What is Truth?
Pontius Pilate (AD 30)
Truth on Trial
Pilate entered the Judgment Hall with the accusations of the Jewish leaders still ringing in his ears. Envy, he thought. Political maneuvering. That’s what this is all about. He ordered his soldiers to bring the Prisoner forward. The man was weak, fatigued, and covered in his own blood. Pilate looked him in the face. He didn’t see a handsome man. He saw bruises and swelling. But he saw eyes that were sane and intelligent, even kind. There was no hint of mania or terror. The Prisoner was strangely calm. It was almost as if He knew what would come next—as if He had seen the script, maybe even written it. But whatever role the Prisoner might be playing, Pilate knew his next line.
“Are you the King of Jews?” he demanded. The tone was disdainful and condescending.
“Do you ask this for your own sake,” the Prisoner replied, “or did others tell you this about me?”
Pilate’s lip curled.
“Am I a Jew?” he asked with disgust. No, I’m not interested in Jewish pipe dreams, in religious fantasies. We’re talking politics, and you ought to know that. “Your own nation and its chief priests have handed you over to me. What exactly have you done?”
The Prisoner answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would have fought to keep me from being delivered to the Jews. But now my kingdom is not from… here.”
Not from here? The answer was evasive, but suggestive. Still, Pilate had heard the word “kingdom,” and that was enough. Let’s keep this simple, he thought. We’re talking politics.
“Are you a king then?” Say “yes” and we’re done with this.
“You’ve said it,” the Prisoner answered. “I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this reason I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Every one who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Truth? Truth? We’re talking about political realities here. At least the rest of us are. As for you…
“What is truth?” Pilate’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Without looking back, he stormed out of the Hall and went to face the Jewish crowd. He told them bluntly, “I find in him no fault at all.”
What Is Truth?
Pilate’s question was in fact rhetorical, but it was also intelligent. He was a man of his age, and he understood the currents of thought that criss-crossed the Roman Empire in the first century. More than three hundred years of Hellenistic thought were fizzling out, leaving little behind but intellectual dust and ashes. Everywhere there was a demand for personal peace (ataraxia).
The Cynics taught simplicity; the Epicureans taught materialism; the Stoics taught a rationalistic pantheism. And the Skeptics questioned man’s very ability to know anything at all. Isolated, desperate souls retreated behind astrology, magic, fantasy, and the then-popular mystery religions. The Roman state trumpeted its messianic pretensions and quickly licensed any religion that would acknowledge its claims. A multitude of cultures seethed together in a world that did not know where it was going. In other words, Pilate’s age was a lot like our own.
Ours is a postmodern world. Rationality, objective knowledge, and absolute truth are no longer part of the American zeitgeist. Fragmentation, multiculturalism, and rejection of absolute truth are its very essence. For postmodernism, each cultural community or social group generates its own “meaning” in an attempt to empower itself. That is, each selects, arranges, and (perhaps) invents the details of its own “story,” its own explanation of the way things are. So, white Anglo-Saxon males have their “truth,” their story. African-Americans have their story. Women have theirs. None of the stories is true in any absolute sense. None is an accurate representation of reality. For postmodernism, reality isn’t real.
Postmodernism writes off what it calls “meta-narratives,” that is, any “big story” that might try to give meaning to all the pieces of our existence. In his book Postmodern Times, Gene Veith writes, “The goal of postmodernism is to do without frameworks for knowledge altogether… Postmodernism is a worldview that denies all worldviews (49).” This means that postmodernism is inherently self-contradictory, but its adherents don’t seem to mind. Paradox and non-sense are part of the (non-linear) equation.
Postmodernism began as literary theory. It has become, at least for the moment, the prevailing philosophical attitude of the new millennium. Now the whole world is text, one to be deconstructed and reconstructed without any absolute guidelines. Young postmoderns—teachers, journalists, lawyers, and political leaders—are convinced that “truth is nothing more than an act of power” (51). This new generation believes that: “Liberation comes from rebelling against existing power structures, including oppressive notions of knowledge and truth” (48). Having attained liberation, the postmodern isn’t ashamed to play language games and sort facts creatively to construct a new take on reality, one that will empower his own cultural community—or himself. Postmodernism is pragmatism come into its own.
Postmodernism, then, is not only at war with rationalism; it is at war with orthodox Christianity and that is to say, with God Himself. As Veith points out, “Constructing one’s own meanings and one’s own gods rather than acknowledging the one living God is called idolatry… Idolatry is rejection of truth and an attempt to replace God… Idols must be cast down. This is true not only of graven images but of intellectual constructions” (63). When the apostle John wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21), he was talking about this very thing, the intellectual reconstructions of who Jesus is.
Truth in Context
Truth requires context. Facts require interpretation. For Christianity, the context that explains reality is God Himself, “for in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God’s sovereign decree structures all created reality. His self-revelation shows us His nature and intentions (Ps. 19). We speak of general revelation and supernatural (or special) revelation.
The general revelation of God in human nature and in the creation that surrounds us is a clear and sufficient testimony to the reality of our Creator (Rom. 1:18-22). But from the beginning, God has also spoken to man in human language, in propositions that contain real truth about God, man, and creation. This supernatural revelation comes to us in the context of the non-verbal revelation around us and the innate awareness we have of God in our very nature. So when God spoke to Adam, Adam knew with absolute certainty exactly who God was and exactly what He required. It was against this certainty that Adam rebelled.
In the Garden of Eden, Satan bore false witness against God (Gen. 3). He asked Adam and Eve to support his narrative. They did, and humanity fell into spiritual and intellectual darkness (Eph. 4:28). Man no longer sees God’s revelation of Himself because he doesn’t want to see. The natural man is “willingly ignorant” (2 Pet. 3:5). He “suppresses” (holds down) the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).
And so the natural man talks confidently about the irrationality of the supernatural, the certainty of cosmic and biological evolution, and the impossibility of absolutes. He knows absolutely that there can be no absolute knowledge, no absolute truth, and no absolute certainty. He is “absolutely” certain about these things. He will tell you so in print, on the web, in films and of course, every night on the news. His witness is constant, emphatic, and self-contradictory. He is the consummate false witness.
The Faithful Witness
The Ninth Commandment from Sinai is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). Like the rest of the Ten, the Ninth Commandment has its roots in the Being of God and finds its focus in the Person of Jesus Christ. The Bible calls Jesus Christ “the faithful Witness” (Rev. 1:5; 3:14). Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of His Person (Heb. 1:3). He is the divine Logos, the Word of the Father incarnate in human flesh (John 1).
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He was claiming to be the ultimate explanation of created reality, the truth and reality behind and beyond all temporal reality. But there’s more, He was also claiming to be Truth incarnate, God in the flesh. He was claiming to be the answer to Pilate’s question.
We can’t begin to talk about truth-telling and faithful witnessing, whether in court or on the news or in our everyday lives, if there is no such thing as absolute truth. Modern man believes he can have truth without God. He couldn’t be more wrong. Postmodernism believes that love and community are possible without any sort of truth. Insanely wrong. Listen: Unless we have truth, we have no reason not to lie—and, we’ll find many pragmatic reasons to lie splendidly and lie often. Didn’t our president just say that 80% of the American people want higher taxes?
For Further Reading:
Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994).
Gene Edward Veith, Reading Between the Lines (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990).
Nancy R. Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005).
Rousas John Rushdoony, The Word of Flux (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1975).
Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2007).