Committed to Absolute Truth

According to recent estimates by the Barna group, three-fourths of American adults now believe that truth is not absolute, but changes relative to the situation. This trend is alarming and dangerous. But what should we do about it?

Some have said that Christians should fight against this trend by upholding and preaching a Biblical message of absolute truth.

Although I don’t disagree with that statement, I think that it is needs some clarification. Unless we understand what has happened in our culture and why, our response to this trend of moral relativism may be ineffective or counterproductive.

People today still value truth. But the manner in which they think about truth has radically changed.

In previous generations, a statement would be regarded as true if it agreed with conditions of external reality. Suppose you tell me, “It is raining.” If I open a window, put my hand outside and feel raindrops, then I would conclude that your statement is true, because your statement corresponds to what my senses tell me is happening in the real world.

That basic understanding of truth – as a correspondence to external reality – has been a hallmark of Western thought since the Scientific Revolution. And it greatly influenced how Christians shared their faith with nonbelievers. Methods of evangelism that were popular in America a generation ago, and which some Christians are still using, focused on helping people to accept key doctrines and teachings of the faith. By appealing to logic and evidence, the Christian would argue that belief in Christ is reasonable. If the nonbeliever did not think that Jesus rose from the dead, then the Christian might respond by presenting evidence for the resurrection as found, for example, in the excellent books written by Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel. If the nonbeliever did not think that Jesus could be the Son of God, the Christian might present some version of the C.S. Lewis “Liar, Lunatic, Lord” trilemma. Francis Schaeffer, one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century, led many young people to faith in Jesus by showing them that their non-Christian beliefs were inconsistent with their own values, feelings and actions.

Evangelism in UBF has followed a different model. In our ministry, the “shepherd” would engage the nonbeliever in spiritual conversation through one-to-one Bible study. Through this personal interaction with the word of God, the nonbeliever would begin to understand the Bible’s grand story of salvation, and he would begin to see his own life in the context of that story. Along the way, he would develop personal faith and be drawn into a relationship with God and with the church.

Although these methods of evangelism are somewhat different, they both rely heavily on the notion of truth as a correspondence to external reality – that the Bible and the tenets of Christianity are true because they explain the way things really are. But with the rise of postmodernism, that notion of truth has been greatly weakened. An overwhelming majority of westerners no longer accept that truth is absolute.

“Everything is relative,” someone will say. But what does he mean? When a postmodernist says this, he is not claiming that ultimate reality does not exist. Rather, he is saying that ultimate reality is unknowable, because human beings are subjective and perceive truth differently. In essence, he is saying, “You see things your way, I see things my way. We are both flawed. Neither of us should claim to possess moral certainty.” This popular statement that “truth is relative” is actually a statement about persons. It is about the limitations and imperfection of human beings and our inability to grasp truth in an objective fashion.

Interestingly, when the Bible speaks about truth, it is also making statements about persons. In the Old Testament, truth is expressed through the Hebrew word ’emet. This word has complex overtones and is sometimes translated into the English language as “faithfulness.” For example, this word appears in a phrase in Deuteronomy 32:4 as a description of Elohim. The King James Version translates this phrase as “a God of truth and without iniquity,” but the New International Version says, “A faithful God who does no wrong.” In the Hebrew understanding, a statement may be judged to be true because it corresponds to an external reality. But a statement may also be true because the one who said it is trustworthy. Accepting that a statement is true is not just agreeing in your mind that the idea is correct. It is also putting your trust in the person who said it, believing that his character is reliable.

This personal aspect of truth is also found in the New Testament. In John 14:6, Jesus claims that he is the embodiment of truth: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). And in John 18:37, Jesus says to Pilate: “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” The authors of the New Testament did not view the acceptance of absolute truth in terms of mental agreement with doctrinal propositions, but as a commitment and trusting relationship with the person of Jesus Christ.

In this respect, a postmodern view of truth is quite consistent with what we find in the Bible. Many people today do not see truth as an abstract quality of propositional statements, but as a character trait of the people who make those statements. Today’s battle for truth is not just war over the correctness of ideas, but over the reliability and trustworthiness of persons.

This shift in the notion of truth has enormous implications for evangelism and discipleship.

Suppose that a Bible teacher says to me, “We are not justified by works, but by faith in Christ alone.” How would I come to believe such a statement? That statement is a claim about an invisible spiritual reality that we cannot see. The Bible teacher says that the evidence comes from the Bible, citing passages such as Romans 3:28 and Ephesians 2:8. But I respond, “Who actually wrote the Bible? How do we know that they were telling the truth?” And then I say, “How do we know that your understanding of the Bible is correct?” After all, the Bible can be used to ‘prove’ contradictory things. For example, James 2:24 says: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” Understanding the Bible is not easy. It requires study of Hebrew and Greek and considerable amount of expertise that most persons simply do not have. Ultimately, most of us have to bow to tradition and trust the judgments and wisdom of those who have gone before us.

When evangelizing and discipling in this current cultural climate, it rarely works to tell people to “just believe,” because coming to faith involves wrestling with the trustworthiness of many people: Those who wrote the books of the Bible. Those who collected them and judged them to be canonical. Various persons and organizations who lived out the teachings of Christianity for the last two millennia. Those who are promoting and teaching these ideas today. The postmodern is wondering, “Are these people good? Why should I trust them?”

And perhaps the most fundamental question of all this: “Can I trust you, the person who is telling this to me now? Why should I listen to you?”

It has now become virtually impossible to separate issues of faith from personal trustworthiness. Jesus Christ is alive, and he is absolutely trustworthy. But he has ascended into heaven and has left his mission in the hands of the Holy Spirit who works through the visible Body of Christ (the Church). Those whom we evangelize and disciple do not see Jesus in the flesh. They only see us. Through the culture and their own personal experience, they have learned to be deeply skeptical of all human beings. It will be very difficult for them to believe unless we show ourselves to be exceptionally trustworthy, developing credibility through transparency and complete honesty in our relationships with them and with one another.

As Christians, we may reject the idea that truth is relative and proclaim a worldview that upholds absolute truth. But unless we also become authentic human beings – people who are honest with ourselves and with one another about what we truly think and feel – our witness to this postmodern generation will become less and less effective.


  1. Joe, I think you have deep insight into the spiritual reality and into human response to the presentation of the gospel, especially for the time we are in now. Even me after living a Christian life for more than twelve years in UBF, when something is presented to me as the truth, I cannot accept it just because it confirms to the external realities unless it confirms to the life of the person who is presenting. God, who leads human history has guided us into the post-modern time, and looking at the trends I believe that it His plan for our generation to be not just good presenters of the truth but practitioners, even as Jesus lived out what he preached to the letter and the spirit.
    For last few days, God put in me the desire, and I had been seriously thinking to undertake learning of the Hebrew language. Your article further encouraged me to pursue it. I think the Blue Letter Bible can be a great resource for those who might have similar interest. Thanks and God bless.

    • Abraham, thank you very much for your comment. Having the privilege of enjoying the friendship with several Indians, i realized that Joe’s article has great relevance for me in dealing with them: how can i communicate the gospel to people who seem to be grown up in such a religiously pluralistic culture? especially regarding the fact that many of them seem to have allergic reactions when being confronted with absolute truth claims… I guess true friendship and authentic Christianity on my side is the prerequisite for any communication of the gospel.

      @Joe: Your article is actually dealing with one of my favorite topics these days!!! =) i had never fathomed that the claim that all truth is relative (which is obviously a self-defeating statement) should rather be interpreted as a statement concerning persons than as a statement concerning ultimate reality. But is makes sense to me. Thanks for your article! i again learned something new and helpful!

  2. Ok, so in my understanding your point here is that for being more effective evangelists we should be more deligent in our inner following Christ, so we ourselves could correspond to the trueth we are proclaimig.
    But what about our gospel sharing practices? Could this shifting of notion of trueth mean that our practices should also be shifted to evangelism through relations from fishing, publical preaching and things like this?
    Yup, how could people in this culture trust us if they just see us first time or even time to time in unusual conditions where our communication is really lopsided? So don’t we should build some relations first?
    In the other hand how could we have or build this relations in our ministry with students if we with each year are going father from them? In my limited experience I’ve found that I almost have no chance to conquer students if I do live outside of their community, have other interests, many other buisnesses and go fishing just time to time.

    • David, thank you. That is exactly how I feel. In the modernist age, truth had to be presented as principles, and when the gospel was presented that way, people responded to it. Today, truth must be communicated through honest, loving personal relationships. Truthful people living in truthful community with Jesus, the Truth, at the center.

  3. I just got one more insight about this topic. And have one question to clarify things. Could this mean that we shouldn’t pay much attention for apologetics in order to evangelize any more? I mean reflections like: “why do we believe in God, eternal life…?”, “why is it better to believe in God, eternal life…?”, “why Christian faith is more trustworthy then other religions” “what is the meaning of life” and so on. Could it mean that such reflections, or at least tries to involve unbelievers to this reflections together with us are useless?
    Yesterday I had a discussion with my brother-in-low on modern evangelism issues. And he mentioned that most of people, at least young, in our time could react and talk just when something form the sphere of their direct interests is touched . Like clothes, sports, dances, sometimes some studies and profession. And you have no any chance to get some reaction if you try to talk on some other external from this sphere topic. For ex. my wife’s niece has some Christian background. She is 18. And she visits our house and meetings time to time. But we couldn’t see any reaction from her, until we start talk about some things like shopping. Other student also with Christian background reacts just when we touch his major – medicine. I think, they are typical young people of our time. They attend church meetings just because they have Christian background. If they hadn’t – I think they wouldn’t be here with us.
    In the Bible we read wonderful story about Jesus who was able to touch the heart of Samaritan woman using 1) water 2) her 5 husbands problem. 3) religion disappointment problem. All of this was from her direct interest’s sphere. And Jesus used it and reached her heart. Could we somehow do the same?

  4. This is a great question! (I’m catching up on some older posts. :) There is no question that Truth is a Person – this is beautifully and succinctly exemplified by the passage in Matthew 7:22-24 in which Jesus is passing ultimate judgment on unsaved sinners. Amazingly the criteria is very simple: “I never knew you.” What a testimony to the Truth – eternal salvation all boils down to this one simple thing: “Does God in Jesus know me?” :)

  5. forestsfailyou

    If there was ever an article I disagreed more with I have yet to find it. “Everything is relative,” someone will say.- and I say that they are wrong. It is quite easy to see why this cannot be. If everything is relative, then we have no basis to make any claim. We have no standard by which we ought to progress. We have no way to even think. If the postmodernist claims that ultimate reality does not exist, he takes away his ability to say it. If he does not , but “Rather, he is saying that ultimate reality is unknowable, because human beings are subjective and perceive truth differently. In essence, he is saying, ‘You see things your way, I see things my way. We are both flawed. Neither of us should claim to possess moral certainty.’ “- then he says something else. That something else, that we see differently, I can agree with. However I disagree with the conclusion. I must think I am right if I have any convictions at all! And if my friend is wrong it is only proper that I let him know so. There is no phrase stupider than when someone utters the statement that they might be wrong. Everyday one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one- or it’s not his view. This is the last attempt to evade intellectualism and an appeal to an authority and it ends in intellectualism and therefore death. All previous ages have toiled and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the correct path of life, what it really means to be a good man. A definite part of the postmodern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, and that the most we can do is to set up a few warnings at places of obvious danger. We might warn against drinking ourselves into a coma, or neglecting our children.

    The major problem with postmodern philosophy is it is primarily a negative philosophy. It leaves us with a definite image of what is bad, but no clue as to what is good. When Adam and Eve fell they gained knowledge of good and evil, but postmodernism causes us to fall again, but this time we lose knowledge of what is good as well. Our sin gives us definite images of what is evil, and postmodernism finds only death.

    We should not stray from this idea; we have nothing if we do.

  6. Joe, great post. I never read this before, because I posted my first article a week later on Nov 4, 2010 (which also more or less began my “blogging career”), and I began reading and participating in UBFriends only after that.

    This reminds me of a phrase I had heard and sometimes say to other Christians, “The only Bible some people will read is you.” It’s actually quite scary to consider that I, an obvious sinner, am to personify the Christ, the Spirit, and the God of the Bible.

  7. Joe Schafer

    Ben, thanks. There’s a lot of good stuff here on UBFriends from the good ole days. You’ll have fun reading some of the early stuff.

    Forests, you have a strong negative reaction against this, and that’s okay. I would have had a similar reaction to this article 10 years ago. But I know from experience that when emotions run high, and when battle lines are quickly drawn, it becomes almost impossible for either side to accurately hear what the other side is even saying, let alone the intentions and thoughts that lie behind them. I fear that you have misunderstood me and are failing to see that we actually have large areas of agreement.

    I will just respond to the first thing you said in your last comment. Please read my words carefully.

    You wrote:

    “Everything is relative,” someone will say.- and I say that they are wrong. – See more at:

    In my experience, if someone says “everything is relative,” they are speaking hyperbolically. They don’t actually believe that, and their actions bear that out. In daily life, they order their physical behaviors in accordance with the laws of gravity which they treat as an absolute. They spend money knowing full well that their bank account balance is based on hard laws of addition and subtraction. And so on. You and I know that the statement is false. And at a very deep level, the person who said it knows it too.

    Given that situation, how should we respond?

    You said would respond by telling that person that he is wrong. Perhaps that will be an effective tool of communication and instruction if you are dealing with a very small child who looks up to you and is keenly aware of his or her ignorance.

    But if I hear him say, “Everything is relative,” I would respond by asking, “What do you mean by that?” Because the fact is, I don’t really know what he means. Through dialogue, I would try to discern whether he means (a) there is no such thing as fact or reality, or (b) that our perceptions of reality are highly perspectival.

    If he says (b), I would wholeheartedly agree with him, and we could share lots of interesting and humorous and heartbreaking examples of how that plays out in real life.

    But if he says (a), I would ask him to clarify further, because I know that he cannot possibly believe that; he doesn’t order his life that way. So I would give him every opportunity to correct himself and construct a better and smarter way of talking about such things. In the conversation, I would not try to assume the position of smart guy. Rather, I would try to create the environment for him to show himself as a smart guy, so that he instinctively feels that I respect him as a person of great worth, one who is created in the image of God, one who is beloved by God even if his thinking is deeply flawed. And even if he persists in making statements that are easily shown to be full of holes, I would try not to take advantage of his ignorance or defeat him with my superior wit and knowledge, because I don’t think that’s what Jesus would do. I would hold back all my high powered intellectual weapons, just as Jesus refused to call on legions of angels at his disposal to assist him. I would stay with him and find whatever ways I could to affirm him, because even if he makes statements that are wrong, there will be elements of truth in his underlying sentiments and reasons for holding those positions. I would pray that through our interaction, he would sense the presence of Jesus who loves and affirms him as a person even when he is wrong. If I succeed in that, I have brought him far closer to the absolute Truth with a capital “T” than I would have if I had just focused on promoting the idea of absolute truth with a small “t”.

    (In principle, that’s what I want to do. In real-life situations, I often fail to do that, and I often come off as a smart-ass. That’s one of my big character flaws.)

    I am not an expert in postmodernism. But I know enough about it to see that it is a complex and rich set of ideas. Yes, it is negative in the sense that it deconstruct many of the basic assumptions of modernism. But it also has some constructive ideas as well. There are some very serious problems with modernism that it seeks to correct. If you completely reject postmodernism, what are you saying? That you want to go back to post-Enlightenment modernism? That you want to go back to some system of pre-modern thinking? That’s a serious question. What do you really want, and how are you going to get there?

  8. forestsfailyou

    I think that the methods of thought used in the the premodern church are much preferable to postmodern thought. The mistake of that time was to kill people who did not agree with them. Look at the Council of Nicaea, it sought to solve the Arianism- it did so. Not by saying “It depends on how you look at it.” But by saying in no uncertain terms that God is triune.
    I do not think for a moment that the correct way to evangelize so to attack a person’s beliefs. I think that is of the highest value that we show the love of Christ. The most important idea is to accept the divinity of Christ, followed by the idea that he saves (this was what the council argues against, but I digress). Once someone has accepted this we can look at and help him to understand that the teachings of Christ imply doctrine. This is how the Catholic Church has come to put into practice the Bible. They use the Bible as a book of truth that creates form doctrines. Once we have accepted that Jesus saves the next course of action is to do what he says, and doctrine tells how to do so. I think the catholic approach is correct, but I view many of their doctrines as blatant heresy. Their position of grace and salvation comes to mind.

  9. forestsfailyou

    Why is there no edit button?
    ** The council argued against many attacks on the divinity of Christ at that time.

  10. Joe Schafer

    Forests, thank you for a gracious reply. If you are interested in reading a fully orthodox, Trinitarian, Christian critique of modern epistemology — with no mention of postmodernism — I recommend Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin.

  11. Hey guys, again I point to Danaher’s Eyes/Ears book. He brilliantly explains what I’ve come to know. Although someone might point to exceptions, the postmodern mind does not typically reject aboslute truth.

    “Postmodern Christians do not maintain that they have no access to the truth, but merely that they do not have the kind of access to the truth that modernity had set forth as its model. Since postmodernism has yet to take its final form, at this point, the only characteristic that unites a vast variety of people who consider themselves postmodern is that they reject many of the principles upon which modernity was founded. Even today’s science, which has rejected many Enlightenment (modernist) beliefs and attitudes, is being referred to by some as postmodern to distinguish it from modern, Enlightenment science.” – Highlight Loc. 345-47

    And Danaher ties postmodernism to predmodernism and Augustine:

    “One of the primary reasons for the premodern, flexible interpretation of truth is that for many centuries Christians argued that Scripture—the root of all truth—did not have a single, univocal meaning. They interpreted the quest for truth as a process of unfolding the infinite, sometimes hidden, meaning of sacred Scripture. Saint Augustine (354–430 CE), for example, would have thought that mathematics and the science of modernity, with their certain and precise meanings, were poor models for understanding the truth of Scripture. Speaking of the creation account in the Book of Genesis, Augustine says: Although I hear people say “Moses meant this” or “Moses meant that,” I think it more truly religious to say “Why should he not have had both meanings in mind, if both are true? And if others see in the same words a third, or a fourth, or any number of true meanings, why should we not believe that Moses saw them all? There is only one God, who caused Moses to write the Holy Scripture in the way best suited to theminds of great numbers of men who would all see truths in them, though not the same truths in each case.” – Highlight Loc. 451-54

  12. My example is that of a tree. Certainly the tree exists as an absolute truth. It is a tree.

    The modern mind might look at the tree and say the tree is firewood, and it could only ever be firewood. That is the only correct, absolute purpose for the tree, thinks the modern mind. The absolute truth is then found in the mechanical function of the tree. The search for truth becomes a quest for certitude. Truth becomes mathematical.

    The postmodern mind considers multiple perspectives. One person might say the tree is the source of paper. Another might say the tree is to be a home for squirrels and birds. And another might ask What kind of tree is it? Another might examine the leaves on the tree and note the processes going on there. And another might dig up the tree to examine its roots. The postmodern mind is open to consider the value of multiple perspectives, all of which may yield a bigger picture of the absolute truth of the tree. The absolute truth is then found in the biological existence of the tree. The search for truth becomes perspectival.

    I’m still processing all this. But two movies that helped me are the Croods and the Lego Movie.

    The Lego Movie is a shining display of the transitions and connections between modern (rigid rules), postmodern (no rules) and metamodern(?) (rules that should be broken) thought and expression.