What is the Difference Between Absolute and Relative Truth?

What is the Difference Between Absolute and Relative Truth?

(This is one of 40 key questions I address in my new book, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith. If you’re a parent, grandparent, church educator, or other special person in the spiritual life of a child, please check out my book for guidance on having the most important conversations about faith given today’s secular world.)

I was driving with the kids recently when my son announced that he had seen a black, red and yellow bird on his side of the car. My daughter Kenna immediately corrected him.

“Nathan, you are NOT right! The bird was black and red. It did not have any yellow. You are wrong.”

Nathan screamed back at her, “No! I am right! The bird DID have yellow on his bottom.”

Tired mom syndrome kicked in here and I entered the fray with this disingenuous response: “Guys! It doesn’t matter. Sometimes people see different things. Everyone can be right at the same time.”

Fast forward to the following week. My other daughter, Alexa, came running into the kitchen screaming, “Mommy! Kenna hit me!”

Kenna walked in behind her with a casual shrug. “No I didn’t. Now stop talking about it. We can both be right. Sometimes people see different things.”

I couldn’t believe it. My lazy response from the week before had totally confused my daughter’s understanding of truth! I had given her the idea that no one is right or wrong about anything, and everyone can be right at the same time.

As obvious as it may seem that there are many things which are true or not true (Kenna hit Alexa or she did not), this very basic understanding of truth – fundamental to Christianity – is under attack today. Kenna’s not the only one getting confused.

 

The Big Mix-Up: Absolute and Relative Truth

Whatever bird my kids saw was either 1) black, red and yellow (as Nathan claimed), 2) only black and red (as Kenna claimed), or 3) something else altogether (if they were both wrong). But contrary to my lazy “everyone can be right” response, the bird simply can’t be all of those things at the same time.

The color of the bird is an example of an absolute truth. To say that something is absolutely true means that it is independently true for all people, even if they do not know it or recognize it to be true.

The opposite of absolute truth is relative truth. To say that something is relatively true means that it can be true for one person and not for another. If Kenna had said, “the bird is beautiful!” and Nathan had replied, “the bird is ugly!” they could have both told the truth, because beauty is a matter of opinion; it’s a relative truth.

The existence of absolute truth is a necessary foundation of Christianity.

God didn’t exactly mince words in the Bible that what he revealed was the one and only truth. Quite directly, in John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The secular world is increasingly teaching, however, that all truth is relative – a simple matter of each person’s perspective. That’s why understanding these truth terms, and making them crystal clear for our kids, is so critical: we can spend years giving reasons for why we believe Christianity is true, but if the response is someday a shrug because our kids come to believe all truth is relative (“Christianity can be true for you, but not for me”), it will all be for naught.

 

Get Your Kids Thinking: The Chorus of Relativists

Here are four common statements rooted in the secular mix-up of absolute and relative truth. Talk through each with your kids. The bird examples may help you drive the concepts home.

“All religions point to the same truth.”

Even a most basic survey of world religions shows they contradict each other on major claims. They simply can’t be entirely true at the same time, though each claims to be entirely true. It’s just like the bird that can’t be black, red and yellow AND only black and red at the same time.

That said, it’s important to understand that different religions can contain parts of the absolute truth. For example, Judaism and Islam both believe in one God, as does Christianity. But neither religion believes Jesus is God’s son, which is central to Christian belief (and which Christians claim to be absolute truth). If the bird was black, red and yellow, Nathan’s belief was true. Kenna’s belief that it was black and red contained part of the absolute truth, but in its entirety, her belief was not true because she got the yellow wrong.

 

“Christians are not tolerant of other beliefs.”

Tolerance is the most misused word today. By definition, tolerance simply means to bear with ideas other than your own. Most people who throw the word around, however, treat it as though it means to agree with or accept those other ideas. To agree with all ideas is the ultimate nod to relative truth. Christians, however, should treat all people with respect, but stand firm that we believe only Christianity is true. Believing in absolute truth is not intolerant. Nathan could treat Kenna with respect while firmly stating that he believed she did not know the truth.

 

“I like to live according to compassion, rather than a pre-determined set of beliefs.”

Many young adults today turn away from biblical Christianity in favor of living according to “good values” alone. This quote suggests that it’s OK to decide what we believe based on what we like, as if spiritual truth is simply a matter of preference (a relative truth). I might like blue birds the best, but that has no bearing on the true color of the bird my kids saw.

 

“Christianity just doesn’t make sense to me because (fill in any number of reasons).”

What makes sense varies from person to person. Christianity makes sense to me. Atheism makes sense to someone else. Appealing to common sense implicitly promotes the concept of relative truth. But our subjective perspectives have no bearing on reality. Christianity might be true or atheism might be true, but they can’t both be true just because they make sense to different people. It might not make sense to me that there is a black, red, and yellow bird in this area right now, but that doesn’t mean the bird wasn’t truly there.

Can you think of other common statements that get absolute and relative truth mixed up? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

31 Comments

  1. Rosann on March 13, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    Oh, Natasha, this made me smile! Do you know how often I tend to take the lazy mom approach when my kids are arguing? Too often! Thanks for this eye-opening insight on truth. 🙂



    • Natasha Crain on March 13, 2014 at 12:34 PM

      lol I understand completely, Rosann! The arguing gets me totally crazy. I will do anything for it to stop. This time it came back to bite me. 🙂 I’m glad you liked the post!



  2. David Crain on March 13, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    That is why Nancy Pearcey’s book is called “Total Truth” and why Simon Wiesenthal (bless his heart) got it terribly and tragically wrong when he named his Holocaust museum, the “Museum of Tolerance”.



    • Natasha Crain on March 13, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      Oh the irony. That is indeed a tragic name.



  3. Ray Ciervo on March 13, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    Natasha, it is absolutely true for everyone that Nathan “believes the bird to be ugly”



    • Natasha Crain on March 13, 2014 at 12:39 PM

      The evaluation of the bird’s beauty is what is a relative truth. Two people can make opposite claims about the bird’s beauty and both claims can be true. That’s what makes it relative. But you’re right that when we DESCRIBE what each person believes, those descriptions are absolutely true.



  4. Glenn Kerswell on March 13, 2014 at 1:48 PM

    We know that the bible story even that of the flood is true , There is a whole earth full of evidence of the truth of the flood , Everything you see is evidence of the flood because the flood swept over it and receded from it , Things that show life on earth to be millions of years old are actually evidence of the flood and life has not existed for millions of years , Science could not possibly fail to recognise this fact for so long so we are no longer talking about any sort of truth , We have to get our heads around the fact that evolution science is now the great lie .



    • william reinholt on June 5, 2016 at 10:14 AM

      I would like to build on that, without taking or removing the truth you presented in regards to evolutionary creationism.
      Yes, evolutionary creationism is a faith/belief that is not true. While creationism is a faith/belief that is true.
      Creationism is a faith based answer for the beginning of the heavens and the earth. It is not a claim which scientists have placed their seal of approval. Science does not play into the place of faith based truths. For us, God through His word has given us the gift of faith that enables us to believe His word is true. We did not need to go to the scientist and ask him for scientific evidence which the scientist has to present when presenting his findings regarding what he presents as true. In short, he is not telling us something for which we need to trust him to be correct. He has the evidence that proves what he is saying is true.
      Faith is the foundation for our position for that which we present as spiritually true. When we have been the recipient of the gift of Faith which God by His grace provides to those who have faith; who have heard His word and having heard it; believe it is what He tells us it is. (“Thy word is truth, sanctify them in the truth” John 17:17)
      In contrast to this is the belief of the evolutionist as well as the evolutionary creationist, which they would have the world believe is science based; not faith based. But fail to be able to have acceptable scientific evidence for their claim. And we see God telling us in 1 Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.”
      In short they are presenting babblings that they would have us to believe are of science that are not.
      Yes, evolution science is now the great lie.



  5. Deb Brammer on March 12, 2015 at 5:41 PM

    Good blog! I came hear to jump-start my thinking about a scene I’m writing for a Christian novel. You make some great points in a way that is easy to understand. Thanks!



  6. A.O.S. Olaniji on April 15, 2015 at 12:18 PM

    For some years, I’ve heard people bandy the word ‘relative’ around without making any effort to realise its full import and impact. Your piece just exposed its subtle danger through’ ‘semantic dramatization’. God bless you.



  7. Bill Brown on April 25, 2015 at 8:08 PM

    Thanks for your well written insight into absolute and relative truth. It really helped my understanding of those terms.



  8. M.T on April 27, 2015 at 12:58 PM

    Dear Natasha,
    Thank you so much for simplifying the distinction between relative truth and absolute truth. I’m currently reading “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” and “Mere Christianity. Your example was perfect. I’m currently trying to find out the “Truth”
    False religions and parts of the Bible has caused me some doubts. I don’t know for sure if Jesus is God himself or just the son. What I am sure about is that Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and the likes have been unsuccessful, with all their theories, proving that God does not exist. I must remove that doubt. I can only do that by researching and Holy Spirit. Please, I beg for prayers. Please. How can I possibly have a relationship with a God I, from time to time, doubt?
    Thank you



    • Mary Esquivel on August 28, 2015 at 7:14 AM

      What is required to have a relationship with God, who can never be fully understood in this life and possibly in the next, is a leap of faith. I also was plagued with bouts of doubt about God until I made a decision. I made the decision to trust God and to lean not to my own understanding. The decision made sense. After all, insisting on understanding a Being whose intelligence compared to mine is like comparing an amoeba to a human being is ludicrous. So I made a pact with God. I told Him that I would believe Him and His truths before my own; that I would be one of His people and He would be my God. And it became so. When in doubt I remind myself of my pact with God; His truth before mine or any other human who has ever lived. The relationship that I now have with God cannot be described since it enters into the realm orchestrated by God who can be neither fully understood nor truly described. But I can say this: it is good. It has changed me from being a scared, lonely person to one who knows she is loved and cared for. Relative? Well, maybe, but, here again, I chose to believe God’s truth before mine or any other human’s who has ever lived in this world. Give it a try. It’s absolutely worth it.



      • JP on September 26, 2015 at 8:52 PM

        “Doubt is not the absence of faith, doubt is evidence of faith. The absence of faith is apathy.”



    • Al Steiger on March 19, 2016 at 10:51 AM

      We all have doubt at time. These scriptures help me regarding the deity of Jesus. John1:1-5, Genesis 1:26, Exodus 3:14, John 8:58-59, John 10:30-33, and John1:18.



    • Paul on January 7, 2017 at 1:10 AM

      First you have to ask the Holy Spirit in faith to help you understand the word of God. Because He is also God. In the Bible 2 Peter 1:21 will give you some insight into the authenticity of the Bible. May God continue to bless you as He has blessed me.



  9. Jay on July 17, 2015 at 11:24 AM

    H2O = water. I believe that to be true even though I have never dissected it for myself. I trust those that came before me and their abilities as scientists. But what about those that were believed to be heresies because they thought the world was round? And now we take it for granted that the world is round. In your example, what if I see the black, red, yellow bird BUT I see within the black, hues of purple and within the red, hues of orange and the yellow feathers fading to almost white at the tips. Then one might say that the bird is purple, orange and white and so on and so on and so on…………… Now let’s toss into the mix those that are color blind. These color(s) might be the different denominations in Christianity. Some may ask ~ Can you be a Christian and not believe in the Triune God? Can you be a Christian and have infant Baptisms? Can you be Christian and believe that tradition is equally as important as scripture? (just a couple of examples but BIG in the area of ‘truth’). Now let’s ponder those that are blind and will never see the bird and what that entails. I trust that within a community of believers each individual person has their own relationship with Jesus Christ, whether they are color blind or see all the hues of the rainbow, the truth is this ~ IT IS A BIRD!!!!!!!! liking or disliking the bird is not relevant. As for the blind man, he may not see the bird but he can hear the bird. Whether or not he likes the song is, again, not relevant. The fact remains that it is a bird. Take away the feelings, the opinions, the adjectives….. It was, is and forever will be A BIRD. That is how I see ones personal relationship with his/her Savior as He reveals that truth to them. If I were sitting next to someone that doesn’t believe after seeing or hearing the bird….. it doesn’t make the existence of the bird any less real. So, let’s talk about the INVISIBLE bird which is something all together different. That is what makes the personal relationship so necessary. He has revealed Himself to me and now I believe (know the truth). I trust what most of us believers fail to understand, SOMETIMES, is that until the invisible bird has revealed Himself to a beholder it really isn’t ‘true’ for them; because they have no idea what a bird is or anything about it. You can say bird and they will just scratch their heads and say “what is a bird?” before His revealing Himself to them, the word bird is meaningless; but once the truth is revealed, with the mere mention of word, they take flight and soar because the bird is now within them……. I do not, however, assume that everyone has a personal relationship YET. I trust they will one day see the bird with all the majestic hues or perhaps just simply with the black and red and yellow feathers. We who call ourselves believers know Him differently as Catholic Christians or as Baptist Christians or as Greek Orthodox or as poets or as teachers or as truck drivers …………. The truth is (in my humble opinion) simple, clear and easily understood. One doesn’t need to be a scholar or well read, they don’t even need to know their colors; one simply needs to say yes and the personal journey begins. We are asked to share as a community of believers because we need each other’s charity (love) so that we can share His kindness and mercy with our neighbors and our enemies. The Spirit that dwells within me is His light for His glory ~ I believe
    as for the topic of Kenna hitting Alexa, hitting is unkind and we don’t hit; your initial remark was SOMETIMES people see different things (and they do). Just put together a bunch of eye witnesses and you’ll hear a slightly different story from each one. None of them are necessarily lying, they may have just been focused on different things while witnessing the whole picture. In Kenna’s circumstance, what she did is different than what she saw. Kenna wasn’t a bystander observing something, she was an active participant. If she believes that hitting is right and lying about it is right ~ absolutely or relatively ~

    the following scripture is absolute
    Last Supper Discourses
    John 14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
    2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
    3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.
    4 Where [I] am going you know the way.”
    5 Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”
    6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
    7 If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
    8 Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”
    9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
    10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
    11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves.
    12 Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.
    13 And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
    14 If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

    M.T. I am praying for you



    • Lanardius on July 25, 2016 at 10:57 PM

      Let’s take this little snippet of your statement:

      In your example, what if I see the black, red, yellow bird BUT I see within the black, hues of purple and within the red, hues of orange and the yellow feathers fading to almost white at the tips. Then one might say that the bird is purple, orange and white and so on and so on and so on……………

      Let’s break it down and build it back up to the absolute truth.

      1) Original statement of absolute truth is I see black, red and yellow.

      2) You say what if the already determined truth of black I by perception or inability see hues of purple, and within the absolute color of red I by perception or inability see hues of orange, and within the absolute and determined color of yellow by perception or inability I see the fading of white tips. Emphasis added to your statement..

      So it is still an absolute that the bird is black, red, and yellow but because of one’s perception or inability in this case the absolute can be misconstrued and reconstructed into something else based on ones inability. Because one either misses to catch a color or sees the original absolute color in a different hue doesn’t change or recreate the absolute.

      The definition of color blind is the inability to distinguish the differences of certain colors or the reduced ability to distinguish certain colors NOT the ability see BEYOND or WITHIN an absolute color. Sometimes we can go beyond the absolute or rather miss the absolute and go off into our own reality causing real problems I.e new doctrines, self created revelations, philosophies earthly wisdom etc etc. Man we really need the Holy Spirit.

      So ones inability or reduced ability does not reduce the reality of the absolute by any means, but simply means that inability needs insight or clarity I.e. In spiritual terms enlightenment and or illumination by the Holy Spirit of God.

      Although the Pharisees were unable to clearly see Jesus for who he really was didnt mean that He wasn’t the Messiah.

      Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. Matthew 16:16-17

      I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. John 12:46

      The absolutes were:
      It was a bird
      It was outside
      It was black, red, and yellow. But because the sister had missed a color her statement was void and wasn’t absolute truth in its entirety, which absolute is completely and fully true.

      You actually just proved what the author was talking about when she wrote about the common statements rooted in the secular mix-up of absolute and relative truth. In particular this common statement

      “All religions point to the same truth.”

      “That said, it’s important to understand that different religions can contain parts of the absolute truth. For example, Judaism and Islam both believe in one God, as does Christianity. But neither religion believes Jesus is God’s son, which is central to Christian belief (and which Christians claim to be absolute truth). If the bird was black, red and yellow, Nathan’s belief was true. Kenna’s belief that it was black and red contained part of the absolute truth, but in its entirety, her belief was not true because she got the yellow wrong.”

      When we look at the word denomination the word denominator stands out which is used in dividing. The denominator in an a fraction is the divisor. God isn’t about division but unity, which only comes by and through absolute truth and yielding to the Holy Spirit. I believe we have denominations because of religious view,tradition, and/or cultural/racial preference but Lord please help us to see as you see and operate as kingdom minded individuals!

      Great article Natasha!!



  10. Elizabeth on September 9, 2015 at 8:03 PM

    Your simple explain just helped me to understand a question for my my philosophy of Education class. THANK YOU! I have been struggling to answer this question all day, researching and researching! THANK YOU!



  11. John King on October 15, 2015 at 7:54 PM

    Thank you for your blog and thoughtful remarks. It sparked my thinking. In times past it was often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” That concept has morphed into ‘everyone is entitled to their own truth.’ “Relative truth” is a contradiction in terms. “Relative” has come to mean that something depends on the circumstances. Truth means the actual facts about something. Bottom line is circumstances never change the facts. Witnesses disagreeing on a particular incident doesn’t changes the factual truth. They could all be wrong but they can’t all be right if they disagree. Obviously witnesses can see different aspects of an incident and still all be correct as long as they aren’t conflicting. Their are relative opinions we each hold because we have each experienced life a bit differently. But there is no possibility of “relative truth.”



  12. […] 10. What is the difference between absolute and relative truth? […]



  13. Richard Zungu on January 26, 2016 at 1:09 AM

    You have no idea how much this post means to me.I have a friend who became a new ager,and i can tell he doesnt believe anything I say. I know that deep down in his heart he thinks christianity is a joke and that the bible is simply not to be trusted.When the time is right I’m going to show him this blog post.Hopefully I can free his mind from people like Alan watt,Bill nye and a whole host of other decietful serpents.



  14. […] often search for subjective general meaning or fulfillment at the expense of looking for what is objectively true. One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a grounding in the right spiritual objective: […]



  15. Margo on June 5, 2016 at 8:29 PM

    I enjoyed reading your post and believe this quote ties in well with your subject. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts” (Tom Quirk).



  16. malini maumalanga on July 1, 2016 at 8:06 PM

    Thank you for sharing this blog. It helps me to really understand the two words, absolute and relative truth. Very simple examples also.



    • Greg Yu on December 10, 2016 at 11:21 PM

      The fundamental confusion in the debate of absolute truth and relative truth lies here:
      – Language is not necessarily art, but precision. Truth should not have a modifier or adjective. As stated
      above by John King, “relative truth” is an oxymoron. When minds are lazy, people are lazy and they fall into peril. Example: “Let me be really honest” versus “Let me be honest”. Really, is “really” superfluous. One either is honest or not. Period.
      – The Bible warns against a state of “ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” II Timothy 3:7. So many minds have become high-minded. Theory, academics and philosophy all sound so brilliant yet arcane at the same time. But all too often, they sit in an absolute vacuum. How do they affect one’s conscience about right and wrong, and one’s power to live, to be holy, to seek redemptive state, and to accomplish the assignment God has given them?
      – Metaphors and analogies can perhaps aid in knowing the truth. We can’t fully understand truth, but we can know it, and often that’s all you really need. Take the law of gravity on this earth. Some theorists and scientists say it doesn’t apply to everyone. In a zero gravity flight, you feel like you’re weightless, but you are simply on a jet in a parabolic flight within the earth’s atmosphere where gravity is still real. You are temporarily in an artifice that mimics zero gravity. So like God and His truth, gravity can be ignored or denied as one’s prerogative. But if all must take a one-time leap off the cliff upon death resulting from decay physically and sin spiritually, then you may cling to a single rope to save you – or you can ignore the law of gravity with all sincerity and fall perilously below. Grasping the rope is not only sensible but necessary.



  17. Seren Thorman on February 7, 2018 at 3:51 PM

    I loved this post, and was wondering if you have ever read the book by Art Lindsley “True Truth”. It seriously is the best, and goes even deeper with this topic that is flooding our world. I know so many people that believe in Jesus yet claim to believe in every other religion as well. It’s very frustrating.

    Thanks again!



  18. Lynn McNellis on March 14, 2018 at 3:33 PM

    I loved reading all of this! I was looking for insight on relative and absolute truth while finishing my bible study today. All of this was very helpful to me; thank you!!



  19. CR Douglas on April 15, 2018 at 9:17 AM

    Working on a Sunday School lesson where I get to teach a youth group about recognizing truth from error.. Great information to help with my lesson. 🙂 Thanks!



  20. Leanne Zumwalt on November 6, 2018 at 9:19 PM

    I am working on a AWANA lesson discussing the importance of truth and the difference between relative and absolute truth. This blog post was most helpful in my preparation.

    Thank you for your thought out words on a difficult topic.