LET’S TALK ABOUT THE TRUTH
Written by Doug Ponder on April 16, 2015
Poisoning the Truth
The root cause of many problems facing our society today is the rejection of truth. We reject the existence of truth, the knowability of truth, and the universality of truth. In other words, we don’t think that truth exits. If it does exist, we’re pretty sure that no one can really know it. And even if truth could be known, we’re very sure that truth is not true for everyone, everywhere.
That cocktail of lies produces a certain way of thinking that goes something like this:
“That can’t be true because it doesn’t work for me.”
“People should keep their beliefs to themselves.”
“It is wrong to say that anyone else is wrong.”
“You have your truth, but I have my truth.”
“That is true for you but not for me.”
“Truth is what you make it.”
“Truth is just perspective.”
“Believe whatever you like.”
These sorts of comments are illogical and ultimately unlivable. Though God created us to be truth-seekers, in our sin we have come truth-twisters. Specifically, our sin has led us to misunderstand truth in three ways:
1. We have made truth relative.
2. We have made truth subjective.
3. We have made truth pragmatic.
Truth Is Not Relative
The idea that “truth” is relative is best expressed in the phrase, “That’s true for you, but not for me.” Or perhaps, “You have your truth, but I have my truth.”
The idea is that you believe one thing, while I believe something else—and that settles it. We each have our own beliefs, and neither of us is wrong. We are both right, even though we disagree!
There are two problems here. First, truth deals with reality, with the way things actually are. Therefore, if something is true, it is true for everyone, everywhere. Second, beliefs are not the same thing as truth. Belief doesn’t make something true; truth makes a belief true.
Consider the following example. Two people disagree about whether or not George Washington was a person whose existence is a fact of American history. One person says, “I believe George Washington was real.” The other person says, “I believe George Washington never existed. He was fabricated by later historians.”
One of these people is correct, and the other person is wrong. George Washington either existed, or he didn’t. There is no third option. Since the two people possess contradictory beliefs, they cannot both be right.
Now suppose all the facts are weighed and considered by a panel of experts who conclude that, yes, George Washington was a real historical figure. Then suppose the second person responded, “Well, he may be real for you, but he’s not real to me!” We can all see the problem with this way of thinking.
Yet this silly example overlooks the very real dangers of this way of thinking. To press the point a bit further, consider the abortion debate in America. One side believes that unborn children are to be protected and given the same rights as others because they are human beings. The other side says, “It is not for us to force our view on others. We cannot tell people that they must believe an unborn child is a person.”
The trouble, as it should now be clear, is that one side is talking about truth while the other side is still talking about relativistic beliefs. One side is arguing that the reality of an unborn child’s life makes it a human being—whether the mother or the government believes it or not. The other side seems to think that whatever someone believes is “true for them.”
But something cannot be “true for me and not for you.” Either the unborn child is a human being worthy of the rights we extend to all human beings, or else it is not a human being worthy of protection. Either abortion is murder, or it is not murder. Either it is wrong, or it is not wrong. There is no third option. Only relativism dupes us into thinking that something could be “true” for one person and not another. As we have seen, anything that actually is true is always true for all people in all times and places. The truth is universally true.
Truth Is Not Subjective
The subjectivity of truth deals with how we know whether something is true or not. Subjectivism holds that something is true because we feel it or experience it, and our perception is what makes something real or not.
Consider the following example. In The Jungle Book, the boy Mowgli was raised by a pack of wolves. He lived among them, acted like them, ate what they ate, and so forth. The story says that he even thought of himself as a wolf, and much of the plot revolves around him discovering that he was not, in fact, a wolf.
Subjectivism says, however, that Mowgli was a wolf because he thought of himself as a wolf, lived as a wolf, experienced life as a wolf, etc. His perception was reality, subjectivists say.
Yet Mowgli was not a wolf. His DNA was as human as yours and mine, and acting like a wolf could not change even one molecule of his true identity. His perception was wrong, no matter how strongly he thought of himself as a wolf. This is because truth deals with reality, not with perception.
Sometimes we encounter thoughts or ideas that may perceive to be true, and we may even act upon them as if they were true, but our perception and our actions do not make them true. What makes something true is whether it really exists in a specific way, not whether we perceive it rightly, or even at all.
For example, the sun shines all the time, even though at night we cannot see it. The sun shines even for those who are blind and will never see it. The reality of the sun determines this, not our ability to see the sun.
In the same way, a boy with an X and Y chromosome is male in every way, even if he thinks of himself as female. His perception does not make his feelings true; it only shows that we can perceive things wrongly. In other words, perception does not change reality. Perception only changes our interaction with reality. Reality is what it is. Truth is what is true in reality. Truth does not depend upon perception.
So someone who “feels like” God would never be a certain way or do a certain thing must see that God is who God is and does what he does. And God tells us plainly about both through the life of Jesus and the Scriptures that bear witness to him. Someone’s perception of God can be quite wrong, but it will never change who God is—not even for that person. God is still God. He is what he is, all false perceptions of him be damned.
Truth Is Not Pragmatic
The belief that truth is pragmatic is perfectly expressed in the statement, “This is what works for me.” Even if the speaker does not realize it, those words reflect the belief that truth is “what works” instead of what is real.
The pragmatic view of truth is championed by author Rob Bell. In an interview with Christian Post, Bell explains that he began to doubt God’s existence because “I realized the conceptions that I have of God weren’t working for me… Some of the dogmatic conceptions I had simply didn’t work anymore.”
When the beliefs of Christians around the world no longer “worked” for Bell, he was faced with either abandoning belief in the God of the Bible or reinventing God in his own image. Bell opted for the latter: “Through that experience of coming face to face with the possibility that we are alone here and there really is no point, I came to find new understandings of God.”
Notice that it was not new evidence, encountering new logical arguments, or even new experiences that changed Bell’s mind. It was simply a choice to find “a new understanding of God” that “worked” for him.
That would be like someone saying to their spouse, “The way you look just doesn’t work for me anymore. So I can either move on from this relationship, or I can put on these special glasses that let me see you in whatever way most appeals to me. And I just want you to know that I love you so much that I’m going to go with the glasses, instead of leaving you.”
Aside from being rude, the person in that example completely misses the fact that reality is true even if he does not like it. To say, “That doesn’t do it for me” or “That doesn’t work for me anymore” does not change reality, it only expresses our feelings about it. Yet the truth is still true, even if we don’t like it.
Obama really is the president, even if he doesn’t “work” for some people. God really is the way he reveals himself in the Scriptures, even if that no longer “works” for Rob Bell and others who have blindly followed him into dangerous confusion.
Christians must be careful here, for many have a tendency to talk about the gospel as if it’s true because it “works.” They say things like, “Try Jesus! He worked for me!” The reality is that the gospel “works” because it is true, but it’s not true because it works.
Grace and Truth
The God who made this world is the Lord of truth. He made reality to be the way it is, and he himself has an unchangeable nature that has been revealed forever in the life of Jesus and in the Scriptures that bear witness to him. But God is also the Lord of grace. This means it’s not enough to believe that truth is universal (instead of relative), objective (instead of subjective), and real (instead of pragmatic). Satan himself knows the truth is all those things, but he is no better off for believing them. Thus we must also see that the God of truth is truly gracious. He has taken the punishment for our sins upon himself, and he has declared us—in truth!—to be righteous through our union with him.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.