There's an old story about a man on a quest for truth. He wanted to know what was true and what was not so he could dedicate his life to the truth. His search eventually led him to seek an obscure guru who was rumored to have spent much of his life pondering the question of truth. As a result, he was considered most wise on this particular topic. When the man finally found the wise, old guru, he posed the question: How can I know what's true and what's not true? The guru thought about his question for a moment, then began telling him a story. He said, "My son, seeking to know fully what is the truth is like a sextuplet of blind men coming upon an elephant. The first blind man came upon the trunk of the beast. He exclaimed to his compatriots: 'Friends, this creature is like a snake. It is long and flexible and moves about in any direction at will.' The second man found himself feeling the side of the creature. He offered a quick correction: 'No, my companion, this creature is much more like a wall. It is large and solid and rough in texture.' The third blind man found the animal's tail. He replied, 'No, you are both wrong. This creature is like a rope. It is sinewy and has a frayed end.' Still a fourth man found the elephant's tusk. He retorted: 'How can you all not see this creature is sharp and pointed like a spear. It is hard as bone and could gore a man with ease.' Yet the fifth man felt only the leg. He offered yet another correction: 'This animal clearly resembles a tree. It is thick, sturdy and round in shape.' The final blind man could feel only the elephant's ear. 'My friends,' he offered, 'I believe this creature is much more like a fan. It broad, flat and wafer thin.'"
After finishing his story, the guru asked his own question of the man: Which of these six blind men was correct? In answer, he observed: All of them were correct. The simple truth is that all truth seekers come upon merely part of the truth; though they utterly are convinced of the veracity of their part, no one is able to see the whole picture. Each is limited by his or her perspective."
We'll come back to this story, but for now, let's talk about where we find ourselves: the beginning of 2013. This time of year is always exciting to me. If you're an optimist as I am, it is a time ripe with hope and promise. The potential of what could happen in the next 364 days is nearly limitless. Because of this, the beginning of the year is a time when a lot of people do some self-examination. We look at things such as our patterns and habits and whether those are things that will bring us the most success and happiness. We examine our appearance to determine if that's the image we want to project to the world. Some folks take a look at the things we believe and decide if those are the beliefs we want to hold. If the person doing this self-examination has professed faith in Christ, there really are some beliefs worth evaluating. Think about some of the Christian claims for a minute. We claim things such as there being one God who created everything we see and don't see—and who actively and lovingly sustains it. Do you realize how unique such a truth claim is in the history of the world? We make claims as if a collection of millennia-old manuscripts is authoritative in the lives of modern people.
We claim that not all dead people stay dead. These are huge claims—in a day when bold truth claims aren't popular. As a result, there are a lot of folks who struggle with accepting the Christian faith. Furthermore, many others have professed faith in Christ, but once they discover some of the things that accompany their profession, they struggle with whether they made the right choice. Perhaps you have found yourself in such a position. For a whole litany of reasons, folks in this place look at the faith and place it in the category of being socially unacceptable, not intellectually credible or a private affair better left out of the public eye. Yet, if we really hold to the content of the truth claims we make by virtue of our profession of faith in Christ, we must confess this is a tragedy. So, as we begin the New Year, we must look at some of the most common objections to the Christian faith and see if there are good reasons for them to be dropped and the faith embraced instead.
To do this, we are going deal with the problems presented by doctrines such as the existence of an eternal hell and whether a millennia-old collection of manuscripts which have as one of their chief goals the proclamation that some dead guy who got up out of His grave really can be trusted. We'll also glance at the supposed dark past of the church, but before we can address issues such as these, another issue precludes them. As I mentioned, if we profess to follow Jesus, we are heirs to a set of truth claims, which at first hearing in our culture sound ridiculous. Perhaps the chief reason is because we live in a culture where bold truth claims generally are frowned upon. I mentioned that a lot of folks at this time of year go through a process of self-examination in which they take a look at their central beliefs and decide afresh whether those are worth maintaining. For many, this process—particularly when it comes to the things we believe—is becoming increasingly difficult because our culture eagerly preaches that truth isn't something that can be known by anyone. Furthermore, when someone claims to know the truth, he or she is being arrogant, narrow-minded, exclusive, intolerant, etc. At the same time, as Christians and by virtue of our confession, we make some stunning truth claims. So how can we stand for the truth of the faith in a world where fewer and fewer people believe truth is something that can be known at all?
This culminates in the first objection I want to examine with you as a part of this journey through some reasons to believe, which is the title of this series. More formally, the objection often reads as: Isn't it arrogant to claim Christianity is the one true religion? Well, is it? Perhaps for many, the knee-jerk response to this is a resounding no! However, for many of the folks you encounter in your daily routines, particularly the young ones, this is a much weightier objection than some might expect. So, I want to look at this objection to see if it really holds up under closer scrutiny and equip you with some answers for the times when you encounter it personally.
Let's start all of this with what we do believe as Christ-followers. When Jesus was giving His followers some parting advice before He went through the ordeal of the cross, He said He was going to the Father in order to prepare a place for them and that because they knew the way, they would be able to join Him. Thomas, the skeptic of the group, immediately spoke up: "Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus looked him square in the eye and responded: "I am the way." He continued: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." What Jesus said is stunning. No one in history prior or since has dared to make such a claim—and if so, we tend to lock them up because they are, as C.S. Lewis said, "on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg."
When people talk about truth, what are they talking about? Are they not talking about a set of ideas? As Christians, we believe truth is a Person. When we encounter truth as a set of ideas, at their core they are concerned with revealing the Person of truth to us. Because this Person happens to be the Creator of the universe, He is not limited in the ways by which He communicates the basic facts of His identity. Indeed, Paul made as much clear in the introduction to the Book of
The problem is not so much with what we believe (although the content of our belief isn't terribly popular) as it is with how this belief is received. We live in a culture which has been deeply influenced by two ideas: one philosophical, one anthropological. The terms for these ideas are postmodernism and multiculturalism. These two ideas are deeply committed to a view of the world in which truth is relative such that it is possible for something to be true for you but not for me.
Consider what often has happened when people of vastly different cultures with vastly different beliefs regarding which things are absolute and which are not come together and discover they have more in common than they thought, and they get along fine in spite of their differences. They start to think maybe absolute truth doesn't exist—it's all relative. With postmodernism and multiculturalism, this kind of thing happened on a huge scale and has left our culture convinced that truth is relative, that it's arrogant for someone to claim to know the truth. If you haven't noticed, this makes Christianity, at least at the level of orthodox theology, not as popular as it used to be.
More frequently in our culture, truth is viewed much as it is presented in the story of the blind men and the elephant. People view truth as something knowable only in parts and that your parts are just as true as my parts; we simply have a different perspective on the matter. It would have been arrogant for one of the blind men to stand dogmatically on his interpretation of the elephant and condemn his companions for their views which also were true. Here's the problem with this understanding of truth: How did the guru know the creature was an elephant? Do you see? The very assumption here is that somebody knows the whole truth. Usually, the person putting him or herself in such a position is the same person who is condemning Christians for claiming to know truth. Can you hear the argument? "You're so arrogant to claim to know the truth! Each of us only knows a part of the truth, and each part is just as true as the others." OK, but how do you know that? Someone only can register such an objection if he or she knows the whole truth. Otherwise, they can't possibly claim that truth isn't knowable because in their own ignorance they are not in a position to evaluate your knowledge of the truth. More to the point, if they don't know it, how could they possibly know that you don't know it? Folks who hold to this objection are guilty of the very sin for which they are condemning Christians.
The whole notion that someone is arrogant for claiming to know the truth, that Christianity is an arrogant religion for claiming itself to be true over and against every other worldview on the market, falls apart on this point. Christians only are arrogant in our claims to know the truth (and remember: Truth is a Person) if we don't actually know the whole truth. Someone is only able to assess us as possessing a limited knowledge of the truth if they, in fact, know the whole truth. To charge someone with being arrogant for claiming to know the truth is to claim to know the truth yourself! The person might disagree with our assessment, but coming to a different conclusion doesn't make someone arrogant.
Furthermore, the notion that Christianity and faith generally is a private thing is equally false in structure. The commitment to follow Christ involves filtering everything about how we look at the world through the lens of what Jesus said and did, including what subsequent New Testament writers said about this. This goes with us no matter where we are, whether private or public. Followers of Christ can't check their religion at the door any more than they can their personalities. It's part of who we are and determines how we see the world, how we act, the choices we make, the opinions we hold and actions we pursue. The reality is that some view of the world is going to dominate the public square and the policies that emerge. When people say Christians need to keep their faith out of a matter, what they mean is they want their view of the world to supersede. If we are committed followers of Jesus Christ, why would we want anything other than the Christian worldview to determine the decisions that come out of the public square? Don't fall victim to the false notion. There is a great chasm between the state determining a faith to be right faith and the people of faith working to determine the actions the state takes. Folks who distort these differences have been duping people of faith into letting a godless or secular view of the world dictate the nature of public actions for far too long.
The objection that followers of Christ are arrogant for claiming to know the truth or to be the exclusive pathway to salvation falls apart; it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. How should we handle this? In our claims to know the truth, we stand out like sore thumbs in our culture; but hunkering down to wait out the storm until we go be with Jesus won't work. Part of our commission is to engage the culture that aggressively rejects our beliefs and comes to dramatically different conclusions regarding what's true and what's not. How do we winsomely engage the world around us? There are three parts to the answer:
First, we need to be utterly convinced of the truth ourselves. Put another way, we have to know what we believe. As we know, truth is a Person. The clear claim of the various New Testament authors is this Person can be known. The apostle John wrote near the end of his gospel that his goal in writing was that we might believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Near the end of his first letter, he reveals he is writing so we may know we have eternal life. Jesus Himself said eternal life is knowing Him. Truth is something, is Someone, who can be known—with assurance. We may not be able to wrap our minds fully around it, around Him, but the reason is because He's beyond our comprehension—not that there are lots of other truths and we just don't know them all.
In our natural state, though, while God has revealed enough of Himself for us to be without excuse in our rebellion against Him, we simply are not going to embrace such knowledge on our own. Because of our sinful nature, we simply aren't going to do it. As Paul acknowledged at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, the very notion of Christ is laughably foolish through the filter of this world. What's needed, as Paul makes gloriously clear in
The second part is we must be prepared to engage the bad arguments of the world. If you talk to people around you who have not accepted the truth of the gospel, you are likely to encounter some version of, "Well, I think if people just believe something sincerely, they'll be OK." In other words, truth is relative. As long as you grab hold of some portion of truth and live a good life (whatever that means), that's good enough. Or perhaps you'll run up against, "Well, I think belief is a private thing, so I'd rather keep it to myself than force anyone else to behave in a manner I think is right." As we have seen, both notions are nonsense.
Unfortunately, these ideas often are hurled at believers rather angrily as if volume will make up for inconsistent logic. It is also unfortunate that this tack often succeeds. We must neither be cowed by forceful arguments nor duped by sweet-sounding ones. The notion that truth is relative and therefore not capable of being fully known is deeply false. The truth is knowable, but only fully in Christ. We can and should be able to make this observation. Is it hard? Certainly. Is it right? Yes. When we encounter versions of the blind men and the elephant story, let us observe the notion being proffered assumes the truth can be known and that someone knows it. Then we can explain why we think we do. The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ. When we encounter the notion that faith is a private affair, let us lovingly point out that a commitment to Christ is an intensely public one and that we would prefer to see Christ-honoring policies pursued by people with a mind to honor Him than we would individuals with no such compunction legislating behavior out of sorts with such a commitment. We advocate for this because we are convinced it is in accord with the truth. Why live any other way? Fortunately we live in a country that allows for this to happen with any viewpoint and celebrates it, but it first takes a belief that the truth can be known. The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ.
The third part relates to how we present the truth. We are bearers of the kingdom and knowers of the truth. This is part of our identity in Christ, but we inhabit a culture in which the ideas of Christ are less and less popular. The truth claims we make—including the fact that we make them at all—are not welcomed in more and more places in our nation. How do we reconcile these two disparate facts? By yelling and screaming and condemning the people who don't agree with us? By being really obnoxious in our advocacy for the truth? By hiding ourselves in a Christian bunker and hoping to be overlooked and left alone by an increasingly hostile world? No, no and no!
We engage. We engage with the love and humility of Christ. We remember we once walked in darkness. We remember that exposing a blind man to the light for the first time will be intensely disorienting, and he in all likelihood will want to close his eyes again and keep them closed. We remember people around us have been conditioned very thoroughly to consider the kinds of things we claim to be not only wrong but offensively so. We remember we serve the God who created them the same as us and wants to see them become fully consonant with their created end.
So we love. We limit our freedoms as Paul advocated in 1 Corinthians. We woo them to the truth. We live lives of such unimpeachable righteousness that even if they don't buy all of our claims, they want to come and live as we do because they want what we have. We do good. We do so much good that our community sees us as utterly indispensable; and if we suggest a certain way of life is better than another, they adjust themselves because if we are doing that kind of good living that kind of way, they want to live that way, too. We tell the truth. The truth is that truth can be known. Deep down, by the way, people long for such a foundation. They may not like it, and their sinful nature is going to fight against it; but they were created for it, so they want it. The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ—only fully in Christ. So we show them how the truth looks. The truth is a beautiful thing. When they come to know it, to know Him, they'll share in that beauty.
In the end, this notion that we are arrogant in our truth claims is no objection at all. In fact, when our truth claims are understood, everybody wants to be a part of them anyway. In the interim, we must know what we believe, be prepared to stand against bad argument, and demonstrate the love of Christ at every turn. The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ. Let's show how.