Date: March 19, 1931?
Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth? – John 18:38
“WHAT is truth?” asks wavering Pilate as he concludes his private cross-examination of our Lord. And as we repeat this question, we often wonder what the motives may have been which led that shrewd, worldly-wise politician to make this immortal inquiry. Was he a seeker after truth or merely a deep-rooted skeptic, an anxious inquirer or a disillusioned cynic? Knowing him as we do, it seems quite remote that he entertained the hope, even for a fleeting moment, that the silent, yet strangely majestic Galilean could end the search for the truth that had eluded the soothsayers of Rome, the philosophers of Greece, and the astrologers of ancient Babylon. To his grasping heathen mentality, Jesus, of despised Nazareth, was but a harmless, high-souled dreamer of dreams, a dealer in dim abstractions. What danger could there be in a young idealist who, despising the strength of Caesar’s legions, maintained that His kingdom was not of this world? Why take this visionary seriously? Above all, why try to kill Him when His purpose was not to clip the wings of the Roman eagle by instigating a rebellion in Judea, but only to bear testimony to what He called the truth? And so, with a half-flippant, half-sarcastic “What is truth?” yet without waiting for an answer, this administrator of Roman justice, able to perceive the right, but unable to follow it, fails in the greatest crisis of his life, and as the reins of justice slip from his careless grasp, he delivers the very incarnate Truth into the crushing power of His tormentors.
THE ANSWER OF HUMAN REASON.
Today, when a restless, disillusioned world echoes, “What is truth?” people often ask the question with a calculated seriousness that is born of distrust and suspicion. Experience has made men skeptical. They have gone through the orgy of a war that was to make the world safe for democracy, but that made graves for eight and a half million combatants, that made the world comfortable for ammunition manufacturers and profiteers, and that in many countries banished every vestige of democratic and representative government. People have been led to believe that through the introduction of political and economic measures a beneficent wave of prosperity and material growth would cover the country; but today, with more than five million wage-earners thrown into demoralizing unemployment, with a riotous and conflicting combination of legislative millstones about our national neck, they have found that the golden age of economists and politicians is farther removed than ever.
All this has had its reflex in things religious and in the questions of the soul, so that, when people today ask, “What is truth?” more than ever before they follow the example of Pilate by refusing to listen to the one Source of supreme truth. Divine revelation has been rejected by our modern, grasping, skeptical age, and human reason has been enthroned, cold, calculating reason, which tells us that the only religious verities are those which can be tested and proved by the results of modern scientific investigation.
As we pause, then, to ask whether this is the inevitable destiny of the Church of Jesus Christ, that it must transfer its faith from God’s Word to man’s word; whether it must turn away from the atonement of Christ to the attainment of man; whether, finally, it must admit that human reason is the foundation for truth and faith, I thank God that I have the privilege of demonstrating that what men call scientific truth is often so faulty, so self-contradictory, sometimes even so dishonest, and always so incomplete that, if we build our hope for time and eternity upon such shifting sands, we may just as well try to promote our wellbeing by dieting on double-strength strychnine.
I want to remind you, in the first place, that often these so-called scientific truths hopelessly contradict one another. For instance, see what happens when we consider the age of the world. According to Professor Chamberlain of the University of Chicago, the age of the earth must be placed between 70,000,000 and 150,000,000 years. But Professor Duane of Harvard declares that the earth’s age ranges between 8,000,000 and 1,700,000,000 years. Now, while you are thinking about this, let me tell you that Professor Millikan of California claims to have proved that the world may be as young as 1,518,000 years, while in England Sir Oliver Lodge asserted that it must be at least 200,000,000,000,000 years old. So you have figures that differ to the extent of more than 199,000,000,000,000 years. Now, if science cannot definitely tell the age of the rocks, but can offer only a hundred variant and contradictory theories, you will realize that it certainly cannot give the world the Rock of Ages for which the spiritual needs of all humanity cry so incessantly; you will appreciate that we must hark back to the warning of St. Paul concerning the “oppositions of science, falsely so called.”
Again, the results of scientific investigation often lack all stability, for they are changed and modified in the most kaleidoscopic fashion. Thus the Bible tells us in the very plainest language that God created this earth. But many modern scientists have dethroned the Almighty and tell us that myriads of millions of years ago there was a fiery mist, or nebula; and from this, it is claimed, our world emerged as a great ball of fire, which gradually cooled and contracted into its present form. But another scientist rises and tells you that this nebular hypothesis is unscientific and out of date and that you must accept the planetesimal hypothesis, which involves a huge disruption instead of the shrinking together demanded by the other theory. And while you are listening to him, a third approaches with one of the still more modern hypotheses, which is diametrically opposed to all the others. Now, which of these conflicting claims will you accept as the truth? Can you accept any when you know that the one you accept today may be rejected tomorrow?
Again, the history of science (the science which modern theology wants to make the basis of religious truth) reveals one error after the other and a long series of misrepresentations. A hundred years ago, when the plans for the construction of railroads were first made, the Academy of Paris, the last word in things scientific in its day, branded railroads as absurdities. That same scientific body denied the existence of meteors, ridiculed the microscope, and became guilty of other unbelievable errors. When Daguerre, the father of modern photography, spoke of reproducing pictures, his scientific comrades thought him insane. When Harvey suggested that the blood circulates through the body, as we now know that it does, he was ridiculed by learned men in all professions. And thus I could continue at great length and enumerate for you an almost endless list of mistakes which have been committed in the name of science. I could prove to you that some scientists have actually stooped to dishonesty and fraudulent misrepresentation in the effort to bolster up their failing causes.
My purpose, of course, is not to cast aspersions upon the heroic accomplishments of really scientific men, who, always conscious of their limitations, have rendered inestimable service to mankind. No statement of gratitude can adequately express our indebtedness to their labors and even to their errors, which have often served to advance the truth of scientific research. The point which I wish to make, however, is this: Can you afford to trust your soul to a system that can make such mistakes? Remember, for the eternal salvation of our souls we must have something that cannot change, something that is surer than the foundations of the earth, something that is as everlasting as eternity. But this is not to be found in the delusions which are being taught our children in many of the tax supported high schools, where the minds of our girls and boys are being perverted by anti-Biblical speculations which real scientists rejected years ago. Neither can this faith and assured hope be formulated in scientific laboratories and expressed in scientific textbooks and preached in scientific lectures. Nor can it be found in any human system of learning, because the human mind, darkened by sin, is too feeble, frail, and fallible to give to the world the final and absolute truth.
THE ANSWER OF DIVINE REVELATION.
But, thank God, tonight the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” comes to us from a divine and infallible source, from the blessed lips of Him in whom the very fullness of the Godhead dwells. None other than the Son of the living God has told us that, if we continue in His Word, we “shall know the truth.” Communing with His Father in prayer, He declared, “Thy Word is truth.” Offering His divine guidance to a perishing world, He pleaded, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” All these and other related passages unite in a convincing answer to Pilate’s question and tell us that the Word of God, our Bible, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which claims to be, which we believe to be, and which proves itself to be, the revelation of God to men, is in every sense of the term the truth, the absolute, definite, positive truth. Let me repeat: This divine Word not only contains the truth, not only presents the truth, not only leads to the truth, but is the truth.
Consider its unchangeableness, portraying to us, as it does, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever.” Men have tried to change it, it is true; they have tried to accommodate it to passing fancy and to the absurdities of their own speculations. But while human theories change with depressing haste, as one generation rushes on after another, we have Heaven’s assurance that not one jot or tittle of this sacred truth will pass away.
Remember the imperishable power of this truth, which according to divine promise will outlive heaven and earth. Men have risen up to blast this truth off the face of the earth; a fanatical Roman emperor had this inscription carved on a stone: “The name of Christ has been destroyed.” It was the vain boast of Voltaire that, although twelve men were required to write up Christianity, he himself would prove that one man could write it down. But today this truth of God is annually circulated in more hundreds of millions of copies than ever before—the one, true, deathless volume.
Think of all the unsparing and soul-searching penetration of this truth, which refuses to sugar-coat the inborn perversities and iniquities of the human race, but instead asserts with definite finality, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
But behold especially the unspeakable love of this truth, revealed to us in its highest heights in the tragedies commemorated by this Lenten season, a love so intense and overpowering that human comprehension cannot understand even a fragment of it. I want you to see tonight in that Man of Sorrows the truth of a love so profound that it could uncomplainingly suffer the ruthless disregard of every principle of truth and justice. We hear of corruptions in our courts today; the annals of criminal procedure repeatedly have recorded instances in which the innocent have been pronounced guilty and even sentenced to death; we have all read of men who for this reason or that have taken upon themselves the punishment that should have been meted out to others. Yet all this in its highest and noblest form, magnify it and intensify it as we may, is so pale and insignificant when compared with the mocking injustice to which that suffering Savior was subjected that it completely fades into utter oblivion. For He upon whose naked back those vindictive persecutors rained the lacerating lash, He upon whose exalted brow blasphemous hands crushed a crown of cutting thorns, He is loaded down, not with the punishment of His own sin, for He had none, but with the punishment of the uncounted myriads of millions of transgressions of which humanity in its entirety and throughout all ages had stood condemned. No wonder that, with the sins of every man, woman, and child that ever lived or that ever will live crushing down upon His innocent soul as He wrestled in the agony of Gethsemane, He cried out: “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” No wonder that, when He hung suspended on the cross, with His arms stretched wide, as though in this dying gesture to embrace all of humanity for which He was now being slaughtered, He cried in piercing despair from lips moistened with the vinegar of malice, purple in the agony of death, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” We read of the excruciating pain which characterizes the dying hours of some who suffer from appalling diseases or agonizing accidents; we shudder when we hear of the bloody persecutions to which followers of Christ have been subjected by human malice and fiendishness at its worst; yet all of the pain that murder, war, disease, accident, persecution, oppression, in their totality have inflicted upon humanity,—all this is but a temporary annoyance compared with the agony that all but broke the Savior’s heart as He cried, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.”
So tonight, as you hear the overpowering immensity of His devotion to humanity rise up to those sublime heights which made Him gasp, blinded in the darkness of death, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”; as you listen to His last cry as He bows His head apparently into defeat, in reality into the world’s greatest triumph, “It is finished”; as you stand under the cross with the centurion, you must realize and believe that above all the loneliness and the never-to-be-measured grief and weakness that marked that black and bitter death you are face to face with truth in the highest love of which even Heaven can tell.
Think of the worldwide sweep of this truth, hurling down all the barriers by which men have been separated into distinct and opposing groups and knocking at every heart that hears these words tonight, with none too exalted or too cultured, none too lowly or too illiterate, to understand and believe its helpful message. Think of the conditionless offer for the gift of this truth. Men may endow millions and devote decades in the attempt to ascertain the truth of our physical life, but here, without any prerequisites and without any price, is the free and unconditioned gift of truth, “By grace are ye saved.” Think of the renewing and regenerating influence and the demonstration of power by which ruined lives have been recast, hopeless careers reborn with high expectations, souls torn from the tyranny of sin by the faith to which the Savior attached this promise, “The truth shall make you free.”
Ask yourself if you have this freedom and remember that the most blessed verity in your life, the positive, immovable, unalterable, imperishable truth, is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ risen again, Christ everlastingly victorious in your life here and hereafter. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.