Chapter 1.
Is There Such a Thing as Absolute Truth?

by Alex McFarland

Not long ago I was looking forward to attending a lecture by authors Maggie Gallagher and Robert George. They were to talk about marriage being an institution between one man and one woman. At a dry cleaner that afternoon I struck up a conversation with a young woman, and the talk turned to that evening's lecture. She said she was a Christian, but she did not believe that people should insist on any one, true definition of marriage. "I don't think we should be telling other people what they should do," she said. "What's true for me might not be true for them. We all have our own truths."

I responded, "Really? Can something be true for me but not for you? Can I say I'm Alex McFarland from North Carolina and you insist I'm an aardvark from the Amazonian jungle, and we are both right? Of course not. But this shows the problem with the belief that everyone has his own truths. Both views can't possibly be true."

What Is Truth?

The nature or essence of truth is often described as absolute truth, ultimate truth, or as our Founding Fathers put it, self-evident truth. The biblical view of reality is one in which truth exists, can be known, and is relevant for everyone. Josh McDowell phrases it this way: "That which is true for all people, for all times, for all places." Since truth is related to the character of God, who is eternal and unchanging (Ps 90:2; Mal 3:6; Heb 13:8), the nature of truth is fixed. Truth does not have an expiration date. It is not up for revision or re-invention.

But how does truth work? What makes something true? Three theories are given in answer to these questions: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory.

The correspondence theory says that truth is what corresponds to the world in the way people experience it. This is a common-sense theory. When a person says, "The city of Indianapolis is in the state of Indiana," that corresponds with the truth that there is indeed a city called Indianapolis in Indiana. That is the easy part. But sometimes a person claims something that might seem to be true but might be difficult to correspond to the world as it is perceived. Someone may say, "This oar is straight," but then when he puts it halfway in the water it suddenly looks crooked. So is it straight or crooked? Is the statement "This oar is straight" a true statement? Yes, it is, because we understand through the science of optics that the image of the oar in the water is refracted so that it just looks crooked even though the oar remains straight. The water does not bend the oar; the water acts as a lens of sorts, and the light is bent through this lens so that the oar looks bent.

This might pertain to other things. Someone may look in the distance and say, "A man is walking towards me." But after a few minutes it is obvious that a woman is walking towards him. Because of distance or haze or perhaps poor eyesight, the person misperceived what he was seeing. To say someone might be mistaken about a truth statement does not mean that the truth does not exist. It just means he is mistaken. The statement, "Everyone sees things differently," does not mean there is no truth. It just means that some people are seeing the matter incorrectly. One might say this is X, and another might say it is Y. Still another says it is B, and someone else claims it is A. All four may be wrong, but they cannot all be right. In other words what is A cannot also be not-A. What is true cannot also be not true. And what is not true cannot also be true. That is a basic law of logic called the law of noncontradiction. Someone may sincerely believe he has made a true statement when he says this is X when in fact it is A. But according to the correspondence theory of truth, that is not a true statement. Sincerity is not a test of truth. A person can sincerely believe he can fly, but the moment he steps off the edge of the roof, the truth of the law of gravity, which corresponds with reality, combined with his sincerely held belief about his ability to fly, which does not correspond to reality, will result in a painful fall.

The next theory is the coherence theory. It says basically that a statement is true if it is logically consistent with other beliefs that are held to be true, and a belief is false if it is inconsistent with or contradicts other beliefs that are held to be true. Truth statements cohere—hold together—with other things believed to be true. Gravity exerts an equal force on all objects. So according to the coherence theory of truth as soon as a person lets go of a rock in his hand, gravity will cause it to fall to the earth. And the rock does fall to the earth. This theory has a certain appeal, and in many instances it works. But a person can create in his imagination an entire universe in which many things are true, but do not actually exist. Science-fiction and fantasy literature are full of these universes. For example the creators of the sci-fi series Star Trek have been very careful to build a universe in which all its various "truths" are interdependent on other "truths." Yet no United Federation of Planets, or starships, Klingons, or Vulcans exist. But according to a strict reading of the coherence theory of truth, these things are all "true." On a more down-to-earth level, this theory in some ways cannot be contradicted. One can say, "The city of Indianapolis came into existence only one hour ago, complete with the appearance of age, historical records, and memories." According to the coherence theory, this statement is "true," and anything a person does to try to prove that it is not true is easily dealt with by noting that "This building only appears to be old because that's how it was created only one hour ago."

The third theory of truth is the pragmatic theory, sometimes called the functional theory. This means simply that the truth is what works best. A statement is true if it allows a person to interact effectively and efficiently with the world. The less true a belief is, the less it facilitates such interaction. A belief is false if it facilitates no interaction. At face value, people often rely on this theory, whether they realize it or not. It is "true" that heavy stones will fall to the earth when not held up, and this pragmatically allows a person to make sure he is not under them when this happens. But again, stretch the theory a bit, and its problems are evident. People in some ancient cultures believed they should sacrifice human lives to make sure the rains came again in the spring. They would kill a victim, and usually the rains came. Therefore to them it was true that human sacrifice brought the spring rains. But did they? Of course not. This is a classic example of a logical fallacy: B follows A, therefore A caused B, even if there's no logical connection between the two. But for those ancients, it was a true statement to say human sacrifice led to spring rains because it seemed to work.

So which theory of truth is true? They all have elements of truth in them, but they all have problems too, some worse than others. The Christian worldview is the truth because it incorporates all the good elements of each theory while accounting for all the bad. The claims of Christianity correspond to the world as it is experienced and as history states it has been. Christianity holds together in a consistent, coherent explanation of why the world is as it is. And this works in the sense that if a person lives by Christianity's truth claims, he will have the easiest time interacting with the world as it is. (This does not mean everything will be easy, though, because Jesus Christ promised that believers will have difficulties in this sinful world.)

Points

Counterpoints

What Happened to Truth?

So what happened to the idea that there was one truth? How do people come to the idea that some things are true for some people but not true for others?

The roots of this thinking go back seven hundred years to the Renaissance. This historical period, which began in Florence, Italy, and spanned roughly three centuries from the 1300s to the late 1500s, was considered a time of rebirth. (In fact that is what renaissance means in French.) It was not a rebirth of man, though, but of "the idea of man." It switched positions for God and man; instead of God being the measure of all things, as had been the case since the founding of Christianity, man became the measure. This was the beginning of humanism as a philosophical idea.

Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), an Italian scholar, is considered the father of humanism. He promoted the idea of the strong, idealistic man and centered his works on man and man's ability. Renaissance humanism is "the broad concern with the study and imitation of classical antiquity which was characteristic of the period and found its expression in scholarship and education and in many other areas, including the arts and sciences." This thought process developed into modern day humanism, with its emphasis on human values and humanity in general.

The late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian scholar, wrote,

These paid men of letters translated Latin, wrote speeches, and acted as secretaries. . . . Their humanism meant, first of all, a veneration for everything ancient and especially the writings of the Greek and Roman age. Although this past age did include the early Christian church, it became increasingly clear that the sort of human autonomy that many of the Renaissance humanists had in mind referred exclusively to the non-Christian Greco-Roman world. Thus Renaissance humanism steadily evolved toward modern humanism—a value system rooted in the belief that man is his own measure, that man is autonomous, totally independent.

Humanism showed the "victory of man." This is seen, for example, in the statue of David, completed in 1504 by Michelangelo. This David is supposed to be the David of the Bible, yet he is shown as a strong, handsome man who is obviously not Jewish because he is uncircumcised. This statue of David portrays him as the complete opposite of the young, humble David of the Bible. Most of the art of this time portrayed the same message: "Man will make himself great. Man by himself will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it. Man will be victorious." The humanists were sure that man could solve every problem. "Man starting from himself, tearing himself out of the rock, out of nature, could solve all," Schaeffer wrote. "The humanistic cry was 'I can do what I will; just give me until tomorrow.'"

Eventually, after several hundred years, this idea failed. The optimism of the Renaissance ended in pessimism. For many centuries learned thinkers promised they would deliver the truth, and yet the truth—the truth without God, at least—remained elusive. People finally came to the conclusion that there is no truth. As Schaeffer wrote, "We could say that we went to Renaissance Florence and found modern man."

Modern man, whether he realizes it or not, is governed in large measure by this pessimism about truth, a philosophy called postmodernism, the belief that there are no absolutes, including no absolute truth. According to postmodern thinking, there is no ultimate truth; people can construct their own "stories" or narratives, and what is true for one person might not be true for another. Truth is relative to individual people, times, and places.

So if truth is relative to each person, each person is then free to do his own thing—the perfect motto of the 1960s and 1970s. The hippies of the sixties preached peace and love, with a generous dose of drugs and illicit sex. Their main belief was, "Do your own thing. If it doesn't hurt anyone and it makes you happy, do it."

Unfortunately many Christians bought into this worldview. As Schaeffer wrote, "As the more Christian-dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence." The dominant ethic was to just be left alone: this was basically the attitude of apathy.

Humanism in the meantime tried to make a comeback. The problem was that humanism had already destroyed everything it hoped to build on. According to Schaeffer humanism—man beginning only from himself—had destroyed the old basis of truth and could find no way to generate with certainty any new truths. In the resulting vacuum the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence had come to stand supreme. And now for the majority of young people, after the passing of the false hopes of drugs as an ideology, the emptiness of the sexual revolution and the failure of politics, what remained? Only apathy. Hope was gone.

This is exemplified in today's dismissive, "Whatever." People do not care anymore about anything so long as it does not hurt them or personally affect them. When asked, "Is something true?" they respond, "Whatever!"

Implications of Relativism

Planet earth is fast becoming a "no-truth zone."

Relativism is the death of "true truth," the "extinction of the idea that any particular thing can be known for sure." The denial of absolute truth also has implications for Christianity. Today's denial of absolute truth leads to statements such as these:

Sadly, some Christians believe these statements, like the young lady at the dry cleaners who told me, "We all have our own truths."

This relativistic spirit presents challenges for both missions-minded Christians and values-minded parents: How can people be convinced to turn from sin if they cannot be convinced of the true statement that they have sinned? And how can children live according to biblical morals when a relativistic posture seems to be a prerequisite in social, academic, and professional arenas?

Think of the implications of this for preaching the gospel. If there is no actual, absolute truth, or if ultimate truth exists but is unknowable, then the Christian's claims about Jesus being the exclusive way to God are fallacious. Equally false (in the mind of many moderns) are the Christian's claims that people are fallen, sinful, in need of salvation, and without Jesus Christ are bound for eternal lostness. Surveys validate the point that when it comes to religious claims, most Americas today are driven by relativism. Relativism (at least in terms of theology) is the assumption that all beliefs are equally valid. The claim of Christianity that people need Jesus Christ seems ludicrous to people today who are committed to what might be described as absolute subjectivism.

Relativism is a belief system wrapped up in selfishness. What a person wants is no longer held against an objective standard. It becomes his subjective standard, and therefore it is true and right for him. But everyone else has his own subjective standard based on what he wants and what is right for him. This may be called selfism, the attitude that people are free to approach spirituality on their own terms.

When the truth dies, then so do ethics, because if nothing can be known for sure, then there are no real rights or wrongs. Combine this with selfism, and anything goes. Relativism is no different from having no morality at all. This explains why people can allow society to do things like kill babies and take the lives of people deemed unfit to live. Truth has become what the majority thinks. Truth is no longer based on a firm foundation. Truth is whatever is right at the moment, according to the most people. Frederick Moore Vinson, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court said, "Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes."

A House of Cards

Dogmatic relativism can be exposed as both flimsy and hypocritical. So what can a listener do when his conversation about spiritual things is held hostage by the phrase, "That may be true for you, but not for me"?

First, aside from relativism's inherent logical flaws, one can point out the fact that such platitudes are not livable. No one would remain tolerant of a bank teller who said, "You and your bank statement both say your account contains $5,000. That may be true for you, but it's not true for me." People can talk as if the world is relative, but how they live proves that it is absolute.

Romans 1:18–22 notes that truth exists and describes the destructive end of all who willfully suppress it. But a person does not need a Bible to point out problems with the relativistic worldview. One needs to simply apply common sense. Next time a skeptic argues definitively that truth is relative, the assumptions he is making should be noted. For one thing, if truth does not exist, then by definition his statement is also false. And how can relativists be certain about their position if "truth cannot be known"? Apparently the only one allowed to be dogmatic is the relativist! To reject truth, skeptics must imply the very thing they are denying. This is a self-defeating statement.

God "hardwired" our brains for rational thought. With a little practice, people can become adept at spotting error and defending truth. Culture has become like someone who is insane, someone who cannot adjudicate the real and the unreal. People often make two mistakes when talking about reality. (1) They take certain subject protocols (e.g., history, math, languages) and apply them to other things, or (2) they take a method of one discipline and apply it to all reality.

This is called a category mistake, wrongly attributing certain characteristics of one category to another category. So if someone asked what red sounded like, he would be committing a category mistake because red is a color; it does not have a sound.

Category mistakes lead to a common problem in today's culture, in which preference replaces truth. A preference refers to how someone feels about something, what he wants, such as a color of car or the flavor of ice cream. Examples of truth claims are the content of history, math, science, philosophy, morality, or religion.

Too many people confuse these categories. An example of this is, "You do not like abortion? Then do not have one." Another example is, "We want sexual preference and the right to marry the person we choose." These are expressions of preference. But these are issues of truth. Morality, despite what today's culture would like to make it out to be, is a matter of truth! Few true relativists exist. People do not like it when someone begins messing with their concepts. They will be relativistic up to a point, but then they quickly start telling what they believe is right and wrong.

Why? Because there is something innate in everyone that tells when something is not right. This something is natural law. This is what Christian philosopher J. Budziszewski calls things "we can't not know." Everyone knows innately that some things are wrong, such as lying, stealing, cheating, murdering. The very fact that people, when guilty, try to make excuses for these actions proves that they "cannot not" know them. This is like the crook who flees the scene of the crime; as the police say, fleeing the scene of the crime is proof of guilt. This is because God's law is written on people's hearts, as clearly stated in the Bible:

So, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences testify in support of this, and their competing thoughts either accuse or excuse them. (Rom 2:14–15)

First Principles of Thought: Laws of Logic

Logic is not invented; it is discovered. Indeed it is part of the created order. Here are a few laws of logic:

The law of noncontradiction: A thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time in the same sense. This also means that if something contradicts itself, it cannot be true. Relativism contradicts itself. It states absolutely that there cannot be any absolute truth. But that statement is an absolute truth. Therefore it is self-defeating. It defies the law of noncontradiction.

The law of the excluded middle: A thing is either A or not-A. It cannot be both. The law gets its name from the construction of the classic logical syllogism, which consists of three terms.

  1. All A are B.
  2. C is A.
  3. Therefore C is B.

Or, more simply:

  1. All cats are mammals.
  2. Fluffy is a cat.
  3. Therefore Fluffy is a mammal.

In the case of an excluded middle, no middle term is needed.

  1. Fluffy is a cat.
  2. Fluffy is not a cat.

Fluffy cannot be both a cat and not a cat at the same time in the same sense. Something cannot be true and not true at the same time in the same sense. That last qualification—"at the same time in the same sense"—is important. A person can say, "Joe is a man" and mean it in the strict biological sense: a male of the species homo sapiens. But another might say, "Joe is not a man" and mean it in a sociological sense: he is not brave and does not take responsibility for his actions. In this situation it is not a violation of the law of the excluded middle because the word man is used in two different senses.

The law of identity: If a thing is A, then it is A. If it exists, then it exists. If it is true, then it is true. This is self-explanatory, but it pretty much kills any claim that something can be true for one person but not for another.

Conclusion

Instilling a love of truth in the hearts of people is more critical now than ever. The truth that truth exists must be asserted firmly but lovingly. Apologist Peter Kreeft says that "the enemy's battle plan," is lure people into assuming that one's endless spiritual quest is the only actual end. Kreeft theorizes that Satan's approach is, "... not just to block the finding (of God), but to block the seeking; not just to get them off right roads and onto wrong roads for a while, but to get them to throw away all their road maps, their principles, their belief in objective truth, especially about good and evil."

First Thessalonians 2:4–6 and Gal 1:10 demand that believers speak the truth! They are not here to tickle people's ears. As J. P. Moreland wrote, "Saint Paul tells us that the church—not the university, the media, or the public schools—is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15)."

Pilate asked Jesus what is perhaps the ultimate question: "What is truth?" (John 18:38). Five facts about truth that are undeniable are these:

Content such as what is included in this book is designed to equip hearts and heads to stand up for truth. More than just an intellectual exercise, apologetics approaches the pursuit of truth and love for truth as necessary life skills. An authentic commitment to truth involves both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action). A relationship with the One who called Himself the truth (John 14:6) must manifest itself in what one believes and how one behaves. Though some in today's culture work hard to suppress the obvious, truth does exist.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is truth as we have defined it in this chapter?
  2. What are the three main theories of truth and what do they mean?
  3. What does the Christian worldview say about absolute truth?
  4. What is humanism as we have put it forth in this chapter and what effect did it have on the idea of truth?
  5. Why is relativism selfish and how would you defend truth to someone who is putting forth a relativistic belief system?