Author: Ron Graham

Bible Authority

Relativism and Absolute Truth
—Is all truth relative and subjective?

One of the “new” ideas today is relativism. It has contributed much to the confusion of our times. It is the idea that all truth is relative —in other words, there is no absolute truth.

1 What is Relativism?

Two women are looking out the window. One says to the other, “The stars are bright and clear tonight.” The other replies, “The sun is shining really hot”. How can both women be right? Well if one is in Melbourne talking on the phone to the other in Perth, the conversation is sensible and both women are stating the truth. This is a case in which truth is relative —in this case, obviously, the truth is relative to different time zones.

One day, a car travelling about 100 kilometres per hour sounded its horn. A passenger in the car heard a certain note. A traveller walking along the road ahead of the car heard a higher note. A farmer standing near the road behind the car heard a lower note. It is true that the horn made only one sound. Yet it is also true that it made three different sounds, depending on a person’s position and motion relative to the moving car. (Had the three persons recorded the sound on their mobile phones, each would play back a different sound).

Is All Truth Relative?

This idea of relativity has been extended by some thinkers to the unjustified conclusion that all truth is relative. Questions of religion and morals are therefore judged on the situation in which one finds oneself —truth changes according to the circumstances of the person perceiving it.

The philosophy suffers from a paradox. If one says, “all truth is relative” one must admit that one is stating a relative truth, not an absolute truth. This means that there must be situations in which the statement is not true. So there must be situations in which some truth is absolute. This makes the statement self-contradictory.

To explain: it would be paradoxical to say, “all truth is relative and no truth is absolute”. That is stating as absolute truth that there can be no absolute truth. The paradox is removed if we say, “Some truth is relative and some truth is absolute”.

2 Pilate’s Truth

Pilate had the power to free or crucify (John 19:8-10). In Jesus's case, Pilate chose to crucify. And why? Because he was pre-conditioned by his attitude to truth. When Jesus spoke in absolute terms of "the truth", Pilate rejected that with the rejoinder, "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38).

As far as Pilate was concerned Jesus had done nothing worthy of death. But that was only Pilate'’s truth. The Jews were perceiving things from another position. They shouted "Crucify! Crucify!" (John 19:15). That was their truth.

Pilate capitulated, because he thought truth was changeable, relative, and when it was all boiled down, "What is truth?" anyway. There's a little bit of Pilate in every one of us, and we are in danger of rejecting Jesus because we are confused about the truth.

3 The Bible’s Truth

The Bible does not see all truth as relative. What it calls "the truth" is absolute, and all will be condemned who do not love, know, believe, and obey that truth (2Thessalonians 1:8, 2Thessalonians 2:10-12).

Some may point to 2Peter 1:12 which speaks of "the present truth". We know that some things true in Old Testament times are not true now, and some things true now won't be true in heaven. Some truth is relative. But that does not mean all truth is so. There is eternal and absolute truth.

You Can Know Absolute Truth

Can you know that absolute truth? Yes, and you can recognise it among the lies (2Timothy 4:3-4). You can find the truth just as you could find a diamond ring accidentally thrown into the garbage can. It might involve a lot of work sifting through the garbage, but you would recognize and distinguish the diamond ring very easily once it turned up. You would hardly wonder whether you were looking at the diamond ring or just another piece of garbage, would you?

Jesus plainly says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32). The writer to the Hebrews speaks of unchangeable truths (in this case an oath and a promise God made) in which our hope is fixed as "an anchor for the soul" (Hebrews 6:18-19). Without such an anchor we will be all at sea in life.

Paul presents the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as absolute truths (1Corinthians 15:3-4). You can believe in these things without doubt or confusion. What's more, you yourself can die, be buried, and be raised with Christ (Romans 6). Absolutely!