I am in the process of finishing up my second book which tackles the existence of suffering. But while in some conversations on the topic, I’ve encountered a challenging idea that I wanted to address here. Many people struggle with the perceived conflict of a good, loving God and the existence of evil and suffering. The explanation for how those two coexist encompasses the concept of man’s free will. We have the ability to make our own choices and thus at times we must face the consequences of those choices. Now, this reasoning doesn’t account for all types of suffering; there are many examples of suffering that is not due to our actions. But many times our suffering comes as the cost of making the choice to disobey God or the choice to sin. Not always, but sometimes. In those cases, our suffering may simply be the natural outflow of our actions. For example, if you choose to smoke your entire life, then the natural consequence may be that you develop certain types of cancers and diseases. That would be a natural consequence of your free-will decision to engage in that activity. Biblically, we could use Samson as an example of that. He chose to stay entangled with deceitful women and therefore eventually paid the price by being betrayed by one of those women.
Sometimes our suffering is a result of judgment for our free will choices. When your free-will choice is to violate the laws of the state, then you will face punishment for those crimes, which involves pain and suffering. Biblically, we know that God does judge against wickedness and sin. He passed severe judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah for their wicked ways. They freely chose to walk in disobedience, therefore, they faced suffering as a consequence of those choices. I see this constantly with my children. Out of their free will, they may choose to jump on the couch. They then face the natural consequence of falling and getting hurt, as well as the consequence of punishment when they get spanked for jumping on the furniture.
Why Free Will?
If God gave us free will to choose how we respond to Him yet knew we would suffer from our choices, then why did He give us free will in the first place? The short answer is that God wanted us to love. He didn’t make us to be robots only responding in obedience because we were forced to or obligated to. God desired loving fellowship from His creation. But to have love, it must be freely chosen and freely given. We can understand that in our earthly relationships as well. Love from another person is only real if the person has a choice to love or to not love. It is the same way with God. However, when we choose to not love God and to not walk in obedience then we suffer the consequences.
This line of reasoning can help us understand that God can exist even though there is suffering. However, recently I have encountered a new question in relation to this argument. What about when we die? As Christians, we share with people how in Heaven there are no more tears, no more pain. So is there free will in Heaven? If you answer yes, then why is there suffering here but not in Heaven? It says we are capable of having free will but not having suffering. But if you answer “no,” then apparently God does want robots programmed to obey Him. It says He would require people to love Him once they are in Heaven because He would have removed their free will.
On the surface it appears to be quite the conundrum. To answer this we must understand the doctrine of salvation. Even though there is a distinct moment of salvation for a believer that is not where it stops. Granted, the process of salvation may appear in some churches today to mean walking down to the front of the church and signing a membership card, but that is not it either. The process of salvation involves three phases: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Justification is a one-time work of God resulting in the believer’s salvation. The sinner confesses their sins before a just and holy God and receives the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. In that moment, they are declared innocent in God’s judgment over sin; they are justified through the payment made by Jesus on their behalf. Once the believer has been justified, then sanctification begins.
Sanctification is a process, beginning with justification and continuing throughout life. If justification is the starting point of the line that represents one’s Christian life, then sanctification is the line itself. At the point of justification, the believer becomes a “new creation” and the old things are to pass away (2 Cor. 5:17). What does that mean? It means we are no longer to live as slaves to sin but to live as God’s forgiven child. Paul describes this in Romans 6 as reckoning ourselves to be “dead indeed to sin, alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are not to let sin reign over us as though we are to obey its lusts. Instead we present ourselves as instruments of righteousness before God. However, we still live in a sinful and corrupt world. The threat of sin and temptation of the lusts of the flesh are all around us. Therefore we must daily die to ourselves, to put away those fleshly desires and to desire the righteousness which is from God. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” It is a continual thing where God is changing our hearts to no longer desire the sinful things of this world. He transforms us to desire the things of God.
What Does This Have to Do with Free Will?
What does this have to do with free will? Well, whether you have become a believer or not, you still have free will to choose disobedience or obedience to God. But once you have become a believer, your desires have changed to truly want to do the things of God. You now desire to please God instead of please yourself. According to Romans 8:5, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” Paul explains this again in Galatians 5:16-17, “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” There is this battle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit – and they are diametrically opposed. Once you have received justification in salvation then you are in the Spirit. The sanctification that follows is the process of growing the believer to desire the things of the Spirit. You can still freely choose disobedience but the desires of your heart are now to do the will of God instead of your own will.
But that is much easier said than done! The great apostle Paul even tells of this struggle. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:19-20) So Paul, having been justified, now desires to do the will of the Lord but because there is still sin here, he struggles and fails – as do the rest of us! It means I am not unique in my struggle of things of the flesh against things of the Spirit. He wants to do good, to obey God; and he wants to not do evil, to not disobey. Yet because of the presence of sin still in this world he finds himself doing the opposite. It is here where the believer longs for the final phase of our salvation: glorification.
Glorification: Our New Nature
Glorification is God's final removal of sin from the life of the believer in the eternal life. God’s glory will be realized in us; instead of being mortals burdened with sin nature, we will be changed into holy immortals with direct and unhindered access to God’s presence. It is the culmination of sanctification. We will no longer have that human nature that our spirits continually fight against. We will have a completely new nature.
We often think about it as one day receiving our glorified bodies that are free from disease, weakness, and frailty. But what makes those bodies free from disease, weakness, and frailty is existing in the absence of sin. And now we can start to see how we have free will in Heaven, yet no suffering there. Revisit the struggle that Paul describes. We desire to do good. We want to obey. But because of sin, we struggle. We are tempted, and we fail. What if those fleshly lusts and temptations were no longer around? What if you were free from the presence of sin? Then we can fully accomplish our true desire in our heart – which is to obey God and walk in His ways.
Look at the words from Hebrews 12:1-2 calling us to live our lives in godliness. The author says to, “Lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” So what if there were no weights anymore? What if there were no sin to easily ensnare us? Then we can live in that full godliness, in full obedience unto Christ. When we make those choices to walk with God, then there is no place for suffering. There is no suffering sin’s natural consequences if there is no sin. There is no suffering punishment for disobedience if no one disobeys. There is no need for trials to grow our faith and lead others to salvation if our faith is fully realized and all have salvation. There is no need for pain from discipline if we are all walking rightly with God. We will be unencumbered by the flesh to freely choose that which we truly desire, which is God. We will have free will and our will is to obey God. We will have no suffering because we will no longer stumble in our choice of obedience due to the presence of sin.
How do you feel about the word doctrine? What about the word theology? Doctrine is defined as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.” Theology is the study of God and His relation to the world. To folks today both of those sound pretty boring. Principles? Studying god? System of belief? Who cares as long as I feel something during worship? Why study about God when I sense His presence? Can’t we just be led by the Spirit without having to drag it down with doctrine, study, principles, and theology? The resounding answer to each of those questions is no. Absolutely not.
John 4:21-24 talks about how the true worshipers will worship God in spirit AND in truth. Why must it be both? Because if you are not worshiping in truth then you are worshiping a god of your own creation. You are worshiping what you want God to be and how you want God to relate to you. And that most likely is a false god. Charles Spurgeon once said, “I believe that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of the child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.” The most important thing you can do is study God. If you are going to devote your life to Him and worship Him, then you ought to know whom it is you are worshiping!
There are many examples in the Bible where the people are indeed worshiping in their “spirit” but certainly not in truth. But one of the clearest illustrations of where that leads is found in Exodus 32. Most of you are familiar with the general description of the story; it is where the Israelites have decided to make for themselves a golden calf to worship while Moses is still on the mountain with God. The last thing the Israelites had done (in Exodus 24) was commit to following the Lord and being obedient to Him. They participated in a ceremony of sacrifices and offerings committing themselves to this covenant. Moses, his aids, and the elders then witnessed the very glory of the presence of God. God’s presence covered the mountain like a cloud and His glory was like a consuming fire. But the people got impatient. In only a month’s time, they decided to make a god for themselves who would lead them. So Aaron, the future first High-Priest of the Israelites, gathers their jewelry, melts it down, and forms with an engraving tool a golden calf. They declared that to be their god – as the one who had led them out of Egypt!
Aaron announced that they would have a feast and offerings unto the Lord. They built an altar, made a feast to the Lord, and “rose up to play.” This phrase includes drunken and sexually immoral activities that went along with pagan worship. Yet they were doing this "to the Lord"? The Israelites not only made a false idol but were mixing false idol worship with worship to the true God (also known as syncretism). What an insult to the true God! Even if Aaron thought they were simply adding this golden calf to their worship of God, he was still violating the commands of God to have no other gods besides Him. You can’t add something to God and think that is ok. This shows us how important it is to worship in spirit and in truth. We might think, well, hey they were still worshiping, right? But that was not worshiping in truth. And worshiping in something other than the truth is idol worship. It makes a mockery of God. And God's response, had Moses not pleaded for mercy, was to destroy them for their sin. His wrath burned hot against them, and He was going to consume them. It shows us how serious this sin was. Sometimes it seems impossible that so soon after receiving the commandments and revelation of God that the Israelites could sink so low to mold a golden idol for themselves. But the Christian experience today is oftentimes the same. It might reveal something of the superficial nature of one’s faith how quickly they turn away from the truth. How often do we think we can set aside truth, that boring thing called doctrine and theology, to just worship in spirit? But it is our doctrine and theology that makes our worship in the spirit either honoring or dishonoring to God.
Because Moses delayed in those 40 days on the mountain with God, the Israelites abandoned the God who had rescued them, provided for them, sheltered them, and protected them. How long does it take us in our pain or in the perceived silence of God for us to turn away from him? How quickly do we turn back to our old ways of sin or our own strength and desires when we get impatient with God? How we handle God’s ordained delays is a good measure of our spiritual maturity. If we allow those delays to make us simply to take our eyes off Him, then we drift into sin. But if we allow such times to deepen our faith and strengthen our walk with God, then those times are of good use.
Granted, we don’t typically melt down our jewelry in idol worship but we can turn our hearts away just as easily. How can we consider this at play in our own culture then? How often do “churches” do worship that is only in spirit and not in truth? This is why we must be discerning about what we are taught and in what spirit we are worshiping. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about the ability to discern false prophets and false teachings. He says, “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” Satan, false prophets, and false teachers will disguise themselves as light. Satan wants the bad to appear to be good so that we will be all the more tempted by it. We are to therefore judge the spirit to see from where it came. John states in 1 John 4, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”
We see this discernment in the people of Berea when Paul came and preached the Gospel to them. They are praised for searching out to know if what Paul had taught was true. But they didn’t just sit around and think about it and decide based on their own feelings. The Bereans didn’t say, “Well, this just feels right to me.” Or “I had this great moment of experience and elation when I heard Paul talking so I’m going to follow what he says.” Not at all! We must then ask the question, “Based on what are we discerning?” In other words, in order to judge whether a line is straight or not, you must know the characteristics of a straight line. We only know when something is crooked because we have a concept of what straight is. Likewise, you can only judge whether or not something is from God if you know what things from God would be. We can’t judge based on our own concepts or ideals, we must judge them against something accurate, against some standard, to know whether it is from truth or not. So how did the Bereans do it? In Acts 17 it says they searched the Scriptures daily. They examined the Word of God every day to check it against what Paul was teaching. Keep in mind, at this point in time, the “Word of God” was only the Old Testament. They were doing that "boring drudgery" of studying God’s Word, reading the Scriptures, checking their doctrine, and assessing their theology. And they were called noble for doing it. That is why it is so important for us to do the same – studying God’s word, reading the Scriptures, checking your doctrine, and assessing your theology.
They were doing that diligent work to make sure they didn’t just seize upon some new teaching because it sounded nice, or made them feel good about themselves, or didn’t make them feel too guilty about their sins. They checked the Scriptures. They judged the Spirit in which Paul taught against the Spirit of God. And for that reason, it says that many of them believed. And that belief, I feel sure, was a confident belief that would not be swayed by persecution or doubt because they had rightly judged those teachings against the truth. And they saw that it was the truth.
In our culture, though, the whole idea of discernment and judgment has such a bad connotation. For some reason, saying you have “judged” something will get you labeled something not so nice. It’s as though our culture as declared that judging and being judgmental are the same thing, but they’re not. Judgmental is defined as “tending to judge people too quickly and critically.” But judging is defined as “forming an opinion through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises.” Those are two entirely different concepts. We have to judge things, and honestly we wouldn’t want to live in a culture that did not judge things. We judge things by examining the evidence and considering the facts. We make judgments like that every day – is that car going to stop at the intersection? Is this meat safe to eat? Is what this person telling me the truth? But in those judgments, we must know by what standard we are judging, what evidence and facts we are considering. In spiritual matters, it means we must have sound doctrine, theology, and Biblical understanding so that we too can rightly judge things against the Spirit and Word of God. Judging by your own feelings and opinions will not get you to the Bereans, it will get you to the golden calf. But judging according to the Word of God will strengthen your faith and ensure you are continuing to walk in the true light of God.
Many people question the validity of the Bible because of the accounts found in the Old Testament. Honestly, it was on that point, that someone first really challenged my faith. I’m sure you’ve heard questions coming from the same point of skepticism. How can you believe Jonah was really swallowed by a whale? Did Moses really meet God in a burning bush? Did God really create everything in six 24-hour days? Those are certainly valid questions, particularly for an unbeliever to ask. However, there are many things in the Scriptures that unbeliever will not understand, as Paul tells us in two of his letters to the Corinthians.
But where I struggle when I encounter this disbelief in Old Testament occurrences is when it comes from a believer, someone who already believes in the supernatural and accepts the Scriptures as being the inspired Word of God. There is a real issue when a believer still wonders how Jonah survived in the whale, how Noah built the ark, and whether Adam really could name all the animals. It seems they want to find a naturalistic explanation to those things. And that usually results in their searching for some “new” understanding of Scripture. Or they just decide to only believe in the New Testament and the life about Jesus and the church, as if you can separate the two. But Jesus said Himself that He came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). If He is here to fulfill something, then that something must be a real thing. Jesus fulfilled the law given to Moses and He fulfilled the prophecies given by the prophets. Therefore, if you begin to unravel the reality of Moses, the Prophets, and the rest of the Old Testament, you start to unravel part of the identity and purpose of Jesus. You cannot separate the Old Testament from the New Testament.
So why is it that the believer may struggle with the Old Testament accounts? If we truly believe in the virgin birth of Christ, that Lazarus was raised from the dead, and Zacharias was mute for 9 months, why do we doubt the accounts of Jonah, and Daniel, and Noah? If Jesus could change water into wine, calm a storm with a word, and walk on water, why can He not create according to Genesis? If we as believers do have such confidence in the New Testament, then maybe we should consider what the New Testament has to say about the Old Testament.
The author of Hebrews describes how God made this universe and everything in it out of nothing, ex nihilo (Hebrews 11:3 “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.”) which takes us to the opening line of the Bible; that in the beginning God created everything. Then in the genealogy of Jesus, Luke lists Adam as the first man created, describing him as the “son of God” (Luke 3:23-28). Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, in his book uses Adam as a reference point in the genealogy of Enoch. Both of these men saw Adam as a real historical person, the first man created by God from whom all others descended, including Jesus.
Throughout many of Paul’s writing, Paul refers to Jesus as the “second Adam,” which only makes sense if there were a “first Adam.” In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Paul writes, “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.’” He is referring to a literal person of Adam as the first man and the literal person of Jesus as the life-giving spirit, or the last Adam. He says again in his first letter to Timothy, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” Why would Paul say all of this if Adam and Eve were not literal, physical people formed in the beginning according to Genesis? He explains it more fully in Romans 5:12-19:
Even John the apostle in 1 John 3 reaffirms Adam and Eve by discussing the sin brought in the next generation. He discusses the sin of Cain when he murdered his brother. He is discussing it as a real historical event found in Genesis 4. If we accept that Paul, Luke, John, and Jude were writing words inspired by God and that they had apostolic authority to preach the truth of Jesus Christ and provide sound doctrine for us to follow, then we must accept their teachings of Adam and Eve as literal, physical beings that were the first male and female specifically created by God. This ought to rule out any origins theory that includes any of type of evolutionary progression of man – whether it’s from apes or just from a Neanderthal pre-historic semblance of man. If you’re struggling with that because it came from Paul, Luke, John, and Jude then consider what Jesus Himself says about the creation of man and woman.
Jesus even talks about the account of Cain and Abel. Matthew 23:34-35 “And Jesus said, ‘Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.’” You can read the same account in Luke 11:49-51. And the event is affirmed again in Hebrews 11 and 1 John 3.
Jesus affirms the account of Jonah. Matthew 12:39-41 “But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.’” This can be found in Luke 11:29-32 as well. He says in Luke, “For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation…The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”
In the book of Mark, Jesus upholds the prophecies of Daniel. In Mark 13:14 Jesus says, “So when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not” (let the reader understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” And he refers to the life of David as he is fleeing from the rage of Saul, “But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26).
What about Noah and the ark? Did the flood really destroy things and was it really over the whole earth? First, take a look at what it says in Genesis 7: And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died. So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground: both man and cattle, creeping thing and bird of the air. They were destroyed from the earth. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive.
It says repeatedly that “all” things were destroyed, “every” thing that had breath, “all” living things so that “only” Noah and those on the ark remained alive. That seems pretty clear to me that the intent of the flood was to literally destroy everything that was not on the ark. Of course that’s the Old Testament description. What does the New Testament say? Jesus said in Matthew 24:37-39, “But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Jesus used the flood of Noah to compare to the Second Coming. Do you think some will be spared in the Second Coming? Or that only a portion of the world will be aware of the Second Coming? Jesus is using the analogy because both the flood and the Second Coming will be global and will affect all living things. Jesus said that the flood took “all” of them away just like the coming of the Son of Man will do. The same comparison is used in 2 Peter 3:1-7. Peter says in the days of Noah that “the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.” Peter also says in 1 Peter 3:18-20 that only “eight souls” were saved through water, meaning all other souls perished who were no on the ark. And he affirms again in 2 Peter 2:4-10 not only the global judgment of Noah, where only Noah, “one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness” was saved, but also the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, “condemned to destruction” where God only “delivered righteous Lot.”
All of these people and their real histories are recorded first in the Old Testament, honored for their faith in Hebrews 11, spoken of by Paul and Peter in the founding of the early churches, and most importantly, reaffirmed by Jesus in the New Testament. Why do we struggle then with believing what is written to us from the Old Testament? I know in the church now, this is not considered the “popular” belief. But are we called to base our doctrine on what is popular or on what is in God’s word? If we believe as fact that the virgin Mary gave birth, Jesus cast out demons, and Peter made a lame man walk, then why can we not believe that God parted the Red Sea through Moses, He conquered Jericho through Joshua marching around the city, He took down Goliath through David’s slingshot, He judged the sinful world saving only the righteous through Noah, and He spoke every living thing into being out of nothing, uniquely made reproducing each according to their kind, and that He formed man from the dust of the ground in His own likeness and image and breathed life into him. In Martin Luther’s day, the church compromised what the Bible clearly taught. So he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the church to call them back to the authority of God’s Word. In the same way, the church today has, by and large, neglected what the Bible clearly says in the Old Testament. It’s time to call the church back to the authority of God’s Word, beginning with Genesis 1.
In John 18 Jesus stands trial before Pontius Pilate. Pilate is questioning Jesus in an attempt to understand the charges that have been brought against Him. He wants to determine why the people are so desperate for an innocent man to be crucified. He asks Jesus, “So You are a king?” And Jesus says in verse 37, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” And Pilate said to Him “What is truth?”
What a profound and relevant question posed by Pilate. What is truth? I actually had a conversation the other day about this very issue. The discussion started around the verse Romans 1:25 “They exchanged God’s truth for a lie.” It prompted the very same question that Pilate asked: “What is truth?” In the case of this passage from Romans, it is talking about the truth of who God is. The rest of the verse says that people chose to worship the creation rather than the Creator. So they exchanged the truth about who God is – His power, His authority, and His rule over creation – in order to worship something that is false. If you are giving godly worship to something that is not god, then you have exchanged the truth for a lie. But the deeper question is about truth in general. Is truth knowable? Is there such thing as absolute truth?
Many people claim that there is no truth. Yet in that statement they are making a truth claim. They are claiming to know the truth that there is no truth. It is a contradictory idea. You can’t truthfully say that there is no truth. If there really is no truth, then the statement would be false, and therefore there would be truth. And now you see the simple circle we have danced around. So while it might seem handy for an atheist to say that there’s just no such thing as truth, the appropriate response is, “Is that true?”
But aside from pointing out the failings of the argument, we can also look at how we live our lives in reality. Is there really a truth to the way our world operates? First we should understand what we mean by the word “truth.” Truth is that which affirms reality, regardless of how one feels about it. That is what makes it an objective truth. It exists as truth outside of man’s opinion. Now, there are certainly subjective truths, such as my preferred ice cream flavor, which is a truth according to my opinion. And that truth may change from person to person and even as my own tastes change. But there are such things as objective truth, things that are what they are regardless of personal opinion. There are objective truths that we accept every day. We all know that 1+1=2 objectively, outside of our opinions. Regardless of how you may feel about that sum being equal to 2, it will remain equal to that value. And it would remain true even if we weren’t here to observe it. So objective truth is independent of observation. It exists absolutely and separate from man’s opinion.
So even though some people may question objective truth, we certainly live as though there is an objective truth to be known. It is pretty much what we define as science; that there are certain facts about how the world works, regardless of your opinion on it. Subatomic particles will function as they do whether I agree with it or even whether I choose to believe in their existence at all. And they act that way whether we observe them acting that way or not. So objective truth does not depend on someone observing it, agreeing with it, or believing in it. I might claim I haven’t observed gravity, don’t agree with it, and don’t believe in it, but the objective truth of it will make itself known when I jump off a bridge. So while some people may like to believe that truth is irrelevant or nonexistent, that is not reflective of reality.
Math and science are not the only places where we find objective truth though. Atheists may want to philosophize that objective truth does not exist, but they inevitably live their lives in pursuit of it. Our justice system is supposed to be devoted to finding the objective truth about the past with regards to the defendant. We ask it of our children every day to tell us the objective truth of whether or not they broke the vase in the living room. We demand it from our relationships so that other people are honest with us in their actions and emotions. In each of those situations we are searching out an objective truth. Yes, each of those has a subjective truth tied to it. The jury’s opinion (subjective truth) may be that the defendant did not commit that crime or maybe that the crime was justified. But the objective truth exists of whether he did or did not commit that act. So I find it very interesting that some may question if truth exists while at the same time live their lives in pursuit of it.
However, the growth of relativism has given rise to the persistent belief among people that all truth is relative. It is all purely opinion; no objective truth actually exists. Thus, the definition and understanding of truth can vary from person to person based on each one’s experience. We’ve lost the idea that facts can be anything more than just one person’s opinion. What’s true for you may not be true for me. This concept has been so subtly imprinted onto the minds of our society that no one even questions it anymore. Is it really true that there is no truth? Is truth really never definitive, knowable, or absolute? And why has this idea of there not being truth been pushed onto us without even a whimper of protest? Because once objective truth dies, so does ethics. And herein lies the problem. If objective truth can’t be known, then an objective moral truth is equally irrelevant. This is what lures people into this line of thinking. If there is no objective truth, then ALL things are subjective to our own whims and fancies. At that point, anything goes. I can do whatever I please because whatever I please just happens to be whatever I define as my version of truth.
But again, that is not really how we live our lives. We like to think truth and morals are subjective because it’s appealing to set our own personal standard of behavior. But eventually we identify certain behaviors that violate an absolute moral truth or ethic, things that are wrong outside of anyone’s particular opinion. A perfect example is the idea of slavery. Throughout all of history, there has been some people-group enslaved by another. Which means, at some point the popular opinion was that owning another person, devaluing them as a piece of property, was considered acceptable. Does that mean it was morally right? Or maybe, just maybe, there is an absolute moral standard that is violated when people are owned and enslaved by someone else. The founding principles of this nation acknowledge that objective moral truth. And look at the words our founding fathers chose to convey that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” They recognized that there is an absolute truth and not only was it knowable, but it was “self-evident,” which means “clearly true and requiring no proof or explanation.” It was an objective, self-evident truth that people are equal, not slaves to one another based on any possible reason. Even the moral relativist would have to agree with that statement.
Now we can see the hypocrisy in saying that there is no objective truth. Without objective truth, there is no objective morality. And without objective morality, then there is no standard of ethics that says slavery, genocide, or even cruelty to animals is wrong. Consider the irony of the moral relativist participating in an organization called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (or PETA). If that group wants to impose a standard of behavior onto others for the treatment of animals, then they are admitting that there is an objective ethic. They won’t accept the excuse that maybe someone’s version of truth is to treat animals cruelly and someone else’s version of truth is to treat animals kindly. They would rail against someone saying treating animals kindly may be true for you but not true for me. So in effect, they are claiming to know the objective moral standard for the treatment of animals and they are insisting that standard applies to all people.
Going back to the words of Jesus in John 14:6, He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What an interesting choice of words to say that He is the truth. In that statement He is telling us that truth is knowable and truth is absolute. Truth excludes the false. He is stating that He is an objective truth that would exclude all others. Why does it matter to know the truth? Because He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The term sola scriptura is one of the five “solas” referenced in the Protestant Reformation. “Sola” is a Latin term that means “alone” so the movement was focusing on five things that alone stand for Christian doctrine.
Martin Luther emphasized this idea of Scripture alone being our authority when he led the Reformation. Standing firm on that principle he said, “Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, —my conscience is and will remain bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract.” His intent was to remove extra-Biblical and un-Biblical ideas of man from the doctrine of Christianity which is exactly what God called him, and calls us, to do. We are not to add to scripture or the Christian doctrine any ideas from man. However, some people have now taken this concept one step further and stretched it out of bounds from what it really means. They use it to say that nothing aside from Scripture should be used in our faith. Or rather, that the Bible stands alone and needs no proof or external validation. It is erroneously used to say that providing a defense of the Bible is unnecessary because Scripture stands alone. However, even Martin Luther included the “clearest reasoning” in his defense of sola scriptura.
While I agree that man’s ideas should not be added to the Scripture, I don’t think it means that God’s ideas shouldn’t be added to Scripture. Sola scriptura is to remove man-made tradition and ideals from the Christian doctrine and faith, but it doesn’t mean to forego everything that is outside of Scripture. As I heard a wise man once say, “Everything in the Bible is true, but not everything that is true is in the Bible.” Yes, the Bible is complete and true but God’s truth permeates even outside of the Scriptures. God’s truth is revealed in the world around us, through nature, which is the whole point Paul makes in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” God’s truth is so evident in the world that we are without excuse for not knowing Him. Therefore, there are truths about God that exist outside of Scripture. For example, the DNA double-stranded helix is a truth in the world that shows the amazing mind, intelligence, and design of our Creator, yet it is not specifically detailed in the Bible. God’s attribute of being our Designer can be found in studying DNA, a truth of God outside of Scripture.
Therefore, many people who cannot start with the foundation of the scripture as truth need to start with the foundation of the truth of God as evidenced in the world around us. That is where the revelation of God begins for many. Many former atheists only began to consider looking at scripture because they found the evidence of God’s existence so compelling in the physical world around them. This is why it is so important to be able to show God in all things – because He is present in all aspects of this world. After all, He is the one who made it. So God will be evident in chemistry, biology, geology, and cosmology. We should be willing to look for Him and His glorious majesty in those places too. I mean we even have a book in the Bible dedicated to the praise of God based on the glories of Himself revealed in the Heavens and on the earth. We see it in verses like Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
God also granted us the ability to reason, as Martin Luther mentioned in his quote. God imparts in us the ability to understand His word and His truth. We cannot neglect that aspect to our understanding of the Scripture in the first place. When we read Scripture, it is the logic that God gives to us that enables us to understand it. In fact, Scripture tells us that apart from God we can’t understand the things of the Spirit and the things of His Word.
We also need an understanding of how the world works in order to understand the Scripture. It is that knowledge that tells us when miracles have occurred. It’s because we know dead people do not walk out of tombs, water cannot chemically morph into wine, and lame people do not get up and leap around that tells us that God was at work. And because we understand how mathematics works, we know five loaves and two fish do not feed thousands of people. It is that knowledge of reality around us that confirms those things were from God.
It is also how we can understand many of the parables of Jesus. For His parable about the soils, we must understand something about how seeds respond to different soil conditions for it to make sense. Likewise, we must know what new wine does to old wineskins, how fig trees grow, and how leaven works. And He brings out the working knowledge of certain professions, like farming, winedressing, sewing, fishing, business, lending, and shepherding. He makes analogies to those professions so that the truths within them will speak to the hearts of those who do those things. Because they understand how those professions work in the world, they can understand what Jesus is revealing to them about the heart of man. He spoke into the common understanding of things so that people could understand spiritual truths.
He not only relates stories about their professions but about their relationships. Jesus taps into our own basic understanding of how people operate so that He can bring into the light those things we like to hide in the dark. He shows us our pride, our bitterness, our unforgiving spirit, by relating stories that are familiar to us because we see ourselves in them. We know how we relate to others so we can identify with a particular character from the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can see ourselves somewhere in the story about the Prodigal Son. He calls to our attention where our priorities are in the account of the wise and foolish virgins and whether we are faithfully working for God in the parable of the talents. Jesus describes the human heart in ways that no psychology textbook even comes close.
But even further, the real irony in the misconception that we don’t have to defend or prove the Bible is that the early church founders found it necessary to defend the Bible. So why do we think we don’t have to? Think about the time when the New Testament was written. All of the New Testament gospel accounts were written between AD 50 and 75, some even say as early as AD 40. However Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost only 50 days after Jesus had resurrected – that would be AD 33 at the latest. There were no Gospel accounts or Pauline epistles to reference. So what did Peter use? Evidence. He called to their mind the evidence of the things they had witnessed. Those people standing in the portico of the temple had not only witnessed those events but had participated in them. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know.” So first Peter points out that it was the works done by God through Jesus that they saw firsthand that confirmed Jesus as the Son of God. Because they knew those were not natural things, they could believe they were from God. He didn’t point them to a verse out of the book of Ephesians, he pointed them to their own knowledge of how the world works and contrasted that with the works that Jesus performed.
And Peter continues, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it…This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.” Again, Peter is appealing to the evidence of the things they have done and witnessed. He appeals to their actions, their memories, their deeds. He is using the evidence of the things that have happened to prove the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures.
Look at other references like this throughout the New Testament. Peter says in 2 Peter 1:16 “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Peter is giving the solid evidence for what he’s saying as an eyewitness. John says in his epistle 1 John 1:3 “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” He is appealing to the senses with which he experienced Jesus – by sight, sound, and touch, physical evidence of the life of God lived here on earth. He says the same in his gospel in John 19:35 “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.” He is giving his testimony as the evidence to confirm for others that this is true. He is defending his words, what would become known as Scripture, as truth because he was an eyewitness. Luke does the same when he penned his gospel by telling us in Luke 1:1–3 “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” He wanted to find the evidence of the accounts of Jesus and use those evidences to form his gospel account. These things were written AS the early church was being formed. The early church did not form BECAUSE of the New Testament. The early church was formed because of the proof of what was documented in the New Testament. So the foundation of Christianity is not the collection of writings that make up the Bible. The foundation of Christianity is the existence of God found in the world all around us and the historical event of Him coming down to live as man in Jesus Christ and the death and resurrection of Him. It is the validity of the historical events and reality of the life of Jesus that give Christianity its firm foundation. If you were to take all of the Scriptures away, you would not lose Christianity because it is not on that where we have our faith. It is on the existence of God and the reality of what He did for us.
Therefore, for us far removed in time and space from these accounts, there is nothing wrong with wanting to understand the validity of those accounts. It is especially critical that we do as a way to impart that important evidence on to those who do not believe the scriptures are inspired by God. Yes, there comes a point where as a believer we can trust the Scriptures alone because they were given by God. But many people don’t have that as their starting point. But if we show them the validity of the Scriptures and that it documents the evidence of the historical life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then maybe they’ll be willing to actually read it.
So we don’t bring man’s ideas, man’s values, or man’s tradition to Scripture (sola scriptura) but we do bring the truth of God’s world to the truth of God’s Word to understand the truth of man’s heart.