Many years ago at a public trial, the judge who was in charge of the proceedings asked a difficult question.
It’s a question that has perplexed countless millions of people, almost since time began. His question: “What is truth?” The man asking was Pontius Pilate, and the person he was directing the question to was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had just told this Roman official that He came to bear witness to the truth. Then comes Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
Now, it is hard to know if Pilate really wants to get his hands on truth and reality, or if it’s just a question for mocking the Lord. At any rate, it is a question that many still ask today: “What is truth? How can we know for sure what’s real?”
And finding truth is so difficult because of who dominates this age, the devil. In John 8 Jesus calls him a liar, and “the father of lies,” opposing all that is true. In a world where Satan still prowls, notions of truth will always be under attack. People agonize over it: “Is this behaviour right? Can we say it’s really wrong? Where is God, and who is God—or is there even a god? What is truth?”
While that question hasn’t gone away, it’s also the spirit of this age to say that no one has a monopoly on the truth, no one can control or define it for others. In that respect, at least, there is some confidence: people think they know what is not true. Anything claiming to be absolute truth cannot be true. Christians face a deep-seated hostility against our positions and values because we affirm one God, one Saviour, one truth revealed in Scripture.
“There is No God”
The popular rejection of truth has received high-level support through those representing what is called the “New Atheism.” It’s called “new” because atheism has always existed; there have always been people who say, “There is no God” (Ps 14:1). But in most times and countries, atheism was a minority position and one generally viewed with suspicion. With the “New Atheism,” there has been a bold resurgence in the rejection of God, and it has been made into an intellectually acceptable—and even popular—view of reality.
Writers including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have put forward persuasive arguments for dismissing all forms of belief in God. They contend that in our scientific and rational age, it has actually become impossible to believe in God—impossible in the sense that there are not only alternatives to the biblical worldview, but these alternatives are far superior. Belief in God belongs to an infantile period of human development, and it’s time to grow up!
To be sure, the New Atheists argue for the dismissal of other religions too, but because of Christianity’s dominant position historically, they are emphatic in rejecting the God of the Bible.
Not everyone reads the books written by sceptic philosophers, but everyone faces daily questions revolving around truth. They’re on a search for a sense of coherence and meaning, crafting a way to understand reality.
It doesn’t have to be consistent or well thought-out, either. Your average person picks up ideas here and there that he likes, reading it in a best-selling book, or hearing it in a song by Taylor Swift, or seeing it online—ideas that seem valid and workable. One person likes the idea of “karma,” that you should treat people right, because what goes around, comes around. Another person’s creed is: “The most important thing is that you’re happy.”
When a society rejects God and his revelation, people also come to invest great authority into certain ideals, like personal liberty or equality or environmentalism. These ideologies become quasi-authorities that function like religious doctrines. Instead of accepting God’s revelation, people invent alternative explanations for the world or find substitute goals for human existence. The undercurrent of much of this is an acceptance of relativism, that every person has a right to adopt their own values.
Consequences of a Truth-less World
All of this has consequences, of course. Take Pontius Pilate as an example. Because he rejected the truth, he seems to have been a person who lived with fear and uncertainty. What we know about him from the gospels and other sources indicates that he was a slave to the will of the majority, or to the will of the powerful.
And that is still the case today: when a person rejects absolute truth, they lose essential equipment for leading a good life, a life that is secure, intentional, and meaningful—and they are cast adrift.
· Truth provides us with a stable moral framework for decisions. It means I know what is right, what is wrong; what is to be valued or dismissed. I can make most moral decisions with confidence. But without that stable framework, a person will be confused and subject to a multitude of influences: conflicted by those powerful thoughts of self-interest, still having an awareness of other people, needing a voice of authority but facing a lack of clarity. Without truth, how do you ever know what is right?
· Truth unites us with other people who are similarly devoted to it and who are willing to submit to it. A common cause and foundation can forge a bond between people that is incredibly strong—just think about the church, a diverse group of people, but bonded together in a powerful way. Relativism, however, when strictly applied, is isolating: “I will only do what’s right for me, and your truth might be different than mine.” Without a shared truth, you’re on your own.
· Truth gives us a purpose and direction for life. Every morning I wake up, and I know why I’m on this earth. As followers of Christ we’re busy with something bigger than us, and part of something that will last far longer than our short lives. Without the purpose that is imparted by absolute truth, a person is left to pursue whatever is favoured by his emotions and desires at the time. Without truth, you’re aimless.
· Truth releases us from guilt because it reveals Jesus Christ, the object of saving faith. Without that most precious truth, a person will forever be burdened by the weight of his sin and his alienation from God the Creator. Without truth, you die.
· Truth gives understanding. This world is a complicated, contradictory and confusing place, but God’s truth gives us a right framework for understanding. We can put things in their proper place, and can have a reliable perspective even on things that are beyond us. But if you give that up, and consistently take a relativist perspective on this life, you’ll crumble in confusion and uncertainty. If all truth is subjective, then how can you ever know anything? Without truth, you’re ignorant.
Discarding truth will lead to pain, and ignoring the design and intention of the perfectly wise Creator will never end well. But living in the misery and confusion of having no truth doesn’t have to be the way it remains.
God’s Revelation of the Truth
It is a great miracle—a privilege greater than anything else—that the living God speaks to us! We take it for granted that the Creator of heaven and earth is interested in revealing himself to us in his glory. Yet the all-knowing God discloses perfect truth to little earthlings; the all-powerful God condescends to mortal sinners by speaking in our own language with words that are infallible.
Moses expressed something of this miracle when he said in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” God has “secret things,” mysteries of his counsel and providence which we could never hope to comprehend—yet God has also “pulled back the curtain” on aspects of his will and way so that we may know his truth.
Or listen to what David prays in Psalm 25:8-9,
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He teaches sinners in the way. The humble He guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way.
This is what God does: He reveals truth.
Understand well the nature of the truth that God reveals. It’s not just true insofar as it touches on matters of salvation, as some argue—true for the church, but not for the laboratory, or the courtroom, or the bedroom. God’s truth is true in everything it affirms, whether that concerns human history, world origins, the meaning of life, or medical ethics. You could say that God’s truth is completely true. And because He is Creator and Lord, it is also the only truth.
A Total Truth
In Nancy Pearcey’s wonderful book, Total Truth (Crossway, 2004) she argues that Scripture teaches a grand conception of truth which comprises all things. Our tendency as Christians is to see the world in bits and pieces, not with an overarching perspective. We worry about things like family breakdown, or the wrong use of technology, or environmental degradation—each of them important, but ultimately as an isolated issue. We don’t see the big picture where all the dots are connected. God’s revelation, however, provides the framework for understanding everything: the world, our life, the future. In any field, the way to construct a Christian worldview perspective is to ask three sets of questions:
1) Creation: How was this aspect of the world originally created? What was its original nature and purpose?
2) Fall: How has this aspect of the world been twisted and distorted by the fall? How has it been corrupted by sin and false worldviews? Cut off from God, creation tends to be divinized or demonized—made into either an idol or an evil.
3) Redemption: How can we bring this aspect of the world under the lordship of Christ, restoring it to its original and beautiful created purpose?
This is God’s way of looking at the universe, and it should be our way. This framework helps to make sense of everything we see, and also helps to expose the weaknesses of other worldviews.
In fact, Pearcey argues that almost every worldview or ideology answers the same set of questions: questions concerning our origins (who are we and how did we get here?), about evil (what has gone wrong with this world?), and about hope (what’s going to set the world right again?). The questions are almost always the same, but the Christian’s answers are very different—because they are true.
Next time, we’ll see what difference this makes for our life and our witness to the world.