What is Truth?

Commentary by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
(Originally published at MidlandsLife, September 13, 2015)

IN NEARLY ALL THE FILM ADAPTATIONS OF THE LIFE OF JESUS – including the acclaimed HBO mini-series The Bible (2013) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) – the scene the writers and directors follow most closely to the Scriptural account is that of the brief dialogue between Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman military governor of Judea, and Jesus, who had been arrested hours earlier by the temple guards.

It plays out like this: “Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:37-38)

What is truth? That was Pilate’s cynical – perhaps forlorn – response to Jesus’ declaration that anyone who seeks the truth, hears His (Christ’s) voice.

So what is truth? In his first-ever American Dictionary of the English Language, lexicographer and devout Christian Noah Webster defined truth as an absolute. The primary definition of truth in 1828 was said to be “Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.”

Compare the absoluteness of Webster’s truth in 1828, with Merriam-Webster’s primary definition in 2015, which is, “Sincerity in action, character, and utterance.”

In other words, truth to Webster in the early 19th century was, in its purest form, objective fact. It was the zenith of all accuracy in understanding: The highest measurement of fact. Truth was not relative. It was not up for subjective interpretation. It was not – as it is in the 21st century – simply “sincere.” It was, by any and all reason, perfect.

I asked my friend Tom Ryan, a fly-fishing pro turned men’s-ministries director and operations chief at Northeast Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., what “truth” was to him.

“We all say we want it,” Ryan said. “But truth is much like Jack Nicholson’s iconic line, ‘You [we] can’t Handle the Truth!’ So which is it? ‘Truth hurts’ or ‘the truth will set you free?’ An ‘inconvenient truth.’ The ‘ugly truth.’ Most of us only want the truth when it applies to someone else, not when it applies to our own lives. We expect the world to live in the black-and-white, while we want to walk in shades of gray. Our personal truth is relative to avoid judgement and consequence. Yet, just because we don’t like the truth, does not make it less true.”

Ryan adds, “I wish I could fly, but the law of gravity prevents me from doing so, no matter how much I protest. The same is true for God’s Laws; Truth is truth no matter how many people try to argue and live to the contrary.”

Yes, there are indeed those who deny the power and authority of God’s Holy Word by rejecting the “truths” spoken therein; avoiding passages they don’t like; and attempting to lawyer their way past commandments, instructions, and uncomfortable little utterances by the divinely inspired giants of the Old and New Testaments having already withstood every cultural and political attack against them for millennia.

No matter what we may want truth to be, it is what it is. Three-plus-three equals six. It will never be seven no matter how “sincerely” a person wishes it to be. Even if it seems unfair that seven doesn’t have its turn at being the sum of three and three; it never will be.

In 1770, attorney and future U.S. President John Adams recognized the unassailability of truth when defending the British soldiers charged with murder at the Boston Massacre. According to Adams, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

For Christians, truth is – as Webster originally defined it – absolute. Sounds harsh and unfair? Perhaps. But as I’ve found in my own spiritual search for truth; to embrace truth is the most liberating exercise of any man’s soul. It has been for me. Truth is dependable. Truth is – as we might say in my Marine Corps – “always faithful.” Despite our whims, our emotions, and our brokenness, truth is always there standing fast against the ever-corrupting power of the lie, sin, brokenness, and corruption. That to me is freedom in the greatest sense.

I believe this truth – in and of itself – is something that every man and woman knows at his or her core. Though, for the sake of advancing a cause, some may instead embrace a relative sense of truth; and encourage, even demand, that others do the same. But relativism, not being measurable, will never be truth.

Truth be known – like my buddy Tom Ryan wishing he could fly, but knowing he cannot – I know I am a sinner. I wish I wasn’t, but that doesn’t alter the truth. The knowledge of this truth does, however, help me recognize evil (before it takes root) and better understand my own limitations as well as my responsibility to the world and others. It also aids in my ability to forgive others, love others, and serve others, and to commit my life to seeking the righteousness of God – which in all truth – I will never achieve without His Grace.

How lost and hopeless are Pilate’s words, when he asks Jesus, “What is truth?” But how safe and empowering are the words of Christ who said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a New York Times bestselling editor and military technical advisor. Visit him online at uswriter.com.

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