The Plain Truth
March/April 2002
By Alan Dowd

Scripture calls on us to speak the truth in love. But how do we teach the truth to a culture that rejects all absolute truth except one – the absolute which declares that there are no absolutes?

This question is the natural outgrowth of postmodernism, and it is gnawing at the Church. After all, witnessing to someone who doesn’t know the truth but accepts that it’s out there, somewhere, is easier than trying to convince someone that the truth exists at all.

Much of the Church sees this as uncharted territory – but is it? Could it be that postmodernism has become a scapegoat for the Church, an excuse for timid outreach, halfhearted evangelism and a watered-down Gospel?

Jesus reminds us that this challenge of postmodernism is really nothing new. In fact, the relativism and ambiguity of postmodernism may be as old as truth itself—if not in name, then certainly in practice. It is Christ himself who shows us how to share the truth with someone who rejects its very existence.

What Is Truth?

The issue of truth is at the heart of our faith. Indeed, our mission as Christ’s followers is to carry the truth into every corner of the world. And since postmodernism rejects universal truths, it has something in common with the people and philosophies that rejected Christ two thousand years ago. Then, as now, some people didn’t want to hear the truth. Then, as now, some people felt more comfortable with the world than the Word.

Far from rejecting the notion of truth, Jesus made an outlandish claim about it: “I am the... truth,” he asserts in John 14. “I came into the world,” he declares in John 18, “to testify to the truth.”  And that he did. The Gospels record at least 80 instances when Jesus begins a statement with the promise, “I tell you the truth.”

On the day Jesus was crucified, he engaged in a deep philosophical discussion about truth with Pontius Pilate. John devotes some 22 verses to this encounter between the God of the universe and the governor of Judea. Their interaction—and especially Pilate’s reaction to Christ’s claims—is revealing in the context of postmodernism. Not only does it offer us an example of how to confront postmodernism’s elastic view of truth, it brings to light a fascinating possibility—that Pilate may have been the first postmodernist, and Jesus the first person to witness to a postmodernist.

Christ’s willingness to listen and respond to Pilate is especially telling. Even after a sleepless night and a wrenching morning, even though just hours separate Him from the agony of the cross, Jesus values Pilate enough to reason with him and teach him. He didn’t chat with Pilate out of respect or fear. In fact, Jesus didn’t have to talk to Pilate at all. He knew a death sentence awaited Him, and He no doubt had some inkling about the torture that would precede it.

We learn from Mark that the cross-examination begins “very early in the morning.”[i]  Pilate wastes no time interrogating his Galilean prisoner: Are you king of the Jews? Do you hear the testimony against you? What crime have you committed? What is it you have done? The questions fly like arrows. But for an unmeasured moment, Pilate relents and the one-man trial becomes a dialogue.They discuss kings and kingdoms, authority and status, law and life. Then, Jesus offers Pilate a glimpse into eternity: “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”[ii]

But the postmodern Pilate, tired of talking and even more tired of listening, is no longer interested. “What is truth?”[iii] he asks, mustering three little words—just three syllables—for the man who claimed to be Truth incarnate. We don’t know if it was a condescending swipe or legitimate inquiry. All we know is that before Jesus has a chance to answer, Pilate is out the door, back at work shouting orders to his staff while negotiating with an angry crowd over what to do with his unwanted prisoner—“multi-tasking,” as we call it today.

But Pilate’s profound question belies his true feelings. For Pilate, the question is obviously more important than the answer, because the question is his. It has everything to do with him. The answer is not his; indeed, it belongs to someone else. And what could be gained from someone else’s “truth”? In this sense, Pilate showcases the trademark myopia of postmodernism and its adherents. The world revolves around them, and as such each of them determines his own relative version of “truth.”

If there was a smirk on Pilate’s face during his cross-examination of Jesus, it was probably wiped off as he learned the breadth of Christ’s claims. “He made Himself out to be the Son of God,” the crowd tells Pilate. “When Pilate heard this,” John writes, “he was even more afraid.”[iv]

Immediately, he returns to the now-beaten prisoner, the one whose answers weren’t worth his time a few hours earlier. “Where do you come from?” Pilate demands. But Jesus is slow to respond now. Perhaps it was the flogging, perhaps the blows to the head, perhaps the public humiliation, perhaps the forced march to Herod’s house. Or maybe, just maybe, Jesus concluded that Pilate was too busy, too self-absorbed, too cynical to care.

“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate stabs. “Don’t you realize I have the power either to free you or crucify you?”

But rather than ignoring Pilate, rather than changing his message or softening his words,  Jesus offers him one last lesson, one last dose of truth. “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”[v]

That chilling rejoinder penetrates to the very center of Pilate’s cynicism and arrogance and self-centeredness: There is something beyond you, Pilate. Something beyond what your eyes can see. Something deeper than your feelings. Something certain. There is Truth. It stands before you. And like it or not, it controls the entire universe.

For a fleeting moment, the Truth was within reach. And in that moment, perhaps Pilate even grasped it. At first, he scrambles to free the bloodied deity: “I find no basis for a charge against this man,” the quivering voice of mighty Rome cries. Desperately wanting to free Jesus, Pilate asks the crowd no less than three times to take him back. But they don’t want him, and Pilate definitely doesn’t want to make them unhappy.

“Here is your king,” the pagan Pilate declares to a throng of Abraham’s children. (Note his exquisitely postmodern language: Pilate won’t make a judgment on whether they’re wrong or right for having such a king, and he refuses to associate himself with Jesus.)  “Do you want me to crucify him?” Pilate queries. The people respond with one voice, and Pilate relents, oddly comforted by the chaos of the crowd. You can almost see him shrug as he defers, washes his hands, and sends Jesus off to Golgotha.[vi] For the postmodern Pilate, justice takes a back seat to his need for acceptance.

On a day rich in ironies, Pilate is oblivious to one of the most obvious: Each step Christ takes toward Golgotha increases the distance between Pilate and the Truth—the very thing he demanded.

The Church’s Challenge: To Speak the Truth

There’s no evidence that Christ convinced or persuaded Pilate of anything that grueling Friday morning. And there’s a hard but hopeful lesson in that for us. If even Jesus failed to persuade some people of the truth, then so will we. But that shouldn’t deter us. Our job is to deliver the message.

As we grapple with postmodernism’s influence on the Church and the world, we face what appears to be a futile fight. But Christ asks us to follow His example: To reason with postmoderns, even when they’re unreasonable. To answer their questions, even when they walk away. To speak the truth in love, even when it seems no one’s listening. To be bold, even if it risks our status.  To share the Good News, not a watered-down substitute. And to trust that some in our postmodern world won’t make the same mistake Pilate did--and allow Jesus to slip away.  

[i] See Mark 15:1.
[ii]See John 18:37.
[iii] See John 18:38.
[iv]See John 19:7-8.
[v]See John 19:10-11.
[vi] See  John 19.