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.”