Does objective truth – and specifically objective moral truth – matter for Christians? In a survey of teenagers conducted by Barna Research on Feb 12, 2002, 83% of those teenagers said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% overall said moral truth is absolute. Of those who identified as born-again Christians, only 9% agreed that moral truth is unchanging and not relative to the situation. Those teenagers of 17 years ago are now the middle-aged backbone of our working society, as well as parents raising the next generation. But does that dim view of objective moral truth even matter in our time? Let’s work through that today.
What is Objective truth?
Objective truth is the idea that truth is what corresponds to reality. This is known as the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true if it accurately describes or corresponds to the object of the statement as opposed to the subject‘s perception of it. For example, a person claiming “this apple is red” could be telling the truth if the object in question is a Red Delicious variety. On the other hand, a person with red-green color-blindness may make the same statement about a Granny Smith apple and it would not be true, because their subjective perception is flawed and the apple itself is actually green. As Aristotle would say, “It is by the facts of the case, by their being or not being so, that a statement is called true or false.” This aligns with our most basic everyday observations, but while most can accept the idea of objective truth about physical objects, many of those same people will balk at the idea of objective moral truth.
Why this acceptance of objective truth about everything except moral truth claims? Although our observations of the world around us are descriptive of what is, morality is prescriptive of what ought to be. Morals hold us accountable by prescribing what we should (or shouldn’t) do, and that is the source of the resistance. It can be easy enough to prove that a person stole something, so that the sentence “John stole Bob’s philosophy book” is a true statement. But if we say that “stealing other people’s philosophy books is wrong”, now we have a judgment being made, we have the possibility of John being held accountable for his actions, and we have the possibility of real guilt now. I’m not talking about just the feeling of guilt, shame, or embarrassment, but actual guilt as in deserving of punishment. Naturally, John may not like that culpability, and may push back against that notion of wrongness (until somebody steals from him, that is). As it turns out, there is a lot of behavior in vogue in society right now that is condemned by the Bible, so there is a lot of incentive to deny the existence of objective moral truth entirely, and hence the guilt that comes on every single human on earth when faced with the perfect standard of the perfect Judge before Whom we must all stand someday [Heb 9:27]. One way people try to get around this is relativism – the idea that moral truth is relative to the situation or to the subject. However, contrary to what the Christian teenagers in the survey accepted, this view is not compatible with Christianity, so we must choose, and choose wisely.
In the culture at large, relativism is seen as open-minded and tolerant. Slogans like “Do what’s right for you,” “Live and let live,” and “Find your own truth” promote this idea of individual, “personalized” truth. On the other hand, belief in absolute, unchanging values are viewed as narrow-minded, bigoted, and old-fashioned. It hasn’t been much better in the church, as the stats at the beginning demonstrated. Relativism seems loving and non-confrontational to many Christians, while holding fast to objective moral truth is often seen as unloving, dogmatic, and judgmental. But ideas have consequences, and relativism is no exception.
What are some consequences of relativism?
- The idea that something can be “true for you but not for me”, leads to intellectual suicide. If two contradictory statements can possibly both be true in the same way at the same time, then logic breaks down – and with it science, math, & reason itself. In fact this can even show itself in Bible studies, devotionals, and classes where believers are asked what a passage “means to them”. We need to be very careful there to clarify that the our goal is to interpret a passage well so as to find the author’s intended meaning, rather than reading our own into it. That’s the difference between drawing multiple valid applications from the one true meaning, and each reader inferring multiple contradictory and invalid meanings. That principle actually applies to anything, Scripture or otherwise.
- Moreover, truth being defined by each person or by each culture eliminates the possibility of real common ground between opponents. Two people can agree that 2+2=4 because that is independent of either of them. Establishing common ground between opponents requires independently true ideas that both can agree to. If opposing views can be equally true, any common ground we happen to have today is just a happy coincidence that may or may not be common between us tomorrow.
- It also eliminates the ability to judge right from wrong. Opposing views like racism or sexism can’t be wrong, just different. Past atrocities like the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda can’t be wrong, just products of their time.
- Lastly, relativism eliminates the possibility of having anything other than an opinion: Hitler thought he was right; the Allies disagreed. Who was right? The strongest – after all, in the end, “might makes right” when there’s conflict in a relativistic world.
What are some consequences of objective moral truth?
- We can be genuinely right or wrong. And hopefully, we won’t be content with being wrong! Truth exists and is not a moving target, so we should be motivated to pursue it.
- We can be accountable for our actions. If murder is just as wrong for me now as it was for Nazis 75 years ago, then real equal justice is possible. But if moral truth varies from culture to culture, age to age, and place to place, there is no such thing as equal justice or equal rights. But there is an independent Judge of right and wrong, & it’s not us. We don’t get to define what’s right or wrong, only acknowledge it.
- We can have a foundation that won’t shift. Ephesians 2:20 says our lives as Christians are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Himself being the cornerstone. Later, Paul says we Christians are to “no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” [Eph 4:14]. But this stability is the result of the church previously equipping and building up the believers until they “attain the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” [Eph 4:13]. Furthermore, from this stable platform, we “speak the truth in love” and grow more like Christ [Eph 4:15]. A few things jump out at me in this passage:
- We can’t “attain to unity of the faith” if truth is subjective. Being united about anything entails people putting aside their own subjective ideas to come together around something bigger than any of them. We should be united in truth, not error.
- We can’t “attain to the knowledge of the Son of God” if statements about Him can be simultaneously true for one person and not for another. Is he the Son of God or is He not? If He is, then He is whether I admit it or not. That’s an objective truth claim.
- We don’t have to be tossed about like so many people in our culture today, desperate for something firm to grab onto and not finding it in a relativistic world. In fact, that should be a mark of a Christian.
- “Speaking the truth in love” would be meaningless if truth varied from one person to another. Yet we have a true message that we can lovingly tell all people in every place, time, and culture.
If someone is driving toward a bridge that has washed away, the true state of that bridge is a matter of life and death for them, and the most loving thing I can do is tell them the truth. And yet many in our culture are driving their lives toward a cliff, and we say “Who am I to judge them? Who am I to ‘force’ my beliefs on them?” Instead, maybe we should ask, “Who am I to have the knowledge to rescue somebody and withhold aid?”
 Aristotle, The Organon, Categories, Section V.