Truth Is a Strange Sort of Fiction: The Postmodern Turn—Part 2

Author Greg Koukl Published on 11/01/2006

If you genuinely believe there is no truth, can you still be a Christian?

[Author’s note: Most of what follows builds upon what was discussed in “Truth Is a Strange Sort of Fiction: Part I” found in the last issue of Solid Ground. To make the most out of what follows, it might be best to review those thoughts before you begin.]

I have been arguing that there’s been an odd shift in our culture of late. By and large, people are skeptical about truth. They are increasingly convinced that we live in a place of perpetual twilight where no one sees reality clearly, where knowledge of the world as it is in itself is simply out of reach.

Since Jesus said He came to bear witness to the truth—that is, to tell us the way the world actually is—this growing uncertainty about truth puts the ambassador for Christ at a significant disadvantage.

I used the word “odd” to describe this skepticism because just surviving day to day requires we get some things right, that we know truth in certain particulars even if omniscience escapes us. Nevertheless, the conviction prevails; sometimes the most obvious things go unnoticed.

I started my discussion last time by reflecting on a handful of basic concepts that implicitly govern nearly everything we do or think: knowledge, belief, truth, and justification. Curiously, these notions are so familiar to us it’s very easy not to notice them at all. They are, in a sense, hidden in plain view.

But confusion on these things causes us to say foolish things that would never occur to us if we were being more thoughtful. So I took some time to slow down and look more carefully at these concepts, notions that each of us is very familiar with in an implicit way, but maybe have not reflected on as such.

Here is what we discovered.

We noted that to have a belief is to hold that something is true—that it fits the world as it really is (what we called the “correspondence” view of truth)—and when our belief does fit, our belief actually is true. Our reasons or evidence for our beliefs (called “justification”) give us confidence that we’re right. When our evidence rises to a certain level—not necessarily certainty, but more than mere probability—we can claim to have knowledge. That threshold seems to be when we have evidence that gives us confidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

When talking about knowledge, then, we have both truth and belief joined together, and the glue that holds them together is evidence—our justification.

I then said that each of these is absolutely vital to the Christian message and, therefore, crucial for every one of Jesus’ ambassadors. Now I want to tell you why.

A Bold Proposition

Let me start this next portion of our conversation with a bold claim: If you genuinely believe there is no truth (in the sense that we’ve been talking about it), then it is impossible for you to be a Christian.

I understand this is a troubling statement for some, especially those who identify strongly with Jesus Christ but who are also sympathetic to some of the defining ideas of the postmodern culture. Therefore, I want to be careful to give my reasons.

If I’m right in this claim, by the way, you can immediately see why people who think there is no truth would not take Christianity seriously. For one, no one will search for that which she thinks is impossible for her to find. Further, if Jesus came to bear witness to truth as He claimed (John 18:37), then truth is central to the Christian account of things. Yet if there is no truth (of the kind Jesus seemed to have in mind), then Christianity is fantasy of the first order, like chasing after unicorns, leprechauns, or North Pole elves.

But why would I think this bold claim is a reasonable one? The simple answer is that being a Christian requires faith, and the kind of faith Jesus and His disciples talked about requires a particular understanding of truth to get off the ground. The equation is simple: No truth, no faith. No faith, no Christianity. Therefore, no truth, no Christianity.

Think about this statement for a moment:

“Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

The first thing you may notice about this passage is that, according to the writer, there is something essential to any proper pursuit of God. That essential element is called faith. Second, you might have noticed that the writer hints at two distinct aspects of this faith he is concerned about, and the second is dependent upon the first.

In order to have the kind of faith the Bible talks about there must first be knowledge of certain facts. Specifically in this case, one must hold that God exists. If you recall, this is the first kind of knowledge we talked about in our last conversation. We called it “knowledge that,” also called “propositional knowledge.” Certain facts are essential to Christianity and it is vital that you believe them.

But the writer doesn’t stop with knowledge. Something else is needed for genuine faith. He writes about God rewarding “those who seek him.” Do you notice a shift here? The first requirement was something passive: knowledge. This second requirement, though, is not passive, but active, and it is the active element that is actually rewarded.

Ancient Words

Though this passage doesn’t go into detail, it echoes a thought we find many times in the teachings of Jesus and of those He trained to take His message after Him. We often use the words “believe” and “faith” interchangeably. This happens in the Bible, too (the words translated “faith” and “believe” are both derived from the same root word). However, they are not always synonyms.

Ancient Christians understood this. They actually identified three essential elements of a believer’s conviction about his Savior to distinguish mere belief from biblical faith. They used the Latin words notia, assensus, and fiducia to describe the difference. These words mean knowledge, assent, and trust.

The ancients first understood that facts were essential. There was a foundation of propositional knowledge that could not be dispensed with. These believers cared about getting the main things right. In fact, they felt so strongly about this they were willing to die for those things they believed true regarding Jesus of Nazareth.

They also understood that facts alone, even when you assent to them, will not help you. Information in the abstract is certainly not worth dying for. They saw a clear difference between affirming a proposition (knowledge and assent), and actively relying on what they believed. It does no good for an ailing diabetic to know that insulin will rescue her. Knowledge alone doesn’t save. Something else is needed.

Ancient Christians used the word fiducia to describe this critical ingredient. It means trust. According to them, biblical faith was neither a belief without evidence (the kind of religious wishful thinking often called a “leap” of faith), nor merely a simple assent to propositions (what we referred to earlier as “know that”). It was knowledge in action. It was assent combined with active reliance. Each was necessary. None could be dispensed with.

The sad fact is, every Sunday churches across America are filled with “believers” who are not Christians. Their knowledge is not deficient. They readily affirm all the correct doctrines about Jesus. But they are still completely lost because they are missing the third vital ingredient: trust. They know about Jesus, they assent to Jesus, but they have never trusted in Jesus, and this is evident from the way they live their lives.

Some Christians are very sensitive on this point and they should be. We all know those who pray the sinner’s prayer, nod their heads to the right doctrinal statements, get their “fire insurance,” and then disappear, never to be seen again—spiritual miscarriages instead of spiritual births.

There’s a difference between mere “belief” and biblical faith, between decisions and conversions. Even in the Gospels many believed in Jesus, after a fashion, who apparently never put their trust Him (Judas comes immediately to mind).

A Trick Question

Now we come to a very important juncture in our discussion. I want to make good on my claim that if you genuinely believe there is no truth, then it is impossible for you to be a true follower of Christ. I’ll do that by asking a trick question (I’m warning you in advance because I want you to think about it before you answer).

Here’s the question: Does faith save you? To help you think carefully about the answer, let me suggest an illustration.

Pretend for a moment that you are a diabetic on the verge of diabetic coma. Pretend also that I present you with a hypodermic syringe and a small vial that I said was insulin. Would you trust me to give you an injection to save your life?

I think you already see the thrust of my illustration. First, you know (or at least have heard) that the Bible teaches salvation by faith. Second, the illustration shows a clear contrast between mere belief and active trust (the point I’ve just been making). You already believe that insulin can give you relief. But you remain in danger until you take a step of faith and actively entrust yourself to my care. So I suspect you would assent to my offer.

If you did, however, you would be dead for your effort because all the sincerity of your childlike trust could not change the fact that the vial in my illustration does not really contain insulin. It is only saline. You had genuine faith to be sure—fiducia, belief in action, trust. But you are dead, nonetheless.

Now let me ask the question again: Does faith save you? Clearly, the correct answer is no. Faith cannot save anyone. To be sure, accurate knowledge in itself cannot save. But genuine faith in itself cannot save either. Muslim suicide bombers overflow with authentic faith. Trust can be misplaced, and often is.

Christian salvation is when accurate knowledge is combined with active trust. The thing you put your trust in must be capable of doing what you're trusting it to do. If Jesus is not insulin, but only saline, the Christian is lost in her sins no matter how strong or how genuine her faith is.

Faith cannot save you. Only the One you’re trusting in—Jesus—can save. But Jesus can only save if He can really, actually, truly do what you are trusting Him to do.

In other words, Jesus cannot save unless your beliefs about Him are accurate, unless they are true. Therefore, if there is no truth, there is no saving faith. And if there is no saving faith, there is no Christianity.

Further, when Jesus calls for faith, He expects belief and trust. But to have belief is to actually hold that certain things about Jesus are true. And if someone is possessed of the conviction that nothing really is true, then the kind of faith Jesus requires will be impossible for him. Thus it will be impossible for him to be a Christian.

I want you to see—in fact, it is absolutely vital for your to see—that there is a prior foundation that makes genuine biblical faith possible, and that foundation is objective truth. If there is no truth, then Christian faith is a mere placebo. It soothes, but it cannot heal.

This may be why Jesus had more to say about truth than He did about faith. He said that authentic worship had to be based on truth (John 4:24). He taught that truth was the secret of genuine freedom (John 8:32). He wanted His followers to be sanctified in truth with God’s Word which was truth (John 17:17). He promised that everyone who valued truth would hear His voice (John 18:37). Indeed, Jesus was so filled with truth Himself (John 1:14) He personally identified Himself with it: “I am...the truth” (John 14:6).

If Jesus Himself was dedicated to truth, how can any person claiming to be a follower of His deny there is truth in the way Jesus understood it?

Let me suggest a reason. This probably is not the entire reason, but I think it’s part of it. Since propositional truths can’t save anyone, then either truth of this sort is irrelevant, or it’s dangerous, a hold-over from the arrogance—and subsequent oppressiveness—of modernism.

You can see now, I hope, that this concern is misguided. We all agree that affirming true propositions is not sufficient to be a Christian. But just because true propositions are not sufficient doesn’t mean they are not necessary. Certain things must be true before genuine faith makes any difference.

A Brief Review

So far we have learned that it is entirely possible to believe something, yet not exercise the kind of faith that Jesus had in mind. Christianity is not just a matter of affirming facts. It is about active trust. You must exercise faith in someone, in our case, Jesus.

Then I tricked you with a question you thought you knew the answer to. On further reflection, though, you realized your answer was only part of the solution. Faith—active trust—is not enough to save. The object of our trust must be worthy of our trust. Our faith must be properly invested in what is true, and we must believe it to be so. If there is no truth, then, there is no possibility of Christian faith.

This is why I said that if you’re a Christian who really believes there is no truth, then in spite of all your sincerity, you are not a Christian. Christianity requires faith, faith requires belief, and belief requires truth. So, if you deny truth, then the kind of faith Christianity requires is impossible.

Do you see that any speculation, any philosophy, any point of view, that denies something as essential to Christianity as objective truth is not a philosophy that is according to Christ? It is a philosophy that is according to men. It is not a philosophy to be embraced. It is a philosophy to be guarded against. It is not a philosophy to be relished. It is a philosophy to be resisted. It is a philosophy to be torn down.

That philosophy is called postmodernism, and that is what I want to talk with you about in the next issue of Solid Ground.

Putting Your Knowledge into Action

  • Remember, Jesus said He came to bear witness to the truth—that is to tell us the way the world actually is.
  • Keep in mind that the kind of faith Jesus and His disciples talked about requires a particular understanding of truth to even get off the ground
  • The equation is simple: No truth, no faith. No faith, no Christianity. Therefore, no truth, no Christianity.
  • Remember the three essential parts to saving faith: knowledge, assent, and trust (notia, assensus, and fiducia).
  • Remember the “insulin illustration.” It doesn’t help to put our trust in something if our belief does not reflect true facts. And it doesn’t matter if we have true facts if we don’t exercise trust in that truth.
  • When talking to someone who’s concerned about reaching our postmodern culture, you can agree that affirming true propositions are not sufficient to be a Christian—but they are necessary.