When Jesus stood trial before the Roman governor, Pilate, Jesus told him that He came to bear witness to the truth. (John 18:37-38) “What is truth”, said Pilate, as if to say that the question of truth cannot be known or answered to satisfaction and so there is no point in discussing it further. It is strange that Pilate would not be interested in truth in a trial where it is important to know the facts in order to come to the best judgement of what to do. Truth for Pilate should have meant knowing the facts about something, or someone, so as to make an accurate judgement and a right decision. Perhaps Jesus has something valid to say to Pilate about truth, and he, as well as all other people, would do well to hear him.
What is truth? Here is a commonly accepted definition: Truth is whatever exists, what is factual; it is the way things really are. The basis of truth is God. Whatever God creates, or does, or says, is real and true. Truth is an absolute reality that will not let you down if you entrust your life to it. We live our everyday lives based on this definition. For example, in building a house the workers rely on the truth of their measuring tools when cutting board lengths or sheet rock to fit. A standard of measure that could not be trusted would result in a poorly constructed house and would be thrown out.
The Bible assumes that truth can be known. (Ephesians 4:25) Christians believe that God created a world in which shared knowledge is possible. We can understand such knowledge because we are created in God’s image and therefore, like God, we are communicative beings. We are created with intellect, language skills, and physical senses by which we can experience and know what is true. House builders, for example, are able to read their measuring instruments and use them properly.
Discerning truth, however, can be difficult because humans are fallen and susceptible to deception and errors and our five senses that can, at times, be unreliable and fool us. There are additional reasons preventing people from knowing what is true. These can include willful refusal to look at and accept data that is presented to us (Romans 1:18), being disinterested, being skeptical or unbelieving, being inappropriately biased, being blinded by Satan’s deceptions (2 Corinthians 4:4), believing good sounding but false philosophies or ideas (Romans 1:25), or a prideful “I am right, you are wrong” attitude. Such hindrances need overcoming if we are to be able to know what is true.
How do we know what is true? I would like to suggest three commonly understood ways we can know what is true.
(1) We know what is true through belief in factual statements. If what a person says lines up with the facts, we say that it is a true statement about something that is real. For example, if I say that I ate pizza for lunch, it is true if in fact I really did eat pizza for lunch. If the Bible says Jesus rose from the dead, it is true if in fact He really did. If I say “I love you”, you know it is true if I actually demonstrate loving-kindness to you. If I say something is right or wrong, it is true if there is an absolute moral standard that exists. The truth of statements can be known if we can check out the facts to see if they line up with what is stated. Thus, a statement or belief that is properly grounded by valid reasons or evidences will make it probable that the statement or belief is true. To say that “I feel something is true” is not the same as saying “I know it is true because it lines up with verifiable facts.” Having proper reasons for believing a statement is true comes when there are external facts
that can be investigated to verify the truth claim. We can gain confidence in our knowledge of what is true by checking what we know against what really is. As more evidence becomes available over time, we become more confident in the probability of a truth claim. Faith must enter into knowing the truth because we rarely have all of the facts, or absolute proof. Therefore, we cannot say we know that something is true unless we believe it. Faith is a way to acquire certainty, most importantly, in matters concerning what God has said or done. (Hebrews 11:1) In summary, one way we know what is true is by being able to accept statements, by justifying them with corresponding facts, and by believing them.
(2) We know what is true by our sense experiences. But, it is argued, don’t our senses often fail us? Yes. But, because we can correct our senses, it is still possible for us to know the truth. I climbed a hill at a camp and looked down on a pond. It was winter. I saw a dam, which I had never seen, built of dirt at one end of the pond. I wondered, “When did they do that?” When I came down I saw that there was no dam. My eyes had deceived me. The pond was frozen at one end and from the hilltop it looked like a dam. But, when I was able to see it at closer range I saw the truth and my senses no longer deceived me. In the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”, a schizophrenic person sees people that he believes are real. This is disturbing and troubles his life, but he is able to correct his faulty senses in the following way. When a stranger approaches him, he asks a bystander if he sees this person. If the person says “yes”, he knows that it is not just a figment of his mind. Science operates on the same principle. By observing facts, and continually testing those facts by observation and experiment, they make hypotheses, theories, or laws, stating what they believe are truths based on observation. Some say we cannot experience what another person says as truth because we don’t know what they mean. But, we can correct misunderstandings by further communication. Sense experiences may sometimes fool us, but they are correctable.
(3) We know what is true by using our skills to do things. We learn things that work and don’t work by doing or practising.
Many people believe that truth is absolute and can be known. By absolute, I mean what really exists, whether or not we believe it and know it. For example, God and His written words are absolute, His morals are absolute, and that tree is absolute. They are true because they really exist, even if no one sees them or agrees that they see them. I come to know that something is real by engaging in one, or all of the three ways discussed above. The definition of truth, as something that is absolute and can be known, is being challenged and rejected in today’s society. But that is nothing new.
Here are four ways that people, in what is being called “the post-modern world”, are tending to define truth.
(1) Truth is relative. Truth depends on the situation. What is true for me may not be true for you. If I said that Jesus is the savior sent for all people, another might say, “That is true for you because you were raised in a Christian environment, but it is not true for people raised in another religion. For them, their “god” is the savior. In this case, truth is relative to one’s culture. In this definition, what is true or real depends on people’s varying situations. There is no truth that is the same for everyone in every place. It needs to be acknowledged that truth does include relativity, but there is also absolute truth. For example, two persons in a room experience the temperature of the room differently; to one it is hot, and to the other it is cold. The room temperature is relative to each person’s bodily make-up. However, if we have a way to measure the temperature, the room could be said to be absolutely 70 degrees temperature, whether you feel hot or cold. Two persons see that the sun is in different locations in the sky because they are observing it from different locations on the earth, but the absolute truth is that there is a sun. Relativity is a part of what truth is, but so is absoluteness. If there were not some things the same for everyone, life would be chaotic. Maybe that is the reason we do have a chaotic world – the absolute things that need to be seen as truth are not acknowledged.
(2) Everyone determines his or her own truth. We decide what is true, or not, based on what we discover works for us. Here are a number of examples: A person might say, “What is true for me is what works in my life to make me feel good.” If a person discovers that certain behaviours produce negatives, and other behaviours produce positives, their truth is learned based on their experiences. What produces positives in their life is what is true for them. In the area of morals, I decide what morals are true for me. If they seem right to me and I feel good about them, then that is my truth. If we lie and discover that it gets us into trouble, then being honest may be our truth. Some would say that truth is being sincere in who you are and not being phony. Or, truth is being faithful and loyal to someone because this is what we find works best in relationships. Sometimes people create their own truth by changing history to conform to what they want it to be. For example, if they do not like to hear about the religion in the lives of the early pilgrims who came to America, then they rewrite the history books and eliminate that part of the story. In this definition of truth, each makes his or her truth depending on their experiences, or what works for them, or what they want truth to be. I decide what is true for me. No one can tell me what is true or not, I determine it for myself.
(3) Truth is decided by the values of a culture. If a culture says certain things are ok and most of the culture practices those things without misgivings, then those are the standards for truth. If marriage becomes less the standard, and living together without being married is the acceptable practice, then that is our truth. If abortion is acceptable by a society, or euthanasia, or Darwinian evolution, then those become standards of what is true. This definition says that truth keeps changing, depending on what societies evolve into. What is socially accepted is our truth.
(4) Truth is what you perceive it to be. In this definition, we cannot know any truth that is the same for everyone because we all perceive things differently. Everyone’s perspectives differ. I see things from my point of view and others see things from their point of view. For example, words mean different things to different people, and so, we do not all get the same understanding from them. How each of us perceives the meaning is what is true for us.
Here is one problem with these definitions of truth. When there are standards that are not the same for everyone, it raises the question of what happens when one person’s truth conflicts with another person’s truth. Or what happens when one society’s truth conflicts with another society’s truth? Whose truth decides the resolution of the conflict? Unless an agreement can be diplomatically worked out, probably the person or culture with the most power wins, and the other must give in, or be destroyed. This is why a popular solution is to value the practice of tolerance. The definition of tolerance, when there is no absolute truth, is that we need to accept all views as right and allow persons to practice what they determine is the truth for them. It is saying, “Let me, and others, do what we want”. Unfortunately, this does not work because we don’t like it when people violate our truths. If someone hits me or steals from me, I don’t like it. Their truth may say it is ok; and inevitable conflict results. Wars are happening all the time to decide whose truth wins. We are imperfect people, and unless evil is taken into account, we often become more violent, and destroy the peaceful life we all wish for. But absolute truth says that not all things are to be tolerated.
Pilate thought his world was the real world, as do most people today. We try to manipulate and control things to our advantage so as to secure a good life for ourselves. But Pilate, in a short time, lost his position and all his efforts to guard his own life failed. Jesus offered him truth. Jesus offered him opportunity to enter the real world. He chose not to listen, as he had more urgent matters; controlling the crowds and managing the trial of Jesus. But who really was on trial? In the end we are all judged by Jesus. (Acts 17:30-32) Today, it is still the same; Christ is ignored or “crucified”. (John 8:40) How so? Darwinian evolutionists say Jesus is not the Creator. Humanists say that we, not Jesus, are the masters of our fate. Religions say that they are the way and Christ is only one way among many. Philosophers, scientists, educators, governments, psychologists, and social programmers say they have the wisdom, knowledge, and answers, while Christ and His followers are ignorant and out of touch with modern times and progress. Christians are accused of not living in the real world. The voices of the people say, “Don’t tell us about truth – we will decide what is good and right for us.” If Jesus is truth, then the fortunate persons who come into intimate relationship with Him are the ones who are living in the real world, whereas those without Him are living in an unreal world full of delusion and ultimate disappointment. (Matthew 13:11) Any hopes or dreams they have will vanish like an evaporating cloud.
We are not only to know the truth through statements agreeing with facts, or experiences, but we are to have a relationship with the truth because truth is also a person, the person of Jesus Christ who said, “I am the truth.” (John 14:6) He who made us knows all about us and a relationship with Him will enable us to understand what our lives are all about. Jesus Christ becomes our absolute truth when we know Him, thus gaining an unshakable and sure foundation for right thinking and right living. Without such a source of truth we are left to ourselves – we are our own determiners of truth, and such a system can only lead to chaos, evil (disguised as good), and destruction. It is true that we humans have our limitations, our biases, our perspectives, and our sinfulness. These are all the more reason to seek a source of truth that we can trust which is outside of ourselves. The source must be God Himself, especially as He has been revealed in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus said He came to bear witness to the truth. If this is so, then one cannot deny that there is such a possibility as truth. Such a claim for truth cannot be reasonably denied. To try and deny the existence of truth would be to admit its existence, for such a statement of denial would in itself be a truth claim. To point this out to a person one only needs to ask, “Is what you just said true?” If they say no, they show themselves to be liars; and to say yes admits to the existence of truth. Jesus claims to be able to lead us into truth. (John 16:12-13; 8:31-32) Truth is more than knowing the right things. It is also character that is in line with a God who is truth in His nature – it is being a good and loving person as Christ is. To personally know a person of truth is to be able to grow in living truth. Truth possesses such qualities as being true to your word, being dependable, being trustworthy, being genuine and honest, being wise, and on and on. Truth as a life lived out shatters the evils of the world around us, and in many ways makes us enemies and targets of evil-doers. Living the truth produces sufferings, but there is a willingness to engage in those sufferings because there is also the hope that nothing can destroy the truth. It will live forever, as will its believers and followers. (Colossians 1:4-6)
The apostle John says that he has no greater joy than to see the children of God walking in truth. (3 John 4) We have been talking about truth as what exists and can be known. But truth is not just factual content; as stated above, truth is also a person. Walking in truth means to have a proper relationship with God; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To walk in the truth is to rely on the person, to listen to the person, to believe the person, to follow the person, and to obey the person. Walking in the truth is to live the way God helps us to live when we apply and practice truth in the situations of normal everyday living. Truth teaches us how to live as imperfect people in an imperfect world. It is the Christ-follower who lives in the real world – the world of truth. His or her life is continuously being conformed to reality through the truth.
What is truth? God is truth (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2) Jesus Christ is truth. (John 14:6) The Holy Spirit is truth. (1 John 5:6; John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13) What God creates is truth, meaning that the universe is real and truth can be discovered through observation of its workings. The Bible, being God’s word, is truth. (John 17:17, Psalm 119:160) Truth is the message of God’s salvation. The good news about Jesus Christ is the most wonderful truth God wants us to know. (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5-6) To know God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, is to know truth. (John 17:3) Jesus said, “If I speak truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8:46) The church is the pillar and support of the truth. (1Timothy 3:15) This does not mean that what the church always does or says is the truth, but that when it accurately puts forth the message of Scripture, proclaimed and lived out, it is proclaiming the truth of God. These truths are what is real and are things God wants all people to know and trust. (John 8:32).