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How To Respond To: “What Does ‘Truth’ Mean?”

What Does "Truth" Mean?
Image Credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

You’re in a conversation and someone keeps using the word “truth,” but you get the sense that what they mean by “truth” and what you mean by “truth” are not the same thing. What is “truth”?

What would you say?

Definitions matter. Sometimes we use the same vocabulary, but different dictionaries. And if we want to have good conversations, it’s important that we clarify our definitions. The next time the word “truth” comes up in conversation, here are 3 things to remember:

Number 1: Some people mistakenly treat their subjective claims as though they are objectively true.
“Subjective truth claims” are grounded in the subjects (the people) who make them. My statement, “Chocolate chip cookies are the best dessert,” for example, is a matter of personal opinion. I (as the subject) get to decide if this claim is true, and while it may be true for me, it isn’t necessary true for others. That’s okay, because everyone is entitled to their personal, subjective opinion about a variety of claims, from what they prefer for dessert, desire in a new car, or favor for a movie.

But many people think all truth claims are a matter of personal or cultural perspective. If this is correct, truth is entirely subjective, grounded either in the personal views of individual subjects, or the collective cultural consensus of groups of subjects.

Number 2: Understanding the difference between subjective and objective truth claims can be a matter of life or death.
While my claim about dessert is grounded in my personal, subjective tastes, some claims are true, regardless of my preferences. That’s because they aren’t grounded in the desires of a subject but are instead grounded in the nature of an object. We call these kinds of claims “objective truth claims.”

Imagine, for example, you’re foraging for edible mushrooms with a friend. Your goal is the tasty Asian “paddy straw” mushroom, a variety of mushroom that is used extensively in Asian cuisines. You find one, but your friend abruptly stops you from picking it. “That’s not a ‘paddy straw’,” she says. “That’s a ‘death cap’ mushroom. They look alike, but ‘death caps’ are called that for a reason: they are extremely poisonous!” You smartly decide to leave the mushroom alone.

What made your friend’s statement about the “death cap” mushroom true? Was it simply her subjective opinion? If you held a different opinion about the mushroom, would that have rendered it safe to eat? Is the truth about the poisonous nature of the mushroom grounded in your subjective opinion or in the nature of the mushroom itself?

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Your friend’s declaration is an excellent example of an objective truth claim. The “death cap” mushroom is poisonous for anyone who eats it, whether they would personally affirm the claim or not. “’Death cap’ mushrooms are poisonous,” is an objective claim about reality, rooted in the nature of the object: the mushroom. It might be a true objective claim, or it might be a false objective claim, but one thing is certain: our personal, subjective opinion won’t change the innate nature of the mushroom.

Number 3: Caring people help others to understand the difference between subjective and objective truth claims.
Imagine responding to your friend’s claim about the mushroom in the following way: “Mushrooms have been a delicacy for thousands of years, and I love them. From my perspective, they are all safe to eat.” Should your friend intervene and stop you from eating the “death cap”? If so, on what basis should she do this if all truth claims are simply a matter of perspective?

If your friend does act to stop you, should that intervention be seen as oppressive interference, condemnation, or some form of bigotry? If all truth claims are simply a matter of subjective perspective, her efforts could certainly be seen in one of those three ways.

But if there is an objective, deadly truth about the nature of the “death cap” mushroom, her efforts to help you see the difference between subjective and objective claims should be seen as nothing less than an act of righteous compassion. She apparently loved you enough to clarify your confusion.

When we share what’s objectively true about the nature of God, the claims of Christianity, or truth of the Christian worldview, we show a similar concern for the people we love. Christianity may be true, or it may be false, but one thing is certain: our personal subjective opinion about Jesus won’t change who He is or what He did for us. Don’t be afraid to help people understand that truth involves more than their personal perspective. Your efforts might just save their lives. When we share what’s objectively true about the nature of God, the claims of Christianity, or truth of the Christian worldview, we show a similar concern for the people we love. Click To Tweet

So, the next time you’re in a conversation and the word “truth” comes up, remember these three things:

Number 1: Some people mistakenly treat their subjective claims as though they are objectively true.
Number 2: Understanding the difference between subjective and objective truth claims can be a matter of life or death.
Number 3: Caring people help others understand the difference between subjective and objective truth claims.

This script is excerpted from my “What Would You Say” video for the Colson Center

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Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Nic Tomlin

    June 16, 2022 at 1:43 am

    Something i’ve been exploring is contrasting against opposites.
    E.g. If nothing is true, then nothing is false, in fact, false/lies cannot exist without truth.
    Same with ‘Good’. Evil is debated/suggested to be defined as the absence of ‘good’, and Evil therefore cannot exist as a stand alone entity.
    Same goes with light and shadows.
    All this points to the existence of of a solid absolutes. Absolutes are objective truths.

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