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Absolute vs. Relative Truth

By Amy Davison

What is Truth? This age-old question is still being asked today, and so, as Christian apologists, we must answer it…

In this month’s edition of the WIA newsletter, we’re going ‘back to the basics’ to review some fundamental apologetics. I don’t know about you, but I was always grateful when teachers would have a review day. I always found that it brought something that I had missed the first go-round or refreshed a subject that had started to get a little hazy back into mental focus.

Nowadays the subject of truth is one we have to keep “mission ready.”[1] This isn’t just because truth is under heavy assault within our culture, but because if we do not have (or encourage our friends and family to have) truth as our foundation, all other apologetic topics and the Gospel itself becomes a matter of preference. So, let’s take a few minutes and look at absolute vs. relative truth.

Absolute Truth

Absolute truths are statements or beliefs that are true for all people, at all times and in all situations, and cannot be changed. These can come in both moral and neutral forms like: it is wrong to torture kittens/ kill/ steal for fun, 4×6=24, laws of logic, there are no square circles, the nature of God, and the Gospel are all absolutely true.

You’ll notice that each of these[2] were discovered, not invented, which means that, contrary to the skeptic, they are knowable. Such truths exist “independently of the knower and his consciousness,” meaning that the truth that,

“The earth existed prior to the existence of human beings,”was still true even when there was no one to conceive of it. They also have the necessary quality of being grounded in an all-powerful, all-knowing, uncaused first cause. Why? Because they exist with or without humans. These truths come from somewhere, or more accurately someone. While absolute truth and objective truth are often used interchangeably, we have to take care to emphasize an important distinction that arises when it comes to moral values.

Take for example the statement: Lying is wrong.

At first this seems like an absolute truth. If you’re a parent you’ve probably communicated it as such to your kiddos, but let’s throw a bit of context in there. Let’s say that the only thing standing between a Jewish family in hiding and Auschwitz is your ability to falsify identification papers so they can escape. Does it still hold that lying is absolutely wrong?

The answer is self-evidently, no. Hence the important distinction: if lying was absolutely wrong, you would be obligated to turn over the family in spite of the fact that they’d be killed.

Moral truths are thus objective, rather than absolute, because they allow for the varied application based on context, not our preferences.[3] This may sound like we’re drifting into relativism but saying that an objective truth is relative in application is different than the philosophical stance of relativism. It just means that they can be applied differently depending on circumstances not that they are grounded in our subjective opinions (subjectivism.).[4]

Relativism

If you’ve watched the news lately you’ll no doubt have noticed the postmodern movement standing in contrast to absolute truth: relativism. Relativism is the thought that truth is a socially or culturally agreed upon set of beliefs. This means that statements like, “Honor killings are good,” or, “Kicking puppies down a flight of stairs is wrong,” are just constructs of one’s culture or society or, to narrow the scope a bit, a matter of one’s opinion, i.e. subjectivism.[5]

No one set of beliefs is any more right or wrong than the other, and attempting to argue as such is considered oppressive or bigoted.[6] By denying the existence of objective truth, Post-moderns offered the equivalent of, “Everyone is a winner!” in the form of a tentative, “Everyone is right!”[7] Which is partly why it is so attractive.

If truth is subjective then each person is their own lawgiver, judge, and jury. Every culture, every practice, every belief is on the same subjective playing field. There is no longer an objective standard because we no longer have an objective lawgiver, and with no objective standard, morals become, as philosopher A.J. Ayer states, “Mere public opinion…an emotional preference.”

Does that sound like the time in which we’re living or what? We’re already seeing the consequences of this belief playing out in our nation, and they aren’t pretty.

Thankfully, this view collapses because it fails to adhere to the absolute rules of logic it claims doesn’t exist. It cannot be ‘absolutely’ true that my truth and the exact opposite of my truth are both equally true, because this violates the law of non-contradiction. Nor can all truth be subjective because that statement in and of itself isn’t subjective! Perhaps one of the most ironic implications of relativism is that if people truly believed it, they wouldn’t be able to argue that everyone should see things their way. Once they did, they’d be taking the stance that relativism is objectively better than what the other person believes. Thus, relativism is self-refuting.[8]

Why we need to defend the existence of Truth

Apologetics is a God-honoring tool to provide arguments and evidence in defense of the Gospel,[9]but what’s the point if the Gospel is no less true than any other belief? Outreach ministries to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and unbelievers would be unnecessary. Presentations for Intelligent Design would be worthless, evidence for the Resurrection needless, undesigned corroboration between the books of the bible superfluous. Apologetics would be entirely irrelevant outside of one’s personal desire to reaffirm one’s own beliefs.

Sadly, many Christians have unwittingly allowed relativism and subjectivism to seep into their spiritual life. I saw this first-hand during an apologetics class to high school students at a Christian private school I was subbing for.

The class had been given a worksheet where they explained how they would share the gospel with an unbelieving friend. As I walked about the class, I was startled to find each group had no idea how to answer the question.“I mean, Christianity is true for me, but it might not be true for them and that’s ok, right?” One girl asked another.

Ten minutes later, the class was still debating what appeared to be a simple question. My heart broke for them.[10] This is why we need to understand and defend against the undercutting of truth. Without it, we will struggle to convey the majesty of the Gospel and be unable to affirm the divinity of Christ[11] to the person who says that Christianity is only true for you.[12]

[1] A common phrase used during my military career to mean being ready to engage at all times.

[2] And all those not listed.

[3] This is what separates objectivity from subjectivism. Subjectivism is based on personal preferences and opinions, whereas objectivity is based on the existences of an objective standard.

[4] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/objective-or-absolute-moral-values/ Absolute is contrary to relative, whereas objective is contrary to subjective.

[5] Subjectivists of

[6] Did you cat the fatal flaw in this line of reasoning? We’ll get to that shortly.

[7] Though they rarely practice what they preach when you disagree with them.

[8]In fact, even arguing that objective truth exists is no being deemed an act of aggression or an attempt at oppression. It has gotten so bad that apologist Abdu Murray argues that we have transitioned out of a postmodern culture into a post-truth culture, where one’s feelings are the grounds for truth, not that which exists in reality.

[9] Jesus reasoned with the Pharisees about the truth of the scriptures, He provided evidence of His divinity through miracles, and Paul and the disciples used this evidence to argue for the reasonableness of the Gospel.

[10] I ended up calling off the rest of the lesson so we could cover this exact topic. They were so excited to understand this topic better. Ravenous for truth is probably a better description.

[11] John 14:16.

[12] This subject is covered beautifully in the new Mama Bear Apologetics book. Make sure you get your hands on one!

Disclaimer: All views expressed by those associated with this ministry or on our platforms do not necessarily represent the opinions of Women in Apologetics, Inc. or its individual team members.

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