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Can We Really Know Truth?

Moral Relativism

In this age of "I'm ok, you're ok" thinking we are often called upon to answer questions about truth. What is truth? Does real truth exist? Isn't truth relative? Can we really know truth? Unfortunately, this attitude of subjectivism has caused a wave of humanity without morals and ethical standards, seriously deteriorating the character of our modern society.

While this concept of relativism is not new it has been rapidly propagated in the twentieth century, much through liberal media. Ernest Hemingway stated the point of view quite simply, "What is moral is what you feel good after; what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Is that all there is to relativism? In short, yes. Moral relativism is nothing more than letting each individual determine what is true or not true, what is right or wrong, for them.

The most obvious benefit, and probably the reason moral relativism has spread so quickly in our modern society, is that it eradicates responsibility. Relativism erases sin. Think about it. If I can decide that what I do is right, and what I don't do is wrong, then I have created my own mechanism for calling my own morality good, and what is not my morality sin. I have erased sin in my life by changing the rules.

Last week I was watching a football game that illustrated this point. It was a very close game in which, near the end of the game, the team attempting to catch up executed a great pass play, gaining 45 yards on a single pass and scoring a touchdown. Unfortunately the play was called back because the receiver had stepped out of bounds on his way down the field. Now, what if the receiver was allowed to change the location of the lines? Or what if he could change the rules so that he was allowed to step out of bounds and still score a touchdown?

Football games are played by an absolute set of rules, and so is life. Interpreting the rules differently doesn't allow an out of bounds player to score, and creating our own morality doesn't change what is right and wrong. Truth is true regardless of what we choose to call it.

The Limit of Relativism

Can we know truth? Ironically, the answer may be in the question. Consider the statement: "All truth is relative." In fact, some truth is relative. "The sky is blue" might be relative to your location and the time of day. "Joe Montana was a great quarterback" is true today, but it wasn't in 1935. This statement is relative to time. To assert, however, that all truth is relative is a self-denying, absurd statement. If all truth is relative, then we can't be sure that that statement is true.

When someone says, "Truth is relative," I want to quickly reply, "How do you know?" If we agree with this sort of relativism, then we must accept that this very statement is also relative. It's only fair and accurate to say that some truth is relative. Any other view is logically contradictory.

Further, there are some statements that humans inherently know to be true. Is it true that 2+2=4? Denying that statement is similar to denying many other clearly truthful statements. People often play all sorts of semantic games to avoid committing to absolute truth, but not believing in the basic principles of addition does not make them false. Frank Beckwith made this interesting comparison,

"...we can rationally discuss and argue with each other about right and wrong without resorting to the claim that ethical judgments are merely subjective or relative and that all such judgments have equal validity. For to claim the latter logically leads one to the bizarre judgment that Mother Teresa is no more and no less virtuous than Adolf Hitler." 1

If this concept is difficult for you, take a closer look at the Argument by Morality. There simply are things that are right and wrong, true and false. Likewise, as stated above, some things truly are relative, but only some. Naturally, if some truth is relative, then some truth must be absolute. How can we know truth? How can it be identified? That is clearly the most significant question. Which truths are the relative ones and which are absolute?

Accepting the Truth

Jesus claimed to be the truth (John 14:6), and that the word of God is truth (John 17:17). He also said that we could know the truth through his word (John 8:31-32) and that we would be judged by this truth (John 12:48). Can we believe the claims? How do we know for sure that his claims of truth are true?

I think the most straightforward way to evaluate the claim, is to look at the substantiation. Many have made the claim of truth, but only one has backed up this claim irrefutably. Jesus performed many miraculous signs to furnish proof of his claims (John 10:37-38, John 20:31-32, Acts 2:22). We need to look no further than the immutable fact of the resurrection, wherein God furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31), to see that he had the right to make such claims. Further, you may want to read more about prophecy to see the truly amazing nature of God's word. The Bible's claim to be the absolute word of God, the truth, and without error, is confirmed by the amazing prophecies set forth in its pages.

It is important to note that relativism in truth stems from a philosophy of naturalism. If we simply accept creation and the Creator this concept is not at issue. Accepting and trusting in an all-knowing, all-powerful God puts the absolutes of good and bad, right and wrong, beyond question.

Finally, it would be wise to consider the consequences of denying truth. One problem with relativism is that it incites us to begin playing semantic games to justify our position. We know that 2+2=4, and we know that the killing in Littleton, Colorado (1999) was wrong. Let's not play games with the truth in order to justify our position of relativism. The fact is 2+2 will always be 4, even if we believe otherwise.

Besides the confounding of the human language, making it vague and ambiguous, denying the ability to know truth has caused many to set aside their ability to know anything. They say, "If I can't know everything, then I can't know anything." Nothing could be more wrong. Just because I don't understand advanced calculus (and I don't), doesn't mean I don't understand basic arithmetic. We can know some things, and we can understand them with a great deal of certainty. Does this mean that we can ever know all there is to know about God and His word? No, the nature of His infinite wisdom means we will never stop learning, yet we can certainly understand the most fundamental concepts and those things necessary for salvation and Christian living.

Finally, not accepting absolute truth has some eternal consequences. Paul warns the Thessalonians about denying the love of the truth.

"And with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. (2 Thessalonians 2:10)

Frank Beckwith, Philosophical Problems with Moral Relativism, Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, p39.

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