Caroline Wickens explores the meaning of ‘truth’ in the second of our articles on biblical teaching.
22 October 2023
Speaking truth in post-truth spaces
‘What is truth?’ asked Pontius Pilate, as his conversation with Jesus drew to its close (John 18:38) – but he didn’t wait to hear the answer. It’s a question that continues to be asked, and evaded, in our own times. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2016, as Western attention focused on emotion as a reason for making choices.
Against this background, then and now, people of faith have drawn on biblical teaching to answer Pilate’s question. Christians proclaim that truth is with them in the person of Jesus Christ, who said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). What does Jesus mean?
‘What is truth?’ asked Pontius Pilate… It’s a question that continues to be asked, and evaded, in our own times.
Jesus: the channel of God’s creative power
‘All things came into being through him’, says John. There is an essential link between Jesus, the Word of God, and the existence of creation itself, which comes into being at the sound of God’s voice – ‘God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light’ (Genesis 1:3). C.S. Lewis imagined the lion Aslan singing the world of Narnia into being, trees and animals bursting from the empty soil at his song. God’s infinite creative power gives form to the universe through Jesus, the Word, the essential meaning at the heart of all things.
Biblical teaching affirms, then, that the world is shaped and patterned through our relationship to Jesus. Perhaps you’ve come across a TV series called Fake or Fortune. Participants present a work of art which might, or might not, have been painted by a great artist. Experts examine everything from the chemical composition of the paint to the minutest details of the brushwork, and finally pronounce their verdict. The intricate detail of the work can reveal its creator, centuries later. Scripture tells us over and over again that the same is true of the world, moulded by the Word. I recall reading the writing of a Christian astrophysicist who described their intense study of the science of the stars as ‘thinking God’s thoughts after God’. The same could be said of the incredible, complex detail of our planet’s biodiversity, and of the intertwined networks of human being in society.
There is a two-way relationship between the essential nature of the world and Jesus Christ, through whom everything was made. What are the ways in which the truth of Jesus Christ shines out within the community of creation? In a post-truth world, how can Jesus’ disciples name and proclaim the truth which flows from his creative agency in the life of this world?
A Christian astrophysicist described their intense study of the science of the stars as ‘thinking God’s thoughts after God’.
Jesus: the faithful one
The Hebrew word for ‘truth’ is emeth, which can also be translated as firmness or faithfulness. Jesus’ life embodies this unswerving commitment to choices made and decisions taken on the basis of profound love. The disciples must have lived on a roller-coaster for those three years as Jesus unveiled new aspects of his power and identity – yet the underlying push was all one way: to fulfil God’s purpose of revealing the extent to which God treasures creation.
So the testimony of scripture is that a life of truth is a life of faithful reliability, of steadfast commitment to a goal which is consistent with God’s intention in creating the world and shaping humanity to live as part of it. I can think of so many Christians whose lives are marked by dogged commitment to the well-being of others, even at their own inconvenience, or to the ongoing flourishing of their church or to a rhythm of prayer and praise which shapes their days. They are proclaiming the truth of Jesus as they live with a faithfulness that sustains them and those around them. Jesus: the truth that shapes life towards a consistent, firm commitment fuelled by love.
Jesus: the one who remembers
‘I don’t remember that’ – words we often use when trying to get ourselves out of trouble. The Greek word for truth, aletheia, breaks down into two words which mean ‘not forgetting’ or ‘not concealing’. Jesus tells us that he is not one who walks away from the reality of what is going on. When he sees corruption and injustice, he names it, challenging those who pretend to be holy but are in fact motivated by self-interest. When he sees good, even in the most unexpected places, he names it and walks with people of integrity in seeking justice.
A life of truth is a life lived with the courage to be honest about the situations we find ourselves in and their root causes, and to look for the move towards justice which is characteristic of Jesus. This might seem obvious, but all too often we try to evade speaking honestly of the actions we take or openly acknowledging their consequences.
Jesus: crucified and risen
The stories of Jesus’ death reveal the ugliness and sin of corrupt power, as he is condemned by a combination of hostile forces and crucified. The stories of the empty tomb reveal that this is not the end of the story. The truth of Jesus’ life is that there is always hope that God’s love will emerge even from tragedy and disaster. It can seem almost impossible to hold on to hope in the most horrendous of situations but while the green shoots of new growth may seem fragile, the promise of the kingdom of God is that there will be renewal.
It can seem almost impossible to hold on to hope in the most horrendous of situations but while the green shoots of new growth may seem fragile, the promise of the kingdom of God is that there will be renewal.
Jesus: the way, the truth and the life
We have noted the deep-rooted coherence, the identity, between the way life is and the nature of Jesus, who sets the pattern for the universe, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of the ways in which life can echo the truth of Jesus. As the biblical narrative makes clear, coming close to Jesus makes it possible for us to come close to the authentic reality of God’s world and to proclaim that life is most fully authentic when it reveals Jesus’ core attention to truth, justice and love.