Apologetics 101, Part 1: Evaluating Truth Claims
What is truth? Which truth? Whose truth? Yours? Mine? This spiritual figure or that? His holy book or hers? Which religious claim to truth is the real one? Will the real religion please stand up?! While it is entirely possible that all the world’s religions are wrong, they can’t all be right; that would be most illogical. it But how do we go about evaluating which one out of the thousands of the world religions, if any, is true?
And with that, we’re right back to the question of the day: What is truth? Long before Jack Nicholson or Pontius Pilate uttered anything about truth, Satan toyed with this very same question in the Garden of Eden. “Did God really say?” In other words, “Is God’s Word true?”
What is truth? That was Pilate’s question to Jesus during his interrogation. And people have been coming up with failed answer after failed answer. Many claim the question – what is truth? – can be answered by common sense, intuition, authority, sincerity or even religious experience. As we will discover, these sources of truth are entirely inadequate responses to the question.
Here a little bit of logic goes a long way. It also happens to be useful common ground in talking with non-Christians. Which is why, when we are trying to answer the question, “what is truth?” we must avoid begging the question, that is assuming the conclusion you are trying to prove before you there. For example: “Miracles do not exist because there is uniform experience against miracles; I have never seen a miracle; therefore miracles do not exist.” Or, “We know god exists because the book says so and god wrote the book so we know god exists.” Begging the question and circular reasoning are kissing cousins of illogical proportions.
Thus, when we are defending the Christian faith, we must plot our course carefully through well-reasoned arguments, avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of begging the question and circular reasoning.
Truth is fundamental to every human endeavor. Science, Law, History, Medicine, not to mention the entire education system of Western Civilization and the like rests on the foundation that truth and knowledge are both attainable and knowable. Both intellectual (is it true?) and existential meaning (what do I need?) in life is built upon truth. Not to mention morality, ethics and human rights.
So, when it comes to the quest for truth, let’s test some of the examples mentioned above and see how they fail to give us an adequate source of truth in defending the Christian faith. Though hardly exhaustive, here are several common ways people claim to have the truth on their side of the argument.
- Common Sense and Intuition. Common sense is anything but common. More importantly, people of mutually incompatible religious positions all claim to have common sense on their side. This cannot be so. If common sense were an accurate source of truth, we all would have the same common beliefs. So it is with Intuition. If our intuition was a reliable source of truth for making religious claims, we all would believe the same thing. Intuition can be wrong just as common sense is uncommon. How do you know the voice of your common sense is really the voice of God or the voice of the devil? Indeed, many people claim to receive special messages from God – messages which frequently have to do with your wallet.
- Appealing to Authority (or multiple sources of authority). Many claim to have authority on their side: Muslims have the Qur’an, Mormons have the Book of Mormon, Christians have the Old and New Testament, and Jews reject the New but retain, at least in some manner, the Old Testament. Making a claim to authority is not the same as establishing the truth of the authority any more than my opinions and claims to know everything about the weather qualify me to be a meteorologist. We must ask whether or not the source of authority itself is trustworthy. Just because an authority claims to be from God hardly means it is. Plenty of people on the boardwalk in Venice Beach claim the same thing but are not trustworthy. Or consider that Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere near Jackson County, Missouri. And that God spoke to Joseph Smith by means of special golden plates which have never been found and have no archaeological evidence whatsoever suggesting any of the places or names in the Book of Mormon actually existed outside of Joseph Smith’s brain. Having multiple sources of authority only further complicates the problem. Every religious position has a source of authority, whether that source is a book, a person, or some kind of inner burning of the bosom. Again, we know that they all could be false, but not all of these claims to authority can be true. The question is, how do we determine which ones are false? And how do we determine which, if any, are true? In order to answer that we must test and examine the source of authority from the outside, with a criteria that is separate from the source of authority you are studying. This will yield an objective answer. The method must precede the conclusion. Apologetics 101, part 2 will address the historical / evidential method of defending the Christian faith.
- Sincerity. Many have thought that the sincerity of faith determines whether or not something is true. Sincerity can be lethal. Stalin was quite sincere about his systematic extermination of political opponents. And Jim Jones convinced his followers that the Kool-aid they were drinking was sincerely good for them. Both examples demonstrate that you can be sincere about many things, and more importantly, sincerely wrong. Even sincerity of faith is a tenuous position to hold. Many religious teachers have said, “If you just believe enough, or pray hard enough, or are sincere in your faith, you’d know these things to be true.” How do you measure sincerity? A faith-o-meter? Measure it by works? The result is usually faith in faith which is pure nonsense. Neither is faith magic. What is critically important is the object of faith. I may sincerely believe that my pet rabbit, Milo, will lay a golden egg on Easter morning worth millions – but my faith would be foolishly misplaced. And similarly, I may sincerely doubt that Disney Land is in Anaheim, California and located, rather, in Minot, North Dakota. In either case, neither my faith nor my doubts change the underlying facts. And facts are stubborn things.
- Religious Experience. Testimonies and personal experiences abound. However, there are just as many religious experiences as there are religions. Again, they can’t all be right because they make mutually contradictory claims to truth. There’s another logical problem here. We can’t equate “what is” with “what ought to be.” This is also known as the sociological fallacy. Here’s an example: If we say, “65% of college students engage in x behavior,” we have said nothing of whether or not x behavior is true, much less right or wrong. Simply claiming truth on the basis of a religious experience does not in fact make it true. This is falls into the “buy it and try it” trap. “Give Jesus, or Buddhist meditation, Christian Science or the Kool-aid a try, you’ll like it. It works for me!” Religious positions require total commitment on the part the person. The question, as always, must be: is it true? And this requires investigation. Something Christianity is entirely open to since it has nothing to hide; you’ll find no spaghetti monsters, magic pills or goofy drinks here. St. Paul lays it all out on the table, read 1 Corinthians 15.
So, if all of these methods are inadequate, what then, is the best way to go about investigating a religious truth claim? And where does Christianity fit into all of this? This series, Apologetics 101, is designed to follow-up on this question as we explore the basic points of the empirical/historical method, used by lawyers, historians and apologists to defend the Christian faith. It is this approach that gives us the best arguments when defending the Christian faith.
Thankfully, when it comes to the Christian faith – what we believe, teach, confess and defend – we don’t have to rely upon the level of our genuine sincerity, the power and emotion of our religious experience, our common sense, or even circular reasoning. We have historical, trustworthy, eyewitness testimony about the life and work of Jesus who took on human flesh to suffer and die for the sins of the world. He claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and backed that up by dying and rising from the dead. With that in mind, the question is not really: what is truth? Rather, who is truth? And if you get the answer to that question right, all the others fall into place.