In contemporary culture truth decay is a massive problem. That idea that there is fixed, absolute truth which applies to us all is rejected by most people. In terms of what we can know, black and white has been replaced by ninety-nine shades of grey.
Even more worrying is the fact that many people in the churches no longer believe in objective truth either. The church is meant to be the “pillar and ground of the truth” as Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 3:15. Yet far too many churches today are awash with relativism, scepticism and uncertainty about even the basic Christian doctrines.
Gladly not every church has been infected by these modern trends. Indeed, I just read today of one church which gave its pastor the flick after he performed a homosexual wedding. At least this congregation put truth well ahead of political correctness.
When Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” (John 18:38), he asked him a vitally crucial question. Yet sadly he did not bother to hang around for the answer. This is also the case with far too many people today. Scripture speaks often to this absence of truth, and the absence of interest in truth:
-“Truth is nowhere to be found.” (Isaiah 59:15)
-“This is the nation that has not obeyed the LORD its God or responded to correction. Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips.” (Jeremiah 7:28)
-“Falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land.” (Jeremiah 9:3)
-“They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:4)
Jesus and the New Testament especially emphasise the importance of truth. As Jesus so forthrightly proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the father but by me” (John 14:6). Indeed, in the same encounter with Pilate Jesus said this: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).
All up, the phrase “the truth” is used around 152 times in the New Testament, of which some 48 instances occur in the Gospel of John. God is a God of truth, so truth is vitally important. To know God is to know the truth. To reject God is to believe a lie.
So just what exactly is truth anyway? In his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics Norman Geisler offers a helpful list of what truth is and is not, so I base my following remarks roughly on what he has written.
What truth is not
1. Truth is not what works. Pragmatism says an idea is true if it works. Cheating and lying often work, but that does not make them true. How do we measure what works? Says Geisler, “An idea is not true because it works; it works because it is true.”
2. Truth is not what feels good. Mysticism and subjectivism both affirm personal feelings as the basis of truth. But feelings can be misleading. And if two person’s feelings conflict, who decides whose is true? Feelings may or may not correspond with what is true.
3. Truth is not whatever you want it to be. Relativism says that truth is whatever I declare it to be. But no one can live this way. If I say a traffic light is green when it is really red, there will be serious consequences. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
4. Truth is not just what we perceive with the senses. Empiricism says that only what we can measure empirically (with the five senses) is true. But truth is more than this. What about things like beauty and truth and justice and love? They cannot be discovered by the five senses. Plus our senses can mislead us.
5. Truth is not what the majority believe. Majoritarianism says truth is what most people agree to. But the crowd can be wrong. Most Germans believed Hitler was right in the 30s and 40s. But they were clearly wrong. Truth is not based on majority vote. Indeed, truth can easily not be known by the majority.
What truth is
1. Truth is universal. Truth is something true for all people, for all places, for all times. Different cultures, different historical eras, different nationalities, do not change what truth is.
2. Truth is absolute. It is not relative. An absolute is needed for standards. There can be no standards without absolutes. Indeed, there can be no measurement without absolutes. A builder knows that if he wants a number of pieces of lumber the same exact size, he will use one piece as the standard.
3. Truth is objective. It is “independent of the knower and his consciousness” as Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli put it. It is not based on subjective feelings or personal opinions. Truth does not reside in us or in our opinions. Personal experience is not the basis of truth. Truth is something that is external to us. We discover truth that already exists. We don’t make it up or create it.
4. Truth corresponds with reality. It corresponds to the way things really are. Truth is what corresponds to the actual state of affairs being described. Truth is ‘telling it like it is’.
5. Truth is based on God. God is the basis of truth. Only God provides an unchanging, universal reality upon which truth is based.
6. Truth is personal. Truth is more than just abstract theories and propositions. Truth is something that demands a personal response. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew root usually translated true or truth means ‘something which can be relied upon’ or ‘someone who can be trusted’ as Alister McGrath notes.
7. Truth is knowable. We may not know truth exhaustively, but we can know true truth. God has made us and the world in such a way that truth can be known. That is, while the finite can never grasp the infinite, if the infinite takes the initiative and reaches out to the finite, then that infinite truth can be known to some extent.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to “speak the truth in love.” The truth is what sets people free, as Jesus said (John 8:32). Truth is the desperate need of the hour. Now is not the time to neglect truth, soften truth, or apologise for truth. Now is the time to proclaim it boldly and forthrightly.
As Francis Schaeffer wrote in A Christian Manifesto: “Here is the great evangelical disaster – the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this – namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.”
And the world needs a church which stands strong on truth. The world has largely abandoned the concept of truth, and if the church starts caving in here, then we have nothing to offer it. People in the world today are asking the same question that Pilate asked long ago. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in God in the Dock:
“One of the greatest difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true, but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True-or False’ into stuff about a good society, or morals, or incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish inquisition, or France, or Poland—or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus you will be able to undermine…their belief that a certain amount of ‘religion’ is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Christianity is about the truth. When we minimise or downplay truth, we no longer have biblical Christianity. People today are dying for a lack of truth. We must offer truth to people like we would offer food to a starving man. But some will reject the truth and be offended by our offering of it.
It matters not. As Martin Luther put it, “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” And as Messianic Rabbi Jonathan Cahn put it recently, “Without truth there is no love.” So we must be people of truth. We must live it, believe it and proclaim it.