by luketarassenko

what is truth

I find it very interesting that the earliest intact manuscript fragment we have of the Christian New Testament features a verse, from the book of John, which contains the words “What is truth?”

This is a question the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is reported to have asked Jesus just before he sentenced him to death, in response to Jesus saying to him “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 8:37-38, on the John Rylands Papyrus, verso, pictured above, viewable at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, dated to around 150 CE.)

Other people have probably written on this (though I have not yet read anything on it) but I find the fact that the earliest surviving manuscript fragment of the New Testament we have contains the words “What is truth?” highly ironic, and I might even go so far as to say that God might be having a bit of a joke with it.

You see, a lot of a certain stream of currently fashionable academics and philosophers, who make up a very small percentage of the population, spend a lot of their time arguing about whether or not there is any such thing as “truth” and what it is, and some of them have decided that there is no such thing as truth (they’re pretty convinced that this is true). Meanwhile, the rest of the world goes on, with people assuming and living as though there is such a thing as truth; that there are things that are true, or not.

There are things that are true and not true right now, there are things that are true and not true about what happened in the past, and there are things that are true and not true about what will happen tomorrow.

We might have to trust in many of these things, there may be very complicated things to say about how we know they are true and we may not be able to prove with absolute certainty that all or any of them are true, but we live our lives as if they are true and we function healthily with reference to those beliefs.

For example, it is true that right now you are reading some words, that yesterday you did certain things such as (probably) breathing, eating, interacting with certain people and sleeping, and that at some point in the future you will die. You may not be able to prove any of those things with absolute certainty, but I’m willing to bet that you think and live (most of the time) as if all of those things are true and you assume that they are true.

Denying that obvious things are true or quibbling about the exact nature of their truth is like throwing your hands up at a perfectly straightforward statement and saying “What is truth?”

Now, it may be the case that believing in things like the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and certain ideas about what will happen to you after you die involves believing in different kinds of truth from those other more basic things, but it still involves believing in things that have to do with truth, that are true or not. Either it is true that Jesus Christ rose again from the dead in the past, or it isn’t. Either it is true that you can be forgiven by God for everything you have ever done wrong right now, or it isn’t. Either it is true that you will live forever after you die in the future, or it isn’t.

And because these things have to do with truth, they have to do with placing trust in an idea that can’t be proved with absolute certainty, like many of the things that are true and all of the most important ones, rather than the subset of truths that do involve absolute certainty, like “2+2=4” (though even there, some might argue, there could be some uncertainty…).

Christian faith involves placing trust in the truth of a person, not absolute certainty about the truth of a mathematical formula.

The point is that even if there was even stronger historical evidence for the resurrection, say if Jesus’ death and resurrection had been filmed and we had modern medical records showing that he had died and come back to life miraculously, there would always be room to doubt it. It would always be possible to theorise that it was some great conspiracy, or harbour suspicions that something else went on.

And what would be the case if it were otherwise? If there was no room for doubt at all, then arguably there would be no free decision about whether to believe in Christ or not, belief would be a form of coercion, and arguably God wants to preserve our free choice to trust and love him, or not.

If truth, in the ultimate sense, is a person, and not a proposition, then becoming acquainted with the ultimate truth means freely trusting in a person and not dispassionately acknowledging a proposition.

In this worldview, perfect 100% mathematical proof is not going to come, trust is always going to be involved. But that does not invalidate the reasons for trusting in the truth of the resurrection. Most people still believe in Julius Caesar, the great fire of Rome and the Battle of Actium, even though there isn’t 100% mathematical proof of their existence. Saying that something can’t be believed in because there isn’t 100% mathematical proof is like throwing your hands up and saying “What is truth?”, quibbling about Philosophy rather than trying to answer a straightforward question.

So I’m not saying that there aren’t good reasons to believe in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. The evidence is still important. There is no historical evidence of a flying spaghetti monster rising from the dead (Richard Dawkins’ invented deity).

What I am saying is that in the end that belief comes down to a personal decision of trust in the truth (either way) based on interpretation of the available evidence, rather than our being forced to bow to an airtight mathematical “truth”.

In other words, the question isn’t whether or not there can be 100% mathematical proof, but whether the historical evidence that we have can sensibly lead to trust in the resurrection of Jesus, or not. As with all the most important things, such as how to live your life, whom to marry, and what to believe about what happens after death, the decision about it has to do with trusting in a person, not assenting to the boring and irrelevant “truth” of a self-evident 100% mathematical proof. Someone once said that “faith” is spelled “RISK” (I think it was probably Kierkegaard; you can paraphrase him as saying this).

Faith is a risk, but not a blindly taken one. It’s an informed risk, like all the best ones; a gamble. And it’s gamble with the highest possible stakes and the highest possible payload.

And so, I wonder if God deliberately arranged for the earliest available manuscript fragment of the New Testament to be “What is truth?” because he was having a little joke with us about this. It’s like he’s asking the question back to us:

Did you hear the one about the earliest fragment of the New Testament manuscripts? “What is truth?” we say to God. And he says back to us “What is truth?” And in the end we can answer in one of two ways: by saying “I am the truth,”or agreeing with Jesus’ alternative answer:

I am the truth.”

Note: This blog post is an extract from a manuscript I am currently working on called “Why You Should Consider Becoming a Born Again Christian” (working title). Please give me feedback to help me improve it!