By Zdravko Plantak – “What is truth?” asked a cynical governor, not waiting for an answer.1 In his eyes he didn’t need to, because as supreme leader, he was the one who defined truth. Truth was what he said it was.
As commander of the Roman occupying power, he certainly didn’t need to be told what the truth was by some Jewish prisoner brought to be condemned by religious leaders who had also defined what truth was. He, Pontius Pilatus, even had the ultimate power of life and death over everyone in the province. His question was a rhetorical disregard for knowing “what is truth.?”
The Bible has much to say about truth. God’s word is truth (John 17:17). We differentiate truth and falsehood through our response to God (1 John 4:6). Jesus says he is the truth (John 14:6).The Spirit guides into all truth (John 16:13). The truth sets us free (John 8:32). Yet there are many varieties of “truth” out there, even among Christians.
So, the real question for us is how we determine “what is truth?” especially in a world of conspiracy theories, “fake news,” and vaccine misinformation.
Many have suggested ways by which we discover the truth. Of course, there are even different levels of truth. The factual (e.g. water is a liquid), the experiential (you fall as a result of gravity), the abstract (most aspects of religion, etc.). But across subjects and disciplines, there are some generally accepted ways of determining what is true. So, let’s look at them and see how they relate, especially to fundamental aspects of “truth knowing” that are philosophical and religious.
Just a fancy word to say, “Does it fit all the facts?” In other words, if you take everything you know about some subject, what concept brings those ideas together and makes sense of it all? It’s a bit like the scientific method which assembles all the known facts about an object or a process, develops a hypothesis that fits all that, and then designs an experiment to test the hypothesis.
Sometimes, such a process is not possible, so then we have to go back to a general coherence of what we know (That is a limitation of this aspect of determining truth. We rarely have “all the facts”). However, we can ask, “Is it more likely or more unlikely that something is true?”
Take for example, the resurrection of Jesus. We weren’t there to observe for ourselves. So, we have to examine the evidence that we have in order to draw our conclusion as to whether it is true. Certainly, those companions of Jesus believed it, and the resurrection is coherent with the rest of Christian belief. In fact, as Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless,” (1 Cor. 15:14 NLT).
This aspect really relates to the world we all observe. We could even say this approach to truth is saying “It’s obvious!” We may accept certain propositions as true without even thinking about them. Water gets you wet. Hot stove tops can burn you. Gravity pulls everything downward. Such a consensus of truth is based on common experience. We can also apply consensus to abstract ideas such as love and goodness, and their opposites, though there will always be arguments about how they are defined. For Christians, some examples of consensus would be “There is a God”; “The Bible is his Word”; “Jesus came to save us.”
Paul uses a kind of consensus argument when he says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” (Romans 1:20 NIV). Some, of course, may disagree with such a consensus statement, and the different Christian denominations are proof that consensus is hard to achieve, despite the attempts of ecumenism. In the words of Woodrow Kroll, “Truth can’t be judged on the basis of popularity.”2
While you could separate these out, they all follow similar logic, and all have the same problematic issues when it comes to determining truth. Sometimes we say that a proposition of truth has “stood the test of time.” In other words, if people have believed something is true over a long time period, it must necessarily be true, for if it were not, it would have been discarded. It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that even if a belief has been around for a long time, that doesn’t make it true. The same applies to custom and tradition. Custom says, “We’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.” Clearly not necessarily true.
Similarly with tradition. From a Christian perspective, appeal is often made to the “tradition of the church fathers.” While their experience should be considered, just because it was their belief doesn’t necessarily make it true. In fact, some beliefs and practices that are seen as true because of tradition may be at variance with what the Bible says. As Jesus told the religionists of his day, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9 NIV).
Many appeals to truth are done with reference to some authority. In other words, because someone famous (or even a divine figure) says something is true, then it surely must be. The question to be raised first is, “What is the reason this person is given the status of an authority figure?” (It may be because of previous statements that have been accepted, or lifestyle, or claims). We do this frequently today by appealing to “experts,” or to powerful leaders. However, once again, claims to truth do not necessarily make things true. In religion, appeals to the authority of church leaders are made as a way to determine truth or otherwise. Thomas a Kempis wisely observed, “Do not be influenced by the importance of the writer, and whether his learning be great or small, but let the love of pure truth draw you to read. Do not inquire, who said this? but pay attention to what is said.” 3
Yet we must admit we are all fallible, and sometimes those in power may have other reasons for asserting “truth” other than the fact that it is true. Jesus had to deal with questions of authority in terms of his truth-telling. The religious leaders came to Jesus. “‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’” (Mark 11:28 NIV). Authority in and of itself doesn’t determine truth.
This aspect is often used to say something is “always true.” In mathematics for example, strict logic applies. Two and two always makes four. That statement is always true. Or in logic we can say that “A” is not “non-A.” That is invariably true. In religion, the equivalent statement of consistency is “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV). Jesus is consistent, and this is taken as a baseline of truth. Appealing to the importance of logic, hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote, “It was a saying of the ancients, ‘Truth lies in a well;’ and to carry on this metaphor, we may justly say that logic does supply us with steps, whereby we may go down to reach the water.” 4
“I just feel it’s true.” Such a statement cannot be tested or verified, and so is not a means to determine truth. People have different feelings about many subjects, and they cannot all be true. Yet this is frequently the most common attempt to define what the person believes to be true.
We cannot trust what we feel. Francis Schaeffer observes, “We must stress that the basis for our faith is neither experience nor emotion but the truth as God has given it in verbalized, prepositional form in the Scripture and which we first of all apprehend with our minds.” 5 Similarly Jeremiah: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV).
Just like the previous aspect, instinct and intuition cannot be seen as reliable guides to discovering what is true. While we may “instinctively” know that we need to drink when we’re thirsty, and while it may be true that we have a “spiritual thirst,” the fact that we come to different conclusions as to what to do and where to go indicates that this is not a reliable way of finding truth. Intuition, similarly, leads people in different directions.
And yet, Ellen White admonished believers that “we must sink the shaft deep in the mine of truth. You may question matters with yourselves and with one another if you only do it in the right spirit; but too often self is large, and as soon as investigation begins, an unchristian spirit is manifested. This is just what Satan delights in, but we should come with a humble heart to know for ourselves what is truth.” 6
So, having examined these different aspects, how do we, in fact, discover truth? First, it’s clear we need to use our minds! God gave them to us so we could separate right from wrong, to differentiate between truth and error. Don’t listen to people who tell you to leave your brain at the church door!
Then examine the evidence. Ask yourself, does it make sense? Read the Bible and ask what it tells you about God and the way he relates to human beings. Most of all, look at the life of Jesus who said so clearly, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9 NIV). Look for some of those aspects mentioned above—logic, consistency, coherence and so on.
Also, admit that you have to make some assumptions. Like, there is a God. That he’s involved with this planet. That he cares for us. And so on. But then ask yourself, “What kind of God is represented here?” For that’s the most important aspect of discovering truth.
Pilate didn’t wait for an answer to his question. But Jesus had already answered it beforehand, when he told Pilate, “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” (John 18:37 NIV). Discover the truth as it is in Jesus!
— Zdravko (Zack) Plantak, PhD, is a professor of religion and ethics at the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. Email him at: [email protected]
6 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writer and Editors, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc, 1946), p. 42.