What Is Truth?

Shortly before he died, Jesus was interrogated by the Roman governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate.  Charged with enforcing Roman law in the province, Pilate had been asked to adjudicate a death penalty case.  We’re told the local leaders, affronted by the unorthodox beliefs of Jesus, wanted him executed.  But, since only Rome was entitled to kill people, the authorities made a plea to Pilate. The short conversation between the two appears in every Jesus movie ever made. 

Having been told that Jesus claims to be a king, which is a capital offense, Pilate gets straight to the point.  “Are you a king?”

Jesus, being evasive, responds, “Where did you get that idea?”

Exasperated by not getting a straight answer, Pilate changes his approach.  “Why do these people want me to kill you?”

Instead of answering that question, Jesus answers the first one.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Confused by two non-answers, but hearing the word kingdom, Pilate reverts back his original line of inquiry.  “So, you believe you are a king?”

Continuing to be difficult, Jesus this time answers question two, and explains what he’s been up to that people don’t like.  “My mission is bearing witness to the truth.” 

Pilate, angry at himself for engaging in an argument with a penniless, delusional preacher who has added an unwanted complication to his day-planner, cuts Jesus off.  “Truth?” he retorts.  “What is truth?”

Pilate debating with Jesus

It’s easy to imagine Pilate’s impatience with Jesus and his vague, other-worldly replies.  The imperium of Rome was confronting an itinerant, backwoods preacher.  One man held the power of life and death; the other man held no power at all.  One man’s kingdom ruled the western world; the other man’s kingdom existed only in his mind.  What could someone like that possibly know about truth?

To a Roman like Pilate, the truth was understood as whatever his power determined it to be.  Jesus could proclaim anything he wished, but there was only one truth that mattered, and it belonged to the governor.  A powerless wishful-thinker had no standing to talk about the truth, when Pilate was the one who could make his own version happen immediately.

To his mind, what kind of truth fails to make itself true?  To explain reality, truth must also exist as real.  Whatever has the power to become real is the truth.

This remains a common way to look at things.  The truth is what works.  The truth is judged by results, with one result being power struggles, where one point of view wins the right to be true.  In that sense, the truth is political, as it certainly was for Pilate.

It is possible, however, that Pilate’s question was also a sarcastic dismissal of a deranged so-called prophet, something that Palestine seemed to regularly produce.  In a world where the strength of a kingdom demonstrated the strength of its gods, the Hebrew God was decidedly weak, offering nothing of interest to Pilate.  Truth is only as good as its source.

Today, for the most part, the gods have been supplanted by science.  Since gods can’t be proven to exist, they are completely unreliable for truth-telling.  Observation, data, and analysis are more trustworthy than mythology.  If something can’t be verified, neither can it be accepted as true.  Kingdoms not of this world fall into that category, which is certainly what Pilate was thinking.

It’s also possible, though unlikely, that Pilate was being a philosophical skeptic.  Since, philosophically, there is no universal agreement about what is true, or even about how to define it, truth is a highly ambiguous concept.  For example, we use the truth to justify all kinds of things, and experience shows that humans can accept anything to be true.  In other words, anything can be justified.

sunrise over the ocean

The later skeptic, David Hume, pointed out that just because something has always happened, doesn’t mean it always will.  It’s irrational, he said, to use the past to predict the future.  What we have are probabilities, which are not the same as actualities.  Causes may have likely effects, but not necessary ones.  Essentially, saying “the sun will come up tomorrow” cannot be called a statement of truth.  It is simply a hope, based upon a lot of past experience, strange as that sounds.

What that leaves us with is faith.  Assertions of truth are always statements of faith, because faith begins where proof ends.  We may be completely convinced that something is true, but we can’t prove it will remain true in the future.  We simply choose to believe it; we base our lives upon what are fundamentally beliefs.

The question is not whether a person has faith.  Everyone, from the most passionate atheist, to the most rational scientist, to the most religiously devoted, operates on faith.  Instead, the question that matters is what you have faith in.

Pilate most likely had faith in Roman power, even though that power eventually disappeared.  People can have faith in science, until the point is eventually reached where verification is impossible, and science has no answers.  Or we can develop a deeply held, experiential faith in what lies beyond the boundaries of our universe, in the One who does know all.

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