing.” Both statements are true based on our personal, subjective feelings and individual preferences. I might say, “Peppermint ice cream is the most delicious in the world,” while for you it may be chocolate. Both can be subjectively true based on our feelings. But neither can be objectively true, for they are based on perceptions and preferences and are contradictory. “I drive a Honda” is objective truth (defined below); it is a fact, whether you believe it or not. “A Honda is the best car in the world” is a subjective statement of truth based on my opinion and limited experience, but there is room for disagreement.
Objective Truth:So, “what is truth?” To state that something is “objectively true” means it is true for people of all cultures and ages, even if they don’t recognize it as true. Christians have always recognized that theological and moral truth belong to this category. The statement, “Jesus Christ is God,” is an example of that. Here are a few more examples: “Salvation is by grace through faith.” “Jesus is coming again.” “There is a Heaven to gain and a Hell to shun.” “Human life begins at conception.” “Marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman.” Christianity also recognizes that there are some acts that are intrinsically evil, meaning they are always wrong regardless of circumstances; examples include murder, adultery, fornication, lying, theft, greed, and slander. People may choose to reject objective truth, but there is nothing subjective about it.
Such objective truth comes from God. All truth ultimately is God’s truth, not just the truth found in Scripture. Such truth is also absolute. Without God, there can be no absolutes.
Objective truth is not subjective. It is not determined by personal feelings. Instead, objective truth is definite, definitive, and conclusive. It is not abstract or vague. It never is concerned with political correctness. Such truth speaks to everyone in a consistent manner.
Objective truth is authoritative. It is meant to be applied to every life with the very authority of God. It makes demands rather than offering suggestions. It requires our attention and our compliance/response. God’s truth is revealed by the Bible, but it is not limited to the Bible, though neither is it ever contradicted by the Bible.
That means when I teach from the Bible, the teaching is supported and affirmed by historical reality. The Bible is not like fairy tales or fiction Everything in the Bible took place in a historical context of time, place, and real people. The resurrection was the greatest event ever; it affirmed Jesus as the truth. It took place in AD 33; Jesus rose from Joseph of Arimathea’s garden tomb, located just outside Jerusalem. That fact was testified to by hundreds who saw Jesus alive after his death and burial. Many of those witnesses gave their very lives in testifying to the fact of the resurrection. The resurrection is objective truth. It is a historical reality.
I began my college experience as a premed major at a state university, thus my schedule was loaded with biology and chemistry classes. One of my biology professors was an avowed atheist and evolutionist. He loved to make fun of Christians and Christianity. However, one Christian girl would respectfully challenge him on the antibiblical statements he would make. In response, he would ridicule her and further ridicule Christianity.
Over time, I began to notice he would never objectively or factually respond to her queries. It seemed unfair, and I began to wonder if he was actually able to offer objective answers. I was a nominal Christian who had in many ways strayed from the commitment to Christ I had made as a boy, and yet I was still a believer. So I began to ask myself questions about my belief in Christ, in the Bible, and in the truths it taught. That motivated a personal study of apologetics (even though I wasn’t familiar with that term), which in turn strengthened my faith in the Lord and his Word. Objective truth will do that!
I firmly believe in teaching apologetics and Christian evidences in every church and to every follower of Christ. It not only strengthens our faith in objective truth, but it enables us to be witnesses to that truth in this cynical world.
CAN THEY HANDLE THE TRUTH?
Even if you’ve never seen A Few Good Men, you likely are familiar with Jack Nicholson’s dramatic retort to Tom Cruise during a court martial, “You can’t handle the truth!” I fear that many pastor/teachers in the church today believe that. In our desire not to offend, we have taken a stance of political correctness—a marketing approach, that while not denying the truth, fails to speak it. We don’t want to appear judgmental. Tolerance is the value that defines much of today’s teaching and preaching, especially in attractional (or seeker-driven) churches.
I’ve seen surveys that indicate approximately 75 percent of Americans do not believe in absolute truth; the figures are even quite high among people who identify themselves as evangelicals. This view has resulted in a growing crisis in our society and in the church, and especially among our teens.
Society tells us, “Kids can’t be expected to remain pure and refuse to engage in sex until marriage.” So, society responds by putting condom machines in school restrooms and prescribing birth-control pills for teenage girls, even without their parents’ knowledge. Unwanted pregnancies obviously will still occur, so society must provide publicly funded abortion clinics. Beyond that, society castigates those who dare to speak negatively of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Does all that sound like standing up for objective truth? Of course not, because it isn’t!
I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s encounter with a denier of absolute truth. Lincoln asked, “How many legs does a cow have?”
“Four, of course!”
“Now, suppose you call the cow’s tail a leg,” Lincoln pressed on, “how many legs does a cow have?”
“Why, five of course,” was the confident reply.
“Now, that’s where you are wrong,” Lincoln said. “Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
The church must not only return to believing objective truth, but also to proclaiming it and standing up for it.
There was a time when people who did not profess to be Christian still believed that the Bible was the Word of God and the basis for morality. But today truth has become whatever happens to be true for you. And I fear the church has been complicit in this tragic change, as we continue to downplay doctrinal truth and avoid any commentary on societal behavior that might make people uncomfortable. I realize there are many wonderful exceptions, but I fear we could be seeing a fulfillment of this Scripture: “For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, and they will turn their ears away from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
I referenced Romans 1 earlier. In it, Paul wrote, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18, emphasis mine). But our Lord’s brother presented the flip side of that: “If anyone among you strays from the truth and someone turns him back, let him know that the one who has turned a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Perhaps it is time to stop our philosophical approach to truth and start using it to correct error and to introduce people to Jesus, who is the truth.