When Jesus was sent to stand trial before Pontius Pilate, He said to the Roman prefect that not only did He come into the world to bear witness to the truth, but that whoever is ‘of’ the truth will listen to His voice. Pilate’s reply (John 18:38) to this was terse but revealed much about him and those who follow his way of thinking:
‘What is truth?’
This short query is packed with significance, and discloses a great deal about the attitude of those who have, do, and will either reject or ignore Jesus throughout the ages. It is representative of an attitude that gives scepticism such priority that even a basic commitment to objectivity is undermined. In his Life of Christ, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen relates the significance of this attitude with respect to understanding unbelief in general, and moreover, the consequences that flow from this attitude:
‘It remained to be seen that tolerance of truth and error in a stroke of broadmindedness leads to intolerance and persecution; “What is truth?” when sneered, is followed up with the second sneer, “What is justice?” Broadmindedness, when it means indifference to right and wrong, eventually ends in a hatred of what is right. He who was so tolerant of error as to deny an Absolute Truth was the one who would crucify Truth…
…Pilate was one of those who believed that truth was not objective but subjective, that each man determined for himself what was to be true. It is often the fault of practical men, such as Pilate, to regard the search for objective truth as useless theorising. Scepticism is not an intellectual position; it is a moral position, in the sense that it is determined not so much by reason as by the way one acts and behaves.’
Life of Christ (1958), pp.364-365, Mcgraw-Hill.
In effect, there is a deep interrelation between what one believes and how one acts; and if the logic of this relationship is dictated by the personal preferences of the individual, objectivity in truth and morals comes to be seen as a barrier – objective truth surely cannot be real, for if it were, there would be constraints on what I can do. It is in this sense that Sheen says that scepticism is ‘not an intellectual position; it is a moral position’, and I believe this to be borne out by experience. For instance, it is seldom that those amongst us who wish to deny the possibility of absolute truth will deny it absolutely – they will more often than not hold on to some basic principles of justice. It is only when certain moral imperatives limit an individual in an area where they wish to experience no limits that objectivity is then denied.
Whilst consistency in terms of practical application may not be the order of the day amongst sceptics, there does remain however a permanent disposition, an attitude that becomes more deeply ingrained over time, which Sheen correctly describes as sneering. It is this attitude which prevents such people from hearing the voice of Christ. For, once one is predisposed to meet any claims to objective truth (especially those which would challenge well-established patterns of behaviour and particular vices explained away under a denial of sin in general) with a sneer, these claims will necessarily fall on deaf ears – they are written off before they are even encountered.
This is a powerful means of self-defence, and is given vivid expression in the writings and public pronouncements of the ‘new’ atheists, who, by adopting a prior position that anything coming from the mouth of a religious person must be met with scorn and contempt, and is basically not worth listening to, ensure that they never have to engage in serious debate with such people, and that their own beliefs are thus protected from ever being challenged. This attitude is not, however, limited to Dawkins et al, and can be found amongst non-believers, and even believers, of all stripes. It exists wherever there is a ‘pet sin’ held onto and, against the deepest murmurings of our hearts, shielded from the law of the Lord, despite the fact that we know deep down ‘there is nothing hid from its heat’ (Psalm 19:6).
For the reality is that whenever we reject truth, and its claims on us, we, like Pilate reject Him who is the Truth; sin is not just breaking the moral law in specific cases – these individual transgressions flow from an interior attitude which has, in part at least, refused to accept Jesus as Lord. Fulton Sheen, in discussing the three-fold mission of the Holy Spirit outlined in John 16:7-11, describes the situation thus:
‘Sin, in its fullness, is the rejection of Christ. The usual way to win men to truth is by some popular appeal. But the Spirit will win men to truth by convincing them of their sinfulness; in doing this, there would be revealed the fact that Christ was primarily a Redeemer or Saviour from sin…
…Nothing but the Spirit could convince man of sin; conscience could not, for it can sometimes be smothered; public opinion cannot, for it sometimes justifies sin; but the gravest sin of all which the Spirit would reveal would not be intemperance, avarice, or lust, but unbelief in Christ.’
Essentially, as Sheen goes on to say, ‘to reject the Redeemer is to prefer evil to good’ (p.325); when we say that there is no such thing as objective truth and goodness, or that moral guilt can be explained away via various psychological or naturalistic theories, we are exhibiting an inward character which prefers to decide for ourselves what is good and evil, and have effectively rendered those terms empty of meaning – morality becomes a matter of opinion. The more this attitude becomes a part of the individual personality, the harder it is for the grace of God to draw that individual to Him.
Thankfully though, as we have experienced this Easter, the One who is Truth overcame those who rejected Him; the one who is Life itself overcame death and the powers that brought Him to the Cross. In the light of Easter we see just how limitless the love of God is, and how great a change can be effected in the lives of those who resist His grace. The Holy Spirit, breathed by Our Lord onto the disciples in the Upper Room, gave them, and gives us, freedom – not just from sins, but from the interior attitude of unbelief which locks us in on ourselves and leads to those sins in the first place.
The power that broke open the tomb and the glory of the Risen Lord still resonate out into our lives today, and will continue to echo into many more lives across borders and across the ages. Sceptics and agnostics, as well as those nominally affiliated with Jesus but lacking in conviction, can, have, and will have their hearts opened up and filled with the love of God, and will be freed to embrace the truth about Truth – not only is it real, but it is the one thing that can truly set us free.