Truth and moral absolutes
There is a difference between the statement that moral absolutes exist and the claim that one can know these absolutes with the same clarity that God knows them.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus. A really good question — perhaps the most philosophical question in the entire Bible (John 18:38). The question echoes at the foundation of our secular worldview and culture. Many today are convinced that nothing is absolutely true, that truth may not exist at all, and if it does, it is certainly not self-evident and may not even be knowable. Even more, they say, nothing is completely right or completely wrong. At best there is only a diversity of truths.
This relativistic view of reality and the quality of human experience makes truth “person dependent” or simply “truth for me,” relative to one’s individual preferences or those of the group to which one belongs. No longer viewed as objective, timeless, or passed down, truth is now created and re-created out of experience, in dialogue with others, and within one’s culture. This means that the morals of today are not the morals of yesterday. They are cultural, relative, and shifting according to time and personal or social need or preference. Of course, those who champion the existence of enduring moral, religious, social, or political truth face a barrage of objections about imposing standards on others, intolerance, and oppression. Because moral truth can be deeply polarizing, many find the concept of truth itself dangerous.
Surprisingly, instead of the collapse of morality, this daring relativism has actually spawned a renaissance of searching — often lonely and painful — for principles of life. The angst comes in the perceived pluralism or absence of authority, and the centrality of choice in the self-constitution of postmodern moral agents. The cacophony of moral voices throws the individual back on his or her own subjectivity as the only ultimate ethical authority. The challenge of exploring all possible roads one could travel to know how one should live morally is often soul-wearying as well as scary, if not risky.
Pilate never gave Jesus time to answer. Most who ask about truth today don’t take the time either. But had he paused long enough to listen, Pilate would have heard some incredible truth about truth — and moral absolutes.
First, truth exists (John 8:32). Moreover, there is but one way, one truth, and one life (John 14:6). Way, truth, and life are biblical moral expressions. Truth is a moral realm in which one can stand and be and act — even worship (John 3:21; 4:24; 8:44). There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of error, and no lie is of the truth (John 18:27; cf. 1 John 2:21; 4:6). The truth is in contrast to untruth and falsity, unreality and illusion, or any idea of a diversity of truths.
Truth is personal
Second, the essence of truth is personal. Before Pilate even asked, Jesus had already declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6; emphasis added).1 This is a bold biblical delineation: God is truth. His nature, His very spirit, is truth. At its core, truth is a Being.2 This means truth is both moral and “inherently personal.”3 It is neither abstract nor a mere teaching. It is “first a matter of inner character and only derivatively a quality of words and deeds.”4 All God says and all God does is truth. His words and His works are but revelations of His nature. The teachings of Jesus are true because they express the truth, which He Himself is.5
Truth, then, brings us into a personal relationship with the very Source of authentic life. It will always engage us as persons. A truthful Person encounters our person with respect to the truthfulness of our own being and doing. It is a Person who brings example, hope, courage, and power to be true in a world of deceit and illusion. This is good news, because it makes us something more than mere machines applying correct principles or a code of ethics: it makes us persons. Furthermore, it anchors truth in the supernatural. Truth begins with God, not human beings. Truth is eternal because it resides in God. Truth is unchanging because God does not change. There is a unity of truth because truth comes from the same Source: God. Truth is ultimately God’s truth because God is the Source of all truth.
God’s Word is truth
Third, God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). While the essence of truth is personal, truth can at the same time consist of ideas and words that are concrete, objective, and propositional. Truth as ideas or words can be spoken, heard, written down, read, understood, and kept; it is life-transforming. Jesus assumed that truth-filled words and ideas carry understandable form, content, and, most important, meaning. There is correspondence between the ideas and the realities they represent — whether Jesus, His Father, or human moral or spiritual life. Truthful words can be relied on precisely because they both accord with reality and come from the One who is true (John 14:6; cf. Revelation 21:5; 22:6). Because Jesus Himself is both “the Word” and the “truth,” correspondence between words and reality is assured (John 1:1-3,14; cf. Revelation 19:14; 1 John 1:1).
Truth is the oxygen of the mind. It is the point of departure for all intellectual, spiritual, and moral pursuits and what alone truly frees (John 8:32; Philippians 4:8). We say “true” when we are convinced that reality and our minds match.6 We say “morally true” when we are convinced that that reality matches our perceptions of what is right, just, and good. Truth is vital, directly influencing our lives. We act upon what we believe to be true, thus shaping the way we live. Truth affects how we see ourselves and view others. Truth is what matters.
Like a navigator who gets bearings from the stars so he can sail at night, we need some fixed points by which we can orient ourselves morally, something outside ourselves. God’s Word as truth provides such fixed points for moral orientation. Jesus’ statement “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17) implies revelation, and if revelation is possible, moral absolutes are possible.7 Moral truth is not constructed, it is revealed; it is discovered, and not determined by a majority vote. It is authoritative, and not merely a matter of personal preference.
Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov contended that if there is no God, everything is permitted. But if God does exist, then one can expect moral truth to exist as well. And if the absolute standard for morality is God Himself, every moral action is to be judged in the light of His nature. God’s revealed Word — Scripture — is our link both to God and to moral truth. The Bible is our ethical standard because it comes from God, who alone is the standard for morality. This must be kept in mind when we appeal to the Bible in moral matters, for it was written in a different cultural situation and in a different time from our own. “Only the fact that God transcends culture allows us to entertain the hope of using moral principles from the Bible in our [own] culture.”8 Without this we could not hope to rise above cultural relativism. But God is above it. And God has spoken. What God reveals in the Bible applies universally to all cultures.
You can know truth
Fourth, truth can be known: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Sometimes proof of truth is easily achieved — like at what temperature and altitude water boils or freezes. This is scientific truth, which can usually be objectively verified. Verifying moral-truth claims is tougher and more mysterious. Good and evil cannot be directly observed or measured. They require a different approach, but nevertheless can be known with enough certainty to be inwardly orienting. Even our own subjective evaluations of truth can be objective — when we observe cause-and-effect experiences of moral truth lived or not lived in our own lives.
Moral principles correspond to the nature of God and to our own nature as well. Man is not an animal, but a unique moral being.9 Because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27), we have the capacity to understand what we need to know, both about God and moral life.10 When we obey the moral law of God, we are behaving in a manner consistent with the way God made us. Sin or disobedience to the moral law is not only an offense to God, it is a violation of our own created nature.11 Proverbs puts it succinctly: “He who finds me [God’s moral wisdom] finds life ... but he who sins against me injures himself; all those who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8:35, 36).
Divine revelation means that biblical truth ultimately corresponds to reality as perceived by God, who alone sees reality in all its complexity and fullness. What we understand is partial and limited. There is a difference between the statement that moral absolutes exist and the claim that one can know these absolutes with the same clarity that God knows them. Absolute truth is not the same as absolute knowing. We can only have a relative understanding of absolute truth (1 Corinthians 13:12). Yet partial truth can be real truth, as long as we do not take it for the whole truth. This is inwardly freeing, because it gives hope of a fuller understanding, even while we live confidently by what we already know (John 7:17).
Fifth, truth is integrally linked with righteousness (what is upright, good, just, right). Truth is right action. It is ethically-correct behavior. Truth encompasses and assumes the moral. It is something that can be expressed in tangible deeds, which in turn reveal the authenticity of one’s connection with God, the Source of truth (John 3:21; cf. 5:36; 10:25). Truthful behavior reveals the moral essence of one’s very self. It gives witness of the life-changing power of truth (John 17:17). It follows Jesus, whose own works and deeds gave continual witness to the truth itself and to His personal connection with the Father (John 5:36; 10:25, 37; 14:11).
Truth is relational
Sixth, truth is relational. It includes speech and transparent behavior before others (John 8:44-46, 55). Truth and the trust it engenders are the foundation of all relationships. No genuine relationship can exist between false selves. Truthfulness cannot be compartmentalized. One cannot be true in one area of life (spiritual, religious, doctrinal) and false in another (moral, political, societal, business, marital) and still be true. Separating the spiritual from the moral divides the person. Subjective selectivity of moral truths divides the person. As Jesus spoke truth (John 8:45,46), so must we. Just as He exposed the hypocrisy, hidden agendas, and less-than-transparent ways of Israel’s religious leaders, Jesus invites us to a higher level of personal transparency and truthfulness (John 8:44, 55).
Seventh, moral truth will ever be a matter of our own being. As with God, the essence of truth on the human level is personal. It concerns our own inner moral consistency. Are we true selves or false selves? Do we love the truth or inwardly seek to evade its claims on our lives? Only those who are “of the truth” (1 John 3:19) will understand and receive truth and, in keeping with the truth, be truthful (Revelation 14:5; 22:15; cf. John 18:37). This is the meaning of Jesus’ statement: “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching” (John 7:17). The willingness to implement moral truth in one’s life and the ability to perceive it are inseparably linked. We know the truth as we live the truth. We reach truth by doing it. “Doing the truth means living out of the reality which is He who is the truth, making His being the being of ourselves and of our world.”12
Scripture speaks of those who love lies because they do not love truth (2 Thessalonians 2:7-13; cf. John 3:19-21). They believe what is false because they do not love what is true. It becomes a circle. One’s inner moral orientation tends either toward truth or falsehood; the practice of either further imprints one’s inner world in the respective moral direction.
The real issues regarding the perceived relativity of truth reside here. Many are satisfied that moral truth is relative because it means they can pick and choose their own lives. They don’t want moral truths contained in laws to direct their behaviors. This is selfish. If they can relativize truth, then nothing is externally restrictive or binding. Moral truth, then, is not always convenient or valued. Ultimately, as seen with Pilate, the question of truth is also a question about our own selves.
People are rarely across-the-board subjectivists or objectivists. Many who believe in moral absolutes are comfortably relativistic in certain areas, and many who claim to be relativists qualify their relativism. The real issue is not whether truth exists, but where we draw the line that separates matters of fact from issues of opinion or taste. Moral relativism seemingly resonates with our desire to treat people kindly. It offers a way to justify our actions by claiming that ethical standards are personal. It allows for laziness of intellect and character. Defending ideas and moral formation is hard work. Relativism takes the easy way out, because it creates the illusion that we don’t have to do the heavy lifting of supporting our ideas.13
Moral relativism is often reactionary. Christians themselves have been a major cause of moral relativism. Many choose moral relativism over moral absolutes because those who believe in moral absolutes are often fixated on select moral truths (agendas); they appear legalistic, arrogant, unbending, insensitive, abusive, and assert their positions without explanation. We need to admit that we are not God, be humble about ethical issues, listen more carefully to the genuine moral concerns of our times, and think of moral absolutes in terms of character and moral qualities rather than mere actions. Perhaps then there would be less reaction. We should be absolutely just, compassionate, loving, and patient.
Finally, truth and grace go together. They are organically linked, and in no way are they mutually exclusive. The glory of God’s character revealed in Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). “Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). We “[understand] the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:6). We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Grace, mercy, peace, truth, and love are inseparable components of genuine moral and spiritual life (2 John 3). The moral truth of Jesus is never cold or impersonal. It is ever concerned about unique circumstances of real people. It is as gentle as it is forceful. It treats people kindly. Thus, Jesus could tell the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you, either,” and at the same time say to her, “Go. From now on, sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” always treated people with understanding, grace, mercy, love… and the truth.
The truth Jesus spoke about incorporates a moral, life-transforming dimension: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” He prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 8:32; 17:17). “We do not so much need freedom in order to discover truth, as we are to reside in truth in order to experience freedom.”14
Are there moral absolutes? Of course! As an infinite, eternal pattern, truth lies at the heart of the Christian worldview. We are to seek it, believe it, live it, model it, and speak it. We must make decisions based on it and be transformed by it. A battle for moral truth lies at the heart of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. It is a battle for our minds and characters as we live life and are engaged in the final showdown of earth’s history (2 Thessalonians 2:8-12; Revelation 12:17; 14:6-13; 16:12-16). God has given His Spirit to guide us toward truth (John 16:13). At every step, Jesus would remind us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Larry L. Lichtenwalter (Ph.D., Andrews University) has been lead pastor of the Village Seventh-day Adventist Church in Berrien Springs, Michigan, since 1985, and is an adjunct professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary. He is a prolific author and has written several books, the latest of which is Revelation’s Great Love Story (2008). E-mail: email@example.com.
- All biblical references are from the New American Standard Bible.
- John Wesley Taylor, “Is Truth of Consequences?” Perspective Digest 14 (2009) 3:9.
- Arthur F. Holmes, All Truth Is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 34.
- Paul Tillich, “What Is Truth,” Canadian Journal of Theology 1 (1955) 2:120.
- Daniel C. Maguire, Ethics: A Complete Method for Moral Choice (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), p. 15.
- Erwin W. Lutzer, The Necessity of Ethical Absolutes (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 70.
- Human beings possess (1) the capacity for self-reflection; (2) the ability to reason; (3) moral capacity, i.e., we can understand distinctions between good and evil; and (4) the capacity to be rightly related to God.
- Art Lindsley, True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World (Downer’s Grove: Illinois: InterVarsity, 2004), p. 19.
- Lutzer, p. 70.
- Tillich, p. 121.
- Steve Wilkens, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape Our Lives (Downer’s Grove, Illinois:InterVarsity, 2009), p. 86.
- Taylor, p. 23.