Truth, Liars & God
I found an interesting section on 'Truth' in Leon Morris's commentary on John's Gospel. Here is the gist of what he said:
In Greek writings the basic idea of truth is the mathematical one (ie “1+1=2” is true) plus the idea of reality as opposed to mere appearance. The Old Testament concept is similar but richer. It includes faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness, sureness and the like.
This enriched concept comes from OT descriptions of God. So truth is characteristic of God e.g. Ps.31;5 and Isaiah.65:16 “the God of truth”. Truth includes the complete reliability and complete integrity of God, so he will act in accordance with the highest conceivable morality. So the psalmist can offer a prayer in Ps.54:5 which older translations render “destroy (my enemies) in your truth” which newer translations render “in your faithfulness”.
The New Testament, Morris continues, blends the Greek and enriched OT meanings of “truth”. So in Romans 1:25 truth is seen as close to God's essential nature: idolatry is characterised as exchanging the truth of God for a lie. Elsewhere the NT speaks of truth frequently, such as Eph.4:21 where Morris insists the correct translation is “as truth is in Jesus”. “The truth of the Gospel” (Gal.2:5) and the requirement for truth to be exemplified in believers in many passages, e.g. 1 Cor.5.8 believers must keep a real festival “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”
John's Gospel excels in depicting Jesus as truth. According to Bultman for John 'truth = God's reality', which since God is the creator is the only true reality.
John uses “truth some some 25 times in his gospel. He describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (1:14) and Jesus says “I am the truth” (14:6) to pick two. Bultman concludes: “So truth is not the teaching about God transmitted by Jesus but is God's very reality revealing itself – occurring! - in Jesus.”
Pilate famously asked Jesus “What is truth?”. Jesus gave no answer in words. The narrative of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection gave the answer in actions. Truth as Jesus thus portrayed it was a very costly affair.
So when Jesus said “the truth will set you free” (8:31) he did not mean mean mere intellectual freedom. He meant the liberating experience of being his person – freedom from sin and guilt, adoption as sons and daughters of God and a future and a hope that liberates from the fear of death.
Morris concludes: “The connection with Jesus is essential to the idea of truth as we see it in this gospel. It starts from the essential nature of God, it finds its expression in the gospel whereby God saves humans and it issues in lives founded on truth and showing forth truth.”
Jesus set out the Dichotomy neatly when he said “(the devil) was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is not truth in him. When he lies he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell you the truth you do not believe me!”
So as truth is part if God's moral character, so lies are of the devil's. We can take this a step further with a working hypothesis that truth and truth telling are an integral part of a whole behaviour set we call “virtue” whilst lies and lying ring together with evil character traits.
We might also abstract from Jesus' experience with his contemporaries that there is some fault in human nature that makes lies seem attractive, believable almost while the truth seems unattractive and so truth tellers are not believed and even branded as “liars”.
Going on from Jesus' comments, the Genesis narrative is instructive. God says basically: “eat the forbidden fruit and you die”. The serpent says: “you won't die”. Then sweetens it with “you will become like God knowing good and evil”.
The genealogy in Gen.5 says over and over “… lived so many years and he died” hammering home the point that God told the truth but the serpent lied.
The serpent's sweetener was a more devious species of lie: it was true except at the vital point. Our progenitors did get to know good and evil. They did in an empty way become like God. But in all that mattered they had become totally unlike and separated from God. God knew what evil was, but remained totally good: they had actually done evil and had thereby been irreversibly tainted by it.
I have just been doing a bit of a word search (the site: www.biblegateway.com is helpful for this) on truth and lies. One gets the strong message that truth and truth telling are integral to God's moral character, and essential in people who wish to live to please him. The idea of lies and lying seems to have two particular emphases: the perversion of justice in the law courts and people who claim to speak for God misrepresenting him – to the ruin of their listeners.
The perversion of justice appears as something God hates with a passion. It is instructive that God is really in favour of the “secular” law courts and gets very angry when they become corrupt.
Isaiah 59 is a beautiful and poetic example: “… because of your sins God has hidden his face from you … No one calls for justice, no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies. … So justice is driven back and righteousness stands at a distance. Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”
The other focus is on people who claim to speak for God telling lies. This seems to be in the Bible almost the constant state of the religious establishment – a sad fact that should make us critically examine our current churches.
One example is Jeremiah where this theme runs right through the book. The overview is that God is warning the nation that it will be destroyed if it maintains its current moral, religious and geopolitical stance. The religious establishment refute this message and claim that God is pleased with the nation and will protect it. The king and people follow the (lying) advice of the “church”. The nation is destroyed, the temple burned, and the populace deported in chains by the enraged Babylonians.
So God's warnings depicted reality. The “church”'s lies did not correspond to reality. Finally reality bit with a vengeance!
Just one quote, Jeremiah 27.14ff “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who say to you, 'You will not serve the king of Babylon' for they are prophesying lies to you. 'I have not sent them' declares Jehovah. 'They are prophesying lies in my name ...”
To sum up: Truth is what corresponds to reality, including God's reality: lies are denying reality. The truth may be unpalatable or even inconvenient. Lies may sound sweet – but following them leads to harm or even ruin. Telling lies may seem to offer an easy way out – but it is morally wrong. People who want to take God's moral character as a guide must learn to be truth tellers.
Next week we will debunk the “hard cases” sceptics use to try to make us doubt the general rule of truth telling.