CHRISTIAN TRUTH FOR A WORLD IN DECAY
Jack Cottrell – August 2016
Sometimes we greet one another with this question: “How are things with you?”
“Things?” What kind of “things”? Usually we mean, “How’s your health? How’s your family? How’s your job? What’s new in your life?”
But what if we broadened the scope of the question, e.g., “In general, do you think things in the nation are headed in the right direction, or have they gotten off on the wrong track?” Here we would be asking you to give an opinion about “what’s happening” regarding such things as the respect for human life, the respect for private property, the respect for law enforcement, the effectiveness of our schools, the honesty of our politicians, the moral standards portrayed on TV and in the movies, the respect for Christian beliefs and standards, racial relations, and the integrity of the family.
What would your answer be? For at least the last six years the people who do the “Gallup Polls” have asked the question above (“In general, do you think things in the nation are headed in the right direction, or have they gotten off on the wrong track?”) at least 20 times. In 18 of these polls, over 60% said, “Wrong track!” In the last five polls, “Wrong track!” was the answer nearly 70% of the time. “Right direction” was the answer an average of less than 25% of the time.
This leads us to ask, what’s wrong with our country? Yes, it is a mess! But WHY are “things” so bad, and why are they getting worse and worse? Why is there so much violence, killing, stealing, lying, cheating, child abuse, spouse abuse, and no-limits, guilt-free sexual behavior? Why is our culture so committed to lawlessness and amorality? Why do so many people have no sense of right and wrong, and no conscience? Why these apparent philosophies of life? — “Do whatever you want, or whatever you can get away with!” “Might makes right!” “Anything goes!”
WHY? Why is this uncivilized, amoral, destructive behavior so openly approved and promoted by the media, the entertainment industry, our educational system, the cesspool of politics, and the “powers that be” in general? I suggest the following answer to the “WHY” question: there is so much wrong BEHAVIOR, because there is so much wrong BELIEF.
A basic rule of life is that behavior follows belief. Put another way, ideas have consequences. Actions are determined by what one believes to be true, whether it is actually true or not.
I believe that the source of our problem is wrong belief, and one wrong belief in particular. Our culture has more and more embraced a MONSTER LIE, one of the most destructive falsehoods the devil has ever concocted. For the last 150 years this evil lie has been growing in acceptance; and in the last 50 years it has come dominant in our part of the world, and has produced the moral and civil chaos that is threatening to destroy us.
What is this false belief? It is the widespread conviction that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ABSOLUTE TRUTH—in other words, relativism. We have lost our sense of truth. You frequently hear someone say, “You can believe whatever you want, but what’s ‘true’ for you is not ‘true’ for me.” “That’s just your truth, not mine.” All truth-claims are relative, as expressed in this familiar poem by Abraham Edel (d. 2007):
It all depends on where you are,
It all depends on when you are,
It all depends on how you feel,
It all depends on what you feel.
It all depends on how you’re raised,
It all depends on what is praised.
What’s right today is wrong tomorrow,
Joy in France, in England sorrow.
It all depends on point of view,
Australia or Timbuctoo,
In Rome do as the Romans do.
If tastes just happen to agree,
Then you have morality.
But where there are conflicting trends,
It all depends, it all depends . . . .
Such conscience-numbing relativism explains why people of all stripes can lie, steal, murder, destroy property, and do all sorts of evil without feeling guilty! If there is no absolute truth, then there is no absolute right or wrong! There are no laws; there are no rules. People are ruthless because they are truthless. Truthlessness begets lawlessness.
We have seen how, in recent times, many have objected to the posting of the ten commandments in public places or on public property, citing a conflict of the alleged principle of separation of church and state. I suggest that the underlying motivation for such objections is that our liberal, truthless society does not want to admit that there is such a thing as commandments or rules of any kind.
Another example of such relativism is the widespread presence of the philosophy of postmodernism in our academic world today. The fundamental teaching of postmodernism is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. This viewpoint can be found in some places within the Restoration Movement. One may look, for example, at a book entitled Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (IVP, 1995), and find a chapter entitled “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s A Good Thing, Too” (pp. 155-170), written by Philip Kenneson, a professor at Milligan College. Several years ago I heard a New Testament professor from a Restoration Movement Bible College defend postmodernism in a public lecture.
One may find examples of this denial of absolute truth in any age, but it has never been as dominant as it has become in the last century and a half. I suggest we may trace this modern movement to 1859, the year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. This began the determined erosion of belief in divine creation, the significance of which will be explained below. Within fifty years a large segment of Christendom known as Liberalism had succumbed to anti-supernaturalism and had given up almost every central Biblical truth. After another fifty years the denial of the absolute had become widespread in both secular and Christian circles.
When I was a seminary student in the mid-1960s, the main theological trends in the non-conservative Christian world were the “Death of God” theology (e.g., Thomas Altizer, Paul van Buren), the “New Morality” (e.g., Joseph Fletcher), and “Secularization Theology” (e.g., Harvey Cox). Van Buren wrote a perceptive and influential essay called “The Dissolution of the Absolute,” published in the journal Religion in Life (summer 1965).
From this point on, relativism practically reigned as king. Views and systems that would never have been tolerated just decades earlier now flourished. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several rivals to traditional Christianity arose: the gay liberation movement, occultism, the New Age Movement, secular Humanism. Within evangelical Christianity itself, the idea of sound doctrine was challenged by the rise of feminism and by attacks on Biblical inerrancy.
My point is this: what we are seeing in our present culture is simply the fruit of the poison tree of relativism—the rejection of the idea of absolute truth.
What can Bible-believing Christians do about this, if anything? Most importantly, we must remain committed to the reality of TRUTH—absolute truth. This is what makes us different from most of the world, and it is why most of the world hates conservative Christianity: we believe in absolute truth and absolute rules.
How can we make sure that we, our families, and our churches remain committed to absolute truth? How can we influence others to agree with us, and come back to this firm foundation? Some may immediately say, “We must simply continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Jesus is the answer. Just focus on Jesus.”
It is, of course, true that Jesus is the only answer to the problem of personal sin; he is the only source of salvation from that sin. Also, believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior can make anyone want to do what is right, and his gift of the Holy Spirit can give us the ability to do what is right. But these are after-the-fact responses to sin. Our present question is this: how can we show that there is such a thing as sin in the first place? How can we lay the foundation for the whole system of right and wrong?
An important and necessary fact is this: the crucial issue of absolute truth, and absolute right-and-wrong, is a much larger issue than Jesus as such. The Christian faith is not just about sin and salvation; it is not just about what people think of as “religion.” It is a total world view. If we compare reality to a large jig-saw puzzle enclosed in a box with a picture on it, Jesus is just a part of that picture. He is set in a wider, much more comprehensive framework.
The question of absolute truth is whether there is one right way to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The answer is yes; this is the fundamental claim of Christianity. So how can we go about putting the pieces together correctly? As with any jig-saw puzzle, we start with the edge pieces, especially the corner pieces. I am suggesting here that there are actually four such corner pieces to the puzzle of the Biblical world view, and in the rest of this essay I will set forth what they are. My contention is that it is important—yea, crucial—that the church not only accept these “corner pieces,” but that we continue to teach them strongly and often, especially to our younger generations.
The problem is that the whole world around us has lost these fundamental beliefs, and that is why the world is in such a mess. Without these four corner pieces, there will be no idea of truth. So what follows are the foundation blocks upon which truth—and a decent society—must be built. These are the bedrock of a peaceful, just civilization. Without these, “anything goes.”
I. THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
The first corner piece of the Christian world view is belief in the existence of God. Most people say they are committed to such belief. In a 2013 Harris poll, 74% of U.S. adults said they believe in God. In a 2016 Gallup poll, the number was 89%. There are serious qualifiers here, though. In the Harris poll, though 74% said they believe in God, only 54% said they are sure of it. In the Gallup poll, the question itself was ambiguous: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” We can be sure that many of those who answer “yes” to such a question will have a seriously deficient view of who God really is.
The point is that the true God, who is the foundation of all truth, is not just any general concept of a “divine being,” but must be the one and only God of the Bible. Believing in God is the starting point of the Christian world view (“In the beginning God . . .”), but it must be the true God, the God of the Bible. Unless one believes in God as revealed in the Bible, such faith won’t make any significant difference in the way one lives and acts.
Exactly what is there about the God of the Bible that differs from most concepts of God, and which is foundational for the existence of truth? What is there about the true God that is so different that it can change the world? Many might suggest that the answer to that question is God’s LOVE; others might suggest his SOVEREIGNTY, or his OMNIPOTENCE. These are all extremely important, but they are not the second corner piece for the Christian world view. What is it?
II. THE FACT OF CREATION
Of all that we know about the God of the Bible, nothing is more important than the fact that he is the Creator of all things. “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen. 1:1). Next to the very existence of God, this is the second most important truth; and it is crucial for establishing the reality of absolute truth.
This is why (as I have suggested above) we can identify 1859 as the time when a near-fatal wound was struck against the Christian world view. With the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the theory of evolution began to undermine the concept of creation. Over the next decades even Christians began to question the truth of Genesis 1-11, and with it Biblical creation and the truthfulness of the Bible as such.
In recent decades we have seen a renewed attempt to restore and defend belief in the Biblical testimony to creation, thanks to men such as Henry M. Morris (cf. the Institute for Creation Research) and Ken Ham (cf. Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum, and the Ark Encounter). In many ways we can be very thankful for this renewed emphasis on “creationism.” However, I believe that in some ways the creationist movement has actually weakened the case for creation in the eyes of our general population.
Why has this been the case? Because the “creationist” folks that are in the headlines usually argue vehemently for “young earth” creation: the idea that creation as described in Genesis One happened only about 6,000 years ago, and thus that everything in the universe is only about 6,000 years old. Many Christians, for different reasons, believe the universe is much older than this, but what comes across to the public is the false idea that ALL who believe in creation are “young-earthers,” and that Christians are saying that unless you believe in the young-earth view, you don’t really believe in creation.
No matter who is right in this debate, it has left the impression that the only thing that is actually at stake regarding creation is how long ago it happened. However important this may be, this whole discussion has side-tracked us from the main point, which is the simple FACT that in the beginning, whenever that was, GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH!
I cannot stress this point enough: everything about this universe, including the human race, owes its existence to that one original creation event when the eternal God brought all the matter of the universe into existence out of nothing—ex nihilo! This means that when we think of God, the first thing that should be in our minds is this: GOD IS OUR CREATOR!
Now the question is, WHY is this so important? Because, unless we have such a Creator God, we have no absolute truth about anything! Now we can see why our world, our culture, has lost its belief in absolute truth: because it has capitulated to Darwin and abandoned its belief in the CREATOR GOD.
Why is the reality of creation so crucial for the existence of absolute truth? Because absolute truth depends on universal, infinite knowledge (omniscience), and only the one who has created all reality has this kind of knowledge. One of the main arguments against absolute truth is that even the most brilliant human beings are finite; they are limited by their specific orientation in time and space and have an inescapably self-centered perspective from which to draw conclusions. This is called the “egocentric predicament.” It is considered to be an unanswerable argument against absolute truth.
Such an argument can succeed, however, only if the existence and creatorship of God are ruled out. But the Creator God does exist! And the knowledge in the mind of the Creator God is not limited by anything; he has no “egocentric predicament” that makes him ignorant of anything and requires him to guess or speculate about anything. Thus we confidently affirm that absolute truth exists: it is the contents of the mind of God.
This includes ethical rules and norms. Since such norms come from the Creator God, they too are absolute. Because God is the infinite Creator, he not only has infinite knowledge of what moral choices are best for his human moral creatures; he also has the absolute, sovereign authority to make absolute rules and the absolute right to enforce them. This is the right of ownership, which God has by virtue of the fact of creation.
I hesitate to say this, but I must. I believe that in many ways the church itself is somewhat responsible for the breakdown of our society because we have not stressed enough the fact and implications of creation. I have heard many Christians and Christian preachers affirm that our only business is preaching the gospel of Christ and personal salvation (the old “fundamentalist” gospel). Others have said that all we need to do is preach Jesus as our model for holy living and social justice (the old “liberal” heresy). But I must point out again: the Christian world view is bigger than Jesus! It begins with the existence of the Creator God and the fact of Creation!
But even these are only the first two of the four corner pieces. What are the others?
III. THE WORD-REVELATION OF GOD’S KNOWLEDGE TO US
The third corner piece of the Christian world view follows logically after the first two. We may agree that the content of the mind of the Creator God is absolute truth. But that in itself does not mean that WE have access to that truth—unless God decides to pass along some of that knowledge to us! And that is exactly what he has done: (1) The infinite God exists. (2) He is the ex nihilo Creator of all things and has absolute knowledge of all truth. (3) And he has revealed some of this truth to human beings in the words of the Bible.
Hebrews 1:1-2 can be summed up as saying that “God has spoken”! He has used the words of human language to communicate with us. This is what we find when we read and study the Bible: the very words of God (see Romans 3:2). This is why we can believe in absolute truth.
It is difficult for us to fathom what a marvelous thing this is: the almighty Creator of the universe has spoken to human beings in human language, in human words! This is something that Satan’s minions (worldly philosophers and liberal theologians) have been attacking for at least a hundred years. A main theme of the liberal theology of the mid-twentieth century and afterward is a denial of WORD REVELATION. Many have taught that God has revealed himself in certain actions within this world, but not in words. Somehow, communicating in words is considered to be beneath him. And language itself is considered to be too frail, fragile, and ambiguous to communicate anything accurately—especially divine things. (This is a major theme of postmodernism.)
ON THE CONTRARY! The very fact that GOD HAS SPOKEN shows that we CAN trust the validity of human language, language itself being one of the gifts of the Creator. This is seen throughout Genesis One (“And God said . . .”). It is seen throughout the prophetic Word: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the LORD has spoken . . . . Hear the word of the LORD” (Isaiah 1:2, 10, ESV). Speaking to us in human language, Jesus as God the Son testifies to the truthfulness of all Scripture (Matt. 5:17-18; John 10:35; John 17:17). Paul affirms it: “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). Because God has spoken, we accept the words of Scripture as communicating to us the absolute truth that originates from the mind of God.
Thus far we have explained three of the four corner pieces of the jig-saw puzzle that forms the Christian world view: the existence of God, the fact of creation, and word-revelation from God. But there is one more thing that is needed so that God’s communication of truth can become meaningful to us.
IV. HUMAN BEINGS ARE MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE
As mentioned above, a major theme of this modern age is the inadequacy of human language. Based on this assumption, it is argued that there is no way anyone can know for sure what anyone else is talking about when speaking in any human language. Some apply this assumption to the U.S. Constitution; others apply it to the Bible. In the latter case the consequence is that we no longer have an emphasis on sound doctrine in our churches. Even if we accept that Scripture is God-breathed, the communication process breaks down when we finite creatures try to understand it. Nearly everything is thus treated as a “matter of opinion,” and so it is concluded that there is no longer any one right way to interpret most Scripture.
Here is where Isaiah 55:8-9 is appealed to: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (ESV). So how can we talk about absolute truth, even with divine word-revelation? We cannot, says our postmodern world. We cannot hope to understand the transcendent meanings of God’s words.
What shall we say to this? First, it is a bit ironic to see postmodernists quote Scripture to prove that we cannot understand Scripture. The irony itself is overshadowed by the obvious misinterpretation of the Isaiah text, where verse 7 clearly shows that the contrast is not between man’s puny, finite attempts to speak of divine, transcendent things, but between man’s wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts in contrast with God’s holy and pure ones—which we are commanded to embrace and imitate.
The main point, though, is this. The idea that our human minds and finite understanding are no match for the divine thought processes is shown to be false by the fact that we as human beings are uniquely created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). This does not mean that we share God’s infinite divinity, which is inherently impossible; but it does mean that God and human beings are able to communicate with one another. Our minds and our intellect are patterned after God’s own intellectual life. Our logic, our reasoning, our analytical abilities, our language itself are created to match God’s own mental processes. (The obvious exception, of course, is that God’s mental powers are infinite, while ours are quite finite.)
Being made in God’s image means that when God speaks his truth to us as recorded in Scripture, three things must be understood. First, whatever God says to us must mean something specific. A statement from God cannot be open to just any interpretation we want to place upon it. Second, since God deliberately chooses to speak his word to us, he must want us to understand it, and to understand it in the same sense in which he gave it (see Isaiah 55:11). Third, because we are made in God’s image, we CAN understand it in the same sense in which he gave it.
The bottom line is that the denial of absolute truth is an insult against God. It is saying that God’s plan to make creatures in his image, with which he can communicate, has failed.
My conclusion is this. When we as the church contemplate what we have to offer this fallen and corrupt world, we must indeed continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation from sin. But we must also proclaim the entire Biblical world view as a system of absolute truth, giving special attention to the four corner pieces of the puzzle: the existence of God, the fact of creation, the reality of word revelation, and the image of God.