What Is Truth? — A Question for the Ages
It was an engaging encounter. Pontius Pilate was the procurator for the Roman government. Jesus Christ was the Son of God. The two stood eye-to-eye. “Are you the king of the Jews?,” inquired the governor. Essentially, the Lord replied, “I am a king, but not in the way you think.” Then the Savior affirmed: “To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth hears my voice.” Then Pilate quipped: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
There is some difference of opinion among biblical expositors as to the tone of the governor’s question. Was he sincere in wanting to know the nature of truth? The theme had been probed across the centuries by the greatest intellects of our species. Or, was the ruler merely cynical and sarcastic? One cannot know for sure; one thing is certain: his question will ever challenge the soul of any perceptive person.
There was a time in American culture when “truth” was not the slippery concept that it now appears to be with many. In his valuable book, Adrift — Postmodernism In The Church, Phil Sanders cites a source which suggests that “70 percent of Americans now believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth” (p. 26). Such is the tragic legacy of that philosophical montage of confusion known as “postmodernism.”
Exactly what is this “postmodernism” that everyone seems to be talking about these days? One of the most succinct descriptions I have encountered comes, surprisingly, from a writer who is quite theologically liberal. Dr. William Dever, a prominent archaeologist and former director of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, recently wrote:
“Postmodernism is essentially a mid-to late-20th-century theory of knowledge which states that there is no real knowledge — at least not in the objective, external world that can be perceived by the human senses. As Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known nihilist philosopher of the late 19th century and one of the founders of postmodernism, put it, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’. . . The basic thrust of the postniodernist revolution was threefold: (1) All claims to truth, to meaning, to value, are merely ‘social constructs’; they are, therefore, impressionistic, relative rather than absolute, largely fictive and ‘subject to erasure.’ (2) There is no uniform or universal reality; what matters is only the local, the fragmentary, the exotic, even the absurd. Social reality is to be ‘decentered,’ exposed in all its ideological illusions, subjected to constantly reinventing itself. (3) Since moral relativism and multiculturalism must prevail, the issues all become those of politics: race, class, gender and power. What weighs in finally is not ‘truth,’ for there is none, but rhetoric, the more extreme the better” (p. 30).
Shades of Meaning
The term “truth” (aletheia) is a noun; its corresponding adjectives are alethes, alethinos, “true.” Alethos (truly) is an adverb, and aletheuo, which means to “deal truly” (cf. Ephesians 4:15 — ASVfn) is a verbal form. The original root suggested that which is “not concealed,” i.e., what is apparent, disclosed, what really is (Bromiley, p. 38). These terms take on different shades of meaning depending upon the context in which they occur. A consideration of several concepts related to “truth” may he helpful.
- “True” sometimes carries the meaning of loyal. A true friend, a true patriot, etc., is one who is faithful to a commitment. In our idiom we have the expression “true blue.” Jesus said that those who “abide in [his] word” are “truly [alethos — adv.]. . . disciples” (John 8:31), i.e., they are faithful to the Lord. Judas, for example, was not true (loyal) in his devotion to the Savior.
- The word “true” may be used of that which is genuine (as opposed to the phoney, the counterfeit). Christ affirmed that his Father, God, is “true” (John 7:28), and Paul commended the brethren at Thessalonica in that they, in their conversion, had turned away from idols to serve the “true” God (1 Thessalonians 1:9; cf. Revelation 6:10).
- “Truth” is that which conforms to reality, whether in the physical world or in the metaphysical realm. It is, for example, a truth that water freezes at 32 degrees F. It is a truth that two plus two is equal to four. All rational people acknowledge these realities. On the other hand, one should also concede that the physical world is not the sole realm characterized by genuine truth. Professor Gordon Clark, head of the philosophy department at Butler University, has noted that “moral and spiritual truth is as much truth as mathematical, scientific, and historical truth. It is all equally intellectual” (p. 533). The ancient pagans were condemned because they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). W.E. Vine considered the expression “truth of God” to suggest either the “truth concerning God” or the “God whose existence is verity” (p. 827). The most fundamental truth of all is the fact that God is (Hebrews 11:6). Those who thrust from their minds the reality of the Creator’s existence (cf. Romans 1:28) are living in a world of fantasy. When Paul wrote to the brethren in Thessalonica, he commended them because they received his message, not as a mere human document “but, as it is in truth [reality], the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
- Another aspect of that which is “true” is consistency. Truth is harmonious. The psalmist could therefore say: "The sum of your word is truth. . . " (Psalm 119:160 — NASB). This thrilling text implies, among other things, that all portions of the sacred Scriptures are equally reliable (history, theology, etc.), and that the inspired documents are in concord, i.e., there are no bona fide discrepancies, as alleged by infidelity. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). (For further study, see Jackson, 1993, pp. 89-90.)
- “Truth” is that which conforms to a standard. The building engineer uses various tools to make sure that his construction work is “true”; one hardly wants leaning walls. Similarly there are criteria for determining truth in other areas of life. Paul chastised the Jews because they ignored the law of God (the Mosaic code) as the embodiment of knowledge and truth (Romans 2:20). That law was the standard for measuring their ethical and religious activity. Man is not free to improvise and direct his own steps (Jeremiah 10:23); the era when every man “did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) was not pleasing to Jehovah.
Jesus taught, for instance, that God must be worshipped according to “truth” (John 4:24). What is the significance of “truth” in this admonition? The Greek term within this context has to do with “the content of Christianity as the absolute truth” (Arndt, p. 35). Another scholar, citing this passage, notes that: “True worship is that which accords with reality, which men grasp on the basis of revelation” (Thiselton, p. 891). (For further consideration of this matter, see Jackson, 1988, pp. 1ff).
- And then sometimes the term “truth” carries the idea of honesty. A woman who had a medical problem (a periodic hemorrhage) came in behind the Lord one day in a crowd. She believed the Great Physician could help her, and so she “touched his garment.” Jesus, likely to summon courage in the dear lady, asked: “Who touched me?” She came forward and “told him all the truth” (Mark 5:33).
An inspired apostle wrote that if a person professes to be in fellowship with God and yet he persistently walks the path of spiritual darkness (thus acting the hypocrite), he is lying, and not practicing the true (or honest) life (1 John 1:6; cf. Ephesians 4:25).
It is thus essential to understand that “true,” “truth,” etc. will vary in their emphases, depending upon the context.
Biblical Facts Regarding Truth
All truth, ultimately, is grounded in the nature of God, and the holy will that proceeds from him — whether that will is expressed in the immutable laws of nature, or in the documents of scripture. Jehovah is a “God of truth” (Deuteronomy 32:4; Isaiah 65:16). That which issues directly from him, therefore, is truth (Psalm 119:142,151). It is impossible for the Creator to be otherwise than true (cf. 1 Samuel 15:29; Titus 1:2; Hebrews6:18). Everything that is false is a digression from the divine ideal.
Contrary to the wispy, subjective concept of “truth” which has found such a ready abode in the thinking of many today, the Scriptures teach some hard facts relative to “truth.” The following points are very important.
- There is an objective body of spiritual truth, without which no person can learn how to please God. Jesus declared: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32), and that truth has been manifested in the word of God (John 17:17). J.H. Thayer, in his discussion of “truth,” objectively considered, defines aletheia as "the truth, as taught in the Christian religion, respecting God and the execution of his purposes through Christ, and respecting the duties of man. . . " (p. 26). Truth is not to be sought in the deep caverns of one’s personal soul; rather, it is revealed propositionally in a series of inspired documents (cf. “word of truth,” 2 Timothy 2:15) — which are buttressed by ample evidence demonstrating their divine origin.
- The truth must be accessed (known) to be of practical value. For all its beauty and majesty, the truth, locked away within the pages of a closed book, is of no worth to the human spirit. The Lord affirmed that the truth can provide freedom only to those who “know” it (John 8:32). To “know” (ginosko) is not only to “take in knowledge,” but also to recognize, perceive, and understand (Abbott-Smith, p. 92). Cremer suggests that the thing “known” has “an influence on” the one who obtains the knowledge (p. 154). In the purest sense, coming to a “knowledge of the truth” is the equivalent of becoming a Christian (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Timothy 3:7).
- There is no trait in man more precious than the disposition to love truth. By “love” we do not mean a superficial affection of intellectual interest, but a passionate devotion to understanding and living the truth. The Greek orator Demosthenes once said that the “love of truth” is one of the residues of the “image of God” in man. Another has said: “It is the love of the truth, or its absence, that is the test of a man’s character” (Hiebert, p. 342). In a frightening passage Paul notes that those who do not entertain a “love of the truth” are abandoned to the permissive will of God, that they might believe a lie and stand condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:10). And “love” [agape] is “a calculated disposition of regard and pious inclination.” (Turner, p. 263). It involves a serious commitment to truth.
The following passages reflect, in principle, the type of attitude that one must have toward God’s truth if he would please the Maker of mankind.
- Job affirmed that he treasured the words of God more than his necessary food (23:12).
- No less than eight times in Psalm 119, David expresses his love for God’s word; he loved Heaven’s law more than even fine gold (v. 127).
- One of the traits which must characterize any person who aspires to the kingdom of heaven is that he must “hunger and thirst” after God’s righteousness (Matthew 5:6).
- Mary, who sat at her Master’s feet, hanging on his every word, chose the “good part” — unlike her sister who scurried about doing mundane things that eventually would fade (Luke 10:41-42).
- The Sower’s seed can produce only in the heart that is “honest and good” (Luke 8:15); this is what Trench called the “simple, truthful, earnest nature” (p. 81). It describes the one who rejoices in each measure of light he receives.
- Christ spoke of those who “will” [thelo — a present tense form, “to seize with the mind,” Thayer, p. 285] to do the Father’s bidding (John 7:17).
- In Acts 13:46-48 there is a marked contrast between those Jews who “thrust from” themselves the gospel, and certain Gentiles who were “determined” within themselves that they would receive eternal life (see Jackson, 2000, p. 168).
- Note the wonderful disposition (“readiness of mind”) of those Bereans who were anxious to compare Paul’s preaching with their cherished Scriptures (Acts 17:11).
- Observe the opposite demeanor in others (Romans 1:28; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
There is simply no substitute for a love of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
- Once one has been exposed to the truth, intellectual integrity demands that evidence be believed. Luke, for example, argues that Jesus, following his resurrection from the dead, presented himself alive by many “proofs” (tekmerion — decisive proof, “demonstrative proof” — Lake, p. 4). We must recall again what was mentioned above. Paul warned that when men receive not the love of the truth, God allows them to believe error; he will judge those who “believe not the truth.” It was not that the truth was so obscure that they could not believe; rather, their minds were clouded by their lust for unrighteousness (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
But some are bound to protest: “I have tried to believe and I simply cannot.” You must probe the depths of your heart to determine what the obstacle is; something is there. Unbelief is not for want of adequate evidence. Thousands of first-century saints were martyred joyfully for their belief in the supernatural nature of Christianity; that sort of faith is not constructed of flimsy superficiality!
Elsewhere we have discussed what it really means to believe the truth. The book of Acts is a glowing commentary on that matter (see Jackson, 2000, pp. 463-466).
Finally, we must remind ourselves of a tragic narrative recorded in the Old Testament. It has to do with a prophet from Judah who courageously cried out against the innovative altar at Bethel, but who subsequentlv forfeited his life, disregarding instructions from Jehovah because he believed a lie. The gravity of this incident is underscored by the fact that it consumes an entire chapter in the book of First Kings (13). Believing only the truth, in religious matters, is obviously of supreme importance. Moreover, knowing the whole truth is crucial. From the life of Abraham one learns that a half-truth can be a whole lie (Genesis 20:1-12).
- Understanding the facts, loving the truth, and believing the reality thereof, will naturally result in obedience to the responsibilities of the same, and those who “obey not the truth” have nothing awaiting them but the indignation of God (Romans 2:8-9). By way of contrast, Christians have “purified [their] souls in [their] obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22). It was this very concept that Jesus had in mind in that conversation with Pilate, to which we alluded at the commencement of this article. The Lord stated: “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37). The expression “of the truth” is analogous to “of God” in chapter 8, verse 47, and hearing his voice is the equivalent of obeying him.
But how does one “obey” truth? The fact that the Scriptures speak of obeying the truth clearly implies that within the body of “truth” there are obligations expressed in commands. “If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). “He who says, I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
Note how the Lord’s teaching, and that of Paul, are in perfect harmony. Jesus asserted that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In his letter to the Romans, the inspired apostle declared: “But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form [pattern] of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). The expressions “know the truth” and “obedient” are closely connected.
- Finally, there are various other miscellaneous actions that also pertain to the term “truth” — both positive and negative. For example, the child of God is to become “established” in the truth (2 Peter 1:12), and not allow himself to be hindered in obeying it (Galatians 5:7). He must learn to handle it aright (2 Timothy 2:15), and apply it lovingly (Ephesians 4:15). He must walk [peripateo — used of the whole sphere of human activity] in it (2 John 4; 3 John 3), and work with fellow saints for the advancement of this precious commodity (3 John 8).
On the other hand, the Christian must not hinder the truth (Romans 1:18), withstand it (2 Timothy 3:8), or turn away from it (Titus 1:14). These actions only invite disaster.
A careful investigation of the biblical text, therefore, provides a powerful antidote to the postmodern confusion which alleges that truth is subjective, elusive, and ephemeral. To the contrary, truth is objective, glorious, demanding, exalting, and, ultimately it is the standard by which we all will be judged as we stand before the Creator of the universe. Embrace it with all your heart!
- Abbott-Smith, G. (1923), A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
- Arndt, William & Gingrich, F.W. (1967), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago).
- Bromiley, G.W., ed. (1985), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — Abridged (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Clark, Gordon H. (1999), “Truth,” Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, E.F. Harrison, G.W. Bromiley, Carl F. Henry, eds. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
- Cremer, Hermann (1962), Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
- Dever, William (2000), “Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond (1992), 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Chicago: Moody).
- Jackson, Wayne (1988), “Worship and Authority (2),” Christian Courier, May.
- Jackson, Wayne (1993), Notes From The Margin of My Bible — Old Testament (Stockton, CA: “Courier Publications”).
- Jackson, Wayne (2000), The Acts of the Apostles — From Jerusalem to Rome (Stockton, CA: “Courier Publications”).
- Lake, Kirsopp & Cadbury, Henry J. (1965), The Beginnings of Christianity — Part I (Grand Rapids: Baker).
- Sanders, Phil (2000), Adrift — Postmodernism In The Church (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
- Thayer, J.H. (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
- Trench, R.C. (1877), Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (London: Macmillan).
- Turner, Nigel (1981), Christian Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson).
- Thiselton, A.C. (1971), Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), Vol. 3.
- Vine, W.E. (1991), Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls: Riverside).