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The issue of whether truth is absolute or relative is a commonly debated issue especially on college campuses. The issue boils down to whether truth is the same for everyone or whether something can be true for one person while, at the same time, not be true for someone else. In the context of religion, many relativists assert Christianity can be true for those who choose to believe it while, at the same time, not be true for those who don’t believe it.
This article explores the objections Christian apologists raise to the proposition that the truth claims of Christianity can be true for Christians while not be true for people with contrary beliefs. The article also addresses the question of whether genuine tolerance requires people to treat all truth claims as being equally valid.
Absolute Truth vs. Relative Truth
— What’s the Difference?
In the traditional Christian worldview, truth is absolute — when something is true, it is true for everyone at the same time whether or not people believe it to be true or not. Of course, that does not mean the truth about a particular proposition is always certain or that people aren’t entitled to have different opinions about what they believe the truth to be.
If truth is absolute as maintained by the traditional Christian worldview, then the claims of Christianity are either true or they are false. If the claims of Christians are true, they are true for everyone and if they are false, they are false for everyone and people’s beliefs about the truth claims of Christianity have no effect on whether the claims are actually true or not true.
People who believe truth is relative believe truth claims (especially truth claims about religion and morality) aren’t necessarily true or false but may be true for one person while, at the same time, be false for someone else. For example, a relativist may propose that although the truth claims of Christianity may be true for Christians who believe them to be true, Christian truth claims aren’t necessarily true for others who hold contrary religious views or even no religious beliefs at all.
The idea that something can be true for one person, while at the same time, not be true for someone else is embedded in each of the following statements:
“Although Christianity may be true for you, it isn’t true for me.”
“You may believe in God and that’s okay for you, but it’s not true for me.”
“All religions are just different paths leading to truth.”
Each of these statements assumes truth can be different for different people at the same time.
Objections to the Proposition that the Truth Claims of Christianity May be True for Christians While Not True for People with Contrary Religious Beliefs
Christian theologians and apologists raise the following objections to the claim Christianity can be true for those who believe it to be true but, at the same time, not be true for others who don’t believe in Christianity:
Objection No. 1: No Matter What People Believe about Christianity, their Beliefs Have No Logical Bearing on Whether the Claims of Christianity are Actually True or Not True
In the Christian worldview, God is an objective and absolute reality who is not shaped or defined by the desires of men. [See, John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, pg. 19 (Crossway; 2009)] Christian apologists maintain that although people are free to believe whatever they want to believe about the claims of Christianity, those beliefs have no logical bearing on whether the claims of Christianity are actually true or not true. Regardless of what people believe, God’s existence and Christianity are either really true or really false. If the God of the Bible exists, then what the Bible teaches about God’s existence is true and what an atheist believes about God is false. Conversely, if God does not exist, then what an atheist believes about God is true and what a Christian believes is false. It is logically impossible for both Christianity and atheism to be true, even though people on both sides of the issue may firmly believe their beliefs are true.
Consider how Christian theologian and apologist, R.C. Sproul addressed the issue in a conversation he relates having with a student:
|The student asked Sproul if he believed in God. Sproul answered, “yes.” She then asked Sproul if he prayed to God, sang songs to God and read the Bible. Sproul again answered, “yes.” She then asked if those things were meaningful to him and he answered, “yes.” The student then stated, “Well then, for you, God exists but I don’t believe in God. I don’t sing hymns to God, pray to God or read the Bible. And, I don’t find the idea of God meaningful or significant. So, for me, God does not exist.”Sproul responded as follows: I believe we are talking about different things. When I assert God exists, I am saying a being exists who is apart from me, outside of me and who is not a part of my subjectivity or emotional make-up. I am saying that if God does not exist, then all my praying to him and finding meaning in believing in him does not have the power to create him. I am simply deluded and wrong. On the other hand, if the God I’m talking about does exist, then all of your unbelief and disinterest does not have the power to annihilate him.|
Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life and stated no one could get to the Father (God) except through him (John 14:6). Acts 4:12 forthrightly states that “[s]alvation is found in no one else [except Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” These propositions are either true or false. If Christianity is not true, then Christianity is a deception and should not be believed. The apostle Paul said as much in I Corinthians 15:14-19when he forthrightly stated that if Christ was not really risen from the dead, then Christians are deluded and should be pitied. However, if Christianity is true, then no matter whether people believe it or not, Jesus is the way, the truth and thelife and there is no other way to God. [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pgs. 370-371 (1997)]
Objection No. 2: Statements Denying the Existence of Absolute Truth Are Self-Refuting and Contradictory
As argued by many Christian apologists, any claim that “there is no such thing as absolute truth” is a self-refuting claim because for the claim to be true there must be at least one absolute truth – the claim that there is no absolute truth itself. To avoid the logical criticism of being self-refuting, the statement would have to be revised to say: “there is no such thing as absolute truth except the statement that there is no absolute truth.” [See, Wikipedia, “Self-refuting Idea”, accessed on June 8, 2009]
As argued by Christian apologist, Paul Copan, if a relativist really thinks relativism is true, then he/she believes that relativism is absolutely true in which case he/she is no longer a relativist. It is an inherent contradiction for a relativist to insist relativism is absolutely true. [See, Paul Copan, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Something Be True for You and Not for Me” pgs. 1608-1609 (2007)]
Similarly, as explained by apologist, Ravi Zacharias, the statement “truth is relative” must either include itself or exclude itself. If the statement includes itself, then the statement would not always be true. However, if the statement excludes itself, then it proposes an absolute truth while at the same time denying any absolute truth actually exists, which is inherently contradictory and logically inconsistent.
Objection No. 3: There is No Reasonable Basis for Limiting Relativistic Views on Truth to Issues Involving Religion and Morality
Many relativists only seem to apply relative truth to religion and morality; in all other areas they assume absolute truth really does exist. For example, even relativists assume absolute truth exists in mathematics, legal proceedings, business dealings, scientific theories, etc. Relativists agree mathematical theorems are either correct or incorrect, that a defendant either committed a crime or he did not; that a business contract was entered into or it was not; that the second law of thermodynamics is true or isn’t true. In fact, anyone who tried to apply relative truth in mathematics, legal proceedings, business dealings or scientific theories would not be taken seriously.
Even though relativists attempt to limit the application of relative truth to certain issues such as religion and morality, Christian apologists maintain no rational basis exists for doing so. Although people may disagree over whether a particular claim is true or whether the truth about a certain fact can be known with certainty, no claim can logically be true and false at the same time. Either God exists or he does not. Christ’s death on the cross either atoned for man’s sin or it did not. Christwas either resurrected from the dead or he was not. Jesus is either the only way to God or he is not. There is either life after death or there is not. Although people may disagree over whether the truth claims of Christianity are true, there is no logical basis for asserting the truth of those claims depends on what each individual believes to be true.
Objection No. 4: Even Self-Proclaimed Relativists Don’t Naturally Respond to Real Life Situations as Though Relativism is True
Many Christian apologists point out that even those who claim to be relativists do not naturally respond to situations occurring in everyday life as though truth is relative. For example, when a relativist believes they have been wronged, they naturally appeal to absolute truth and morality by saying things like: “That isn’t fair”, “My rights were violated!”, “He ran the red light”, “They broke the contract”, etc. If truth really is relative, nobody has any rights and no one really owes a duty to anyone else because it all becomes a matter of personal opinion. However, in real life, people do not naturally react that way when they believe their rights have been trampled on or when they believe someone hasn’t fulfilled a duty which they believe was owed to them. [See, Paul Copan, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Something Be True for You and Not for Me” pgs. 1608-1609 (2007)]
Objection No. 5: Application of Relative Truth to Specific Moral and Religious Issues Demonstrates that Reliance on Relativism Leads to Irreconcilable Conclusions
Actually applying relative truth to specific moral and religious issues demonstrates that reliance on relative truth leads to irreconcilable conclusions. For example, Martin Luther King claimed slavery was morally wrong whereas members of the Ku Klux Klan claimed there was nothing wrong with slavery. If truth about morality is relative, Martin Luther King and the KKK were both contending for truth. Such a claim is logically inconsistent and irreconcilable.
Christians believe God exists and atheists believe God does not exist. If truth is relative, both are correct and God would have to exist and not exist at the same time. Likewise, Christians believe Jesus died on the cross and Muslims do not believe Jesus died on the cross (more>>). If truth is relative, both would be true and Jesus would have died on the cross and not died on the cross which simply cannot be the case.
Genuine Tolerance Doesn’t Require People to Disingenuously Pretend they Believe All Truth Claims are Equally Valid
Christians cannot remain true to their sincerely held core beliefs and logically agree that contradictory truth claims (e.g., that God does not exist, that Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, that Jesus is not the only way to God, etc.) are also true. Such claims are diametrically opposed to the truth claims of Christianity and cannot logically be true if Christianity is true.
Although claims of absolute truth may appear to be intolerant of other people’s beliefs, Christian apologists maintain a more circumspect consideration of what genuine tolerance really is demonstrates otherwise. Certainly, all truth claims are inherently intolerant of all other contradictory claims. Even the claim that truth is relative is intolerant of the view that truth is not relative. As noted by Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, although relevancy sounds tolerant, it isn’t — relevancy only masquerades being tolerant while smuggling in an intolerant absolute. [Ravi Zacharias, Enjoying Everyday Life, NRB, 12/17/12] However, disagreeing with the beliefs of someone is not the same thing as being intolerant of them. In fact, as many Christian apologists point out, the very idea of having to exercise tolerance assumes something exists that must be tolerated because it is unnecessary to exhibit tolerance toward people with whom we have no disagreement. Exhibiting tolerance is only necessary with people who hold beliefs which are contrary to our own.
Genuine tolerance recognizes people can sincerely hold contradictory beliefs (i.e., beliefs that cannot both be true) and genuine tolerance does not require people to suspend or deny their independent judgment concerning the validity of contradictory truth claims. Instead of pretending contradictory beliefs don’t exist or don’t matter, people who demonstrate genuine tolerance allow those they disagree with to maintain their sincere beliefs while honestly and respectfully disagreeing with them (1 Peter 3:15-16). Authentic tolerance is not the same thing as disingenuously pretending we believe all ideas are equally valid and rational.
As stated by Christian philosopher and apologist, Ravi Zacharias:
The great glory and strength of pluralism is that it compels the holder of any belief to measure its truthfulness against alternative interpretations. The great hazard of pluralism is the faulty deduction that, in the name of tolerance, all beliefs can be equally true. [Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil, Part 2 (1997), NRB, 8/11/10]
As noted by Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Ministries, one of the signs the Bible gives for the end times is that people will turn away from the truth: “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). According to this passage, people will choose to only listen to those things that “soothe them and pacify them” — but not those things that “challenge them or, even worse, confront them.” [Daily Devotion with Greg Laurie, “The Intolerance of Truth”, September 30, 2013]
In today’s pluralistic society, many people are turning away from truth. They believe there is no “one truth” and claims of truth are often viewed as an assault on people’s individual right to believe what they choose to believe. While Christian apologists certainly agree people have a God-given right to choose to believe what they wish, they also maintain it is nonsensical to say Christianity can be true for those who choose to believe it is true while, at the same time, not true for those who don’t choose to believe it.
Certainly, when issues are fairly and openly discussed and debated in a pluralistic society, it allows people to effectively assess the truthfulness and legitimacy of their beliefs and the beliefs of others. At the same time, there is a risk that in the name of tolerance people in a pluralistic society will shrink back from honest and healthy discussions about truth and pretend to agree all beliefs are equally valid. When tolerance is interpreted in a way that demands all views be treated as being equally rational or valid, tolerance has become intolerant.
Christian apologists like those referenced on this website welcome the opportunity to engage in honest and respectful debate on issues concerning the existence of God and the Christian faith so the truthfulness and legitimacy of Christian truth claims can be fairly considered. As with any belief, there is only one good reason for believing in Christianity — because it is true!
© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: May 23, 2012 / Last Updated: July 21, 2014
QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE
John F. Ankerberg and John Weldon, Ready With an Answer(Harvest House Publishers, 1997)
Paul Copan, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “Can Something Be True for You and Not for Me?”, pgs. 1608-1609 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)
John Lennox, Foundations of Apologetics: “Pluralism: Do All Religions Lead to the Same Goal?” (RZIM, 2007) DVDs available at http://rzim.christianbook.com/foundations-of-apologetics-all-digital-version/9781612562124/pd/1314BD
John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossroads 2009)
Ravi Zacharias, Ravi, Deliver Us From Evil, DVD series (1997) available at www.rzim.org
Slideshow Photo: Photograph of Rialdo Beach in the State of Washington by Bud Burke (downloaded from ChristianPhotos.Net – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications)