Why I Don’t Speak about Absolute Truth

Author Tim Barnett Published on 01/12/2016

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of youth at a homeschool conference. I am always impressed at the high level of questions I get from homeschoolers, and this event was no exception. After my talk titled “The Truth about Truth,” a young girl asked me why I didn’t use the term “absolute” when describing truth. How could I give a 45-minute talk on truth and not once use the word absolute?

There is actually a strategic reason why I prefer not to use the term “absolute.” When I get into conversations with people, one of my goals is to be as clear as possible. This means using the most accurate and helpful terminology possible. As it turns out, the term “absolute” can end up doing more harm than good if it isn’t carefully qualified.

Take the claim “It’s absolutely wrong to lie.” This statement communicates that it’s wrong to lie at all times, in all places and for all people. It’s an absolute, after all. So when I say it’s absolutely wrong to lie, they hear it’s always wrong to lie. But is that really the case? Is it always wrong to lie?

Consider a situation in which a German family is hiding Jews in their home to protect them from the Nazis during World War II. If a platoon of Nazis show up at their front door and ask if there are any Jews in the house, what should they do? On the one hand, if they tell the truth, these Jews will be sent to a concentration camp where they will be tortured and killed. Therefore, as a consequence of telling the truth—a moral good—this German family ends up helping the Nazis in their quest to exterminate the Jewish race.

On the other hand, if the family tells a lie to protect the Jews under their roof, they save the Jews from a fatal end, but not without breaking the ninth commandment in the process.

In philosophy, this is called a moral dilemma. It is a choice between two conflicting moral goods. I think most people would agree that lying in this situation is the morally right thing to do; it’s morally justified. It is a greater good to tell a lie to save a life than to tell the truth and have a life be taken as a consequence.

At this point we need to ask ourselves, what has become of our original claim? Can we still affirm that it’s absolutely wrong to lie?

I think we can; however, it’s going to take some careful qualifications to the original claim. This is why I’ve strategically decided to avoid using the term “absolute.” I opt to use a different term to describe truth, especially moral truth. Instead of talking about absolute truth, I talk about objective truth.

Using the word “objective” communicates that truth is independent of anyone’s beliefs about it, but doesn’t carry the added baggage of making universal statements apart from context. The claim that it’s objectively wrong to lie communicates that lying violates an objective moral standard—God’s moral law. That is to say, it’s not a subjective truth that is ultimately dependent upon the subject. On the contrary, there is a fact of the matter that is external to anyone’s personal preference.

Furthermore, objective truth always depends on the circumstances. You could say that objective truth is relative to the situation. Listen very carefully to what I’m saying here. I’m not saying truth is relative to the individual, or that it is up to the individual or culture to decide what’s true. That would be relativism. What I am saying is that every moral decision is always made within a context that cannot be ignored. Under most circumstances, it is wrong to lie. But for the situation described above, it’s objectively right to lie, given the fact that if you don’t, the Jews will probably be killed. Lying is the greater good.

I think this assessment also finds explicit biblical support. Recall the story of Rahab hiding the two Israelite spies:

Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them” (Joshua 2:3–5).

Rahab hid the spies but told the king’s men that they had left. She lied to save the spies. The New Testament writers affirm that Rahab’s actions were justified. In fact, it was this faithful act of protecting the spies that gets Rahab listed with Abraham and Moses in what is commonly called the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:31). James also specifically commends Rahab’s actions: “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25).

Do you see the difference using objective rather than absolute? Using a term like “absolute” makes you vulnerable to examples like the one I cited above. But the word “objective” does not, because it always takes into consideration the circumstance. It only says that there is an objectively right choice in every particular situation. So lying to save a human life is the objectively right thing to do for anyone in that situation. It’s the greater good. If anyone else was in that situation, then they should lie, too. In fact, they would be morally obligated to lie. If Rahab, for example, would have told the truth and given the Israelite spies over to the king of Jericho, then she and her family would have been judged with the rest of city, and their lives would not have been spared (cf. Josh. 2:14).

Knowing how to navigate these moral dilemmas is not easy, but it’s a reality that we each face. Thankfully, God has not left us to fend for ourselves but has written the Moral Law on our hearts. The apostle Paul writes, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14–15). In addition, God has given us moral commands in His special revelation and the personal inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

As Christian ambassadors we must strive to be as effective as possible at communicating our point of view. This entails using accurate and helpful terminology. Unfortunately, some words that we use have an inherent liability and, as a result, should be avoided.