The Difficulty of Truth


I am a bit behind the times. I recently watched some of the scenes from the most recent live production of Jesus Christ Superstar after I found out how many awards for which it was nominated and won. I even compared some of the scenes from the original from the 1970’s. One of the scenes that stuck out to me was the scene depicting Jesus encounter with Pontius Pilate. In each version the writers depicted Pilate as struggling with the definition of truth, much like he does in John 18 when he simply says, “What is truth?” However, the writers of Jesus Christ Superstar expand on that. Here’s what he says in the rock opera:
“What is truth? Not easy to define. We both have truths. Are yours the same as mine?” (2018 version)
“What is truth. Is truth unchanging law. We both have truths. Are yours the same as mine?” (1970 version)
What struck me about Pilate’s response in this production is his absolute difficulty with understanding the truth. It seems the Bible and each version of the rock opera depict Pilate as not wanting to believe what he knows to be true. He knew Jesus was innocent. He knew it would be immoral to unjustly punish Jesus. But he also knew that if he didn’t prosecute Jesus he would be in danger of losing his high social status and official position.
The Danger of Denying Truth
In a 2016 survey of over 1000 adults, Barna Group found that 57 percent of American adults admit that knowing what is right or wrong is a matter of personal experience. In other words, moral truths are a matter of choice. Even 41 percent of adult practicing Christians agree with this as well.
The implications of this belief system, which is what it really is, are vast and scary. Consider the following as just one example of what happens when morals become relative to each individual: A stranger walks into your home in the middle of the day. He walks to your refrigerator, opens it, and takes a beer and makes a sandwich for himself. After this he walks up to your bedroom and begins looking through your possessions pocketing the jewelry and whatever other items he desires. As he begins to walk out the door, stomach full of beer and food he didn’t purchase, pockets filled with valuable items not belonging to him, you shout out to him, “Hey, you can’t take my stuff! That’s wrong!”
If there is no absolute moral truth, then his response could be, “Says who?” If there is no absolute truth, then you would have no moral basis to say that it is wrong to steal. Taking it even further, you and I would have no basis to say anything is wrong including murder, rape, torture, and every other vile thing you can imagine. If someone says “Moral truth is relative,” then they had better be ready to deal with the consequences of a world that actually lives that way.
When put this way, most people begin to realize they do believe in some moral absolutes. So the follow up question is this: Why do so many try to avoid moral absolutes?
Truth Formation
In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt says our inner lawyer is often times the source of our own truth formation. He says,
“One of the reasons people are often contemptuous of lawyers is that they fight for a client’s interests, not the truth. To be a good lawyer, it often helps to be a good liar. Although many lawyers won’t tell a direct lie, most will do what they can to hide inconvenient facts while weaving a plausible alternative story for the judge and jury, a story that they sometimes know is not true. Our inner lawyer works in the same way, but, somehow, we actually believe the stories he makes up.”
Here’s his point: Lawyers often know the truth but they will conveniently ignore or dismiss it in order to fight for their and their client’s best interest. That happens to each of us internally. We all have an internal moral compass which tells us what is right and wrong. And even though we know certain things are morally wrong, the inner lawyer inside of us often dismisses those arguments in order to fight for what we really want.
Here’s how Haidt says it, “Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe our position is rationally and objectively justified.” In other words, what we want to be true becomes our own personal truth. Our personal desires and agendas are what form our personal truths. Objectivity is often an afterthought.
What does this look like practically? Well, John and Jane Doe have two very different views on coffee. John loves his coffee. Jane hates it. What do each of them do? John goes on the internet and finds a few different articles that show the health benefits of drinking coffee. Jane does the same, finding articles that show the health risks of drinking coffee. Each one only looks for data to support what they want to be true. Each one only looks at the data that proves what their pride wants to be true. To John, it is true that coffee is good for you. To Jane, it is true that coffee is bad for you. And so their truths are formed on what they want, rather than what is objective.
Moral Objectivity
Human beings have a way of doing this morally as well. As the election season is again upon us, I can’t help but think about how our language has become so bitter and angry as a society. On one hand people will say hateful rhetoric is simply not tolerable. And then go and smear a political candidate all over facebook. In our hearts we know it is wrong to curse and swear at someone. In our hearts we know it is wrong to name call. We know that’s the truth. But our inner lawyer says, “But what that person is saying is wrong. So it’s ok to name call.” Our inner lawyer finds ways to make murdering unborn babies ok, even though, objectively, that unborn baby would be considered life if found anywhere else in the universe. Our inner lawyer finds ways to make gossiping and lying ok, even though we cry foul when someone else gossips and lies about us. Our inner lawyer finds ways to justify almost anything and make it our truth.
But we often forget that when we justify wrongdoing, it harms our relationship with God more than anything. He is the one who placed the moral compass inside each one of us. And when we go against that compass, we are damaging our connection to God.
But here’s where it’s important to explore one more truth. The uniqueness of the Christian gospel. You see, with all our moral failures, and all our attempts to make them seem ok, it’s difficult to find comfort and hope. Every religion has its own explanation for how to find peace in the face of our repeated failures. But when you look at them all objectively there is a pattern that emerges. Each religion suggests the only way to put your moral failures right is through your own actions. If you’ve done something wrong, you must do something right to make up for it. Every religion in the world says it’s up to you to put it right before God.
All except Christianity. Christianity teaches that God alone can make it right. And that’s why Jesus came. He came to take the punishment for all our moral failures. That’s a difficult truth. It’s difficult because it means we have less control than we’d like to believe. It means we are more lost and morally bankrupt than we can possibly imagine. But it also means we are more loved than we could possibly hope. Without knowing the fact that Jesus is the one true God who came to make our failures right, we have no hope. Without this truth, you’re just like Pilate, in a sea full of “truths”…lost and without comfort or hope.
If you are looking for honest truth look no further than your own heart. Be objective. You’re heart isn’t pure. It isn’t perfect. But there is hope. And for that you have to look to someone other than yourself. Look to your God who saw your heart. He saw every dark twisted corner and crevice and still loved you. Knowing this makes facing the harsh truths of life and of our own brokenness much less difficult.