What is truth? ...Pilate asked

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What is Truth?

What is truth?” Pilate asked. Many people have asked the same question. How do we find the answer in a world where much of the information stream is controlled by those who so often deny the existence of truth?

Pilate
Pontius Pilate © 2005 Maureen Carter

Definitions of Truth

Plato said that we can know truth if we 'sublimate our minds to their original purity'. Arcesilaus said that our understanding is not capable of knowing what truth is. Carneades stated that we can never comprehend truth; and not only that, but even our senses are inadequate in assisting us in the investigation of truth. Gorgias said, 'What is right but what we prove to be right? and what is truth but what we believe to be truth?'

A more recent definition of truth is, 'Truth is a very simple and handy concept. It is the correspondence of a pictorial or symbolic representation to the thing being represented. In the case of a symbolic representation, the correspondence may be massively complicated, but it is nonetheless similar in kind to a simple pictorial representation.' (Peter B Lloyd, 1996, University of Oxford.)

So from these examples of Classical Philosophy and modern scholarly reasoning, truth appears to be a hazy concept, or a philosopher's subjective interpretation; or perhaps very little at all.

Many people today believe Science can reveal truth. Science is a useful tool but it is far from perfect: '...science is not about truth, but is about trying to get closer to the truth. This is important because, too often, people look to scientists as having the "truth". What we have is wrapped in uncertainties, caveats, and simplifications.' (Professor Kathy Sykes, 2005, University of Bristol.)

What is the everyday definition of truth? Established thought and reasoning? Conformity to a fact or a statement proven and accepted to be true? Do morals, standards, or religions offer any truth? Is experience truth? Or is truth only that which our senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste can experience?

This kind of humanistic reasoning of truth is defined by the individual person — the truth that is 'right for you'. The beliefs, practices, and concept of right and wrong of a person are all valid in that person's setting. Truth is relative to that person — and there becomes no absolute right and no absolute wrong. Relative truth is like a ship with neither rudder nor compass, battered by the stormy sea of thoughts and ideas. But this is not truth at all.

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Pilate's Question

(Words and definitions that may be unfamiliar are highlighted with a grey dotted underline; placing the cursor over them reveals brief explanations.)

One of the definitions for truth provided by Dictionary.com provides a pointer: 'often Truth That which is considered to be the supreme reality and to have the ultimate meaning and value of existence'.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, asked Jesus Christ the question: '"What is truth?"' when Jesus was brought before him for judgement:

'Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, "I find no fault in Him at all."' (John 18:37-38)

The Old Testament of The Holy Bible (or The Bible), completed several hundred years before the birth of Jesus, contains over 100 predictions of the coming Messiah (or 'Christ', in Greek) — the deliverer of the Jewish nation. The New Testament of The Bible records the life and teachings of that Messiah — Jesus Christ — and the history of the early church — the Christians — who followed in the wake of Jesus Christ. Truth features extensively in The Bible, the word 'truth' alone occurring over 200 times.

Jesus Christ was born in Palestine 2,000 years ago, in approximately 6 B.C. At the age of 30, having worked as a carpenter, Jesus began teaching and healing people in God's name. Jesus stated that He was the Son of God — born to a virgin woman by divine conception and living a pure and holy life without wrongdoing or 'sin'. At the age of 33, Jesus was arrested, falsely accused by the Jewish religious leaders, sentenced by the occupying Romans, beaten and flayed with whips, nailed upright to a wooden cross, and about six hours later, confirmed dead by the thrust of a spear into His chest cavity. Jesus' dead body was sealed securely in a tomb, yet after three days, Jesus rose from the dead to walk as a living human being once more. Over 500 people saw the risen Jesus Christ for a period of 40 days, until, at the fulfilment of His time on earth, Jesus ascended to heaven, watched by a crowd of people. Jesus was a man, yet He possessed the spirit and divine nature of God. He lived as God incarnate — God on earth in human form.

Jesus was the innocent and pure sacrifice for a guilty and sinful world. Not only did He suffer an unfair conviction and an agonising and humiliating death, but He also bore the sins of the world — the sins of all humanity — while He hung upon the cross ('who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree' (1 Peter 2:24)). The agony of Jesus was indeed so horrific that God the Father in heaven withdrew His presence from His dying Son. When Jesus had died, His body was sealed in a tomb; but after three days, just as He had promised (e.g. Matt. 12:40), Jesus rose from the dead — the resurrection — to reveal victory over sin and death.

The amazing message of The New Testament of The Bible is that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are freely available for us all to embrace if we choose to believe Him and accept Him. We are all sinners; we all have committed wrongdoing, which however minor or major, causes us to fall short of the standards of the perfect and holy God, and which separates us from the presence of God (since sin hurts others, hurts God, hurts ourselves, and has direct consequences). The apostle Paul declares in the book of Romans: 'for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23); and sincerity and good acts cannot bridge the shortfall between humans and God. Nevertheless, Jesus' sacrifice can be embraced by anybody willing to receive His sacrifice on our behalf to bridge our broken relationship with God caused by our sin. If we accept Jesus as our lord and saviour; if we recognise and accept His death on our behalf and then seek to obey His teachings and follow Him; then our relationship with the God who created us is restored and opens our life to its true purpose. A life of true purpose in a living relationship with God, during this life on earth through to eternal life in heaven.

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Underminings

The existence, ministry, and death of Jesus is fact: even if The New Testament had never been written by Jesus' disciples, the Romans fastidiously recorded their own history, and Jesus' life and death features in their documents. However, over the years writers and scholars, while agreeing that Jesus lived and died, have developed arguments against the authenticity of Jesus.

Some writers, and a 1988 Hollywood film, portray Jesus as not living a holy life. Pilate, the tough and relatively successful Roman governor, found no wrongdoing against Jesus (Luke 23:22, John 19:4). One of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus — a dying man who spoke his mind — recognised that Jesus, unlike himself, had committed no offence and was who He said He was (Luke 23:41). The Roman centurion who helped to crucify Jesus remarked that Jesus was a righteous man (Luke 23:47) and declared, '"Truly, this was the Son of God!"' (Matt. 27:54). Jesus forgave the men who had crucified Him — '"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."' (Luke 23:34) — an astounding action for a guilty man in the throes of death, let alone an innocent man unfairly crucified. Jesus said that He is the Son of God (John 1:34, Matt. 14:33), that He would die for the human race (John 12:23-33), and that He would rise from the dead in three days (Matt. 12:40, 17:23, 26:32; Mark 8:31; Luke 18:33).

Some writers say Jesus never died — He merely 'fell unconscious' or was 'drugged'. If a vicious Roman scourge does not kill a man, forcing that same flayed man to carry a heavy wooden cross, and then nailing that man to the cross should hasten the dying process. A spear plunged into the chest cavity tends to kill a man too — but by the time Jesus was pierced with a spear — He was already dead. Evidence recorded by The Bible states: 'But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.' (John 19:34). The separation of blood and water occurs after death, so Jesus was dead when His body was entombed. The Pharisees, the Jewish spiritual leaders of the time, were concerned about Jesus' prediction: 'After three days I will rise.' and with Pilate's permission secured Jesus' tomb with a huge boulder and a guard of soldiers (described in Matt. 27:62-66; Jesus' predictions stated in Matt. 20:19 and Luke 9:22). If Jesus had been merely an unconscious man and not the Son of God, He would have starved or died of His wounds in the cold tomb. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus there is no bearer of our sins and so no saviour, which would undermine and invalidate Christianity. However, it is written that an earthquake and an angel removed the boulder and scattered the guard (Matt. 28:3-4), allowing Jesus to quietly leave the tomb when He rose from the dead. More than 500 people saw Jesus after this resurrection. Some writers say that the risen Christ was a 'ghost' or 'spirit'. But a spirit has no body and people could clearly touch Jesus, as the disciple Thomas, in sceptical mood, touched the partially healed nail wounds in the hands and feet of Jesus (John 20:27). [More evidence]

Of course, a disbelieving person can argue that The New Testament of The Bible was written by a handful of demented followers of a dead man. However, if the spiritual leader of the followers lay dead, and not risen from the dead, then their hopes, trust, and identity would be crushed. Why would any follower bother to continue a lost cause? The hope of many Jews had been that their promised Messiah would liberate their land from the Romans by violent force. Why would the disciples of Jesus, including a fisherman, a doctor, and a tax collector, faithfully spread Jesus' message of forgiveness and hope — the Gospel — after Jesus had died? In their journeys around the eastern Mediterranean region, these disciples gained no wealth but instead endured regular imprisoning, beatings, and death threats — all for the sake of a dead man? Nearly all of the disciples of Jesus were eventually killed for their faith. No, Jesus must have been who He said He was for a diverse group of followers to endure such suffering — and yet through their belief, commitment, and suffering — caused the Gospel to spread rapidly through the Roman Empire in one generation. In 64 A.D., Christianity and its peaceful message were considered such a threat to the Roman Empire that the Roman authorities initiated the large-scale persecution and slaughter of Christians. Instead of collapsing under extreme adversity, Christianity flourished. Since this time, Christianity has grown and spread, and continues to flourish, particularly in areas of persecution.

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Other Paths?

Why is Christianity different to any other religions? Some religions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism, have rewritten parts of the Christian Bible and claim their versions are the 'real' versions. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, never claimed to be God's Son and regarded Jesus as just a prophet or teacher, and not the Son of God. Islam believes that Jesus was sinless and taken bodily into heaven without being crucified or dying. Islam recognises The Bible, but believes that the scriptures given through Mohammed supersede those of The Bible. In Islam, salvation or the path to heaven, is through the 'five pillars of faith'; which include recitation, prayer five times a day, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Perhaps an eastern religion such as Buddhism offers some enlightenment? Buddhism, on analysis, emerges as an empty religion. Buddhism offers: a lifetime of debt and no escape from debt; total autonomy and independence of the person; no god of authority; no saviour; no final word; and, no final existence. Hinduism too has no single idea of a god and a more complicated system of beliefs recorded over approximately 5,000 years.

Of all religions, Judaism is closest to Christianity. Jews worship the same God and follow the Old Testament of The Bible, but still await their promised Messiah. Their Messiah is actually Jesus, but the Jewish establishment rejected Jesus when He walked on earth 2,000 years ago. Therefore, Judaism does not recognise The New Testament of The Bible.

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The Truth

No alternative to Christianity offers a personal and freely given sacrifice for sin and guilt, and a personal living relationship with the Creator of the earth and universe. The highest truths in other religions do not go far enough and do not offer a clear promise of salvation and eternity. The founders of other religions were men who explored the meaning of divinity; Jesus Christ was, and is, divinity incarnate. Jesus clearly states that He alone is the true path to God: 'Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."' (John 14:6); '"He who has seen Me has seen the Father."' (John 14:9); and, '"if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins."' (John 8:24 NIV®). And Jesus' holy living, miracles, sacrifice, death, and resurrection reinforces the unique claims He spoke about Himself.

The Bible — which is referred to as 'God's Word', and which Christians are asked to read and wholeheartedly apply to their lives — reveals the truth. The Bible states: '"If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."' (John 8:31-32) and '"Your word is truth."' (John 17:17). The truth is revealed in The Bible as the person and character of Jesus Christ, and His teachings, and the reality of God's promises. Jesus Christ is the truth; He is the absolute standard and embodiment of truth. The Holy Spirit of God gives the revelation of the truth to individual children, men, and women. Anything that does not agree with the revelation of this truth is falsehood, error, heresy, or deception. The Bible does not provide every answer to every question of life, but it does provide much of what God wants to share with us about Himself, His Son, His Spirit, and His eternal purpose. The Bible provides standards and morals for living; separates truth from experience, truth from error, truth from deception, and right from wrong. The truth, as the disciple John writes, '"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."' (John 8:36) will, if embraced, make you free.

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This Path?

'I can't believe there's truth in this!'

A common Western society response about the existence of God is 'I can't see or feel Him', or 'You don't believe in that do you?!'. Such reactions may be attempts to quickly sidestep a possible deepness to life. A truly perceived 'nothing there' by a person who has searched for God is probably caused by a rebellious attitude or life of wrong that separates the person from God (and cannot be restored without Jesus) — 'But the proud He knows from afar.' (Psalms 138:6).

Another quite common response to the existence of a God is: 'There's no God [or loving God] — look at all the trouble and bloodshed in the world...' There has always been bloodshed from the dawn of time — Cain and Abel (Genesis 3:8); and there is archaeological evidence of stone-age humans killing each other. However, much of the trouble and bloodshed of the world emanates from humankind's daily rebellion against the true God — living a selfish misdirected life according to one's interpretation of standards or lack of standards, ignoring God's existence, denying God's existence, or refusing to follow God's truth.

And what really are the ultimate alternatives to God and His truth? —

If, at the moment of death on this earth, a person still denies God, then The Bible tells us that that person will face eternal separation from God. Some mock this, saying that even if this were so, what does it matter? But after the post-death realisation of what has been lost forever, there is also Biblical evidence that eternal punishments will match earthly crimes.

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Fallen Truth

Ever since Christianity was established, as history has recorded, corruption and wrongdoing have infiltrated Christianity. The Christian faith has been manipulated by non-believers, deceived believers, and errant believers seeking to further their own selfish ambitions, causes, and empires. If we follow The Bible's teaching then we must seek to understand its entirety and not glibly take verses out of their context. We must not add or subtract from the message of The Bible what we want and what we do not want — it is not right to obey one teaching such as blessing the poor and then disobey another such as committing adultery. One terrible example in history is that of 'The Crusades'. These religious quests by nobles and kings of Western Europe should never have happened if 'The Crusaders' were really heart-changed Christians: '"You shall not murder."' (Deuteronomy 5:17) is the Seventh of the Ten Commandments given by God in The Old Testament and was reinforced by Jesus' teachings in The New Testament. Even secular consciences generally agree that the taking of life is very wrong. The Crusaders disastrously ignored much of the teaching of The Bible and poured much zeal into seizing worthless religious relics and murdering the inhabitants of Byzantium and Palestine, all under the banner of a cross. These atrocities, centuries ago, still feature in some minds and cultural divisions today.

Despite the considerable darkness in some Christian history, the lamps of the faithful have shined brightly. Scribes have faithfully duplicated The Bible scriptures so that the message would be preserved — over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and many more manuscripts in other languages reveal the integrity of The New Testament. From King Alfred the Great, through to William Wilberforce, the Wesley brothers, and Billy Graham; God-fearing and dedicated Christians have carried God's message through the generations and made a stand for God's truth to make a righteous and eternal difference for the society of their time.

In eternity there will be some surprises; some of the unlikeliest of 'saintly' people will be present in heaven. William the Conqueror and Oliver Cromwell are recorded to have repented for their crimes on their deathbeds, and the actor Steve McQueen became a Christian before he died of cancer. The truth revealed in The Bible is open for all to embrace right up to the point of death (with the implication that you cannot foretell the day of your natural or accidental death). The severity of the sins and crimes in our lives before we know God does not decide whether we are eligible to embrace Jesus' sacrifice. In Britain, a revival — of people receiving Jesus into their lives — has taken place in prisons for over a decade. Some of the most desperate and shunned British people have experienced God's forgiveness and now have an eternal relationship with Him, while moral and respectable business people and charity workers do not know Him. This is just part of the conundrum of The Gospel and the path of faith; one of my attempts of expressing it in 1998 was through a poem 'Dark Reflection'.

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Hatred of the Truth

Why do many people hate Jesus Christ and Christians so much? Apart from the many warnings and predictions of this hatred that The Bible declares e.g. John 15:18-25, Christianity offers an earthly and eternal hope that no other religion, regime, or method of thinking can provide. Christians, in seeking to live for and serve God, live against the flow of the world system and help to witness God's message and convict people of God's truth. True Christianity will not compromise the truth of God's Word, as written in The Bible. Therefore, Christianity is sometimes accused of trouble and bigotry. But this backlash against Christianity goes much deeper.

Some people do not wish to give up a life of sin or hedonistic pleasures, for what they perceive to be a pious or boring 'religious life'. Some people, because they cannot find answers to all of their questions or cannot be convinced of The Bible's authenticity, will not commit themselves to God. Some people simply do not wish to reconsider their life or give up much of what they believe to be true in life — their life has become who they are. But as mentioned numerously throughout The Bible, there is a malevolent and insidious spiritual side to life; a spiritual force that attempts to keep those who do not know God completely away from God, and attempts to keep those who do know God on a slippery slope. While there is good, as in God and His servant spirits the angels, there exists the opposite, evil, as in Satan and his demons. Satan and his fallen angels, in earlier times — just like humans — rebelled against God and were banished from God's presence to roam the earth and afflict humankind. Just as darkness hates light, so evil hates good. Jesus said that Satan is, '"a liar and the father of lies"' (John 8:44 NIV®). Satan is the principal underminer of the truth — he lies and deceives people not rooted to the truth of The Bible. Thankfully, the contest is not equal — God is much stronger than Satan — but a spiritual battle rages on earth, feeding on the rebellion and pride of humankind, with human souls ultimately at stake. Jesus encountered, rebuked, and drove out demons (also referred to as unclean or evil spirits) in His ministry on earth and won the ultimate and eternal victory over evil and death on the cross.

A few times in my life, both before and after I became a Christian, I witnessed several minor manifestations of evil. I can vouch through those experiences that evil spirits do exist, often masquerading when perceived or visible under the term 'ghosts', which will depart in the sincere use of Jesus' name.

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Finding the Truth

Jesus promised: '"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."' (Matt. 7:7-8 NIV®). John Stott in Basic Christianity writes: 'If we do not seek, we shall never find. God desires to be found, but only by those who seek him.' Jeremiah 29:13 declares: 'And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.' John Stott writes, 'We do not find because we do not seek. We do not seek because we do not want to find, and we know that the way to be certain of not finding is not to seek.' Paul the apostle writes, 'that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.' (Romans 10:9); and John the disciple records Jesus saying, '"he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life."' (John 5:24).

Once the truth is recognised as God's truth, it becomes truth for us only when we accept it and obey it, so our life can be directed by it. God's truth becomes the rudder and compass for our lives. Dave Sydnor writes, 'God is not interested in our mere mental assent to the truth'; we need to respond to God as well.

After my life-changing accident, I could easily have said, 'Oh lucky me, I survived' and carried on with my life regardless. But surviving the experience gnawed at my mind and convinced me that I ought to seek the God who would not let me die on a bleak mountainside. Looking back over the 22 years since the accident, I realise that I have often been a slow learner and could have avoided unnecessary pain if I had followed God more closely — but I never regret seeking God. Giving up drunkenness and backbiting and other worldly ways has improved my life and given me more peace. There is not just existence in living but purpose in living. In my experience, and in the experience of many others, God quickly makes Himself known to a person, through a variety of direct and subtle ways, when that person genuinely seeks Him without a stubborn heart. Ultimately though, choosing to seek God and to obey God is free will — God gives us the free will to choose. We can choose to accept God, choose to ignore God, or choose to deny God. It is our individual choice and our individual responsibility, and we will have to accept the consequences of our choice on earth and, more importantly, in eternity.

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And Pilate?

Pontius Pilate

As for Pilate, he sought no answer from Jesus for his question. Instead, he washed the responsibility from his hands (Matt. 27:24) and walked away from the truth. In Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, Pilate's wife answers her husband: “If you will not hear the truth, no one can tell you.”;

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NIV® — scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.

All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.