An interesting bit of dialogue preceded the authorization of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. Pilate was appointed by the Roman Emperor to govern Judea politically. His command of the Roman army in the area assured his control.
Jesus said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. He was saying all truth is relative. In this case, truth was whatever Rome wanted it to be. There is no doubt Jesus believed truth was absolute, not relative. Before his arrest Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He was not one way among many.
The dictionary defines truth as conformity with fact or reality. It is considered to be universal if it is valid in all times and places. This was the truth Jesus claimed to be, not subjective or relative. The relativist conception denies the existence of some or all universal truths, particularly ethical ones (through moral relativism). Jesus not only taught universal absolute truth; He is unchanging truth.
I wonder if certainty is the new synonym for absolute. A local religious columnist blamed the certainties of certain religious groups for tearing our world apart last week. President Obama in his remarks last week at the National Prayer Breakfast said, “We have to speak up against those who would misuse his name to justify oppression or violence or hatred with that fierce certainty.” While I certainly agree with the President on this and several other points he made, I cannot agree with what appeared to be his or others premise that truth is relative and so all truths should be treated as equal.
Matt Slick outlines the case well.
“Yes, there are such things as absolutes. There are also things that are relative, but if everything were relative then it would be absolutely true that everything is relative, and that would be self-refuting. So saying that everything is relative can’t be true. Likewise, if everything were absolutely true, then we couldn’t have such things as personal preferences or things that change. Relative truths can be things dependent upon each person.
That which is absolute is always true. That which is relative is not necessarily always true. For example, it is always true that the number seven is greater than the number five…. On the other hand, one person may believe that blue is a better color than green, where another person may disagree. In this case, what is true for one person is not true for another. Therefore, there can be truths that are relative, that change. The person who believes that blue is a better color than green may change his or her mind later on.
Unfortunately, more and more people are not able to distinguish between absolute truths and relative truths, and they put their feelings and preferences above absolutes to make them more palatable. A typical example is when someone would say that “It is true for you that Jesus is the only way to God, but to a Muslim, Mohammed would be the only way.” Such statements ignore the logical possibilities of having two “only-ways” to God.”
Perhaps both men ultimately were trying to say we need to respect what other people regard as absolute truth even when it is contrary to what I believe is universal unchanging truth. People around the globe and across the centuries have figured out how to live together while simultaneously holding to a different set of certainties. They not only lived together, but loved each other. They esteemed the good in each other and fought common enemies together from time to time. They practiced historical tolerance, not the relativistic type esteemed by many today.
Absolute truth or certainties are not evil in themselves. As in many things, whether they lift up or tear down results in large measure to the manner in which they are used.