“What is truth?”
- Pontius Pilate, during the trial of Jesus, in John 18:38.
Pilate would probably fit right in with today’s culture. When you think about it, there’s a lot of debate about truth going on: disagreements about the meanings of words, the meaning of life, and what our laws should say about what’s right or wrong. Many people today even argue that there is no right and wrong, or that truth is relative. I specifically heard one speaker on the radio say that if there are 7 billion people in the world, there can be 7 billion “truths” about any particular question. I question whether he understands the difference in meaning between “truth” and “opinion,” but that’s what he said.
Truth is an important concept to understand, though, because it can affect every part of how we live our lives and how we can best love others. So let’s clarify some basic truths about truth:
1. There is such a thing as truth.
Some things are subjective. If I see a car and say that it’s expensive, that would be a subjective opinion. Someone else, probably with more money than I, might say the same car is cheap. It would be hard to prove that one person’s right or wrong.
However, if I say the car has a crack in its windshield, or that it is a Chevy, those things are not subjective. They’re either true, or they’re not. You see, some things (many things) actually are absolute, which means there is absolute truth.
2. If something is true, that means that something else must be false.
If I say the car is a Chevy, and someone else says it is a Ford, at least one of us must be wrong. We could both be wrong; it may be a Toyota. But the point is, there is a wrong answer. The fact that there is truth means that someone can, in fact, be wrong. (Knowing human nature, I’d say we’re all often wrong on a number of different things, both small and large.)
3. Truth is not determined by what you feel or what you believe to be true, no matter how sincere that belief.
I have young kids, and they often say things like “Daddy, I’m a puppy” (or sometimes they just start crawling on all fours and barking). I don’t think they actually believe they’re dogs, but let’s say a human child did believe that. They’d be wrong. Even if they were raised by wolves, played a mean game of fetch, and were 100% certain they were born into a litter of St. Bernards, they still wouldn’t truly be dogs. They’d be humans convinced that they were dogs.
4. Truth is not determined by popular vote.
It’s entirely possible for the majority to be wrong. And if something’s true, it’s still true even if not a single person believes it. At one point, most Europeans were certain that tomatoes were poisonous, and no one dared to try one and prove that wasn't the case. The lack of proof didn't prove that the truth wasn't true, and tomatoes didn't suddenly become edible when the majority decided that they were. They were always that way, even though that means most everybody was wrong. The truth didn't change; popular opinion did.
Now, there are a few reasons why this all matters:
Truth has consequences. If someone misunderstands or simply ignores the truth, there is usually going to be some negative consequence of that. At one point, for example, most people thought that cigarettes were good for the health. They were even recommended by doctors. People made choices based on a claim that was contrary to the truth, and the truth eventually caught up to many of them in the form of bad health and a shorter lifespan.
Truth informs how we can truly show love. Christians are called to love one another. Some people today think that means we shouldn't say anything when a Christian brother or sister believes something that isn't true (like the above example of believing that smoking is good for the health). It wouldn't be loving to reinforce that lie or encourage them to smoke more; in fact, it would make more sense if you did that to someone you hated. The loving thing would be to tell them the truth, and offer to help them quit if they’re willing.
There is a truth about eternity. Either there is such a thing as eternal life, or there isn't. Either Jesus paid the price so you can have eternal life, or He didn't. As I talked about one Sunday, different religions (including atheism) all claim to be exclusive. That means only one of them can be true. But one of them is true, and getting that particular truth straight is the most important thing you can do in life.
In the quote above, when Pilate “What is truth?” he was responding to this statement from Jesus:
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. – John 18:37b
When faced with the question of what to make of Jesus, Pilate decided to simply not decide. He literally washed his hands of the matter (Matthew 27:24) and went along with the crowd. My goal is that everyone will at least hear and consider the evidence, of who Jesus is, what He did, and why He chose to die, and make a decision. If you want to talk about that, please contact us.
(With help from Kevin McConaghy)