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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is Truth?: Heeding the Voice of Truth

Whew! I've been busy these past weeks, so I bet you've forgotten we were talking about truth and relativism before Thanksgiving. I've been trying to write this post for what seems like an eternity--at least in the blogosphere, nearly two weeks is a long time!

It seems like I've been trying to make my point much more complicated than it needs to be. The fact is, I can't think of a brilliant way to argue why relative moralists should believe the truth. In reality, it's a pretty simple decision. It isn't logical to object to truth, and therefore I can't use logic to prove such an obvious point. I mean, even Aristotelian logic was formulated with the basic assumption that truth exists and can be found.

How then can I convince anyone to give up such ideas if he or she wants to cling to them? I don't know. It's apparent that no argument can sway any mind that does not want to be changed. It isn't a cop-out on my part to arrive at that position. I have an example from the Bible to back it up.

Jesus and Pilate: The Trial of Truth

I was looking for some other angle in the Bible with which we can discuss truth, and I found this interesting conversation between Jesus and the Roman Governor, Pilate, during the trial that resulted in Christ's sentence to death by crucifixion. In case you aren't familiar with the story, Pilate did not find Jesus worthy of the death penalty, but he still sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. Details of the conversation are recorded in John 18: 33-38 and Matthew 27: 11-26.

I ask that you look up these passages in a Bible you have on hand, or to use the links to open them in a new tab on your web browser, so you can follow me as I explain the verses.

Pilate has often been quoted for his relative moralist line in John 18: 38: "What is truth?" In classic relativist slight-of-hand, he dismisses everything that he's heard as just a bunch of useless arguments for an unarguable position. Did he really believe what his own mouth had said, though? This was the last statement Pilate made in the conversation, so we need to understand what lead up to that point.

Pilate started out by asking Jesus point-blank if He was the "King of the Jews" (John 18:33 NIV). On the surface, this seems like a legitimate question. Pilate was the Roman governor in charge of Judea, the ancient district that included what had been the kingdom of Israel. It was now under the rule of the Roman Empire, and the Roman Emperor was the legal and official king of the Jews, as far as politics were concerned. If Jesus was indeed leading a rebellion against the Emperor, Pilate had authority to sentence him to death, but if this was a religious concern among the Jews, Pilate did not have authority to get involved.

So, it seems like a valid question to start out an interrogation, but Jesus called him on a detail. He hadn't asked Jesus if he was leading an insurrection; he'd simply asked Him about His claim to authority.

Jesus responded by questioning His questioner. "'Is that your own idea,' Jesus asked,'or did others talk to you about me?'" (John 18: 34 NIV). Pilate was supposed to be figuring out if Jesus had lead a rebellion against Roman rule, but his question betrayed the fact that he had been listening to rumors about Jesus, and was allowing those rumors to influence his "impartial" viewpoint. As Jesus had become more popular, many people had begun to hope He would become more than just a spiritual leader in Israel. Obviously Pilate had heard of that rumor. Jesus was asking Pilate, a man who obviously valued justice and Roman law, to admit that he was allowing rumors and personal opinion to have a place in Roman legal proceedings. Jesus was showing respect for Roman law by insisting that it be followed; He was also shifting the subject onto truth vs. opinion, where it truly belonged.

Apparently that exasperated Pilate, because he didn't want this to get personal. He answered Jesus with, "Am I a Jew?" (John 18: 35 NIV), which is a loaded statement. Pilate seemed to be saying that he was a Roman, and Romans didn't hang out with Jews, get involved with Jewish issues, or allow their judgment to become clouded with personal opinion like their Roman subjects. If you detect a racist superior attitude, you are right. Pilate was claiming to be above any personal interest in Jesus' leadership credentials. Then Pilate shifted the subject back to the routine and impartial trial he wanted this meeting to be. Since the Jews had brought Jesus to him, Jesus must have done something that fell under Roman legal jurisdiction. So what had Jesus done against the Roman law?

"Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place'" (John 18: 36 NIV). In other words, Jesus was assuring Pilate that He was not leading a political insurrection against the Romans. Just in case Pilate hadn't understood what His previous statement implied, Jesus was saying again that this was a spiritual issue, not a political one.

Pilate's reply, "You are a king, then!" (John 18: 37 NIV) seems like a question about Jesus' sanity to modern readers. The argument for the truth had changed from what people now might call "rational" ideas about law into more "irrational" ideas about religion, but it's important to remind you here that the Romans were very religious people. Everything was religious to them, and every unusual event was a portent of the future--a message from the gods they worshiped. The closest thing to spiritual kingship in the Roman religion was the pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Emperor himself was thought to be a god. To suggest that a person couldn't be deity would have been treasonous speech against the Emperor. Claiming to be a spiritual king (as a Roman would have understood the term) was not completely outrageous to Pilate, but it did, of course, need proof.

So Jesus gave him some proof. "Jesus answered, 'You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me'" (John 18: 37 NIV). Jesus wasn't claiming to be a little god who ruled over only the Jews (who seemed like a very small and weak group in the Roman Empire); He was claiming to be the God of all truth, who had personally come for the sole purpose of talking about truth. In the Roman religion, the goddess Veritas (truth) was elusive and hid in a well. Yet, here was someone claiming that truth was not elusive, and that He had personally brought truth to Pilate. The truth was right out in the open and Jesus was discussing it!

Now, truth, as the earlier exchange about rumors had revealed, was of utmost importance to Pilate. He was a rational man who believed in justice and getting to the bottom of things. Now Jesus was claiming that He was the authority on truth, and that anyone who cared about truth had to submit to His authority. This was a personal statement to Pilate. Jesus, this man Pilate had never met before, was demonstrating, in the most unsettling way, that He knew all about Pilate's innermost thoughts and what he valued most of all. Jesus actually knew and understood Pilate!

Pilate could have said, "Whoa, okay, you really are the King of Truth, and I believe it because you know the truth about me," but something stopped him. What was it? I think he didn't want to look foolish in front of all of those Jews standing around and accusing Jesus. He didn't want to look stupid, and he was afraid that by standing by his personal beliefs, he might cause a real Jewish insurrection. That would jeopardize his job, and perhaps even his life. If you really believe in something, you have to be willing to put everything else on the line for it.

So, in response to Jesus' claim as an authority on truth, Pilate said "What is truth?" (John 18: 38 NIV). He was afraid to stick his neck out, so he renounced the one thing he cared about. People's opinions of him--peer approval, in other words--was what really mattered to Pilate. When the going got rough, Pilate wasn't actually a man of truth and reason, and he admitted it to Jesus.

Other Arguments in the Debate

Were there any other things that Pilate ignored in arriving at his verdict in the truth debate?

  1. Pilate's wife and even his religion argued for truth. "While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: 'Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him'" (Matthew 27:19 NIV). I will say again that the Romans were a very superstitious people. They considered just about everything as a sign from the gods, telling them how to act. In recorded history, Roman rulers were known to consider comet sightings as predictors of the outcomes of battles, and retreat or attack based on their interpretation of the sign. We don't know what Pilate's wife dreamed, but it must have been important enough that she was willing to bother him at work.
    Though superstition usually doesn't support truth, it did, indirectly, that day. It was more than just superstition to suppose that sentencing an innocent man to death would incur wrath from God. They didn't know the God of Israel, but they were afraid to incur His wrath. Pilate's wife told him to put everything on the line to side with Christ in this matter, but he wouldn't listen.

  2. Matthew 27: 18 also includes an editorial comment, that Pilate "knew it was out of envy that they [the Jewish rulers] had handed Jesus over to him." We can't read Pilate's mind, so I imagine that something he said or did showed that he understood that their issue with Jesus was over power and popularity. Jesus was popular, and the Jewish leaders were upset that he was gaining a following that rivaled their own. Pilate knew people and understood when people were trying to trick him into getting rid of a rival for them. I'm sure, as a man in the judgment seat, he had seen his share of slander and false testimony.

  3. Finally, as a man of justice, Pilate's own conscience argued for truth. He demanded of the Jewish crowd that they tell him why he should sentence Christ to death. It bothered him when they kept insisting on it. To show them that he felt it wasn't right, he ceremonially washed his hands, saying "'I am innocent of this man's blood,'" and added, "'It is your responsibility!'"(Matthew 27: 24 NIV). Though the people willingly accepted the blame (Matthew 27: 25), Pilate was still the one recorded in history as the man who sentenced Christ to death. It bothered him, but it didn't bother him enough to stick his neck out.

Pilate was a relative moralist by choice. His position wasn't supported; he just chose it because he wanted acceptance, and debates over truth challenged that acceptance.

If you are debating relative morality, you will eventually come to the same crisis point that Pilate did. You have to either give up everything for truth, or you have to give up everything that matters for what is more comfortable. Your conscience will bother you. You will know it isn't right. You can willfully choose the discomfort of the conscience, or you could risk all for God. I can't promise you that sticking with your convictions will be easy, but I can tell you that God rewards those who stubbornly cling to the truth. As Jesus' disciples told their new converts, it is important "to remain true to the faith. 'We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God'" (Acts 14:22).


Anonymous said...

Amen, preach it! Out of curiosity I just typed "truth" into an online Bible search engine--it returned 449 results.

Rachel said...

Yes, "truth" appears often. My concordance showed that the majority of times truth was mentioned were Jesus' words--"I tell you the truth...."