What is Truth?

Posted on October 3, 2012


Bill O’Reiley has a very popular show on the Fox network, which begins or ends, with his theme, “the spin stops here.” By that I take it to mean that on his show you will hear the truth, without “spin” put on it by political commentators, politicians, pundits and anyone else interpreting the facts for us.

Or, as Jack Webb, the experienced detective on the great old show Dragnet, was fond of saying, “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

We want the facts and the truth, just like Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, did when he interviewed Jesus. After a short investigation, Pilate told the mob of accusers seeking to kill Jesus that Pilate found no cause in law to execute this man. The mob grew louder, threatening. Pilate only had a few legionnaires with him in Jerusalem and the Jews were notorious for rebellions against authority. There was murder in the air and Pilate was caught between the obvious truth that this itinerant Jewish rabbi was innocent, and, on the other hand, the rabble who could easily move from noise to murder.

Pilate again queried Jesus more closely, but he found, again, no cause for execution. Exasperated by the growing crisis that Thursday night in his palace, Pilate threw up his hands and exclaimed “What is truth?” It was much a question as a declaration.

Today many of us ask the same question, “What is truth?” This is particularly true in an election year, so much so that “fact checkers” have blossomed on the web, such as Politifact and FactCheck.org to give voters a chance to see who is telling the truth, who is lying, and who is “spinning” in the middle.

That there is a huge uproar between the political candidates with accusations and counter accusations almost on a daily basis begs us to determine “what is truth?”

Lying on the other side of the spectrum of accuracy are lies, in the simplest of terms. These can be labeled different things: fabrications, deceptions, distortion etc.

And there is everything in the middle: little white lies, misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and other clever phrases and words to cover the apparently difficult middle ground between truth and lies.

And as we move through this minefield, let’s also separate opinion from truth or facts. Opinion can be any person’s interpretation of a situation, and opinion, of course, is opinion.

Truth is, at best, an abstract principle, unlike facts which are easily verifiable.

“He shot him with this gun?” the prosecutor asks.

“Yes,” the witness responds

“How do you know?”

“I watched the shooting and then wrestled this pistol away from him.”

That’s a fact.

Had Jesus committed a crime against Rome that merited death on the Cross? The Jews said Jesus claimed he was the King of the Jews, and so committed treason against the Emperor of the Roman Empire. Pilate inquired along these lines but discovered that the Jews and Jesus were at odds over some aspects of their religion, and Rome was not interested or threatened by these sectarian debates, as serious as they might be for the Jews.

But the Jews also came on as a violent mob in the night, threatening the order that Rome kept in Jerusalem, and even the very life of the Roman Governor, Pilate. So he caved. Crucify him if you must. I wash my hands of this whole sordid affair. And he ceremonially washed his hands in a trough of water and was done with it.

Pilate had, in fact, denied the truth. One of Jesus’s closest disciples, Peter, also denied the truth that night. Three times he was recognized as a disciple of the prisoner, and three times he denied he knew Jesus. It was a bitter night for Peter, for he betrayed his Rabbi and Master.

Speaking or acknowledging the truth is sometimes very difficult. The prophet Jeremiah was constantly in trouble, beaten, and sometimes jailed for speaking the truth. God spoke to Jeremiah and told him to tell the Hebrews that their iniquities were going to be punished by God if they did not repent and submit to God’s will. Nobody wanted to hear this rebuke, but Jeremiah persisted, even in the face of rejection and hostility. They needed to know the truth. You can read the rest of the story in the Old Testament. Start with Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar and that will get you there.

There’s an old adage sometimes invoked that also is not guaranteed the speaker any wins in popularity contests: speak the truth to power. That’s what Jeremiah and the prophets were called upon to do.

In the New Testament, the Apostle John wrote perhaps the most memorable words in the history of man: “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The truth that John wrote about was the divinity and message of Jesus, but truth is just as applicable in the secular world that intersects with religion.

No less important than determining the truth is acting on it. The Book of Proverbs is one of the foundational sources of knowledge and wisdom for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, which all arose out the same people described in the Old Testament.

Knowledge is the truth. Wisdom is acting on it.

If you are at a loss on what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what are lies, what is man’s will and what is God’s will, dip into the Book of Proverbs. Let me suggest something radical here.

Looking for the truth? Don’t run to blogs, fact checkers, truth finders, lawyers, judges, or your next door neighbor. Turn to the Book of Proverbs. Start with Proverbs 6: 16-19. That’s your Scriptural truth checker. It is a list of things that the Lord hates, and included prominently among them is a false witness who pours out lies and a lying tongue. Since most of you don’t carry a Bible around with you (although if you have a smart phone, you do have one!), I’ll leave you with these words, from Proverbs 15:4 and 16:13.

The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,

but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

Kings take pleasure in honest lips,

they value a man who speaks the truth.

Posted in: Truth