Chapter 1.
Can We Handle the Truth?

"Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened."

—Winston Churchill

In the MOVIE A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays a Navy lawyer who questions a Marine colonel, played by Jack Nicholson, about the murder of one of Nicholson's men. The dramatic courtroom scene turns into a shouting match as Cruise accuses Nicholson of being complicit in the murder:

Cruise: "Colonel, did you order the Code Red!"

Judge: "You don't have to answer that question!"

Nicholson: "I'll answer the question... you want answers?"

Cruise: "I think I'm entitled to them."

Nicholson: "You want answers!"

Cruise: "I want the truth!"

Nicholson: "You can't handle the truth!"

Nicholson might as well have been yelling at all of America rather than Cruise because it seems that many in our country can't handle the truth. On one hand, we demand truth in virtually every area of our lives. For example; we demand the truth from:

We also expect to be told the truth when we pick up a reference book, read an article, or watch a news story; we want the truth from advertisers, teachers, and politicians; we assume road signs, medicine bottles, and food labels reveal the truth. In fact, we demand the truth for almost every facet of life that affects our money, relationships, safety, or health.

On the other hand, despite our unwavering demands for truth in those areas, many of us say we aren't interested in truth when it comes to morality or religion. In fact, many downright reject the idea that any religion can be true.

As we're sure you've noticed, there's a huge contradiction here. Why do we demand truth in everything but morality and religion? Why do we say, "That's true for you but not for me," when we're talking about morality or religion, but we never even think of such nonsense when we're talking to a stock broker about our money or a doctor about our health?

Although few would admit it, our rejection of religious and moral truth is often on volitional rather than intellectual grounds—we just don't want to be held accountable to any moral standards or religious doctrine. So we blindly accept the self-defeating truth claims of politically correct intellectuals who tell us that truth does not exist; everything is relative; there are no absolutes; it's all a matter of opinion; you ought not judge; religion is about faith, not facts! Perhaps Augustine was right when he said that we love the truth when it enlightens us, but we hate it when it convicts us. Maybe we can't handle the truth.

In order to resolve our cultural schizophrenia, we need to address four questions concerning truth:

  1. What is truth?
  2. Can truth be known?
  3. Can truths about God be known?
  4. So what? Who cares about truth?

We'll cover these questions in this chapter and the next.

What Is Truth? The Truth About Truth

What is truth? Very simply, truth is "telling it like it is." When the Roman governor Pilate asked Jesus "What is truth?" nearly 2,000 years ago, he didn't wait for Jesus to respond. Instead, Pilate immediately acted as if he knew at least some truth. Concerning Jesus, he declared, "I find no fault in this man" (see John 18:38). By exonerating Jesus, Pilate was "telling it like it is."

Truth can also be defined as "that which corresponds to its object" or "that which describes an actual state of affairs." Pilate's judgment was true because it matched its object; it described an accurate state of affairs. Jesus really was innocent.

Contrary to what is being taught in many public schools, truth is not relative but absolute. If something is true, it's true for all people, at all times, in all places. All truth claims are absolute, narrow, and exclusive. Just think about the claim "everything is true." That's an absolute, narrow, and exclusive claim. It excludes its opposite (i.e., it claims that the statement "everything is not true" is wrong). In fact, all truths exclude their opposites. Even religious truths.

This became comically clear when a number of years ago I (Norm) debated religious humanist Michael Constantine Kolenda. Of the many atheists I debated, he was one of the few who actually read my book Christian Apologetics prior to the debate.

When it was his turn to speak, Kolenda held up my book and declared, "These Christians are very narrow-minded people. I read Dr. Geisler's book. Do you know what he believes? He believes that Christianity is true and everything opposed to it is false! These Christians are very narrow-minded people!"

Well, Kolenda had also written a book which I had read beforehand. It was titled Religion Without God (which is sort of like romance without a spouse!). When it was my turn to speak, I held up Kolenda's book and declared, "These humanists are very narrow-minded people. I read Dr. Kolenda's book. Do you know what he believes? He believes that humanism is true and everything opposed to it is false! These humanists are very narrow-minded people!"

The audience chuckled because they could see the point. Humanist truth claims are just as narrow as Christian truth claims. For if H (humanism) is true, then anything opposed to H is false. Likewise, if C (Christianity) is true, then anything opposed to C is false.

There are many other truths about truth. Here are some of them:

In short, contrary beliefs are possible, but contrary truths are not possible. We can believe everything is true, but we cannot make everything true.

This seems obvious enough. But how do we deal with the modern assertion that there is no truth? A couple of cartoon characters can help us.

The Road Runner Tactic

If someone said to you, "I have one insight for you that absolutely will revolutionize your ability to quickly and clearly identify the false statements and false philosophies that permeate our culture," would you be interested? That's what we're about to do here. In fact, if we had to pick just one thinking ability as the most valuable we've learned in our many years of seminary and postgraduate education, it would be this: how to identify and refute self-defeating statements. An incident from a recent talk-radio program will demonstrate what we mean by self-defeating statements.

The program's liberal host, Jerry, was taking calls on the subject of morality. After hearing numerous callers boldly claim that a certain moral position was true, one caller blurted out, "Jerry! Jerry! There's no such thing as truth!"

I (Frank) scrambled for the phone and began to dial furiously. Busy. Busy. Busy. I wanted to get on and say, "Jerry! To the guy who said, 'there is no such thing as truth'—is that true?"

I never did get through. And Jerry, of course, agreed with the caller, never realizing that his claim could not possibly be true—because it was self-defeating.

A self-defeating statement is one that fails to meet its own standard. As we're sure you realize, the caller's statement "there is no truth" claims to be true and thus defeats itself. It's like saying, "I can't speak a word in English." If someone ever said that, you obviously would respond, "Wait a minute! Your statement must be false because you just uttered it in English!"

Self-defeating statements are made routinely in our postmodern culture, and once you sharpen your ability to detect them, you'll become an absolutely fearless defender of truth. No doubt you've heard people say things like, "All truth is relative!" and "There are no absolutes!" Now you'll be armed to refute such silly statements by simply revealing that they don't meet their own criteria. In other words, by turning a self-defeating statement on itself, you can expose it for the nonsense it is.

We call this process of turning a self-defeating statement on itself the "Road Runner" tactic because it reminds us of the cartoon characters Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. As you may remember from Saturday morning cartoons, the Coyote's one and only quest is to chase down the speedy Road Runner and make him his evening meal. But the Road Runner is simply too fast and too smart. Just when the Coyote is gaining ground, the Road Runner stops short at the cliff's edge leaving the passing Coyote momentarily suspended in midair, supported by nothing. As soon as the Coyote realizes he has no ground to stand on, he plummets to the valley floor and crashes in a heap.

Well, that's exactly what the Road Runner tactic can do to the relativists and postmodernists of our day. It helps them realize that their arguments cannot sustain their own weight. Consequently they crash to the ground in a heap. This makes you look like a super genius! Let's take the Road Runner tactic to college to show you what we mean.

The Road Runner Goes to College

The Road Runner tactic is especially needed by today's college students. Why? Because if you listen to many of our university professors, they'll tell you that there is no truth. What amazes us is that parents all over the world are literally paying thousands of dollars in college tuition so that their sons and daughters can be taught the "truth" that there is no truth, not to mention other self-defeating postmodern assertions such as: "All truth is relative" (Is that a relative truth?);" There are no absolutes" (Are you absolutely sure?); and, "It's true for you but not for me!" (Is that statement true just for you, or is it true for everyone?) "True for you but not for me" may be the mantra of our day, but it's not how the world really works. Try saying that to your bank teller, the police, or the IRS and see how far you get!

Of course these modern mantras are false because they are self-defeating. But for those who still blindly believe them, we have a few questions: If there really is no truth, then why try to learn anything? Why should any student listen to any professor? After all, the professor doesn't have the truth. What's the point of going to school, much less paying for it? And what's the point of obeying the professor's moral prohibitions against cheating on tests or plagiarizing term papers?

Ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. Indeed, many students realize the implications of these bad postmodern ideas and behave accordingly. If we teach students that there is no right and wrong, why are we surprised when a couple of students gun down their classmates or a teenage mother leaves her baby in a trash can? Why should they act "right" when we teach them that there is no such thing as "right"?

C. S. Lewis revealed the absurdity of expecting virtue from people who are taught that no virtue exists: "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

The truth of the matter is this: false ideas about truth lead to false ideas about life. In many cases, these false ideas give apparent justification for what is really immoral behavior. For if you can kill the concept of truth, then you can kill the concept of any true religion or any true morality. Many in our culture have been attempting to do this, and the past forty years of religious and moral decline trumpet their success. Unfortunately, the devastating consequences of their efforts are not just true for them—they are also true for all of us.

So truth exists. It cannot be denied. Those who deny truth make the self-defeating truth claim that there is no truth. In this regard, they are a lot like Winnie the Pooh—they answer a knock at the door by saying, "No one is home!"

Now, let's see how the Road Runner tactic can help us answer the skeptical truth claim that "truth cannot be known!"

Can Truth Be Known? Knock, Knock...

Evangelical Christians believe that they ought to obey Jesus' command to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). In order to help Christians carry out this "Great Commission," D. James Kennedy created a door-to-door evangelism technique called "Evangelism Explosion" (EE). If you're a Christian, the EE technique allows you to quickly ascertain where a person is spiritually. After introducing yourself, you are to ask questions like these to the person answering the door:

  1. Can I ask you a spiritual question? And
  2. If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God were to ask you, "Why should I let you into my heaven?" what would you say?

Most people are curious enough to say yes to question 1. (If they say, "What do you mean by 'a spiritual question'?" you go ahead and ask them the second question.) As for the second question, the EE manual predicts that the non-Christian will usually give the "good works" answer. You know, something like, "God will accept me because I'm basically a good person. I haven't killed anybody; I go to church; I give to the poor..." In that case, the EE manual tells you to respond with the gospel (literally the "good news"): that all (including you) have fallen short of God's perfect standard, and no good work can erase the fact that you've already sinned; but the good news is that you can be saved from punishment by trusting in Christ, who was punished in your place.

While this technique has been very successful, some non-Christians do not respond to the two questions as expected. For example, one evening I (Norm) decided to take EE to the streets along with a fellow member of my church. Here's how it went:

Knock, Knock.

"Who's there?" (A man came to the door.)

I stuck out my hand and said, "Hi! My name is Norm Geisler, this is my partner, Ron, and we're from the church at the end of the street."

"I'm Don," the man replied, his eyes quickly sizing us up.

Immediately I jumped into action with question 1: "Don, do you mind if we ask you a spiritual question?"

"No, go ahead," Don said boldly, apparently eager to have a Bible thumper for dessert.

I laid question 2 on him: "Don, if you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God were to ask you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven?' what would you say?"

Don snapped back, "I'd say to God, 'Why shouldn't you let me into your heaven?'"

Gulp... he wasn't supposed to say that! I mean, that answer wasn't in the book!

After a split second of panic, I offered up a quick prayer and replied, "Don, if we knocked on your door seeking to come into your house, and you said to us, 'Why should I let you into my house?' and we responded, 'Why shouldn't you let us in?' what would you say?"

Don pointed his finger at my chest and sternly replied, "I would tell you where to go!"

I immediately shot back, "That's exactly what God is going to say to you!"

Don looked stunned for a second but then narrowed his eyes and said, "To tell you the truth: I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist."

"You're an atheist?"

"That's right!"

"Well, are you absolutely sure there is no God?" I asked him.

He paused, and said, "Well, no, I'm not absolutely sure. I guess it's possible there might be a God."

"So you're not really an atheist, then—you're an agnostic," I informed him, "because an atheist says, 'I know there is no God,' and an agnostic says 'I don't know whether there is a God.'"

"Yeah... alright; so I guess I'm an agnostic then," he admitted.

Now this was real progress. With just one question we moved from atheism to agnosticism! But I still had to figure out what kind of agnostic Don was.

So I asked him, "Don, what kind of agnostic are you?"

He laughed as he asked, "What do you mean?" (He was probably thinking, "A minute ago, I was an atheist—I have no idea what kind of agnostic I am now!")

"Well, Don, there are two kinds of agnostics," I explained. "There's the ordinary agnostic who says he doesn't know anything for sure, and then there's the ornery agnostic who says he can't know anything for sure."

Don was sure about this. He said, "I'm the ornery kind. You can't know anything for sure."

Recognizing the self-defeating nature of his claim, I unleashed the Road Runner tactic by asking him, "Don, if you say that you can't know anything for sure, then how do you know that for sure?"

Looking puzzled, he said, "What do you mean?"

Explaining it another way, I said, "How do you know for sure that you can't know anything for sure?"

I could see the lightbulb coming on but decided to add one more point: "Besides, Don, you can't be a skeptic about everything because that would mean you'd have to doubt skepticism; but the more you doubt skepticism the more sure you become."

He relented. "Okay, I guess I really can know something for sure. I must be an ordinary agnostic."

Now we were really getting somewhere. With just a few questions, Don had moved from atheism through ornery agnosticism to ordinary agnosticism.

I continued, "Since you admit now that you can know, why don't you know that God exists?"

Shrugging his shoulders, he said, "Because nobody has shown me any evidence, I guess."

Now I launched the million-dollar question: "Would you be willing to look at some evidence?"

"Sure," he replied.

This is the best type of person to talk to: someone who is willing to take an honest look at the evidence. Being willing is essential. Evidence cannot convince the unwilling.

Since Don was willing, we gave him a book by Frank Morison titled Who Moved the Stone? Morison was a skeptic who set out to write a book refuting Christianity but instead became convinced by the evidence that Christianity was indeed true. (In fact, the first chapter of Who Moved the Stone? is called "The Book That Refused to Be Written.")

We visited Don a short time later. He described the evidence presented by Morison as "very convincing." Several weeks later, in the middle of a study of the Gospel of John, Don accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.

Today Don is a deacon in a Baptist church near St. Louis, Missouri. Every Sunday morning, for years, he's driven the church bus through the local neighborhood to pick up those kids whose parents wouldn't come to church. His ministry has special meaning to me (Norm) because two men like Don (Mr. Costie and Mr. Sweetland) picked me up with a church bus more than 400 times—every Sunday from when I was nine until I was seventeen. I was in a position to accept Christ at seventeen largely because of that bus ministry. I guess it's true what they say, "What goes around comes around," even if it's just the Sunday school bus.

Can All Religions Be True?

The moral of the EE story is that complete agnosticism or skepticism is self-defeating. Agnostics and skeptics make the truth claim that truth claims cannot be made. They say that truth can't be known but then claim that their view is true. You can't have it both ways.

So we've established that truth can be known. In fact, it's undeniable. But so what? Can't all religions be true? Unfortunately, it's not just the secular world that's confused about this question; even some church pastors have trouble with it.

Seminary professor Ronald Nash heard of a good example of this. He told us of a student of his who went home to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for Christmas break a couple of years ago. While on break, this Bible-believing student decided to be adventurous one Sunday and attend a church that he had never attended before. But as soon as the pastor uttered the first sentence of his sermon, the student realized he had made a mistake—the pastor was contradicting the Bible.

"The theme of my sermon this morning," the pastor began, "is that all religious beliefs are true!" The student squirmed in his seat as the pastor went on to assure each member of the congregation that every religious belief they had was "true!"

When the sermon was over, the student wanted to slip out unnoticed, but the heavy-set, robed pastor was waiting at the door bear-hugging each passing congregant.

"Son," the pastor boomed upon greeting the student, "where are you from?"

"Actually, I'm from Bowling Green, sir. I'm home on break from seminary."

"Seminary! Good. So what religious beliefs do you have, Son?"

"I'd rather not say, sir."

"Why not, Son?"

"Because I don't want to offend you, sir."

"Oh, Son, you can't offend me. Besides, it doesn't matter what your beliefs are—they're true. So what do you believe?"

"Okay," the student relented. He leaned toward the pastor, cupped his hand around his mouth, and whispered, "Sir, I believe that you are going to hell!"

The pastor's face turned bright red as he struggled to respond. "I, ah, guess I, ah, made a mistake! All religious beliefs cannot be true because yours certainly aren't true!"

Indeed, as the pastor realized, religious beliefs cannot all be true, because many religious beliefs are contradictory—they teach opposites. For example, conservative Christians believe that those who haven't accepted Christ as their Savior have chosen hell as their ultimate destination. It's often overlooked, but many Muslims believe the same about non-Muslims—they're headed for hell as well. And Hindus generally believe that everyone, regardless of beliefs, is caught in an indefinite cycle of reincarnation based on works. These contradictory beliefs can't all be true.

In fact, world religions have more contradictory beliefs than complementary ones. The notion that all religions teach basically the same thing—that we ought to love one another—demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of world religions. While most religions have some kind of similar moral code because God has implanted right and wrong on our consciences (we'll discuss that in chapter 7.), they disagree on virtually every major issue, including the nature of God, the nature of man, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, and creation!

Think about it: the nature of God, the nature of man, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, and creation. Those are the biggies! Here are a few of those big differences:

These are just a few of the many essential differences. So much for the idea that all religions teach basically the same things!

Truth vs. Tolerance

While most religions have some beliefs that are true, not all religious beliefs can be true because they are mutually exclusive—they teach opposites. In other words, some religious beliefs must be wrong. But you're not supposed to say that in America today. You're supposed to be "tolerant" of all religious beliefs. And in our culture today, tolerance no longer means to put up with something you believe to be false (after all, you don't tolerate things you agree with). Tolerance now means that you're supposed to accept every belief as true! In a religious context, this is known as religious pluralism—the belief that all religions are true. There are a number of problems with this new definition of tolerance. First, let us say that we are thankful that we have religious freedom in this country, and we don't believe in imposing a religion legislatively (see our book Legislating Morality). We are well aware of the dangers of religious intolerance and believe that we should accept and respect people who have different religious beliefs. But that doesn't mean that personally we ought to embrace the impossible notion that all religious beliefs are true. Since mutually exclusive religious beliefs cannot be true, it makes no sense to pretend that they are. In fact, on an individual level it can be dangerous to do so. If Christianity is true, then it's dangerous to your eternal destiny not to be a Christian. Likewise, if Islam is true, then it's dangerous to your eternal destiny not to be a Muslim.

Second, the claim that "you ought not question someone's religious beliefs" is itself a religious belief for pluralists. But this belief is just as exclusive and "intolerant" as any religious belief of a Christian or Muslim. In other words, pluralists think all non-pluralist beliefs are wrong. So pluralists are just as dogmatic and closed-minded as anyone else making truth claims in the public square. And they want everyone who disagrees with them to see things their way.

Third, the prohibition against questioning religious beliefs is also an absolute moral position. Why shouldn't we question religious beliefs? Would it be immoral to do so? And if so, by whose standard? Do pluralists have any good reasons supporting their belief that we ought not question religious beliefs, or is it just their own personal opinion that they want to impose on the rest of us? Unless they can give us good reasons for such a moral standard, why should we allow them to impose it on us? And why are pluralists trying to impose that moral position on us anyway? That's not very "tolerant" of them.

Fourth, the Bible commands Christians to question religious beliefs (e.g., Deut. 13:1-5; 1 John 4:1; Gal. 1:8; 2 Cor. 11:13; etc.). Since Christians have a religious belief that they ought to question religious beliefs, then pluralists—according to their own standard—should accept this Christian belief as well. But of course they do not. Ironically, pluralists—advocates of the new tolerance—are not really tolerant at all. They only "tolerate" those who already agree with them, which by anyone's definition is not tolerance.

Fifth, the pluralisms claim that we ought not question religious beliefs is a derivative of the false cultural prohibition against making judgments. The prohibition against judging is false because it fails to meet its own standard: "you ought not judge" is itself a judgment! (Pluralists misinterpret Jesus' comments on judging [Matt. 7:1-5]. Jesus did not prohibit judging as such, only judging hypocritically.) Indeed, everyone—the pluralist, the Christian, the atheist, the agnostic—makes judgments. So the issue isn't whether or not we make judgments, but whether or not we make the right judgments.

Finally, are pluralists ready to accept as true the religious beliefs of Muslim terrorists—especially when those beliefs say that all non-Muslims (including pluralists) should be killed? Are they ready to accept as true the religious beliefs of those who believe in child sacrifice or other heinous acts? We hope not.

While we should respect the rights of others to believe what they want, we are foolish, and maybe even unloving, to tacitly accept every religious belief as true. Why is this unloving? Because if Christianity is true, then it would be unloving to suggest to anyone that their opposing religious beliefs are true as well. Affirming such error might keep them on the road to damnation. Instead, if Christianity is true, we ought to kindly tell them the truth because only the truth can set them free.

Once I Was Blind but Now I See

What does the vast plurality of religious beliefs tell us about truth in religion? At first glance, it might appear that the existence of so many contradictory beliefs just reinforces the elephant parable we mentioned in the introduction—namely, that truth in religion cannot be known. But exactly the opposite is the case.

To refresh your memory, in this parable an elephant is being examined by six blind men. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and thus reaches a different conclusion about the object in front of him. One grabs the tusk and says, "This is a spear!" Another holds the trunk and says, "This is a snake!" The one hugging the leg claims, "This is a tree!" The blind man holding the tail thinks, "I have a rope!" The one feeling the ear believes, "This is a fan!" And the one leaning on the elephant's side is certain, "This is a wall!" These blind men are said to represent world religions, because they each come to a different conclusion about what they are sensing. Like each blind man, we are told, no one religion has the truth. Religious truth is relative to the individual. It is subjective, not objective.

This may seem persuasive until you ask yourself one question: "What's the perspective of the one telling the parable?" Hmmmm, let's see, the one telling the parable___He appears to have an objective perspective of the entire proceeding because he can see that the blind men are mistaken. Exactly! In fact, he wouldn't know that the blind men were wrong unless he had an objective perspective of what was right!

So if the person telling the parable can have an objective perspective, why can't the blind men? They could—if the blind men suddenly could see, they too would realize that they were originally mistaken. That's really an elephant in front of them and not a wall, fan, or rope.

We too can see the truth in religion. Unfortunately, many of us who deny there's truth in religion are not actually blind but only willfully blind. We may not want to admit that there's truth in religion because that truth will convict us. But if we open our eyes and stop hiding behind the self-defeating nonsense that truth cannot be known, then we'll be able to see the truth as well. And not just truth in the areas where we demand it—money, relationships, health, law, etc.—but truth in religion as well. As the blind man healed by Jesus said, "Once I was blind, but now I see."

The skeptic may say, "Wait a minute! The elephant parable may be a bad parable, but that still doesn't prove that truth in religion can be known. You've proven that truth can be known, but not necessarily truth in religion. In fact, didn't David Hume and Immanuel Kant disprove the idea of truth in religion?"

Not at all, and we'll discuss why in the next chapter.

Summary

  1. Despite the relativism that emanates from our culture, truth is absolute, exclusive, and knowable. To deny absolute truth and its knowability is self-defeating.
  2. The "Road Runner" tactic turns a statement on itself and helps expose the self-defeating (and thus false) statements that are so common today. These include statements such as, "There is no truth!" (Is that true?); "All truth is relative!" (Is that a relative truth?); and "You can't know truth!" (Then how do you know that?). Basically, any statement that is unaf-firmable (because it contradicts itself) must be false. Relativists are defeated by their own logic.
  3. Truth is not dependent on our feelings or preferences. Something is true whether we like it or not.
  4. Contrary to popular opinion, major world religions do not "all teach the same things." They have essential differences and only superficial agreements. All religions cannot be true, because they teach opposites.
  5. Since, logically, all religions cannot be true, we cannot subscribe to the new definition of tolerance that demands that we accept the impossible idea that all religious beliefs are true. We are to respect the beliefs of others, but lovingly tell them the truth. After all, if you truly love and respect people, you will tactfully tell them the truth about information that may have eternal consequences.