Pilate’s Question

Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus

. . . let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Matthew 5:37

When Jesus was brought before Pilate for judgment he said,

. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

To which Pilate replies,

“What is truth?”

In our book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits (publication date not yet announced) we work on developing a theology that is appropriate for our times. The first step in such a theology is, we suggest, to be absolutely truthful as to what is going on.

Age of Limits issues are  complex, with lots of moving parts and feedback loops. So, from a technical point of view, it is not always easy to determine exactly what is the truth when we consider climate, resources, finance and population. In addition, any statement that explains what is going on has to be hedged with the fact that there is always scientific and statistical uncertainty. But, from a practical point of view, the truth as to what is going on is reasonably clear, and, we argue, it is the responsibility of Christians to learn that truth and then to abide by the consequences of that truth.

But this statement begs questions such as:

  • How does one determine what is true?
  • How do we distinguish between objective truth and faith?
  • Which experts do we trust?
  • Where are their hidden agendas?
  • What is meant by scientific uncertainty?
  • How can two people who are intellectually honest, and who have done their homework, reach different conclusions?

The title of the book is taken from Augustine’s City of God. But he wrote other books which are pertinent to our discussion; one of these is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine stressed the need for Christians to be utterly truthful. He did not even allow for white lies.

In our times, when we are surrounded by lies in all forms, it is vital, in my opinion, for us to follow Augustine’s leadership and to place an equal importance of understanding the truth as to what is really going on around us.

It is not only Augustine who stressed the need to tell the truth. Secular writers who have studied the trajectory of our society have reached same conclusions.

Telling the truth is fundamentally important to use as a species. If an individual cannot be trusted, we can learn to ignore that person. But if our whole system is based on misleading us, then our society cannot function.

Today’s level of division of labor, insofar as it imbues suspicion that much communication is being done for ulterior purposes, weakens or destroys that ability to rely on a network of information sources.

. . .

Destroy trust in verbal inputs and you destroy a core attribute of human nature . . . you allow yourself to become less human.

Catton 2009

If Christians are to be completely honest, then we face the question that Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus, “What is truth?” It forces us to address questions such as,

  • How does one determine what is true?
  • How do we distinguish between objective truth and faith?
  • Which experts do we trust?
  • Where are their hidden agendas?
  • What is meant by scientific uncertainty?
  • How can two people who are intellectually honest, and who have done their homework, reach different conclusions?

The answer to the final question is not all that hard. If two people thoroughly research a very complex topic such as global warming it almost certain that they will agree that it is happening, and that it is largely caused by human activity. They may reach different answers to specific questions such as the nature of the end point or the speed with which events will unfold. In other word, it will not be a case of denial or non-denial; the differences will be merely a matter of degree.

In the context of this book we will consider the following areas of truth.

  • Real things and objects represent truth. Oil flowing out of an oil well is an objective fact. A melting ice sheet is a fact. Both facts are true.
  • Measurements represent truth. If the global temperatures, as measured at meteorological stations around the world, show a steady increase, then it is true that temperatures have been rising. We can also accept as true that sea levels are rising.
  • Some scientific theories can be considered to be true. For example, the laws of thermodynamics cannot be challenged, at least for the purposes of this book. It is possible that someone, one day will find out how to “beat” those laws. But, for now, we can take them as true. Perpetual motion machines are not possible.
  • People can speak the truth, at least as they see it. If a person states that he does not accept that global warming exists, and if that person has also conducted extensive, honest research, then he is speaking the truth.
  • Jesus often spoke in parables. In doing so he was challenging us to work out our own understanding of truth.

But there is another type of truth. Not only do we need to consider “the facts of the case”, we also need to understand the manner in which we, as individuals, react to those facts. It is all too common for a person to accept the facts to do with global warming, say, but then to move on as if they have just learned something interesting, but not all that consequential. They have not internalized their intellectual knowledge — maybe because they sense that doing so would open up a whole range of emotional issues that they would rather not consider.

For this reason, it is vitally important not to criticize “deniers”. We can and should, of course, challenge their statements and reasoning; but we need to realize that their responses to the scary issues that we face are, in fact, quite sensible. make sense within their own personal context.

It is easy to become frustrated, and even angry, with those who choose to deny what is going on around us.

You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.

Harlan Ellison

But it is important not to disparage those who deny that the changes we talk about are taking place. Age of Limits issues are challenging and frightening — we all wish that the world could go on as normal. We all choose to deny reality whenever we can. Some of the ways in which we do so are discussed in this section.

I reiterate, many people who deny that the world is changing believe that they have a legitimate point of view — it would be irresponsible not to take that point of view seriously. Even if their arguments are specious, we do need to recognize that their doubts are often based on emotions such as fear for the future of their families. They need to be heard.

In future posts we will explore the issue of truth in an Age of Limits. We will also look at the different types of denial, and discuss why people respond in the way they do. For now, it might be useful to consider the nature of Pilate’s question. We know very little about the man. Was he:

  • Genuinely interested in having a philosophical and theological discussion to do with nature of truth?
  • Being sarcastic?
  • Taunting Jesus?
  • Trying to conduct a fair trial and to establish justice?
  • Trying to look good in front of the Jewish authorities?
  • Challenging those authorities because they had not made a formal accusation?

Clearly, the pursuit of truth is difficult. Which is one reason not to brush off “deniers” without thought or discussion.

Pontius Pilate by Maureen Carter
Pontius Pilate by Maureen Carter


Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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