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."
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.
When the concept of truth is maligned, it is 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.
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 (2) 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.
There are those who say that absolute truth does not apply in the area of morality. Yet the response to the question, “Is it 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.
It is 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.
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.
During the six trials of Jesus, the contrast between the truth (righteousness) and lies (unrighteousness) was unmistakable. Jesus was 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 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:
• “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12
• “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;” Romans 1:18
• “Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,” Romans 2:6–8
• “Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;” 1 Corinthians 13:5–6
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 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 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). 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).
Pilate never came to 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 reminder for everyone that ignoring the truth always leads to undesired consequences.