What is Truth? And Can it be Known?
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Sunday, October 12, 2008 - 10:00 a.m.  Sermon #: 1212
Pastor Don Horban

It’s rare that I don’t begin my teaching sessions with a Biblical text. But this will be a very different style of teaching today. We’re going to consider two foundations that people don’t usually associate with the Christian faith: Absolute propositional truth, and absolute moral truth. I’ve been thinking about tackling this series for quite some time now. I know we have many people in our church family who are facing challenges to their faith in a variety of educational settings. And I also know that the truth claims of the Christian faith will stand up to examination and do make good sense.

The trickiest part of this series was establishing exactly how to begin it. Where does one start in terms of untangling the threads of unbelief in this culture of ours? We’ll deal with a number of issues in this series, and I suppose any one of them could have been the subject of this first teaching.

I will never forget the first time I read “The Closing Of The American Mind,” by the late philosopher Allan Bloom. He made the following statement: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university will believe, or will say he believes, that truth is relative....The students, of course, may not be able to defend their opinion. It is something with which they have simply been indoctrinated.”

I know Bloom’s statement is true because I talk to lots of young people and young adults and young marrieds right here in our church family. Many of them are relativists but don’t even know it. They have never taken the time to think the question of truth through. They think about issues more than they consider the nature of truth in general. And they don’t seem to grasp that it is impossible to live the Christian life from the mental framework of relativism. They have simply been blindly shaped by a clever media and a spiritually darkened culture.

This is why we’re starting this series where we are starting. I want to deal with the absolute nature of truth and the absolute nature of morality. These are the two key issues under attack in our present society. They are under attack primarily in our educational system and in the entertainment industry. We are constantly bombarded with the message that truth and morality are relative commodities. That is, they vary from person to person, or culture to culture, or generation to generation.

And the reason we’re going to begin this series with this point of study is simple. You can examine all the evidences for faith you want - build any case for truth you want - but if your arguments fall on the ears of relativism, the response will always be the same, regardless how astute and accurate your presentation of truth is: “I’m very happy for you. I’m glad you have found the Christian faith to be true for you. But I’m on another path that is true for me. So let’s just agree to disagree and be friends.”

In other words, relativism is the lie that makes all the other lies possible. Before statements of faith can carry any weight at all, we must have a common understanding of what truth is. And this has never been an unchallenged task - John 18:38 - “Pilate said to him [Jesus], "What is truth?"

Pilate asked a good question. And he wasn’t the first one who, faced with a moral dilemma, pleaded ignorant about the nature of absolute truth. Before we look at the specific truths of the Christian faith, we need to be crystal clear about the nature of truth in general. So please stay with me patiently throughout this teaching today. It’s not shaped as a traditionally sermonic teaching. But it’s issues are more crucial than you can ever imagine.


That doesn’t mean anyone knows everything. And it doesn’t mean people can’t think they know something, but are mistaken. But here’s what I do mean. I mean if a statement is true it is true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Now, there are people who question this absolute nature of truth. They believe that truth is relative. Some statements are true for some people, while not for others.

But that is simply false thinking. If a proposition is true, it is true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. If a proposition is untrue the same must be said. An untrue proposition is untrue for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Consider this carefully. It is vitally important for the health and vitality of the Christian message and mission. Preferences are relative things. Statements of truth are not. I don’t want to needlessly wear you out with examples, but people make this mistake so commonly it’s worth a few simple examples:

Consider the statement I, Don Horban, can make right at this moment: “The grand piano on the platform is, at this moment, on my left hand side.” There are some people here right now who probably would say this is an example of a relative truth. After all, from where Dudley is sitting, the piano is on the right hand side, not the left.

But this is not an example of relative statement. The simple statement of fact, “The piano is, right now, on Pastor Don’s left hand side,” is true for me; it is true for Dudley; it is true for the man living at the North Pole; and if there was an alien living on the far side of Mars, it would be true for him as well. So also is the statement that the piano is on Dudley’s right hand side an absolutely true statement. There is absolutely nothing relative in either of these truth claims.

There never is anything relative in absolute truth claims. Such claims are either true or they are false. People can certainly claim to know things they simply don’t know. But truth claims - if they are genuine propositional statements, are never relative.

Now, preference statements are entirely different from propositional statements. Preference statements vary from person to person. Some people may prefer the piano on the right hand side, while others prefer it on the left. But these statements don’t say anything about the actual location of the piano at all. They simply tell me what the person is thinking about the piano - where he would prefer the piano to be.

Preference statements say nothing at all about the objective reality of their subject. My telling you where I would prefer the piano to be, doesn’t effect it’s actual location one bit. Even if we all preferred the piano to be in a different location it doesn’t change the fact of where the piano actually is. A true propositional statement, on the other hand, isn’t altered one bit by the wishes, values or preferences of the one making the statement.

Consider that last sentence carefully. It has more spiritual relevance than you might think. Think of this simple little story. A little girl brought her pet rabbit to school for show and tell. The class fell in love with the soft, little, white bunny. They passed it up and down the aisles. Everyone was filled with delight. The teacher then discovered that the child hadn’t yet named her rabbit. The class was thrilled to have a chance to participate in the naming of the bunny. Then the perplexing question arose - “Is this a boy bunny rabbit, or a girl bunny rabbit?”

The question was clearly beyond the expertise of the grade two class to solve. Finally, a small boy put up his hand at the back of the room. His eyes gleamed as he offered the perfect solution to the dilemma: “Let’s vote on it!”

This is a classic example of confusing preferences with facts. Regardless of how the class felt about the rabbit, its sex wasn’t going to be changed by the vote of the class. Even if everyone in the room voted that the rabbit was a boy rabbit, that wouldn’t make the rabbit a boy rabbit. The thinking of the majority would have absolutely no bearing on the sex of the rabbit.

Absolute truth is unchanged by popular vote. There was once a time when most of the people living on this earth felt the world was either flat or square. Now, almost everyone knows it’s very close to round. But this is not an example of truth being relative. The earth’s shape didn’t change as people’s opinion shifted. The fact of the earth’s roundish shape was always constant. People’s knowledge grew and changed their understanding of the truth. But the truth itself remained absolute and constant.

Here’s why all this matters greatly: The Christian faith is not a collection of people’s preferences and wishes about God. And it’s not a collection of moralisms about what works to make life more fulfilling for whom. The Christian faith is a collection of revealed, propositional, truth statements. If those statements are false, then they are false for everyone. And no amount of emotional effort or pretending or wishing can make them true. Even if they are very helpful for many people, that still doesn’t make them true or false in itself.

But if they are true (and that’s what the rest of this series is going to be studying), then they are true for everyone. They are true for people who believe them and for the people who don’t. They are true for people who like them and for the people who hate them. They are true for people who embrace them and for the people who ignore them. They are true for people of the Christian religion and they are true for people of very different world religions.

So here’s the one thing you cannot and must not say. Let’s not bring to the table any useless drivel about Christianity being true for some people, but not true for others. That is the one position no intelligent person can maintain.

If one religion says there are many Gods, and another says there is one, and only one God, then, while both of those religions may be false, (perhaps there is no God at all), they cannot possibly both be true. If one religion says after we die we are re-incarnated into many different life forms over and over again, while another says we die only once and after that we face judgement, then both of those religions may be false, (perhaps there is no life after death at all), but they cannot possibly both be true. If absolute truth is real, then genuinely contradictory statements cannot possibly both be true.

Reason simply falls apart without absolute truth in some form. To demonstrate this, simply look at the following statement: “Absolute truth does not exist.” I hope you can take a minute to ponder how self-refuting that statement is. If it is false, then it is false. But if it is true, it is still false, because it says absolutely no absolute truth exists. And if there is absolutely no absolute truth, then that would include that statement itself. The statement, “Absolute truth doesn’t exist” can’t be absolutely true if absolute truth does not exist.

This is more than empty mental gymnastics. We’re not just playing games here. My point is relativism doesn’t work. The nature and necessity of genuine truth and meaning points clearly to our Creator. Jesus believed fully in absolute, definite truth. He said He was the way, the truth, and the life. God has built the foundation of absolute, knowable truth into His whole created order. This is why we must listen carefully when God speaks. And this is why relativism is always self-defeating, irrational, and empty in the long run.


This is the area that cuts closest to home because moral absolutes reach not only into our thinking (as in the illustrations of the piano and the bunny rabbit) but into our actions.

Moral relativism is the view that, when it comes to questions of morality, there are no absolute standards of right or wrong. Whatever moral rules do exist are merely the result of personal preference and/or cultural conditioning, or evolutionary development.

Before moving on to different areas, I want to show as quickly as I can why I think all these secular explanations for our moral sense are woefully inadequate:

a) Morality rooted in personal preference - If there is no other source for our moral standards than personal preference there is simply no way to rate the moral performance of any individual. If morality is rooted in personal preference then there is simply no way to say that the moral behavior of Mother Theresa is an any way superior to Adolf Hitler. There is no way to say that the man who rapes young women for fun is doing anything fundamentally wrong. After all, he is simply doing what he honestly prefers to do.

And remember, if you say he is wrong to prefer this, then you are appealing to something beyond personal preference to make that moral judgment. You are saying his preferences are morally wrong. This is why, when push comes to shove, very few people finally root moral values in personal preferences, no matter what they say. Everyone knows this leads to madness.

b) Morality rooted in cultural conditioning - Moral values must come from somewhere. If personal preference is an inadequate source, a more common explanation is that moral values are the result of cultural conditioning. You and I simply take on the values we were raised in. We are the product of the society around us. This is where our sense of right and wrong comes from.

At first glance, this view has more going for it than the first (personal preference view). After all, I think we would all admit that we are shaped in some ways by the culture around us, for better or for worse.

But the question still has to be asked: Is this an adequate explanation of the moral judgements we make? For example, how shall we explain the many times when people have denounced the values of their own culture? What about the outcry against the trading of slaves? If cultures are the source of our moral sense, what standard do we use to evaluate cultures or societies?

In other words, if culture is the shaper of our moral sense, how is it that we frequently turn on the standards of culture itself? There are cultures where, at the funeral of a deceased husband, the widow is burned alive to show proper reverence to her husband’s parting. There are cultures where young girls have to fight to escape the mutilation of female circumcision. And if you want to say cultures are the absolute bestowers of moral values we have no way to say that these practices are wrong.

“But Pastor Don, we can say those cultures are wrong because we have the enlightened, liberated standard of our culture by which to measure and judge them.”

And I would say, “Wait a minute! By what standard are you now measuring our culture to be superior to theirs? And where did you suddenly pull this trans-cultural standard out of a hat? What standard are you now using to evaluate and make moral pronouncements setting one culture up over another? Who says ours is the enlightened culture? People of those other cultures wouldn’t necessarily agree with that absolute moral judgement that our culture is morally superior to theirs?” Who says you’re right and they’re wrong?

Clearly, the fact that we often evaluate cultures shows that the standards we use come from some source beyond culture itself.

c) Morality rooted in the evolutionary process - If moral values must be rooted in something beyond personal preference and something beyond cultural conditioning, this is the only stopping place left for the secular mind. There is simply no where else to go for an explanation for that moral sense of “ought” that exists in all of us.

The philosophy of evolutionary morality is rooted in the belief that we are all ingrained with a moral sense that has been produced over the millennia by the instinct of the survival of the fittest. That is, over time, it became beneficial to the species to develop certain norms or standards by which we would all live in order for the human race to achieve maximum greatness and effectiveness on planet earth. These moral standards became a part of our human make-up just as we evolved thumbs and index fingers that could light a match or open a pop bottle.

But there’s a serious problem here. If our moral values developed through the evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest, how shall we explain our care for the weak and maimed and socially outcast?

Look around you in York Region. See all the millions of dollars spent on senior care units and medical facilities. Look at the countless shelters built for the homeless and places of refuge for the beaten and abused. If our moral judgments were shaped by the survival of the fittest, why don’t we just let the weak and old and outcast die off? After all, that’s exactly what happens in the natural world all around us every day. Why are we so different? Where did we get this higher sense of moral obligation?


This is ironic because usually it’s the relativist who accuses the absolutist of being close-minded and intolerant. But this is a bogus accusation. Actually it’s relativism that leads to ignorance and intolerance. Here’s why. Imagine the following scene:

Picture a teacher who walks into class at the beginning of the year. She opens her teaching session by saying, “Welcome to class, students. I want everyone to be involved in discussing the issues of this class. Don’t be worried about giving your opinion. All opinions are equally valuable. Since no one has absolute truth on any of these issues, your opinion are is as valuable as any other offered. The important thing is that you be open minded to the thoughts and opinions of all students equally.”

At that point the teacher notices a young student, let’s call her Elizabeth, at the back of the room. Elizabeth asks a question that shocks the teacher and the rest of the class...

“Excuse me, but if nobody has the truth, isn’t that a good reason for me not to listen to my fellow students? I mean, if nobody has the truth anyway, why should I waste my time listening to their opinions? What’s the point? Only if someone - at least one person - has the truth does it make sense to listen with an open mind. I’ll gladly alter my thinking to accommodate the truth wherever I find it. And if I have the truth on some subject, I’ll gladly share it with anyone else willing to listen. But if we’ve already decided no one has the truth, what’s the point in listening to anyone?”

And I would submit to you that this is, in fact, exactly what is happening in our society. Talk to anyone who is in teaching today. Talk to a police officer. Talk to a judge in a court. People are getting unreachable with the truth. And who can blame them? This is the logical fruit of relativism. Once we become convinced that there is no absolute truth, it’s very hard to get anybody to listen seriously to anyone else.

Moral relativism is the dominant view of our culture today. You can easily think of dozens of simple examples. Consider the person who says the moral garbage coming across on many television channels is wrong. I’ll tell you the response he will get: “If you don’t want to watch that stuff on TV, then don’t. Turn it off!”

The responder has made a terrible mental mistake. He thinks I’m simply saying I personally prefer not to see that stuff on television. But that’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, there may be times when, in my moments of weakness and laziness, I’d prefer to watch it too. I’m not talking about what my preferences for television programing are. I’m saying that the programing is wrong regardless of what anyone may want to watch.


We do possess a moral sense that can’t be explained in naturalistic terms. Even the most socially unfit, however marred, has some sense of moral “oughtness” within his or her being. This has serious implications for the secularist. You see, if moral absolutes do exist they must be explained somehow.

If moral absolutes exist, at least this much is true: We know that materialism as a world view is mistaken. By materialism I don’t mean materialistic, as in “the love of money.” I mean materialism as the view that the material world is all that exists. We know this is false if moral absolutes exist because moral absolutes aren’t material “things” that can be weighed and measured in a laboratory. And yet we all are familiar with them in our experience of life, however flawed that experience sometimes is.

Moral laws that transcend personal preference, cultural conditioning and evolutionary development are one more fingerprint for a Divine Moral Lawgiver.


And finally, admitting quite a switch in procedure for me, we come to a Biblical text: Genesis 3:1-5 - “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" [2] And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, [3] but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.' " [4] But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. [5] For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Don’t miss what’s happening in these verses. The work of the serpent is twofold: First, he caused Eve to doubt the absolute truth content of the clear propositional statement from God. He tells them they’re reacting too rigidly to God’s revelation. Ever hear that? Then, second, after he has accomplished that, he caused Eve and Adam to mess up the quality of life and relationship God had intended for them.

Now, as then, it is the primary work of the Devil to rob your mind of the power and impact of absolute truth. This is the first step on the road to moral ruin, both for an individual, and for society.

Remember Jesus. He was a firm believer in absolute truth. He was committed to the power of absolute truth passionately fixed in the alert mind - “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!” It is only a heart hemmed in by the confining power of absolute truth that has any hope for finding freedom. Learn. Obey. Submit to God. Let His life-giving, rock-solid, eternally stable truth undergird your life like granite. You’ll save your mind and soul, and those of countless others as well.