What is Truth?

Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) by Antonio Ciseri (1821-1891)

Jesus as a Model of Speaking and Living the Truth

As we live through this era of fake news, conspiracy theories, and misinformation,1 it is important we all ask the same question Pontius Pilate asks Jesus shortly before sentencing Him to die: “What is truth?”2

Defining Truth and Lies

Merriam-Webster defines truth as, “the body of real things, events, and facts.”3 This is a helpful definition, but a traditional dictionary definition like this one seems a bit imprecise for our purposes here. A more helpful definition of truth is, “That which corresponds to reality.”4 This is the understanding of truth assumed here. A lie, then, is anything that does not correspond to reality.

Who is Truth?

After Pilate asks Jesus the question quoted above (“What is truth?”), he makes a grave error: he walks away before Truth Himself can give him the answer. The Gospel narratives contend that truth is not ultimately an abstract philosophical concept, but a Person. “I am… the truth,” replies Jesus to Thomas a few short hours before going to the cross.5 

A little later that night, Jesus prays for His disciples, asking His Father: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”6 It is helpful to remember that within the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus is God‘s word. The fourth Gospel begins with a prologue,7 announcing that the divine word, the λόγος (logos)8 “ …became flesh and lived among us” in the Person of Jesus, whom the Evangelist declares to be  “…full of grace and truth.”9 And therefore, when Jesus says God’s word is truth, He is speaking of Himself. 

Pilate asks the question above in response to one of Jesus’ bold claims: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”10 Those who seek to follow Jesus, then, would do well to read the Gospels with careful ears, listening intently as the voice of Jesus speaks to them and displays through His words and deeds what it looks like when Truth Himself is at work in the world. 

Truth and the Lies Jesus Confronts

Often in the first three Gospels, before Jesus says something His hearers will find to be category-bending or difficult to grasp, He prefaces His statements by declaring, “Truly (literally, “Amén”11) I tell you.”12 In John’s Gospel, Jesus similarly uses the phrase, “Very truly (literally, “Amén amén”13) I tell you.”14 This is because many of the truths Jesus embodies and proclaims subvert commonly-held notions of truth. 

By declaring His words and deeds to be true, Jesus is at least implicitly calling rival (and often popular) understandings of truth to really be lies. All lies, says Jesus, come from the same source: the devil. And those who make a concerted effort to perpetuate those lies are his children, his spiritual seed through whom he propagates his deceptions.15 Through His words and actions, Jesus exposes and confronts these lies and combats them with that which corresponds to reality. 

Lies About God

Jesus’ speech and actions correct the lies some of His Jewish contemporaries had come to believe about the nature of Israel’s God:

Lie #1: God’s Primary Concern is Piety. 

Jesus challenged the notion held by many of His contemporary Jews that God’s main desire for His people was for them to strictly observe their particular interpretations of the Torah. Jesus spoke out against their rigid reading of the first five books of the Bible and said that their essence can be summed up in the commands to love God and neighbor.16 The Jewish spiritual leaders had chosen piety at the expense of love, leading Jesus to rebuke them and remind them of the words God spoke through the prophet of old: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”17 

Jesus modeled what it looked like to love both God and people without one coming at the expense of the other. He would rise early in the morning and stay up late into the night to spend time with His Father in prayer.18 And yet, He had no hesitation to heal people on the Sabbath.19  

Lie #2: God is a Distant Deity

Many (though certainly not all) Jewish religious elite in Jesus’ day lived as if they functionally believed God was a distant deity. Much like the absent watchmaker of Deism, many believed that God had made the world, given His law to humanity through Moses, and was now largely absent from human affairs. This attitude toward God is seen chiefly in the Sadducees, who did not believe God would raise the dead,20 nor did they believe in things like angels or spirits.21 

In His life and ministry, Jesus intensely confronted this lie. Rather than an uninterested and distant deity, Jesus spoke of a God who is intimately involved in His creation – feeding His children, providing shelter for the ravens, clothing the wildflowers, and numbering each hair on a person’s head.22 

And above all, Jesus proclaimed that the time had finally come for God to reclaim His rightful place as King of this world: “The time is fulfilled,” He said, “and the Kingdom of God has come near…”23 Throughout the Gospel narratives, Jesus teaches His hearers of this kingdom that has now come near. 

But He didn’t just talk about it; He demonstrated it, too, through miraculous signs that brought healing and restoration to the afflicted. As Esau McCaulley notes: “[Jesus’] ministry of healing was a sign of the in-breaking of the reign of God.”24 Jesus demonstrated in word and deed that God is not a passive bystander, but an active participant in the world, bringing about His kingdom rule in and through His Son. 

Lies About Humanity

With His words and deeds, Jesus challenges the lies humans often believe about themselves and others:

Lie #1: Humans are Irredeemable 

For a myriad of reasons, many humans are prone to believing they are too broken, sinful, or dirty to be worthy of love.25 The bullying, shaming, and condemning voice of the Liar whispers in their ear and convinces them they are unworthy of mercy or compassion. The Gospels are full of people like Simon Peter, who upon meeting Jesus cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”26 Also littering the pages of the Gospels are the harsh criticisms from spiritual leaders like Simon the Pharisee, who scoffs that Jesus must be a false prophet for allowing a sinful woman to touch Him.27

Jesus responds to the Liar’s attempt to strip humans of their God-given dignity with words of compassion. He announces forgiveness for sinners28 and tells stories of moneylenders forgiving debts29 and fathers generously embracing their wayward sons.30 Jesus backs His words up with action, healing people of ailments that brought them reproach and social isolation,31 and ultimately, by bearing the sin and shame of humanity on the cross. 

Lie #2: Death is the End

Humans are unique among the animals of the earth, in that they are aware of their inevitable demise. For many, the finality of death is a source of existential terror.32 As the anonymous Scripture-writer puts it, humans are enslaved to their fear of death.33 Jesus speaks to those in this bondage and offers them the liberating promise of eternal life.34 Jesus became living proof of the truth of His promise when on the third day after His death on the cross, He rose from the dead. 

Lie #3: Violence and Force can Bring Redemption 

There is a commonly-held belief among human beings that their righteous goals can and should be achieved by violence and brute force. This lie has been referred to as the myth of redemptive violence.35 This myth was believed by many Jews of Jesus’ day, who thought the coming king, the Messiah, would lead them in a military revolution against their political oppressors, the Romans.36 Surely, this is the kind of king the multitudes were wanting Jesus to be when they planned to crown Him against His will.37

Jesus combats the myth of redemptive violence with the sword of His mouth: He tells His disciples not to retaliate when someone acts in violence toward them.38 In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes His companion for violently attacking the Jewish authorities, reminding him, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”39

 Ultimately, Jesus practiced the truth He preached, refusing to reciprocate violence even to the point of death on a cross. And yet, shockingly, all four Gospels paradoxically depict Jesus lifted up on the cross as the moment He is enthroned as King.40 Calvary condemns the lie that power must be gained by the usual means of cruelty, domination, and violence. To defeat one’s enemies this way only perpetuates the cycle of violence. Rather, the One with true power overcomes His enemies with the strength of His sacrificial love. 

Notes 

1.
Many are presently writing about and discussing this phenomenon. See, for example, Pew Research Center Information & Technology – The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online; also see the syllabus for a class taught by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, titled Political Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories; Apoorva Tadepalli (Cal Alumni Association UC Berkeley) – In the Age of Information Can We Weed Out the Fake News?; for a distinctly Christian perspective, see Robert K. Vischer (Religion News Service) – Eric Metaxas and the losing of the evangelical mind

2. John 18:38b NRSV

3. Merriam-Webster – Truth | Definition of Truth

4. See Marian David (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) – The Correspondence Theory of Truth 

5. John 14:6; cf. John 8:31-36

6. John 17:17 NRSV; emphasis added

7. John 1:1-18

8. Bible Hub – Strong’s Greek: 3056. Λόγος (logos).

9. John 1:14 NRSV; emphasis added

10. John 18:37b NRSV

11. Bible Hub – Strong’s Greek: 281. ἀμήν (amén).

12. See, for example, Matthew 5:18, 26; 6:5, 16; Mark 3:28; 10:15; Luke 12:37, 44

13. Bible Hub – John 1:51 Interlinear 

14. See, for example, John 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11

15. John 8:44

16. Matthew 2:34-40; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18

17. Matthew 9:13 NRSV; cf. Hosea 6:6

18. See, for example, Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12

19. See, for example, Mark 3:1-6; John 5:1-15; 9:13-16

20. Mark 12:18

21. Acts 23:8

22. Luke 12:22-31; cf. Matthew 6:25-34

23. Mark 1:15a NRSV

24. Esau McCaulley – Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (p. 55)

25. See Richard Beck – Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality. Beck explores this here through the lens of what he calls disgust theory; also see Amanda Burlington, Chad McDaniel, David O. Wilson (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) –Modern Psychological Studies 5.2.2: A historical review of disgust

26. Luke 5:8b NRSV

27. Luke 7:9

28. See, for example, Matthew 9:2; Luke 7:48

29. Luke 7:40-43

30. Luke 15:11-32

31. See, for example, Matthew 8:1-4; 9:20-22

32. See Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski – The Worm at the Core: On The Role of Death in Life. The central thesis of the book revolves around the need for humans to identify and manage the fear of death, referred to by the authors as terror management theory; also see their more recent article with McKenzie Lockett – Terror Management Theory and the COVID-19 Pandemic; and William Breitbart (Oxford University Press) – Existential guilt and the fear of death

33. Hebrews 2:15

34. See, for example, Mark 10:30; John 3:16; 4:14; 5:24; 6:50-51, 58; 8:51; 11:1-44

35. See Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation) – The Myth of Redemptive Violence; also see Walter Wink – Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violenceand Preston Sprinkle – Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

36. See Dr. James Tabor (UNC Charlotte) – The Jewish World of Jesus: An Overview; Also see N.T. Wright – Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2). First-century Jewish Messianic expectation is an oft-repeated theme in this work; and J.H. Charlesworth (editor) – The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity

37. John 6:15

38. Matthew 5:39

39. Matthew 26:52b NRSV

40. See, for example, Matthew 27:28-2937; Mark 15:17-18, 26; Luke 23:2, 38-43; John 19:2-3, 14, 19-22; Also see, N.T. Wright – How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright references this motif repeatedly; Joel Marcus (Journal of Biblical Literature) – Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation; and BibleProject – Gospel of the Kingdom article and video

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