Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan—
Two-and-a-half years ago I wrote a series of very brief articles for use as one-minute radio spots. Some of them offered observations about current events that now seem out-of-date; but many, like this one, remain timeless.
If It Sounds Good—Beware!
The sexual revolution of the 1960s didn’t just change people’s thinking about sexuality; it brought about a shift in perspectives on right and wrong. People today don’t see truth, right, and wrong as things to be discovered; they believe each person can create his or her own truth.1 This is relativism, which says all opinions are equally valid. This sounds good, but it is fatally flawed.
Christians believe in absolute standards of right and wrong, standards determined by the character of a holy God. Believing in absolutes necessarily means believing all opinions are not equally valid. Relativists reject this perspective outright, so they don’t really see all opinions as equal, either—but they pretend to anyway, using “tolerance” as a mantra. So, modern “tolerance” leaves no room for a belief in absolutes.
In this and several future posts, I’d like to explore these ideas. This week, let’s examine elements behind the phrase “This sounds good,” which is located near the bottom of the first paragraph. Unfortunately, relativism is very enticing—so much so that even many Christians have bought into the idea that truth is relative. In our post for December 9, 2016, we cited these statistics:
- More than 25 years ago, 51 percent of evangelical Christians rejected a belief in absolutes.
- In 1994, the percentage rose to 62 percent, and
- in 1999, to 78 percent.
- In 2011 the percentage of evangelical Christians not believing in absolute truth reached a staggering 91 percent!
The article for December 9 went on to lament that the results of ballot initiatives in 2016 offered no encouragement at all that the trend had reversed since 2011.
People in the general population readily can be carried along by the cultural tide, and Christians can too if they haven’t been properly grounded at church. Sadly, the church has failed in its duty to declare the truth and to ground believers in it. In a previous post titled “Eight Menacing Trends,” we explored the church’s failure in this regard. Please, carve out a few minutes to read or review this important article!
Against this backdrop, let’s explore why the philosophy of relativism is so widely attractive. We need to understand this if we are going to be effective in persuading people to recognize the existence of absolutes. Consider the following realities.
First, relativism appeals to people’s emotions. The notion that everyone can be right in what he or she believes sounds good and noble.
Second, relativism appeals to people’s imaginations. As a philosophy, it offers people the opportunity to create their own world of “reality.” One is reminded of what Walt Disney said of Fantasyland at the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955: “Here is a land of imagination, hopes and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young and the young at heart, to those who believe that when you wish upon a star your dreams do come true.” Visiting Fantasyland is one thing, but relativism invites people to live there. This portends disaster, because fantasies can’t survive in the real world.
Visiting Fantasyland is one thing, but relativism invites people to live there.
Third, social pressure to espouse relativism is extremely intense. This factor has at least two aspects. First, to reject relativism is to reject a belief held by “everyone else.” Who wants to be different from the crowd?
Fourth, add to the loneliness of being in the minority the difficulty of taking an unpopular stand. This is the second aspect to the social pressure surrounding a belief in relativism, and it has both positive and negative forces. On the one hand, believing truth to be relative positions a person to be seen as affirming and “tolerant” of others. Who among us doesn’t want to be viewed as magnanimous? On the other, a person who says absolute truth exists has taken a position that makes him or her a target of vicious criticism. Of course, no one wants to be condemned as judgmental or to be accused of hate—but do you see the irony here? Those who condemn people for being hateful and judgmental actually are being hateful and judgmental themselves!
Fifth, believing in absolutes not only puts a person at risk for vitriol and strong criticism; it also requires a person to think through his or her position and to defend it intellectually, at least in his or her own mind. Put another way, believing truth to be relative is the “PLR”—the “path of least resistance.”
Sixth, relativism appeals to human pride.
I want to spend just a few minutes exploring this last item, for it probably is the primary reason relativism is so attractive. Scripture proves just how relevant it is even in its opening pages, because even there it reveals pride as a core reason for the mess in which humanity finds itself.
In Genesis 1 and 2 we see that at the dawn of creation God created a perfect world with a perfect garden, and He put Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, in it and given them constructive work to do. He placed only one prohibition on them; they were not to eat from the fruit from one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Gen. 1:26-31; 2:15-25). Perfection disappeared in Genesis 3. Satan, in the form of the serpent, enticed Eve to disobey God. Here is how it happened.
1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate (Gen. 3:1-6, emphasis added).
We see here that Satan not only enticed Eve with good-looking fruit and with lies that confused her about God’s intentions for her and for Adam, he also enticed her with the temptation to play god! This temptation appeals to pride as does nothing else! Note also the connections between pride, playing God, and relativism. Essentially Satan said, “Eve, you can make up your own reality! You can make up your own truth! You can become like God!”
Instead, when they sinned, Adam and Eve died spiritually and began to die physically as well. God also expelled them from the perfect environment where He originally had placed them. The top image is a detailed section of Italian painter Masaccio’s 1425 fresco titled “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” The artist didn’t get everything right in his painting; God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins before expelling them. His depictions Adam’s and Eve’s expressions of horror and shame, however, are quite fitting and appropriate.
The late Dr. Mark Corts pastored Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for nearly 40 years. A powerful and insightful preacher, Dr. Corts offered many keen observations from the pulpit during his ministry. Here is one of them: The essence of sin is always trying to be like God without God.
The essence of sin is always trying to be like God without God.
—Dr. Mark Corts—
After we—the members of the human race—fell into sin, God implemented a plan to make us like Himself, but that plan requires us to surrender to Him and follow His way, not our own.
We said earlier in the radio commentary that “Christians believe in absolute standards of right and wrong, standards determined by the character of a holy God.” We’ll explore this statement in a future post, but for now, don’t miss these important points.
- God determines reality; people don’t.
- As people created by God, we must live in the real world, the world God also has created.
- When a person buys into the lie of relativism and attempts to come up with his or her own reality and live according to it, that person is playing god.
- Pride always is at the heart of the temptation to play god.
In a classic and entertaining lecture called “God’s Way or My Way,” speaker and bestselling author Frank Peretti examines the disastrous results of trying to live one’s own way rather than God’s. Peretti’s speech recently was made available on Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk radio program. I commend these broadcasts to you as a wonderful introduction to the battle for the recognition of absolute truth.
Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of this critical battle. Be sure to return.
Part 2 is available here.
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.
1Josh McDowell discussed the nature of truth on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast, May 22-23, 2007
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.