What is Truth?

“You are a king then?” Pilate asked.

“You say that I’m a king,” Jesus replied. “I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

“What is truth?” said Pilate.

John 18:37-38 (CSB)

When I teach a Bible class I often ask my students to finish this statement, “The Bible is…” Within the first few responses, someone always says, “True!” I follow that up by asking “What do we mean when we say the Bible is true?” I’ve found that many people have trouble with that question. Though we talk a lot about the truth, Christians struggle defining it coherently. It doesn’t help that cultural figures such as Oprah Winfrey have popularized the idea of “Speaking your truth,” as though truth is an expression of a person’s individual personality. It’s important for us to understand what truth is, to be able to explain it to a post-truth culture, and to be prepared for push back from a society that finds the Christian concept of truth too restrictive on its individuality.

True = Real. Simply put, Christians understand any statement that is true to be one that accurately corresponds to what is real. To illustrate this point, I’m using a metal pin art toy. Imagine that each pin represents a statement called a “truth claim” (it makes a claim about what is real). When my daughter presses her hand into the pins, I see a representation of her hand. It’s not perfect, but it gives me many accurate details. As she moves her hand, the pins move, and reflect the changes. The image the pins show is “true” (in my analogy) because each pin directly corresponds to the real object behind the pins.

Truth is Objective not Subjective. An objective standard is one that is outside myself, and a subjective standard is something inside of myself. If my daughter removes her hand from behind the pins and shakes the toy, the image changes. It still looks like a hand, but because the real object isn’t behind the pins, there is nothing to hold them in an accurate representation of her hand. When the hand was in place, there was an objective standard, now that it is gone, the placement of the pins is subjective, determined by the characteristics of the toy, and not an object behind it. If I have a subjective idea, it is created by my own emotions, personality, or opinions, and not reality.

Our knowledge of truth will always be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we should give up searching for truth. Human understanding and perception is imperfect, just as the image in the toy doesn’t convey every detail of what the object is truly like. That imperfection has led to the common feeling in modern culture that since none of us have a perfect understanding of reality, then no one should make any appeal to objective truth (i.e., a truth claim), especially when it comes to ideas like good and evil, or right and wrong. However, we can know a lot of things for sure, even if we don’t have all the information. For instance, I can tell that this is a toy car and not a hand.

Truth is not about what simply works. I told my daughter in this final picture to make an image of a hand. The result would no doubt suit her purpose of showing basically what a hand looks like. It has five fingers and a palm, but it’s not a true representation of an object. You aren’t getting a picture of reality.

Truth doesn’t care about your feelings. This should be the most obvious conclusion. If truth is about what is real, the emotion I feel toward a truth claim has nothing to do with whether that claim is actually true. It doesn’t matter how authentically felt or how deeply entrenched those emotions are. They don’t change truth. Is that harsh? I suppose, but reality doesn’t care.

Everyone makes truth claims, even if they don’t believe in truth. This is one of those brute facts that culture can’t escape. Even if I say, “There is no truth.” I am saying “It is true, that there is no truth.” That is a self-defeating statement, the logical equivalent of cutting off the branch you are sitting on. Even when Oprah implies that truth is self-determined, she has a problem. That very claim does not come from “self” (unless Oprah is a figment of my own imagination), so the statement again defeats itself. Imagine a person slamming into your car, and then driving off. You tell the police, and when they arrest the man, he says “Well, that is your truth, but my truth is that you damaged the car yourself.” No one in their right mind would accept that, so why would we accept it when it comes to morality or belief in God?

There are some rules that govern truth. You can’t even argue against them without using them. They just are. Together they add up to the simple conclusion that true is true, and false is false and there is no middle ground. If I make the statement “My car is red.” You might argue that my claim is both true and false. Under a blue light, my car would be black, to a color-blind person it might be brown. To a cat, it might be yellow. Those observations while correct, don’t prove that my claim is both true and false, but that we are using different definitions of what it means for something to be “red” and I need to be more specific. Under a shared understanding of the word, then the statement must be either true or false.

All truth comes from God. The irony of John 18:37-38 is that Pilate is asking Truth Himself what truth is. Jesus said in John 14:6a, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The meaning in this statement is much deeper than we realize. God is the only mind that perceives everything always, in all places. As the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, He is the measure of what is true. That doesn’t mean that we can’t perceive some truths while denying God, but the further we move away from Him, the less our worldview reflects what is real (the 71 gender options for Facebook illustrate this). It also means that we don’t have to rely only upon our own imperfect and incomplete knowledge, since He has chosen to step in and speak to us directly through His Word.

Christians should love truth in all its forms, and fight falsehood from the pulpit to Facebook. Our goal should be to know what is true, and to allow that truth to change the way that we think and act. We should never be afraid of learning truth in whatever way we can, utilizing scientific research, discovery, and inquiry, and guided by sound reason and logic. However, we always keep in mind our own sinful imperfections, and the philosophies and worldviews that tend to distort our search for truth. We hold everything up to the light of God’s Word, knowing that whenever we are in doubt, the one who defines reality gets the final say.

–Thomas Hersman