What the heck is truth anyway?

One of the interesting realities we now live in is that we cannot agree on what is the basic reality of truth. For some, “truth” is used to ostracize, correct, bully and hurt people. For others “truth” is about what can be described and measured in the physical world. For others, “truth” is a social construct that is a collective consensus about what will make humanity happy. And still others think that truth does not exist at all, or at least its unknowable; they think that truth is a subjective reality and that each person has a right to decide what is true for himself or herself.

And when it comes to religious truth, it is laughed at as not a serious form of inquiry and study. Religious truth for living life and to navigate reality has been marginalized to those poor souls who need an “opiate” for their survival. It is seen as useless as a newspaper horoscope.

Yet, does political truth, scientific truth, postmodern truth, or the truth of utilitarianism actually help us answer the deepest questions of life? At least since the time of Socrates, and I am convinced much earlier than that, humanity has sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of human life and why do I exist?
  2. What is goodness and how do I live a good life?
  3. Is there a divine presence that gives order, meaning and purpose to life, and does this divine presence promise life after death?

And for all the good of scientific knowledge, the philosophy of the enlightenment and postmodernity, their answers to these questions leave me fundamentally realizing that they give no compelling answers. At least for me.

At the center of this conversation for two millennia stands Jesus of Nazareth. This marginalized prophet has shaped our culture more than any other man who has ever existed. Hate him or love him, he stands as perhaps the most brilliant thinker humanity has ever had.

Jesus said he embodied truth. One wonders if when Jesus says truth and the folks on tv declare their truth, or the scientist shares the truths from telescopes and microscopes, or the modern or postmodern philosophers share their truths, if everyone is talking about the same thing.

One of the things that I am deeply interested in is to know the truth that Jesus said he represented and to see personally if he answers adequately the big questions of human life. So, I am on a personal crusade to know and challenge the definitions of truth that now flood our minds and compare them to how Jesus defines truth. I want to discern what is the nature of his truth and I want to know how to use “Jesus truth” in the most helpful and appropriate ways. I desire to extract principles for life from what he taught and lived.

First, we need to define truth. I think many of us define truth as objective reality–what can be measured, categorized and dissected. For example when I say, “the moon is up in space, going a certain speed, weighs a certain amount and orbiting around the earth”, I observe the physical world and then make linguistic representations of those observations. This is the truth of modernity. But objective truth (perhaps scientific truth is a better phrase) has its limits. It cannot tell me what is beautiful. It cannot tell me what is the nature of courage, compassion or love. It can describe synoptic firings and sociological stats but it cannot tell me why something is valuable (like why we love Mozart). In other words, it cannot tell me in any adequate way answers to the questions humanity has been asking for millennia. In fact, it has no framework to ask such questions or seek adequate answers.

The philosophers have been seeking truth too. They have been on the journey of defining truth for millennia. To their credit, they have been asking the right questions but their answers have sometimes done more harm than good.

Pre-modern philosophers answered these questions primarily through a deep belief in a metaphysical world. It was a time of myth, magic and mystery. It was also a time of deep human suffering. Everything was a spirit or force and the powerful used the spiritual to do horrendous things. Pre-modernity got many things wrong but it grounded truth in an eternal, spiritual universe. It gave sure answers to the big questions even if it did it at the expense (often but not always) of human dignity.

The modern era brought logic, science and it demystified the world. There weren’t spirits everywhere but atoms and gravity. It was also the rise of individualism, rationalism, and capitalism. And eventually science and rationality usurped truth as a reality and knowledge needed to live well and instead became about observation and individual autonomy. But at some point in the 19th century and surely by the early 20th century, truth as objective reality and a rationalistic endeavor just wasn’t answering the big questions. And this was mostly because our progress in science, rationalism and individual determination had shown (supposedly) that there was no god and we were an accident of accidents and our existence is just a whiff in cosmic time. For all the good of this era (in which we still live), it killed humanity’s eternal soul.

From there postmodernity was born in the quest for truth. Science, rationalism, naturalism and capitalism gave us freedom and a better quality of life but left the big questions unanswered in any compelling way. If god is dead, it must be that each person must answer these questions on her own if it is even worth trying. Truth is relative and unknown. And what might be true for you, might not be true for others. Subjective truth was embraced on a culturally wide scale. If you want to see philosophy in action, try and talk about moral absolutes with a teenager. You might be shocked by what you hear. The results have been catastrophic. There is something in humanity that is driven to find the answers to these questions and if there are no real answers, the only reality is suffering, pain and impending annihilation.

Religion used to give us seemingly good answers, then it was science and rationalism, and then subjectivity. But when these didn’t work, we still kept hunting for the answers. It is as if the questions of existence, meaning and our future is written in the depths of our souls. They demand answers. And so out of profound need, we began to find comfort and grounding by joining groups of those who share a similar truth as we embrace. Gay, straight, conservative, Marxist, atheist, religious, transgender, and the list goes on and on. If you want to understand the current political and ideological groups that permeate culture, you must understand that they are our current answers to the big questions of life. But now the game has changed. Culture has told us that we must make up truth for ourselves. Truth is found not in its universal objectivity but where I can find some comfort, happiness and protection from the winds of nihilism. Ideological groups are the new religion. Here, truth has become synonymous to gaining power for my group, being free to paint truth/reality as I see fit, getting as much happiness as I can grasp in my mortal hands, and protecting myself from other groups who might hurt me or seek to impose their truths on me. The goal is to be among friends like me, enjoying the few decades on this speck of dirt before we are extinguished forever. Hopefully forgetting what we have been told that nothing matters at all except what our imaginations can project as meaning.

This is the best humanity has collectively done in finding truth, in answering the big questions of life.

Depressed yet?

But in the midst of all of this stands Jesus and his truth.

He said things like,
come to me who are heavy burden and I’ll give you rest.

I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Know the truth and it will set you free”.

He defines truth not as a personal journey of self discovery or measurements about the objective world, or a cultural invention but truth for Jesus is this: the knowledge that the human person needs that enables him or her to flourish in human life; it is the truth that enables humanity to navigate the physical world, our time in it and prepares us for life beyond physical death. Truth is the good and purpose-filled life.

It must be stated that His truth is at the center of every serious quest to answer the big questions whether the inquirers hate him or love him. They all know that though Jesus has been relegated to death and comfort, he spoke much more about this life than anything else. Every philosopher, theologian and thinker in western culture for 2000 years has had to reckon with the words, life and worldview of Jesus. He stands in brilliance because he, the man from Galilee is responsible, more than any other, for the framework of truth that has made our civilization possible.

And he says plainly that his truth is testable. He says we can follow him and experience the very life he had. Trust him, follow him and you will find his truth causing your life to flourish just like he said. The New Testament makes clear that the truth of Jesus can be applied right now and you can see results right now. This enables anyone who is a serious inquirer to see whether Jesus has truth or not.

So from Jesus’ point of view, his truth is the reality that I must know and live to do well in this world and the next.

So here are some working principles that I am seeking to live by as I seek the truth that Jesus offers.

— I define truth as the knowledge I need to experientially live the answers to the big questions of life. I know I am living in truth when my life works, I am experienced as good by others and I find satisfaction in my particular life situation. It must work in real life or I haven’t found the truth.

—Truth can be known and it is essential to be known for human flourishing.

—Jesus asserts his truth as the best information on living life and the best answers for the big questions of existence. This necessarily means other truths are less true than his truth.

—I trust Jesus and trust him as the Lord of truth.

—The Bible is where his truth is found.

—I ought to work hard to know HIS truth and apply it.

—I am a pastor so I am to help others discern the truth that will help them flourish.

—This necessitates that I engage others’ truths to discern what is really true for the flourishing of individuals, families, the church and culture.

—The truth of Jesus and the character of Jesus are inseparable. I must share Jesus’ truth in the way he himself shared it. If I do not, then I am revealing that I don’t, yet, fully know the truth he taught.**

Notice that I intentionally reject a group identity schema that pits groups against one another for the sake of power. It is not about idealogical groups that decide who is in and who is out. Truth is not a commodity of power. It isn’t about winning in some political or cultural sense. It is all about helping people find their way in this life and the next.

It also rejects the postmodern assertion that truth is unknowable. I hear this all the time mostly from compassionate but mistaken Christians. If truth is knowledge needed for human flourishing provided by Jesus, then it can be known and we must find it for the sake of our lives and the world.

Finally, this asserts that truth is much more than what can be seen, measured, categorized and observed. For all the good that such knowledge might produce, it cannot help in answering the biggest questions of human existence. If Jesus is right, truth is rooted in his father’s kingdom.

In these principles I embrace the way of Jesus: I am part of a kingdom community of ragtag nobodies bounded not by race, education, economics, moral strength or politics but instead by the crucified and risen Lord. We are following him and learning to live life in the way he intends. He says that such a life is embracing a cruciform life in hope of spectacular resurrection… it is the way to find out personally and collectively the answers to the deepest questions of existence.

We live such a journey humbly because his truth isn’t truth that merely make us right in arguments but his truth is a gift that truly set us free. It enables us to truly live. We aren’t playing the game of ideologies. We are living a life and helping others to do the same.

But we boldly proclaim his truth. Believing in the depths of our being from experience and what he revealed that his truth is the only truth that can help us flourish as human persons and prepare us for our destinies in the eternal cosmos.

In this kingdom all are welcome. He loves everyone and will start with them wherever they are at. This is what he preached and practiced. He is patient, kind and generous in his love. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to prove he is right. For that I am thankful. But every journey with him is one into truth, reality and human flourishing. His truth is lovingly severe and exacting. It will root out all untruth from our existence or we can’t live his truth. He loves everyone but you can’t know the truth, you can’t know him, until the brightness of reality invades every part of life. And so he says, “follow me” …. “come and die”, “lose your life so that you might find it.”

Sounds like the truth to me.

Why does evil exist?

One of the hardest things to do as a follower of Jesus is to reconcile the idea of a fully sovereign good God with the very real evil experienced throughout the world everywhere.

It does pose several challenges that are serious and possibly insurmountable.

  • Evil exists and produces suffering for every human person. No one escapes it. Does this not reveal the utter maliciousness of the divine? For a sovereign being to allow such horror and not stop it seems to suggest that he endorses it. Does this not signify that God is evil? And that evil is an ultimate aim of existence?
  • Perhaps God cannot stop evil. Then he is no god at all and perhaps evil is even more powerful than he. Or at least it has the possibility of “winning”. What you can’t control has the possibility of overcoming you or at least beating you.
  • Or perhaps evil is the surest sign that there is no god at all. It is surely the strongest proof of non existence. Perhaps the universe has no meaning or benevolence. Suffering and evil is the only reality the universe gives us. And consequently, life should be filled with dread and doom.

These are serious challenges. But I do think there is a substantive answer for why there is evil. The answer in summary is to realize that all these challenges assume a “closed system” where evil’s work is final. A system in which this present life and its joy (or at least the minimization of suffering) is primary because our physical death is the final end. Whatever goodness is, we must experience it now and whatever evil is we must run from it as fast as we can.

But this is not the Christian story. We are eternal beings. We live in an “open system”. One filled with angels, perfected beings, the sovereign Christ, his unstoppable love, and an eternity to bring about all the good he has imagined for his people and the cosmos he has created.

In other words, it is my strong belief that in Christ’s cosmos evil is a temporary reality that fades into an illusion of light in the depths of eternity. If this is true, then Goodness is everywhere.

Here is a thought experiment that shows that it is goodness that reigns and evil is a necessary means into goodness:

Imagine that you are married and have one four-year-old daughter. You are a devoted Christian family. You strive for what is good and love the Lord. You live a happy life. In one moment, this all changes.

While at the park joyfully playing, your phone rings and you look down, she darts into a nearby forest preserve, you look up and can’t find her. Frantically you look for her. You never see her again.

Later, you find out that she was abducted and killed. The killer, you find out, has done this before and was once caught but had to be let go on a legal technicality. You feel all the guilt, anger, pain and loss that comes from losing your only daughter in this way. Your marriage crumbles from the pressure of the pain and anguish from loss and your spouse leaves you. Your career, which was soaring until that day, comes to a stand still and it too dissolves into the wind of sorrow. A year after your daughter’s death you are severely depressed, divorced and jobless. All you want to do is fall asleep and never wake again. The only consolation, if you can call it that is the murderer is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

If your life and it’s goodness is measured by your physical life, evil has triumphed. But you are part of another world.

One night while laying in bed an angel visits you. He tells you that his aim in his visit is to show you that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. And at the end of the visit, you will be able to choose to keep going in the timeline you are now in or go back to that moment and save your daughter. If you choose to stay in this timeline, you will forget the angel’s visit and all you learn. If you save your daughter, you will remember every detail of the visitation. With hope welling in your heart for the first time in a year you readily agree.

With the angel, you go one billion years into the future. You are in heaven with the angel. You see your future-self with your precious daughter. You run up and hug her in an embrace of deep joy. When you set her down, you look at her and see that it is your daughter but somehow she is radically different. She is not a child, at least not in the normal sense. She is ancient and young wrapped up into the face you remember. She is a person of such nobility and power, beauty and grace that she seems divine. In fact, in a very real sense she is. She asks why you are there. You tell her. And then you tell her how sorry you are. How you know it’s your fault. You’re in agony. Your apology is filled with the fear of someone who has done something that cannot be repaired. You end saying something like, “I wish I could have saved you”.

She laughs. Not the laugh that comes from a joke; nor is it a cruel laugh. It is the most beautiful laugh you have ever heard. It is fierce, innocent and pure. It is a laugh that comes from the depths of goodness and gladness. If the sun could laugh, her laugh was close to that. It was filled with light. And she tells you that on the day of her murder was the most joyous of her existence. In the final moments Jesus was right there. All she can remember is the joy of being held by his hands. And every moment since that moment has been one ever increasing joy. She could imagine nothing better than the eternal life she now lives.

Your angel guide suddenly takes you back to the present plus twenty years. It is your daughter you see, 24 years old in what looks like a university dorm. The angel tells you that what you see is what would happen if she would not have died that day. Your daughter cannot see you. The angel tells you that she has lost her faith as she pursues a PhD in mathematics and she will never have it again. There is a sadness in the angel’s face that is so deep and final that it pierces your soul. Your ache over your daughter’s death is a mere shadow of the pain he conveys.

Then, like before, your a billion years in the future and you are in heaven with your future-self. You look at him. He is unlike anyone you have ever met. He is embodies peace. You tell him your journey and the option the angel told you. You ask him what he thinks. He tells you that those few years of pain broke him. But not in a bad way. He was broken but in the way that enables something new to be made. In fact, the broken places made possible a beautiful existence. A few years after the death of his daughter, his relationship with Jesus would flourish. In the depths of pain, he found real peace. He found the Lord. He never married again. But what he learned in the valley of the shadows gave him a power and substance that gave hope to thousands during his life on earth. And in the billion years since that earthly life, the peace only deepens. He tells you that this one moment of horror made him into the man he always wanted to be. In fact, he learned it was necessary for him to be the man God created him to be. So not only has he accepted God’s willingness to allow such suffering, these days he celebrates God’s goodness in allowing it. There is no doubt but the assurance of a man who deeply knows something true. If a perfect person could beg, you saw such a thing that day. Your future-self tells you that this is the road to goodness and without it, goodness will be lost for you.

You are stunned and confused but also you see the beauty of this future moment. You turn around and you see the murderer. You remember the way he looked in court, cold and malicious. But now he is radiant. And if you had to choose one word to describe him it would be, “safe”. Anger wells up and pain causes your body to convulse uncontrollably. He waits. He begins to weep. Real sorrow. But it is upheld, somehow, in love and goodness. He is sad but not shameful. You look in his face and you see something you have never seen before–love, sorrow, regret and joy infinitely combined into radiance. This radiance is his self. In fact, it would be impossible to divide the light from his soul. They are one in the same. He tells you that he is sorry for his heinous sin, and asks for mercy. You ask how he could even be in heaven. He tells you that in prison, 5 years after the murder, you visited him. You forgave him and shared the goodness of the risen Christ. He accepted and walked with the Lord until the moment he was executed. The story of reconciliation between you and him was told and thousands came to the Lord. He knows from eternity that those thousands would only have come into eternal gladness because of this story of forgiveness. If it did not happen, they would never know Christ. Lost forever.

The angel touches your arm and you are back in your home, in the present, alone. There is a note that reads: I will be back in one week for your decision.

The next week is like the last year, lonely and filled with anguish.

A week late the angel returns. What do you do? Is Romans 8 right? Does God cause all things to work together for good? Can that be true for you and all your pain? Or should you go back in time, with the angel, circumvent God’s plan and save your daughter? Do want to remember and have
Your daughter and marriage or forget and embrace the pain?

Nietzsche believed in hell

I have recently become quite interested in the great 20th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He is the quintessential postmodern deconstructionist. Born into Lutheranism and devout as a child, he slowly lost his faith after the horrific and slow death of his father. He could not see how a good God could allow such a thing to happen. Eventually, personal pain turned into a philosophical pursuit. One that would reshape the Western world.

Nietzsche came to the conclusion personally and philosophically that “God is dead”. In a unique but troubled brilliance, he was able to articulate modern religious belief as a delusion meant to give meaning to the absurdity of existence.

Of course, if one removes metaphysical telos from human existence, you create an existential crisis. Nietzsche’s, “God is dead” removes purpose for life and has the potential to fill one with dread; it did for him and it has for Western culture.

This problem was one he wanted to solve. He desperately desired to give meaning to life and create a philosophical framework that disregarded the need for religious faith and also gave meaningful purpose to life.

Eventually, he created a thought experiment that he thought answered the challenge of meaning and purpose but I think he gave a deconstructionist articulation of hell. He labeled his thought experiment, “eternal reoccurrence”. Nietzsche writes,

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The purpose of this excercise was to propel the individual to make moral choices and personal decisions of agency in which there would be no regret. In other words, Nietzsche wanted people to not leave anything on the proverbial field of life. By living from this myth, he believed you would personally experience meaning and purpose in life. But he is wrong. This isn’t the road to meaning but the path to hell.

If you had to relive your life over and over again for eternity without the ability to change one point of your existence and have the awareness of this continual loop, I would suspect several things would happen:

  1. Slowly but assuredly the one experiencing eternal reoccurrence would ghoulishly change being faced without respite with an unchanging story line. Consider this thought experiment: pick your favorite movie that you have watched dozens of times. It is important that this a movie you love without equivocation. Now consider how you might feel about yourself, the movie and existence if that was your eternal life. Strapped to a couch, eyes forced to focus, engaged with each frame until it was burned into your mind,  and watching a movie over and over again without rest or new experiences. It seems that the very experience of infinite repetition would change you negatively forever. Over an eternity, the very conclusion of nihilism that Nietzsche was seeking to escape would be crystallized into every pore of existence. Life would have no meaning except this hell of repetition. It would be an eternal life of dread.
  2. The very nature of something being eternally unchangable and having to be relived without relief is as close to a definition of real suffering that the most tyrannical malignant could ever come up with. In such a reality, every point of that life would slowly become infinite points of joy or horror. But in infinite passes of the same events, joy would infinitely decrease and horror would infinitely increase. Until only horror, angst and misery remained. It reminds me of the mythological story of Sisyphus. He was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a rock up the hill only to watch it roll down again. One could possibly imagine the first few dozen times of rolling that he could perhaps find joy, whether in the work or in his mind. But eventually, no matter the strength of mind, he would only know suffering. This is embodied suffering. This is the very nature of hell itself.
  3. Finally, the endless repetition of even the most joyful moments of existence would eventually become places of terror until one’s existence in this eternal loop would just be one of eternal terror. For every moment of happiness, there would be the intense knowing of coming loss, the dread that this is not special but as common as the most mundane activity, eternally so; you would have an eternity to find new faults and failures in those you love with the hell of knowing that they cannot change; and joy would lose its meaning but horror would take on new depths. It would grow with each waking moment until terror was the only world you knew. Hell and terror are the same. To experience eternal terror is to burn forever in the fire that never extinguishes.

Nietzsche wanted to remove God from human existence. Much of the madness of our age finds it’s roots in this endeavor. He was right to seek meaning for existence since it is a deeply human need. But in my opinion he has not answered it, not even close. In seeking meaning, Nietzsche found hell.