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What is Truth?

Question: Why is the world falling apart? Answer: because truth is lacking!


"Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the street ... Yes, truth is lacking ..." (Isa 59.14,15)


"Some things are true and some things are false
- but there are many persons who evidently do not believe it." (Charles H. Spurgeon)


"Truth conquers all." (John Hus, Protestant Reformer)


Truth: Let's Try and Define It

To many, the concept of truth is deep, esoteric and indefinable. In fact, it has been said that "The discovery of truth is the sole purpose of philosophy". Clearly, we are in deep water on such a topic. Let's try and avoid deep philosophy and simply ask "What is our everyday perception of truth?". Would you say the statement "6 is less than 7" is true? Of course you would, since you are applying the common rule of mathematics. The statement is verified as true by a universally accepted fact. Would you say the statement "light travels faster than sound" is true? Of course you would, since you are applying a scientifically known fact. Would you say the statement "The Roman Empire existed" is true? Again, of course you would since you are basing your answer upon historical fact. Here then we have a basic defintion of truth:

A statement is true if it agrees with established fact - with what is really there - with reality.

In other words, if you say "It is" and it is in reality, then you speak the truth. The statement must be accurate and correct to be true. The philosopher Kant put it more succinctly: "Truth is the agreement of knowledge with its object". Note that this definition of truth does not rely upon opinion or belief, so we are on weak ground if we say something is true since we believe it by faith i.e. without establishing the facts! Let's consider another example. Since John is taller than Mary and Mary is taller than Sue, then we can state "John is taller than Sue". This is true because it is logically correct. So we can say:

'For a statement to be true it must agree with knowledge (fact or reality), or be logically correct, or both, depending upon the context.'

Relativism and Pluralism

Now suppose Mary (a Christian) says she worships a personal God, whilst John (a Pantheist) says he worships a God who is in everything and everyone, and that God is not personal. Who is speaking the truth? It is possible neither of them is speaking the truth, but what we can say is that both cannot be speaking the truth. We can say this because the law of non-contradiction says:

Two contradictory propositions cannot both be true at the same.

This law is a problem for the Postmodernist concept of relativism, namely, "there is no ultimate truth; truth is relative to persons, times, circumstances or culture". Clearly, the statement "you must drive on the left hand side of the road" is true in the UK but not in France. Yes, in such cases 'truth' is culture dependent - it is a 'local' truth. But what about the universal truth being discussed by Mary and John? The relativist would say that both Mary and John can be equally correct since "truth is relative to the individual". But this is saying that two contradictory propositions ("God is personal" and "God is not personal") can be true at the same time - which violates the law. Hence relativism in this particular context is false and misleading. Relativism is also logically incorrect. Since it maintains that truth is relative to the individual, then relativism has to state that there are no absolute truths. But the statement "there are no absolute truths" is itself an absolute i.e. definitive statement which is supposed to be true. So how can we believe it when we are told "there are no absolute truths"? The statement is illogical. Relativism is therefore not true because:

  • it is logically incorrect (see the above definition of 'truth')
  • and it violates the law of non-contradiction

We have just discussed 'cognitive' relativism i.e. the false concept that all truth is relative. Today's world also holds fast to 'moral' relativism, namely, "morals are relative to culture and society - so all morals are equally valid". This is an important area since it raises the question of what is right and what is wrong (ethics).

What about religious pluralism? This line of thought maintains that all religions are equally valid ways to God. In the name of 'tolerance' it says, for example, "your way through Jesus is true", and "my way through meditation is true". Is this true? As they stand, these two statements are not contradictory and so do not violate the law of non-contradiction. Pluralism seems to avoid conflict with this law simply because it has nothing of substance to say re the way to God. It has no confidence in the concept of truth. But the statement "all religions are equally valid ways to God" can be proved false if we can establish that 'absolute' truth exists and that this truth contradicts the statement. This follows since two contradictory propositions cannot both be true at the same time.

Apologetics of Absolute Truth

As we have just seen, logically, absolute truth must exist. If it doesn't, then you can't believe absolutely that there is no absolute truth! At best you could only state that it is possible absolute truth does not exist. We could also use the knowledge (factual) approach to absolute truth. Consider the contradictory statements of John and Mary. These cannot be tested by mathematics or science or simple logic since they are dealing with a concept (the personality of God) beyond such techniques. But can at least one statement be tested by knowledge or established fact? If it can then may be we could establish which of the two statements is true, assuming one is true.

Example of Absolute Truth

Consider Mary's statement that "God is personal" (recall that John says God is impersonal). For Mary to say this she could have experienced a personal, unambiguous, provable interaction with God. For example, she could have been instantly healed from a severe medical condition after public prayer. Occasionaly this does happen (read about the ministry of Smith Wigglesworth in the 1920's!).

But like many of us, Mary could base her statement on the historical records in the Bible. There are numerous instances of God interacting with individuals or groups of people. For example, in response to cries to God, we read of the release of the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 12.31), the walls of Jericho falling flat when certain conditions were fulfilled (Joshua 6.20), David defeating Goliath in the name of the Lord (1 Samuel 17.41-50), and Daniel receiving divine revelation of Nebuchadrezzar's dream (Daniel 2.19). In the New Testament we read of Paul's dramatic conversion on the Damascus road (Acts 9.1-9), and Peter's miraculous deliverance from prison (Acts 12.6-11). Each of these events was in the public domain, and so cannot be the fabrication of an individual. To discount an event we would have to discount the witness of all the people involved.

Of course, the historical accuracy - even the reality - of these events could be questioned. How do we know these biblical accounts are not just myths? We know they are real (true) from a wealth of archaeological evidence. To quote several well-know archaeologists:

"The narratives of the patriarchs, of Moses and the exodus, and of the conquest of Canaan, of the judges, the monarchy, exile and restoration, have all been confirmed and illustrated to an extent that I should have thought impossible forty years ago." W. F. Albright
"...it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible." N. Glueck

So we accept the biblical accounts on the basis of historical fact; they are true, they actually happened. But was God involved? Afterall, an earthquake might have occurred by chance just when the Israelites blew their trumpets and shouted, so felling the walls of Jericho. And David might just have been very lucky with his sling. We cannot prove that God was involved at each event, but if John tries to remove God from these (and many other) quite extraordinary historical events, he would have to generate some quite extraordinary explanations. Who told Daniel the King's dream for example, or who blinded Paul on the Damascus road? John needs to discredit these and the many other biblical examples in order to establish his case. On the basis of historical fact, Mary's case is the more credible, although it cannot be absolutely proven simply on historical grounds. The Bible claims her assertion is in fact an absolute truth - God is personal. Such truth is not relative to culture or time, it is outside the influence of man, it is non-negotiable.


The Source of Absolute Truth

We have just stated that many parts of the Bible have been verified as true by archaeological evidence. There is another way of establishing the truth of the Bible - from prophecy. More than 300 prophecies about Jesus were fulfilled at His first coming. They were proved true by historical fact. Similarly, prophecy concerning Israel and world events at the end of this age are being validated before our eyes; they are becoming reality (see Reality, or for a more in-depth look End Times). We could regard Bible prophecy as absolute truth since, again, it is non-negotiable - it is eventually fulfilled in detail.

The Bible maintains that the text is inspired by God. On this assertion it must be absolutely true if God is real and to be trusted. It also maintains that Jesus is divine and is part of the 'Godhead'. So, logically, Jesus is a source of absolute truth. In fact, Jesus claimed He is the only source of truth when He said:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life ..." (John 14.6)

What He is and what He said, He claimed to be absolutely true. Moreover, since Jesus referred to parts of the Old Testament as true, then we must logically accept those parts of the Bible as true, if not all of it. Again, His claim to truth must be tested against established knowledge, fact and/or logic. The fact that Jesus said He would rise again three days after His death (John 2.19) and that He was seen on ten different, independent occasions after His death (on one occasion by more than 500 people) establishes His prediction of His resurrection as absolutely correct. On this occasion at least, Jesus spoke absolute truth since it was born out by solid historical fact. Jesus also said:

"... no one comes to the Father (i.e. to God) but through Me" (John 14.6)

If we accept all proclamations of Jesus as absolutely true, including this one, then according to the law of non-contradiction, religious pluralism cannot be true. All religions are not equally valid ways to God.

Finally, some argue that "the only truth is that which can be scientifically proved". An atheist could take this viewpoint, and so maintain for example that "evolution is the only true explanation of our world since it is scientifically proved". The concept of creation is dismissed as unproven and so is untrue. But is this true? Is there is no uncertainty in such assertions? To be 'true', a statement has to be proved correct beyond all doubt. That is why we conceded that it cannot be proved that God is personal, even though the case is overwhelming just on the basis of historical fact. To be equally fair, evolutionists should admit that their case is not proved beyond all doubt, and that evolution is a theory rather than absolute truth (see Evolution). Some say that "truth is a word best avoided in science", whilst others speak of "tentative or approximate truth". This is because, on topics like evolution, science can never be absolutely certain since it is always developing. So, in this context, science cannot claim absolute truth; science is simply man's view of the reality of our world, rather than God's.


Graded Absolutism (Situational Ethics)

There are situations in life when there seem to be 'higher' and 'lower' absolute truths. Let us paraphrase one of Jesus' sayings: Jesus said, "if John divorces his wife Mary, except for the reason of unchastity, he makes her commit adultery ..." (Matthew 5.32). What is modern society to make of that? If the statement is just relative to the time and culture of Jesus' day i.e. it is relative truth, then we can ignore it today. But since Jesus claimed to be 'the truth', we must treat it as truth. Let's read it in context. The statement is made alongside statements on anger, lust, vows, retaliation and how you treat your enemy (Matthew 5.21-48). Each time Jesus is emphasising a better, more perfect way compared to the Old Testament Law on the matter, so 'fulfilling' the Law (Matthew 5.17). In the case of divorce, Jesus is proclaiming an absolute, timeless truth, namely, that God's ideal is for John and Mary to work hard at their marriage and not to treat divorce as an easy option. But since John is a Pantheist and doesn't believe in Jesus' sayings, Mary has a biblical way out. If John insists that the marriage is irretrievable and wishes to leave, then Mary is not under any absolute law. Rather, she is called to peace (1 Corinthians 7.15). Here we have an example where a great truth (the importance of the marriage bond) is replaced by a lesser truth, namely, that the partners are called to peace.

Consider another example. Suppose Mike was a Christian and in 1939 he was conscripted into the army. How should he read Jesus' words "I say to you, love your enemies ..." (Matthew 5.44)? Is this a command to be a pacifist? To confuse matters he reads in the Old Testament: " ... what does the Lord require of you but to do justice ..." (Micah 6.8), and "to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free ..." (Isaiah 58.6). Surely this is a call to combat the oppressor and so preserve justice? Again, this is an example of greater and lesser absolute truths (graded absolutism). The Old Testament is speaking truth, but Jesus is speaking a higher, more perfect truth. God's ideal is to love the oppressor, but in a less than perfect world Mike may well accept the injunction to 'let the oppressed go free'.

Today many nations are introducing or trying to introduce laws on 'Religious Hatred'. The essence of such a law is that a member of one faith must not say or write anything that could be construed as insulting to another. Under such a law it might be difficult for a Christian to say, for example, "Jesus is the only way to God" (see John 14.6). It could be argued that the Christian should then obey the law and "be in subjection to the authorities" (Romans 13.1). He or she should not say or write anything which could be construed as insulting. To obey the law of the land is absolutely correct and true. But Jesus called His followers to be salt and light in society and to go into all the nations and preach the gospel (Matthew 28.19). For a Christian this is also absolutely true and correct. This is another example where man has to choose between two truths. When placed in an identical situation the response of the followers of Jesus was to choose the higher truth:

"We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5.29)

There are other examples of higher and lower truths (graded absolutism) in the Bible. Perhaps the simplest and clearest example is Jesus' comment "this is the greatest and foremost commandment" (Matthew 22.38). Here He was effectively saying that, "whatever else you do, the most important truth to follow is this":

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." (Matthew 22.37)

It is important to realise that these examples are not illustrations of moral relativism. Rather, they are examples of higher and lower truths, and in general the Christian should aim for the higher truth (or law).



Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible