The Primal Heresy

Greg Koukl

Hugh Hewitt begins In, But Not Of—his wonderful handbook for cultivating one’s professional life as a force for Christ—with these words:

The effective and mass communication of the gospel depends upon the freedom to proclaim it. Though it is possible to proclaim the gospel in the face of persecution, the unfettered freedom to do so is much, much to be preferred.[1]

I learned this painful lesson firsthand in my own travels in 1976 behind what was then called the “Iron Curtain.” I was encouraging Christians in five communist countries who were being crushed under the hammer of Soviet-style Marxism.[2]

The official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union at that time was called Pravda. The word means “truth.” Truth, though, was not a valued commodity under Soviet totalitarianism. “Truth” was just a wax-nosed propaganda tool used to serve a different end—power. Power, not truth, was the ultimate instrument of Soviet influence.

Russian history is testimony to a basic fact. Human lives will be ruled by one of two fundamental forces: either truth or power. Humanity will be governed, on the one hand, by the physical facts of God’s world and the moral facts of his character, or, on the other, by forces that oppose one or—at the present time—both moral and physical facts.

For truth to guide, one must have liberty—liberty to pursue truth, liberty to discover truth, and liberty to live by truth. Without such freedom, brute force will always be the master, and freedom to choose to live by truth will be the casualty. Humans will then be compelled to live by lies.

For most of history, the people of the world have lived in slavery, in unwilling subjection to forces greater than they. The American experiment charted a different course. It was, in Lincoln’s words, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Truth, not raw power, was to rule.

Liberty is why the first freedoms of the First Amendment were so dear to the founders and why America’s first founders—Puritans—risked life and limb to flee tyranny and establish a new order. It was founded on the freedom to pursue authentic truth—God’s truth—and be faithful to it.

This kind of freedom was the heartbeat of the American experiment. That great enterprise, though, is faltering—even failing, some think. We stumble not because of widespread racism and other forms of alleged social oppression. Rather, something much deeper staggers us, a lie that fuels genuine racism but also animates false accusations of oppression.

As many have said before, ideas have consequences. False ideas, though—lies about the world—cut deep gashes. One lie has been with us from the beginning, from the genesis of humanity. It’s as ancient as mankind itself and has cut the deepest gash in the human soul. It is the first lie. It is the primal heresy.

The First Lie

In the beginning, humans knew no lies, of course. Their realm was ruled by the power of goodness. The truth of God’s world prevailed. Power and truth were united, one.

It did not stay that way for long, though. A crafty deceiver intruded. When the goodness of the Author of truth was challenged, a counterfeit truth took stage.

“Has God said?” the Deceiver challenged. “He’s lying. He’s holding out on you. He is not good. What do you want? What does your heart tell you?”

“The fruit seems good to eat. It delights my eyes. It will make me wise. I want it.” [3]

“Then take it. Be free of him. Truth is not out there. Truth is within. Make your own rules. Follow your own heart. Be true to your own self.”

This exchange is an interpretive paraphrase, of course, of Genesis 3:1–6, but it reflects the crux of the matter. At the Fall, an alternative “truth” prevailed, the truth within, “my truth.” The revolt in the Garden was a rejection of the external source of truth in exchange for an internal authority. Self-rule replaced God’s rule. Mankind embraced itself.

This outside/inside distinction—God’s truth vs. individual truth—may sound familiar. It is the root of relativism, the primal heresy. And it did not produce the promised freedom. Instead, it brought thorns and thistles, bondage and captivity, and it continues to do so today.

The ancient Hebrew prophet said if you sow to the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.[4] The proverb applies here. The option that promised absolute freedom brought absolute slavery. We are not the masters of ourselves. We never were. Instead, our selves—the flesh—and the Deceiver now master us. And it has been so ever since.

As I said earlier, human lives are ruled by one of two fundamental forces: either truth or power. This is when that clash began.

Of course, if there is no God, there is nothing left but self and power. We are the landlords, not the tenants.[5] No external moral order rules the day. No transcendent meaning drives human ambition. That is the appeal of atheism. But that is not the truth. That is part of the lie.

Relativism is the heartbeat of our age. Every generation has fallen prey to it, but this generation celebrates it, idolizes it. The concept, though, is a bit hard to nail down. Here is a brief tutorial.

Inside or Outside?

Relativism is a take on the meaning of the word “truth.” The word is used to communicate a particular understanding of what a person means when she says a belief, or a statement, or a point of view of hers is true.

When I tutor students on the meaning of truth, I start with a statement then ask two questions. First, I make a dramatic display of placing a pen on the podium, then I say, “The pen is on the podium.” Next, I ask if the assertion is true. When the students nod, I ask the critical question: “What makes the statement true?”

Hands shoot up. “Because I see it there,” one student says. But if you didn’t see it, I ask, wouldn’t it still be true that the pen is on the podium? Seeing might help you know the statement is true, but it isn’t what makes it true.

“Because I believe it,” offers another. If you stopped believing, I challenge, would the pen disappear? No. And would believing really hard make a pen materialize atop an empty podium? Probably not.

“The thing that makes the statement ‘The pen is on the podium’ a true statement,” I tell them, “is a pen and a podium, and the former resting on the latter. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees it. It doesn’t matter if anyone believes it. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks at all.”

Note, the truth of the statement “The pen is on the podium” is completely independent of any subject’s thoughts—a “subject” here being any person or any group of people. It is, in other words, completely mind independent.

Notice, by the way, that the students’ first two responses tie the notion of truth to what is happening on the inside of the student—a personal belief or an individual sensation of seeing—and not on anything that’s happening outside the student.

This inside/outside distinction is the key to understanding any kind of relativism.

The classroom exercise is a lesson on the meaning of objective truth. If the “truth maker,” the condition that makes a statement true, is something about the object itself—something outside us, so to speak, unrelated to our own thoughts, desires, feelings, or beliefs—then the truth is an objective truth. The statement accurately fits some feature of the world “out there,” regardless of anyone’s opinion about it.

Aristotle described it this way. If you say that it is and it is, or you say that it isn’t and it isn’t, that’s true. If you say that it isn’t and it is, or you say that it is and it isn’t, that’s false.[6]

Aristotle’s characterization is the common-sense, garden-variety understanding of the meaning of truth. When my philosopher friend Frank Beckwith was asked what the definition of truth was, he quipped, “Do you want the true definition or the false one?” You get the point.

By contrast, think of my daughter Eva, when she was five years old, amusing herself with a book beyond her reading ability. As she recited the book’s tale, out tumbled the dramatic particulars. She turned each page at proper intervals, yet her yarn bore no resemblance to anything on the page since she wasn’t actually reading. The words were purely a product of her own imagination. The story was in her head, not in the book.

Put another way, the “truth” spoken was in the subject (Eva), not in the object (Fancy Nancy, in this case). It was based on something on the inside, not on something on the outside. It was mind dependent (a five-year-old mind here), not mind independent. Therefore, it was a subjective, or relative, truth.

Here is another way of seeing it. If the truth you have in mind can change simply by changing your mind, then that “truth” is only in your mind. It’s not in the world. It’s on the inside, not the outside. That’s relativism. [7]

In The Story of Reality, I pointed out the folly of this approach, the foolishness of letting beliefs on the inside define truth on the outside:

Some beliefs are true. Others are not. The difference matters. If a [belief] is not accurate to reality, it’s not any kind of truth at all, so it can never be my truth or your truth, even though we may believe it. It can only be our delusion, or our mistake, or our error, or whatever else you may want to call it. But it could never be our “truth.” I hope that’s clear.[8]

In the real world, simply believing something cannot make it true. It cannot change a single thing about the way the world actually is. If you don’t believe in gravity, for example, you will not float away.

Real Bad or Feel Bad?

This inside/outside distinction applies in exactly the same way to morality. One might say it’s the difference between real bad and merely feel bad.

Moral objectivism is the view that moral claims are like the statement “The pen is on the podium.” Philosophers call this “moral realism” because moral qualities, though not physical, are still just as real as the pen. The truth maker is an objective fact, not a subjective belief.

So, for example, when an objectivist says, “Rape is wrong,” he means to be describing rape itself, not merely his own feeling, opinion, point of view, or preference about rape.[9] In objectivism, something about the object (an action, in this case) makes the moral statement true. If rape actually is wrong, it’s because of something about rape, not something about a person, or his culture, or his genetic conditioning.[10] Objective moral truth, like all genuine truth, is always mind independent.

By contrast, moral relativism is like little Eva’s story. The “facts” are only in one’s mind, not in the world. No act is bad in itself. The words “evil,” “wicked,” or “wrong” (or “good,” “virtuous,” or “noble,” for that matter), never actually describe behavior or circumstances on the outside. Rather, they describe a judgment inside the mind of a subject who has either expressed a preference or felt an emotion.

In relativism, the subject—a person’s beliefs, tastes, or preferences—is the “truth maker.”[11] The beliefs are true for the person who holds them even though they might not be true for others who have different beliefs. That’s because in relativism, moral truth is mind dependent. In a relativistic world, then, no belief of any kind—moral or otherwise—can actually be false since a mere belief (“my truth”) is true by definition.

So, objectivism is the view that morality is like gravity; relativism is the view that morality is like Monopoly. The facts of physics are features of the world, not a matter of personal whim, individual taste, or cultural convention. Monopoly, on the other hand, is man-made. The rules are made by people and can be changed by people.

With an objective statement, facts make a claim true. In a subjective claim, the subject’s beliefs or feelings make the claim true. Rape is only wrong, for example, if a person simply believes it so, not because of anything questionable about rape itself.

It is one thing for an individual to be confused about truth. It is quite another when an entire emerging culture is confused, abetted by government policy that frequently supports the madness.

If you do not understand how thoroughly the primal heresy permeates the emerging culture, you will not understand the meteoric rise of antipathy to Christianity characteristic of this new generation.

The Triumph of the Self

The cultural shift towards the self that I warn of actually began over a century ago but shifted into high gear in the ’60s. I know; I was there. We chanted slogans like “Do your own thing,” “Different strokes for different folks,” “Live for today,” “If it feels good, do it.” However, these were not metaphysical statements—statements of ultimate meaning or personal identity. They were mere refusals to be constrained by current ethical conventions.

For the past 50 years, remnants of the Christian worldview provided a measure of restraint to that impulse of self-directed hedonistic license. Now, though, the wound goes much deeper.

Today, a single slogan sums it up: “You do you.” Two personal pronouns and a verb. Nothing else. The mantra is completely self-reflexive: me about me. That’s the ruling dogma. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman describes this “expressive individualism” as the idea that “each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.”[12]

Lest Trueman’s characterization be mistaken for a noble commitment to personal authenticity, make note of his phrase “finds our meaning.” Rev. Martin Luther King stood true to himself against the torrent because his convictions were rooted in something outside himself—God’s truth. Now “authenticity” is nothing more than naked desire, and desire’s unrestrained expression is central to one’s identity. It is what Rod Dreher, author of Live Not by Lies, calls “the liberation of individual desire.” Listen carefully:

The essence of modernity is to deny that there are any transcendent stories, structures, habits, or beliefs to which individuals must submit and that should bind our conduct. To be modern is to be free to choose. What is chosen does not matter; the meaning is in the choice itself. There is no sacred order, no other world, no fixed virtues and permanent truths. There is only here and now and the eternal flame of human desire. Volo ergo sum—I want, therefore I am.[13]

The slogan on a Ninja Warrior T-shirt reads, “Be your own hero.” Think about that. Heroes are others we look up to and emulate because of some superior virtue. Being our own hero means the self is already the high-water mark. Thus, hero worship is reduced to self-worship.

Note how deeply the primal heresy has taken hold. A pandemic of narcissism besieges us and is championed as central to individual meaning and personal identity. Self-love and unrestrained pursuit of self-interest are no longer vices; they are virtues. Indeed, they are now considered inviolable human rights.

It’s not that new trends encourage immoral conduct that people a generation ago would not have countenanced. Rather, those under the spell of this metaphysical narcissism seem unable to think in objective moral categories at all. There simply is no sacred order. There is only amour propre—the love of self.

Consider, for a moment, how gender is now viewed. “Gender” no longer refers to anything about our bodies on the outside; it is, rather, completely a matter of internal preference and personal self-determination. That’s why the obstetrician’s announcement “It’s a girl!“ is now considered an act of child abuse by many. The doctor is arbitrarily “assigning” gender without the baby’s consent.

Notice this stunner from The New England Journal of Medicine. They recently published a piece titled “Failed Assignments: Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates” arguing that sex designations (read “assignments”) on birth certificates be removed since they “offer no clinical utility, and they can be harmful for intersex and transgender people.”[14]

Harmful? Really? True gender dysphoria is a tragic burden to bear, and for those so afflicted, suicide rates skyrocket. Harm results when we encourage this delusion. But that treats the outside world, not the inside, as the locus of truth, a view anathema to the emerging culture.

Gender confusion is one category of evidence of the primal heresy’s increasing stranglehold on our culture, but other examples abound. The church is not exempt from its influence, either.

My 13-year-old is no relativist—far from it. Yet I frequently hear her protest “Don’t judge me!” in conversation without thinking of its significance. It’s a slogan of her generation that’s become a completely reflexive part of their cultural vocabulary.

Live Not by Lies

We have been talking about how one of two forces rule humankind, either truth or power. If truth is silenced, especially moral truth, power fills the vacuum.

Aristotle said that all law rests on the necessary foundation of morality. When moral truth is relative, the foundation is gone, and nothing remains but brute force. When truth ceases to provide a protective rampart, totalitarianism is not far behind. Lies, of course, are subversions of truth, and when we live by them, liberty is soon lost.

We have also learned that the primal heresy—relativism, the ultimate negation of genuine truth—is on rapid and aggressive ascendancy in our midst. Like Mordor’s creeping cloud, a blanket of darkness looms over this generation. The promise of self-rule is an empty one, of course. The self can only rule when the powers that be allow it. Eventually the relativists become victims of their own devices, just like in the Garden.

For Christians, though, this is not the time to circle the wagons. Instead, we stand. Like those who have come before us—Jesus, Paul, Polycarp, Luther, Bonhoeffer, King—we make our case in the public square, then we stand. Hewitt, again:

The reality of Western-style religious liberty is not imperial domination or religious absolutism; it is the reality of freedom to hear and freedom to choose. Christians in the third millennium should not ask for more than these freedoms or desire more…. But they must demand the right to speak their piece in peace and to worship as they see fit.[15] [Emphasis added.]

Overcoming this cultural threat will not happen quickly. It has been brewing for many decades, and I do not expect to see it remedied in my lifetime. We do not lean on the bent reed of capricious popular opinion or quick-fix political schemes, though proper public policy plays a legitimate role in the process.

Rather, we reason, we cajole, we warn, and sometimes we persuade, the belt of truth being the very first weapon in our spiritual arsenal (Eph. 6:14). When we have done everything, we stand. We stand firmly for what we know to be true, even in the face of hostile opposition, even when we cannot persuade otherwise.

Often, in standing, we suffer. That is the way of the cross. It is what Jesus promised.[16] It is the world’s tribulation Jesus warned of. Be at peace, though. Take courage. We have his promise: He has overcome the world. In the final reckoning, that is enough.

The leviathan state is not the only agent of forced servitude, however. In Western culture, extra-government powers currently drive the trend. In the next issue of Solid Ground, I will offer a more detailed portrait of that process.


[1] Hugh Hewitt, In, But Not Of (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), vii.

[2] My experiences there were the subject of “Iron Curtain Diary” in the previous Solid Ground, Jan-Feb 2021, available at

[3] “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen. 3:6).

[4] Hosea 8:7.

[5] C.S. Lewis authored this metaphor.

[6] Philosophers call this the “correspondence view” of truth.

[7] I owe this insight to my dear friend J. Warner Wallace.

[8] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2017), 32.

[9] He may have beliefs, feelings, etc., about rape, but that’s not what he’s describing.

[10] According to Darwinism, our beliefs about morality are the result of the blind “design” of natural selection. Since that kind of morality is always on the inside and tells us nothing about the outside world, Darwinian morality is always relativistic.

[11] Moral relativism, then, is a kind of subjectivism since judgments of right and wrong are completely up to the subject—the individual person or group—to decide.

[12] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 46.

[13] Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies (New York City: Sentinel, 2020), 115–116.

[14] The New England Journal of Medicine, December 17, 2020,

[15] Hewitt, ix.

[16] See Matt. 10:16–22.