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Sean McDowell: Why Truth Still Matters

Not too long ago, my students shared with me about a “freethinking” club that had sprung up in the public high school across town. In an attempt to reach out to these skeptical students, we invited them to come over to my classroom for a few hours to discuss the God question. At the end of the discussion, one of the freethinking students made a statement increasingly common today. He said, “Why can’t we both be right? Maybe your views are true for you, and ours are true for us.”

This young man echoed a pervasive belief in our relativistic culture, namely, that truth is irrelevant to matters of religion. What matters is personal belief. This may be why 80 percent of Americans believe people of other religions can go to heaven (Newsweek, September 27, 2010, p. 27).

In our secular culture, religion and morality have been relegated to the category of subjective preference rather than objective truth. Truth is considered less important than how something makes us feel. We can always find a study or Web site to back up what we want to be true, whether or not it really is. Stephen Colbert popularized this sentiment by introducing the word “truthiness” on The Colbert Report in 2005. The idea behind “truthiness” is that actual facts are irrelevant. What matters is how we feel since people, not reality, are the final arbiters of truth.

How should we respond to this confusion? Should we stop proclaiming Jesus as the truth? In his insightful book Christ Among the Dragons, Pastor James White shares what is at stake, “But what do we mean by truth? If we, as Christians, cannot determine the answer to that question, all is lost, for the heart of our faith is the proclamation of the One who is not simply that way or the life, but the truth.” (p. 29)

Yes! Truth is not an issue Christians can sidestep or ignore, for it is at the heart of our faith. But it is also critical for a healthy church. In Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey argues that the loss of belief in objective truth is one core reason why liberal churches have shrunk over the past few decades.

Here are three points about truth that may be helpful.

First, people really do care about truth. Since people are image-bearers of God, they inherently know that truth matters, whether they recognize or admit it. To make this point, I once told a group a tear-jerking story from my high school days. I had them on the edge of their seats. When the story was over, I revealed to them a startling fact—I made it all up. They were quite upset. Why? No one likes to be fooled, mislead, or lied to. Truth matters.

In his recent book You Lost Me, which is based on interviews with over 5,000 youth, David Kinnaman says, “This generation wants and needs truth, not spiritual soft-serve. This is a generation hungry for substantive answers to life’s biggest questions.” (p. 127) This has been my experience as well.

Second, it is vital to teach the nature of truth. Once during an outreach event, some staff-members put a banner that read, “Jesus is the answer” across their hotel rooms. People kept asking, “What is the question?” If people don’t understand their sinfulness, then they won’t grasp their need for a savior. Similarly, if people are not clear on the nature of truth—especially as it relates to religious claims—then “Jesus is the truth” will be misconstrued.

Christianity uniquely makes objectively verifiable truth claims. The Apostle Paul said that if Christ has not risen, then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14-17). And we have eyewitnesses to back this up (2 Pet. 1:16). While people may have different beliefs about Christianity, it cannot be “true for you, but not true for me.”

Third, we must teach critical thinking. Because of the Internet, people today are exposed to more non-biblical worldviews than at any other time in history. Rather than creating confidence in truth, the exposure to various ideologies has lead to enduring skepticism. The positive side of skepticism is that it creates a culture of questions, which can open up conversations that lead to the discovery of truth. We must not just give people truth—we must also teach people how to recognize truth from error. People today may be tech savvy, but they are not truth savvy. Many think something is true because they read it on the Internet!

There is a battle about truth raging in our culture today. Many outside the church say there is no ultimate truth. Many inside the church say we ought to give up proclaiming truth and focus on loving people relationally. Of course, we ought to love people. But let us not forget that even love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6).

Sean recently released GodQuest: Discover the God Your Heart Is Searching For. The book is accompanied by both an adult and youth small group DVD series, Sunday sermon series, and other ministry resources. Watch the promo video here.   

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Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator, author, and teacher. He serves as head of the Bible department at a Christian Valley Christian Schools in San Juan Capistrano, California, and in 2008 he received the city’s Educator of the Year award. Having graduated summa cum laude from Talbot Theological Seminary Sean is now pursuing a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to traveling through the United States and abroad as a speaker, he is the co-author of a number of books, including Is God Just a Human Invention?, Understanding Intelligent Design and More Than A Carpenter. Sean lives with his wife and two children in San Juan Capistrano, California.