Monday, August 05, 2013

What is Truth?

During a series I taught recently on apologetics, one of the follow-up questions dealt with the subject of truth. They asked whether the definition of truth was important to the defense of the Christian faith and, if so, what is truth? We could spend a few weeks on this question, but I'll do my best to answer satisfactorily.

Firstly, the definition of truth is vital to the defense of the Christian faith, as it is to any worldview. This question of truth is at the root of many of the disagreements taking place today and, in fact, throughout history. We can begin with a simple definition: truth is that which conforms to reality, fact or actuality. But this statement will often lead to more questions. What is reality? These word games are often played by the disingenuous and argumentative.

I like the approach that Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias took at a university Q and A. One member of the audience asked Ravi, "How do you know that I exist?" Ravi smartly replied, "And whom shall I say is asking?" Much of the debate over truth is simple semantics; and arguing over words. At the end of the day, each of us must live in the real world, a world where truth is objective, and not something arbitrary.

We can look at logic to help us to understand truth. For example, the law of non-contradiction tells us that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. I cannot be home, and not be home. One of those statements may be true, but not both at the same time. We can apply this principle to our discussions of faith.

Our modern world has taken a position called cultural relativism -  the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs.

The problem with this statement is that it's not liveable, and we judge people's customs all the time. We speak of human rights and tell nations that they must respect them. Why? Why must China respect human rights when they believe that collective rights trump individual rights? Who are we to tell them that they are wrong? What of women's rights? The rights of the child? Without a belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth - without a standard - we are all simply left shouting our opinions. 

Each of us believes in truth or we would make no factual statements. Otherwise we could never be believed. Part of our problem is that we have lost the ability to debate logically and thoughtfully. We say things like, that may be true for you, but it's not for me. Like Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” But if truth is something real and concrete, it matters.

In dealing with Christianity this is particularly important, for Christianity is a faith based on history. We believe that Jesus Christ came, lived, died and was resurrected at a specific place and at a specific time in history. These are truth claims, and they matter. They are either true or they are not. If the claims of Christianity are not true, it should be placed on the rubbish heap of human ideas along with myriad other religions. But if it is true - it changes everything.

C.S. Lewis wrote of this in Mere Christianity: “The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact — not gas about ideals and points of view.”

For the Christian, the ultimate expression of truth is found in the Bible; in Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." (John 14:6). Jesus made this statement as God in the flesh, God who provides the absolute standard by which everything and everyone is measured. Here is a divergence between Christianity and many of the other world religions. Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. Christianity claims - and evidence backs this up - that Jesus rose from the dead.

Islam, on the other hand, claims that Jesus was never crucified, contrary to the evidence. Many religions claim that Jesus was simply another in a long line of teachers sent from God. Yet he himself claimed otherwise. To believe both is to violate the law of non-contradiction. Many today would claim that Jesus was simply a good man and a gifted teacher. Yet his claims to Deity would certainly nullify the "good man" claims. And what of the resurrection?

To find our way around this we must explain the numerous eyewitness accounts, the growth of the church in hostile environs, the conversion of antagonists like Saul of Tarsus, the willingness of the disciples to die for a lie if they knew otherwise. We also must ask why the Romans or the Jews didn't produce the body of Jesus if they had it. Witness the radical changes in culture brought about by followers of this Jesus, and ask yourself if he was just a man.

This question of truth is not a new one. In fact, over 2,000 years ago there was an encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, a Roman Governor. It's found in John 18:37-38 - Jesus was dragged before Pilate to defend himself to the Roman ruler. Jesus said,  “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate famously replied, “What is truth?” Perhaps the truth is that only those who are honestly looking for it can find it. 

Related Articles:
The Truth About Easter
"Truth" - by Ravi Zacharias
"And That's The Truth..."
Aren't All Religions Equally Valid?
Straight Talk For Tough Times


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