Is There Really Such a Thing as Objective Truth?

by Mary Schaller

Every November, as the calendar year is winding down, the folks at Oxford Dictionaries in the UK select a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest during that year. They choose the winning term based on criteria such as the number of times it is searched online. They call it “The Word of the Year.” The Oxford team tends to choose a word that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that year.

In 2013, the word of the year was selfie: a picture you take of yourself with a smartphone. In 2015, it was emoji: a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion.

I often feel like I’m one of the last ones to know that a new word like this has invaded our everyday vocabulary. But once I discover it, I begin hearing it everywhere and find myself using it regularly in conversation, somewhat enamored with my own ‘hipness’.

I find it fascinating that the 2016 word of the year was post-truth. It’s an adjective meaning “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This word has far more serious implications to our emerging 21st-century worldview than selfie or emoji does.

The President of Oxford Dictionaries, Casper Grathwohl, observes,

It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse. Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.

The earliest known usage of the word was in a 1992 essay by American playwright Steve Tesich where he writes, “We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some ‘post-truth world’ implying that truth itself has become irrelevant.”

But is that accurate? Can truth become irrelevant?

We should probably start by getting clear on what we mean by “truth”. To put it simply, truth is the real facts about something. Truth tends to fall into one of two categories: objective and subjective. Objective truth is verifiable, something that can be proven by evidence or tested out with reality. Subjective truth, on the other hand, is relative, representing what is true for a person or a community.

People tend to think of science as an example of objective truth. In a carefully controlled scientific experiment with a hypothesis that is tested and verified by factual data, scientists’ conclusions are accurate representations for all peoples across all cultures. Verifiable scientific claims remain unchanged from person to person.

When there are debates within science, the controversy itself assumes that two experts with conflicting findings cannot both be correct. For example, scientists may debate the answer to the question, “Are climate changes on the earth caused by global warming?” If one answers “yes” and has solid evidence to back up his conclusion, then any expert with an answer of “no” is mistaken, and vice versa. The actual truth remains objective.

A simple example of subjective truth could be the claim that chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream. That statement may be an accurate representation of some people’s taste, but it is not an accurate representation of everyone’s taste. I personally think chocolate is the best ice cream flavor, but there are those who disagree with me. My husband, Paul, likes French vanilla best.

“French vanilla is the best ice cream flavor in the world” can be both true and false, depending upon the person. This is what is meant by the phrase, “That’s true for you, but not for me.”  When there are debates about the best flavor of ice cream, the truth is going to be subjective, and two people can both be right in their claim.

In the area of religion, is truth subjective or objective? Scientific claims and preferences are somewhat easy to label as one or the other, but what about spiritual claims? Can claims like the foundational underpinnings of the Christian faith—the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus—be proven? Do these claims fall in the category of objective or subjective truth?

The current culture would like us to believe that these are subjective truths. But Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection are events that either happened or they didn’t. The question is where the evidence leads.

Recently, The Case for Christ came out in movie theaters, telling the story of former atheist Lee Strobel’s search for evidence about Jesus and His death and resurrection. When Lee’s wife became a Christian, Lee used his expertise as a legal editor with the Chicago Tribune and set out on a mission to prove that Christianity was based on the subjective truth of a deluded community, not facts.

After Lee completed his thorough investigation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, not only did he conclude that the evidence supported these objective truth claims, but he also became a Christian. Eventually, he left his Chicago Tribune job and became a teaching pastor and a prolific writer with an entire book series on evidential faith.

The Apostle Paul reminds us,

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:17-19)

Christianity is true—objectively true—based on clear evidence, not on our preferences or emotion alone. We can stand firm in that fact. Throughout the four Gospels, at least 78 times we read Jesus saying, “I tell you the truth . . .” and giving a statement of truth. And in John 14:6, Jesus says He is the truth: “I AM the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

While it may not be popular in a post-truth culture to believe in objective truth, we can objectively stand firm on the evidence that points to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life: Jesus Christ. We can do that by placing our faith in Him and trusting Him to point us to all other truth.

Mary Schaller (@MarySchaller1) is president of Q Place, a ministry that empowers Christians to engage in meaningful conversations about God with people who believe differently through small groups. She was an entrepreneurial marketer and founder of three technology-related business ventures and then minister of small groups at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. She has an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is the author of How to Start a Q Place, and the co-author of The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations.