Almost two thousand years  ago, Truth was put on trial and judged by people who were devoted to lies. In  fact, Truth faced six trials in less than one full day, three of which were  religious, and three that were legal. In the end, few people involved in those  events could answer the question, “What is truth?”

After being arrested,  the Truth was first led to a man named Annas, a corrupt former high priest of  the Jews. Annas broke numerous Jewish laws during the trial, including holding  the trial in his house, trying to induce self-accusations against the defendant,  and striking the defendant, who had been convicted of nothing at the time. After  Annas, the Truth was led to the reigning high priest, Caiaphas, who happened to  be Annas’s son-in-law. Before Caiaphas and the Jewish Sanhedrin, many false  witnesses came forward to speak against the Truth, yet nothing could be proved  and no evidence of wrongdoing could be found. Caiaphas broke no fewer than seven  laws while trying to convict the Truth: (1) the trial was held in secret; (2) it  was carried out at night; (3) it involved bribery; (4) the defendant had no one  present to make a defense for Him; (5) the requirement of 2-3 witnesses could  not be met; (6) they used self-incriminating testimony against the defendant;  (7) they carried out the death penalty against the defendant the same day. All  these actions were prohibited by Jewish law. Regardless, Caiaphas declared the  Truth guilty because the Truth claimed to be God in the flesh, something  Caiaphas called blasphemy.

When morning came, the third trial of the  Truth took place, with the result that the Jewish Sanhedrin pronounced the Truth  should die. However, the Jewish council had no legal right to carry out the  death penalty, so they were forced to bring the Truth to the Roman governor at  the time, a man named Pontius Pilate. Pilate was appointed by Tiberius as the  fifth prefect of Judea and served in that capacity  A.D. 26 to 36. The  procurator had power of life and death and could reverse capital sentences  passed by the Sanhedrin. As the Truth stood before Pilate, more lies were  brought against Him. His enemies said, “We found this man misleading our nation  and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a  King” (Luke 23:2).  This was a lie, as the Truth had told everyone to pay their taxes (Matthew 22:21) and never  spoke of Himself as a challenge to Caesar.

After this, a very  interesting conversation between the Truth and Pilate took place. “Therefore  Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him,  ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are you saying this on your own  initiative, or did others tell you about Me?’ Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew,  am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You  done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of  this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed  over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’ Therefore  Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that  I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world,  to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ Pilate  said to Him, ‘What is truth?’” (John  18:33–38).

Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has reverberated  down through history. Was it a melancholy desire to know what no one else could  tell him, a cynical insult, or perhaps an irritated, indifferent reply to Jesus’  words?

In a postmodern world that denies that truth can be known, the  question is more important than ever to answer. What is  truth?

A Proposed Definition of Truth

In defining truth, it is first helpful to note what truth is not:

• Truth is not simply whatever works. This is the  philosophy of pragmatism – an ends-vs.-means-type approach. In reality, lies can  appear to “work,” but they are still lies and not the truth.
• Truth is not simply what is coherent or  understandable. A group of people can get together and form a conspiracy based  on a set of falsehoods where they all agree to tell the same false story, but it  does not make their presentation true.
• Truth is  not what makes people feel good. Unfortunately, bad news can be true.
• Truth is not what the majority says is true.  Fifty-one percent of a group can reach a wrong conclusion.
• Truth is not what is comprehensive. A lengthy,  detailed presentation can still result in a false conclusion.
• Truth is not defined by what is intended. Good  intentions can still be wrong.
• Truth is not how  we know; truth is what we know.
• Truth is not simply what is believed. A lie believed is still a lie.
•  Truth is not what is publicly proved. A truth can be privately known (for  example, the location of buried treasure).

The Greek word for “truth” is  aletheia, which literally means to “un-hide” or “hiding nothing.” It  conveys the thought that truth is always there, always open and available for  all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured. The Hebrew word for “truth”  is emeth, which means “firmness,” “constancy” and “duration.” Such a  definition implies an everlasting substance and something that can be relied  upon.

From a philosophical perspective, there are three simple ways to  define truth:

1. Truth is that which corresponds to  reality.
2. Truth is that which matches its object.
3. Truth is simply telling it like it is.

First,  truth corresponds to reality or “what is.” It is real. Truth is also  correspondent in nature. In other words, it matches its object and is known by  its referent. For example, a teacher facing a class may say, “Now the only exit  to this room is on the right.” For the class that may be facing the teacher, the  exit door may be on their left, but it’s absolutely true that the door, for the  professor, is on the right.

Truth also matches its object. It may be  absolutely true that a certain person may need so many milligrams of a certain  medication, but another person may need more or less of the same medication to  produce the desired effect. This is not relative truth, but just an example of  how truth must match its object. It would be wrong (and potentially dangerous)  for a patient to request that their doctor give them an inappropriate amount of  a particular medication, or to say that any medicine for their specific ailment  will do.

In short, truth is simply telling it like it is; it is the way  things really are, and any other viewpoint is wrong. A foundational principle of  philosophy is being able to discern between truth and error, or as Thomas  Aquinas observed, “It is the task of the philosopher to make  distinctions.”

Challenges to Truth

Aquinas’  words are not very popular today. Making distinctions seems to be out of fashion  in a postmodern era of relativism. It is acceptable today to say, “This is  true,” as long as it is not followed by, “and therefore that is false.” This is  especially observable in matters of faith and religion where every belief system  is supposed to be on equal footing where truth is concerned.

There are  a number of philosophies and worldviews that challenge the concept of truth,  yet, when each is critically examined it turns out to be self-defeating in  nature.

The philosophy of relativism says that all truth is relative and  that there is no such thing as absolute truth. But one has to ask: is the claim  “all truth is relative” a relative truth or an absolute truth? If it is a  relative truth, then it really is meaningless; how do we know when and where it  applies? If it is an absolute truth, then absolute truth exists. Moreover, the  relativist betrays his own position when he states that the position of the  absolutist is wrong – why can’t those who say absolute truth exists be correct  too? In essence, when the relativist says, “There is no truth,” he is asking you  not to believe him, and the best thing to do is follow his advice.

Those who follow the philosophy of skepticism simply doubt all truth. But is  the skeptic skeptical of skepticism; does he doubt his own truth claim? If so,  then why pay attention to skepticism? If not, then we can be sure of at least  one thing (in other words, absolute truth exists)—skepticism, which, ironically,  becomes absolute truth in that case. The agnostic says you can’t know the truth.  Yet the mindset is self-defeating because it claims to know at least one truth:  that you can’t know truth.

The disciples of postmodernism simply affirm  no particular truth. The patron saint of postmodernism—Frederick  Nietzsche—described truth like this: “What then is truth? A mobile army of  metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms … truths are illusions … coins which  have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”  Ironically, although the postmodernist holds coins in his hand that are now  “mere metal,” he affirms at least one absolute truth: the truth that no truth  should be affirmed. Like the other worldviews, postmodernism is self-defeating  and cannot stand up under its own claim.

A popular worldview is  pluralism, which says that all truth claims are equally valid. Of course, this  is impossible. Can two claims – one that says a woman is now pregnant and  another that says she is not now pregnant – both be true at the same time?  Pluralism unravels at the feet of the law of non-contradiction, which says that  something cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same sense.  As one philosopher quipped, anyone who believes that the law of  non-contradiction is not true (and, by default, pluralism is true) should be  beaten and burned until they admit that to be beaten and burned is not the same  thing as to not be beaten and burned. Also, note that pluralism says that it is  true and anything opposed to it is false, which is a claim that denies its own  foundational tenet.

The spirit behind pluralism is an open-armed  attitude of tolerance. However, pluralism confuses the idea of everyone having  equal value with every truth claim being equally valid. More simply, all people  may be equal, but not all truth claims are. Pluralism fails to understand the  difference between opinion and truth, a distinction Mortimer Adler notes:  “Pluralism is desirable and tolerable only in those areas that are matters of  taste rather than matters of truth.”

The Offensive Nature of  Truth

When the concept of truth is maligned, it usually for one  or more of the following reasons:

One common complaint against anyone  claiming to have absolute truth in matters of faith and religion is that such a  stance is “narrow-minded.” However, the critic fails to understand that, by  nature, truth is narrow. Is a math teacher narrow-minded for holding to the  belief that 2 + 2 only equals 4?

Another objection to truth is that it  is arrogant to claim that someone is right and another person is wrong. However,  returning to the above example with mathematics, is it arrogant for a math  teacher to insist on only one right answer to an arithmetic problem? Or is it  arrogant for a locksmith to state that only one key will open a locked door?

A third charge against those holding to absolute truth in matters of  faith and religion is that such a position excludes people, rather than being  inclusive. But such a complaint fails to understand that truth, by nature,  excludes its opposite. All answers other than 4 are excluded from the reality of  what 2 + 2 truly equals.

Yet another protest against truth is that it  is offensive and divisive to claim one has the truth. Instead, the critic  argues, all that matters is sincerity. The problem with this position is that  truth is immune to sincerity, belief, and desire. It doesn’t matter how much one  sincerely believes a wrong key will fit a door; the key still won’t go in and  the lock won’t be opened. Truth is also unaffected by sincerity. Someone who  picks up a bottle of poison and sincerely believes it is lemonade will still  suffer the unfortunate effects of the poison. Finally, truth is impervious to  desire. A person may strongly desire that their car has not run out of gas, but  if the gauge says the tank is empty and the car will not run any farther, then  no desire in the world will miraculously cause the car to keep going.

Some will admit that absolute truth exists, but then claim such a stance is  only valid in the area of science and not in matters of faith and religion. This  is a philosophy called logical positivism, which was popularized by philosophers  such as David Hume and A. J. Ayer. In essence, such people state that truth  claims must either be (1) tautologies (for example, all bachelors are unmarried  men) or empirically verifiable (that is, testable via science). To the logical  positivist, all talk about God is nonsense.

Those who hold to the  notion that only science can make truth claims fail to recognize is that there  are many realms of truth where science is impotent. For example:

• Science cannot prove the disciplines of mathematics and  logic because it presupposes them.
• Science cannot prove  metaphysical truths such as, minds other than my own do exist.
• Science is unable to provide truth in the areas of morals  and ethics. You cannot use science, for example, to prove the Nazis were  evil.
• Science is incapable of stating truths about  aesthetic positions such as the beauty of a sunrise.
•  Lastly, when anyone makes the statement “science is the only source of objective  truth,” they have just made a philosophical claim—which cannot be tested by  science.

And there are those who say that absolute truth does not apply  in the area of morality. Yet the response to the question, “Is is moral to  torture and murder an innocent child?” is absolute and universal: No. Or, to  make it more personal, those who espouse relative truth concerning morals always  seem to want their spouse to be absolutely faithful to them.

Why  Truth is Important

Why is it so important to understand and  embrace the concept of absolute truth in all areas of life (including faith and  religion)? Simply because life has consequences for being wrong. Giving someone  the wrong amount of a medication can kill them; having an investment manager  make the wrong monetary decisions can impoverish a family; boarding the wrong  plane will take you where you do not wish to go; and dealing with an unfaithful  marriage partner can result in the destruction of a family and, potentially,  disease.

As Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias puts it, “The fact is,  the truth matters – especially when you’re on the receiving end of a lie.” And  nowhere is this more important than in the area of faith and religion. Eternity  is an awfully long time to be wrong.

God and  Truth

During the six trials of Jesus, the contrast between the  truth (righteousness) and lies (unrighteousness) was unmistakable. There stood  Jesus, the Truth, being judged by those whose every action was bathed in lies.  The Jewish leaders broke nearly every law designed to protect a defendant from  wrongful conviction. They fervently worked to find any testimony that would  incriminate Jesus, and in their frustration, they turned to false evidence  brought forward by liars. But even that could not help them reach their goal. So  they broke another law and forced Jesus to implicate Himself.

Once in  front of Pilate, the Jewish leaders lied again. They convicted Jesus of  blasphemy, but since they knew that wouldn’t be enough to coax Pilate to kill  Jesus, they claimed Jesus was challenging Caesar and was breaking Roman law by  encouraging the crowds to not pay taxes. Pilate quickly detected their  superficial deception, and he  never even addressed the charge.

Jesus  the Righteous was being judged by the unrighteous. The sad fact is that the  latter always persecutes the former. It’s why Cain killed Abel. The link between  truth and righteousness and between falsehood and unrighteousness is  demonstrated by a number of examples in the New Testament:

• For this reason God will send upon them a deluding  influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be  judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness”  (2  Thessalonians 2:9–12, emphasis added).

• “For the  wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness  of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18, emphasis added).

• “who will render to each person according to his deeds; to  those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and  immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do  not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (Romans  2:6–8, emphasis added).     • “[love] does not act  unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into  account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices  with the truth” (1  Corinthians 13:5–6, emphasis added).

What is truth? –  Conclusion

The question Pontius Pilate asked centuries ago  needs to be rephrased in order to be completely accurate. The Roman governor’s  remark “What is truth?” overlooks the fact that many things can have the truth,  but only one thing can actually be the Truth. Truth must originate from  somewhere.

The stark reality is that Pilate was looking directly at the  Origin of all Truth on that early morning over two thousand years ago. Not long  before being arrested and brought to the governor, Jesus had made the simple  statement “I am the truth” (John 14:6),  which was a rather incredible statement. How could a mere man be the truth? He  couldn’t be, unless He was more than a man, which is actually what He claimed to  be. The fact is, Jesus’ claim was validated when He rose from the dead (Romans 1:4).

There’s  a story about a man who lived in Paris who had a stranger from the country come  see him. Wanting to show the stranger the magnificence of Paris, he took him to  the Louvre to see the great art and then to a concert at a majestic symphony  hall to hear a great symphony orchestra play. At the end of the day, the  stranger from the country commented that he didn’t particularly like either the  art or the music. To which his host replied, “They aren’t on trial, you are.”  Pilate and the Jewish leaders thought they were judging Christ, when, in  reality, they were the ones being judged. Moreover, the One they convicted will  actually serve as their Judge one day, as He will for all who suppress the truth  in unrighteousness.

Pilate evidently never came to a knowledge of the  truth. Eusebius, the historian and Bishop of Caesarea, records the fact that  Pilate ultimately committed suicide sometime during the reign of the emperor  Caligula—a sad ending and a reminder for everyone that ignoring the truth always  leads to undesired consequences.

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