The Truth About Truth
Truth, Absolute, Faulty
I came across a story recently about a group of churchgoers who used to get together at a local restaurant and just talk. One day their conversation turned to sharing their faith with others. Most of the group was sharing their experiences, both successes and failures, but Linda, one of the members of the group, was very quiet. Then, during a break in the conversation, Linda said, “I don’t witness the same way you guys do. I know that Christianity is true for me, but that doesn’t mean it has to be true for everyone else.”
This is a very common perspective in our society today, and I think it reveals a common misunderstanding about the nature of truth. This morning, I want to take a look at an encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate that happened just before Jesus was sentenced to death. Pilate asked Jesus a simple question that gets right to the heart of life. Examining this encounter can help us answer that question for ourselves.
Jesus was brought before Pilate because the Jews couldn’t put anyone to death unless they got approval from a Roman official (which Pilate was). Pilate asked Jesus a number of questions to attempt to determine whether he was guilty or innocent. Towards the end of their exchange, we read these words.
37 “Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” 38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. (John 18:37b-38, NIV)
Jesus said that he came to testify to the truth, and that when people recognize the truth, they will recognize him for who he is. Pilate responded by asking, “What is truth?” but he didn’t wait for an answer. It appears that Pilate wasn’t looking for an answer; he was looking for a way to sidestep Jesus’ statements.
I think many people take the same approach as Pilate. They would rather not put in the effort to ask, “What is truth and how do I find it?” They avoid the issue even though we have all sorts of difficult questions:
- Is it right for the government to give money to businesses that fail?
- When is it right for us to go to war?
- Is it wrong to pollute the earth?
- Should we obey a law we think is wrong?
- Should we speak up when a person is doing something we think is wrong?
These are tough questions, and people are asking how do we know what is right? I think the answer to that question lies with the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”
Depending on who you talk to in our society, you will get different answers when you ask someone to define truth. Most people will have a difficult time answering the question. Some will tell you that there really is no such thing as truth—that truth is simply something that religion has invented; kind of like a unicorn, a neat idea, but purely made up. Some will go into a long philosophical speech about the nature of truth and knowledge—trying to sound smart enough that you’ll just leave them alone. Still others will try to differentiate between facts and truth—saying that facts are the way things really are (like historical fact and scientific fact) while truth is just the way each person perceives the world. It seems a better definition is that truth is what actually corresponds to reality. In other words, the statement “the car is blue” is true only if the car really is blue. But the fact of the matter is that I believe everyone already knows what truth is, even if they can’t put it into words.
You may have heard someone say, “You’ve got to do what’s right for you.” Lots of people claim this to be the standard we should live by. But I contend they don’t really believe what they say. We all expect others to live by a certain set of laws, just as we expect ourselves to do the same.
There was a philosophy professor who was teaching his class about the nature of truth. He argued that there is a standard of truth that all men must live up to, whether they admit it or not. One very intelligent student in his class argued with him on this point. He claimed that it was arrogant for one person to try to force their definition of “truth” onto another person. No argument the professor made would convince this student. So, at the end of the semester, after the papers were turned in and the final exams were graded, the professor assigned the student a grade of F.
When the student saw his grade, he was irate, and he came in to see the professor. He asked why he had been assigned such a low grade. The professor explained that the student had gotten the highest scores all semester, but he’d decided to give the student an F. Now the student’s blood began to boil, “That’s not fair!” he screamed. “If you don’t change my grade, I’m going to tell the dean, the school’s president, I’ll alert the media and protest on campus. You can’t do this. It’s not right, and you know it!”
The professor smiled and said, “So, I guess you believe in absolute truth after all.” The student stood stunned—he was smart enough to realize the professor was right. He was appealing to some objective standard of truth. The professor (knowing it was indeed wrong to give the student an F) promptly changed the grade to the A this student had earned. And the student walked away with a new understanding of truth.
Most of us believe certain things are right and wrong for all people at all times. We believe it is wrong to kill other people, it is wrong to take something from other people, it is wrong to abuse weaker parties (like an adult to a child or a healthy person to a sick person). We don’t have to be told these things, we already know them. We don’t have to tell other people about them, because we assume they already know them too. So, how does this work? How do we determine which things are truth and which are just our preferences?
The Origin of Truth
Where does this truth come from? Who decides what is true and what isn’t? There are three different answers proposed:
- That we must each determine our own truth.
- That our culture determines its own truth.
- Truth is absolute for all people.
Not all of these views are viable. The idea that truth is different for each person doesn’t work—people claim this position, but they don’t really believe it. This is precisely what the student in the story I mentioned earlier claimed to believe—but it turns out it was just a smokescreen.
If truth is defined by our culture, then our culture can’t claim that another culture is doing something wrong. The slaughter of 6 million Jews under the Nazi regime would not be “wrong” because it was acceptable to their culture. So a cultural view of truth is also inadequate.
This means that there must be some form of absolute truth, and the question is who determines what the truth is? No human being can do that, we are all equal to each other. This truth must come from outside of human beings—we would call the One who defines truth God.
Of course, not everyone believes in God, which is really the problem that our culture faces. Most people who reject this idea of truth do not do so because they find the evidence to be lacking, but because they don’t like the notion of God. It isn’t that they have a better explanation for truth; it’s that they have decided that the existence of God is not an option, so they look for other explanations. The only explanation that makes sense is that God has determined right from wrong—whether you want to believe it or not.
So now the question is how do we know how God defines truth? God’s truth can be found in the Bible. There are some who want to argue that we can’t trust the Bible. There is plenty of evidence to support the Bible as being historically accurate (as a matter of fact, there has never been an archaeological discovery that has proven the Bible to be historically inaccurate!). The Bible gives us an accurate description of the life of Jesus, and Jesus claimed that the Bible was God’s word. Why should we trust Jesus? Because he died and then came back to life 3 days later! No one (including the Jewish leaders who killed him) was ever able to disprove Jesus’ resurrection. If he had still been dead, it would have been pretty easy to discredit his disciples. Jesus showed himself to be God in human form, so we should trust his view of the Bible.
Faulty Truth in Action
We’ve talked a lot about the theoretical aspects of truth, and while the theoretical aspects of truth are important, they are worthless unless we can apply them to our lives. So, what effect does absolute truth have on our lives?
I think one way to look at the effect of truth is actually to go back to Pilate and see the effect of a faulty view of truth. Pilate felt that he was able to make a judgment about Jesus’ guilt or innocence. After examining Jesus, he declared that he found no charge against the man. In other words, Pilate was declaring that it would be wrong for him to hand out a death sentence against this man.
Fast forward just a couple of minutes. When he sought to release Jesus, the Jews pushed harder for Pilate to punish him. One moment Pilate was saying it was wrong to punish Jesus, the next he was handing down a death sentence.
When truth is anchored to our feelings, it becomes slippery and changes with the situation. We see this played out in the lives of many people, like the businessman who overcharges his customers but expects his employees to accurately report their hours. A proper understanding of truth, however, plays out differently.
When we embrace an objective and God-given standard of truth several things happen. First, we see that truth is the same for everyone in every situation. This means that there are definite standards of right and wrong, and they apply to everyone. It’s the same standard for:
- The rich and the poor
- Americans and the rest of the world
- Adults and children
- Christians and non-Christians
We are all subject to the same standards of truth—whether we choose to recognize it or not.
Second, if there is One who determines absolute truth, then we are subject to Him. If God has set up rules about how our lives are supposed to be lived, then we must answer to Him when we choose to rebel against him. It is a lot like a government. A government makes the laws of the land and also enforces them. They not only define the laws which must be followed, but also the penalty that exists for breaking those laws.
God has done the same thing. He has set up standards for us to live by and says that there is a penalty when we break the law. God calls these crimes sin. The effects of sin are long reaching. Listen to how Barbara Brown Taylor puts it,
The essence of sin is not [primarily] the violation of laws but a wrecked relationship with God, one another, and the whole created order. “All sins are attempts to fill voids,” wrote Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but only God may fill [it].
It is because of sin that we experience both physical and spiritual death. Spiritual death means being separated from God; the result is that we are constantly searching for fulfillment—but apart from God, there really is no fulfillment. If nothing changes, we will be searching in vain for fulfillment forever, not just until our earthly lives end but for all eternity.
Third, it means we are not graded on a curve. Suppose you took a person to court because they stole some very valuable items from you. The judge hears both sides, then looks at the person’s record and says, “This person has done a lot of good things in their life, and most of the time they don’t steal from people, so I declare him not guilty.” You would be furious. You would claim that the judge was being unjust. And you’d be right. Yet, we seem to think that is how God will deal with us. God examines every deed we have done objectively, which is what is fair.
Here’s the problem. You and I recognize that when we are judged fairly, we deserve to be punished. Every one of us has at times lived in such a way that we have rebelled against God. What we deserve is condemnation, Hell for all of eternity.
I hope you can see that there is a lot at stake here. We need to examine our beliefs to see if they really make sense. A scientific statement cannot be considered true unless it stands up to close scrutiny. If a scientist holds to a position they aren’t willing to have examined, they are a bad scientist and will be discredited. If their theory is really true, then no number of experiments can disprove it—as a matter of fact, each time an experiment fails to disprove the theory it becomes even stronger. We need to test our views of truth—to test our beliefs to see if they are valid.
But aren’t we called to live by faith? Yes, but not a blind faith. Look back at our Old Testament reading. When Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, he asked them to look at the evidence and see what was true. He asked them to test their beliefs and his beliefs and see which one stood firm. Each of us needs to be willing to examine our own beliefs. Ask yourself, what do I believe to be true and why do I believe that? Look at the evidence that supports your position, and if necessary revise it to fall in line with the truth.
Jesus said the truth will set us free. In America, we have this sense that freedom means that no one can tell you what to do; but I think that misses the point. Think about it like this, a fish is freest when it is confined to the water. The fish could demand that in order to be free it must be allowed to go on land, but it will quickly discover that it really isn’t free on the land, because it wasn’t designed to function on land. A train is freest while it is confined to its tracks. The train could complain that it isn’t free because it can’t drive on the roads. What would happen if you put a locomotive on a road? It would sink in and be stuck, not being able to go anywhere!
The same is true with our lives. We claim that we aren’t free unless we can live our lives any way we choose, but God designed us. He knows the way that we can be most free. We can trust in His judgment, because He knows what will happen if we ignore the guidelines He has given. When we recognize that God’s commands are true and live our lives by them, we experience freedom.
The point that Jesus was trying to make with Pilate is that truth is really not found in a set of laws. Truth is a person. When we have a proper understanding of truth, we recognize that we deserve condemnation. There is really no hope for us, but Jesus came to earth and lived a sinless life so that he might offer his life as a sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus came to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus is the Truth we long for and need. If you will trust Him by acknowledging your sinfulness and committing to make Jesus the number one priority in your life then you can be forgiven; and you can be truly free.
While it’s nice to think that truth can be whatever we feel like, that’s a delusion—and if we look closely, we’ll discover that we don’t really believe it—we know there is absolute truth. It would be easy to simply dismiss this whole truth thing as philosophical double-talk, but it’s much more than that. Our understanding of truth makes up the foundation of our lives. As in building a house, if the foundation is bad, the rest of the structure is bad. If your foundation is based on a lie or a delusion, then when life’s struggles come, answers will be elusive, and as you search for them you will just be chasing your tail. If your foundation is firm, if your life is based on God’s truth, then when the trials come you can face life confidently and you can find answers to life’s most difficult questions.