Redeeming Words: Truth

Adam Barr

August, 2018

Imagine this: You live in a world where scientists have perfected a virtual reality experience. You can step into this machine and be immersed in a world of sensory impressions, visuals, feelings, and interactions. Within this world, there is no pain. There is amazing beauty. You will never feel discomfort or deal with tragedy. You will have everything you want any time you want it. The scientists who designed this world can even import a virtual version of all your friends and family. They can write these people into the programming of the device, making it seem as if they are there. Though you will be interacting with a computer simulation, nothing in your experience will ever give that simulation away. There is only one condition: You must be willing to live in that world for the rest of your life.

What would you say?

I hope you would say, “No.” I have no doubt you would. Why?

I bet that whether we can articulate it or not, the reason we would say no is because, no matter how awesome that world would be, some part of us would realize we are choosing to live in an illusion. We would know, “This is not the real world.”

Last month, we looked at the difference between the Christian view of faith and the way it can be understood in our post-Christian context. This month, we are looking at the word truth. How does Christianity define this word? How is it used in our post-Christian culture? How can we bridge the gap between the two meanings, opening the door for outreach along the way?

For most cultures throughout most of human history, “truth” has simply meant: The way things are. A true statement was a statement that accurately reflected reality. A false statement was something that contradicted it. Most people have taken for granted that we can know the truth about things.

Christians have always believed that God made us as rational creatures that can know the truth. We can know moral truth since it is written in our consciences and can be discovered through reasoning. We can know scientific truth since God made a rational world and gave us minds that can observe and reach conclusions. We can know theological truth since God’s nature is revealed in creation and through his Word. Christians have not been alone in these beliefs. Most cultures have understood that truth is something that could be discovered.

 Today, this confidence persists when it comes to things like science, but it has retreated when it comes to things like religion and morality. For example, even today most people believe that we can accurately describe the chemical structure of salt (NaCl) or define the relationship between energy and mass (E=MC2). In the realm of science, we have a high degree of confidence in truth claims. On the other hand, people are much more cautious about claiming we can know the truth about morality and religion. Two attitudes dominate the thinking of most people, even if they do not realize it.

The first attitude is skepticism. The skeptic simply says, “Who can know the truth?” Very few people we meet will live with a consistent skepticism. Typically, they are skeptical about things they find it convenient to question. The problem with skepticism is that, in the end, it cannot hold together. If it is true that no one can know a universal truth, then the statement, “No one can know universal truth” is itself false, since it is a statement of universal truth.

When we encounter friends who question whether anyone can know the truth, one of the best things to do is simply help them see that their skepticism cannot help them live a life of meaning. We were made to seek the truth. Even skeptics must live as if certain ideas are true and others are false. It only makes sense to do everything we can to discover the truth about life! We only have one life to live. We do not want to waste it living in an illusion (like the virtual reality machine). Our skeptical friends are waiting for us to help them see that the pursuit of truth is worthwhile.

"Each of us is free to invent our own view of what ultimate reality is like and how people should act. Everyone gets to have their own Santa. Anyone can decide what it really means to live “The good life.”"

 

The second attitude we will encounter when it comes to moral and religious truth is subjectivism. If skepticism says, “No one can know what’s true,” then subjectivism says, “No one can say what is false.” This attitude towards truth is primarily at work in the areas of religion and morality.

 

Many of us have been conditioned to think, “It is intolerant to say certain religions are wrong.” On the surface, this kind of thinking seems humble, but in the end, it is not. Why? Because religious and moral subjectivism says that, ultimately, religion and morality are a grownup version of make-believe. We are free to invent our view of what ultimate reality is like and how people should act. Everyone gets to have their own Santa. Anyone can decide what it means to live “The good life.”

In other words, if we say that no one can say something is untrue, then we are, in effect, saying no one can say something true.

When sharing our faith, the best way to cut through this kind of thinking is to move into specifics. Christians make some very specific truth claims about the nature of reality and the events of history. We believe that these truths, like any other historical truth, can be examined. We claim that Jesus Christ really lived, died, and rose again. We believe that the empty tomb is a historical fact and that the best explanation for that fact is Jesus’ resurrection.

And here’s the thing: These claims are not just expressions of our feelings. We believe that they are truth claims that describe the way things are. Our non-Christian friends are not used to having religious truth claims enter the realm of real-world truth (i.e., “the way things really are”) but it is our job to help them see that they do.

Let me leave you with three practical tools for reaching your post-Christian friends:

  1. Help them see the pitfalls of skepticism and subjectivism: Both of these attitudes towards religious and moral truth are, in the end, self-defeating.
  2. Help them realize that Christianity is not simply about “spiritual” stuff or morality, it impacts the nature of reality: The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are not just theological ideas, they are events that can be explored. I would strongly suggest reading a book like The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel to learn more about this. If true, then “the way things are” is radically different than if they were false.
  3. Help them see the benefits of seeking truth: If you were trapped in a virtual reality machine, wouldn’t you want to know it? Wouldn’t you want to wake up and live in the real world? When we are content with a false worldview, we are content to live in a fake world. We can appeal to our friends’ innate hunger for truth to draw them into an honest exploration of the Gospel’s truth claims.

 Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House.

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