What is truth?

Amy Wang is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.[1] In the Post’s daily political weblog The Fix, Wang noted that in 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as the “word of the year.”[2]

The idea is that “objective facts” play less of a role in “shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The implication, it seems, is that “truth is dead” and “facts are passé.”

Even in the 1st century of the Common Era, there were those who disdained the notion that there is absolute truth. Consider Pontius Pilate. In the closing hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he appeared for questioning before the Roman governor.

The Messiah explained that He was “born and came into the world to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). He added that “everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” In short, Jesus asserted that His goal was to bring truth into the world, not stage a revolt against Rome.

Pilate, instead of talking further with the one who is “the way and the truth and the life” (14:6), cut off the conversation with a cynical retort, “What is truth?” (18:38). Andreas Köstenberger observes that “it is hard to imagine a more profound question with more momentous consequences.”[3]

Köstenberger additionally explains that in Jesus’ day, there were differing perspectives on the nature of “truth.” [4] To illustrate, in “Greek philosophy,” the notion of “truth” was linked to a precise way of making sense of “reality.” Likewise, the Romans associated “truth” with a “factual” depiction of phenomenon in nature and activity among people.

In the Hebrew literature—both the Old Testament and the writings of Second Temple Judaism—“truth” is equated with “God’s faithfulness to his covenant.” The Gospels—especially John—carry the concept further, in which Jesus of Nazareth is declared to be truth incarnate. Put differently, Jesus does not just bear witness to the truth, but is the truth in His very person.

Moreover, Jesus’ life, ministry, and atoning sacrifice are the superlative manifestations of God’s commitment to fulfill His redemptive promises. “Truth,” then, is more than factually accurate, propositional statements. “Truth” is a “personal,” “relational,” and existential reality that has its source, movement, and culmination in the Messiah.[5]

At its core, the Fourth Gospel is a call to salvation. Like the characters in the treatise—including Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Peter, and others—each reader encounters Jesus’ claims and is empowered by the Spirit to believe. To sum up, Jesus’ unveiled an exclusive gospel, namely, that the Son is the only way to the Father.

Admittedly, the above is an unpopular message in a society that espouses a mushy spiritual sentimentality, and in which all assertions to absolute truth are dismissed as naïve. Nonetheless, this is the good news the author of the Fourth Gospel passionately believed the world needed to hear, both in his day as well as in our own.


Key words: Truth, Post-truth, Fourth Gospel

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/amy-b-wang/?utm_term=.7cb049a8ed8b

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/?utm_term=.5eb53bb8aa06

[3] Andreas Köstenberger, “‘What is truth?’ Pilate’s question in its Johannine and larger biblical context,” Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society, 48, no. 1 (2005): 33.

[4] Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospels and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 437–8.

[5] See John 1:14–18; 8:31–32; 14:6; 17:3.

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