By B. Nathaniel Sullivan
In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus shared what would become one of His best-known parables, the Parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son. Following every impulse, desire, and whim he felt, a young man demanded his father give him his inheritance early and then “set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). Then, a famine hit. Destitute, the former partier was forced to take a job feeding pigs and “longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (v. 16). At last, he “came to his senses” (v. 17) and resolved to go to his father and ask to be taken on as a hired servant. Overjoyed his son had returned, the father welcomed him gladly and even threw a party to celebrate (see vv. 20-24). “This son of mine,” he declared, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).
The idea that everyone is entitled to his or her “own truth” means that each individual’s perspective or opinion is just as valid as everyone else’s. This is called relativism, and it has become the consensus view in America today. Jesus’ parable teaches otherwise. Yes, a person is free to follow his or her own beliefs, feelings, and inclinations, but not without consequences. Relativism is a myth, but it’s one that our society and culture feed, often through government, which frequently “rescues” people from the negative repercussions of their false beliefs and the resulting irresponsible behavior. If not artificially mitigated, negative consequences can teach valuable lessons. The father in Jesus’ parable actually saved his son by not intervening to “rescue” him. Yes, sometimes life-saving intervention is necessary, but in many instances, irresponsible behavior doesn’t result in life-threatening scenarios, and those it does produce often provide tremendous learning opportunities.
A belief in absolute truth pushes back against relativism. Those who believe in absolutes say certain principles apply to all people at all times, under all circumstances, everywhere.1 They contend it would be far better for a person to align his or her beliefs and actions with reality in the first place, rather than having to “learn the hard way.” Dennis Prager encourages people to take the path that actually does good as opposed to the one that merely feels good.2 Zig Ziglar once said, “If you will be hard on yourself, life will be easy on you. But if you insist upon being easy on yourself, life is going to be very hard on you.”3 By cooperating with life’s realities, a disciplined person can avoid many of its pitfalls, some of which, as we have affirmed, are deadly. Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 declare, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”
Let’s explore several aspects of this philosophy called relativism to become better equipped to use our heads and avoid merely following our hearts when making important decisions. Three questions will chart our discussion: 1) How legitimate is relativism? 2) Why is it so attractive? 3) What are its results?
Aspect One: Relativism is hopelessly flawed.
First, it is inconsistent. Relativists say they believe all perspectives are equally valid, but they flatly reject the idea that absolute truths exist. To them, the non-existence of absolutes is an absolute. This defies all logic. The first law of rational thought is the law of non-contradiction, which says that a principle and its opposite can’t mutually be true.4 Inevitably, relativism permits and even compels people to believe falsehoods, and sooner or later, reality hits.
Second, absolutes exist, and they are self-evident. Every time a person looks at his watch, takes a measurement of some sort, drives her car, eats a meal or a snack, writes a check, or does any one of a countless number of other things, that person is relying on standards and principles he or she assumes to be reliably and consistently true. Were they not, chaos would prevail.
Third, people everywhere benefit from absolutes in the physical world, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. For example, gravity makes ordered life on earth possible. Defying it can be harmful and even lethal.
Sadly, relativists increasingly have been given free passes to promote blatantly false ideas. The same people who refuse to define the word woman will say they believe men can become pregnant and have abortions.5,6 They deride males who speak out against abortion for being publicly pro-life because “abortion is a women’s issue,”7 even though Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that unleashed abortion on America nationwide 50 years ago, was decided by seven male Supreme Court justices.
Fourth, absolutes exist in the moral realm, just as they do in nature. Is racism wrong? Is slavery a moral evil? Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace asks rhetorically, would anyone contend it is morally okay to kill people just for the fun of it?8 Even relativists will admit these questions highlight principles everyone should honor—even though, according to them, absolute standards aren’t supposed to exist.
Fifth, even relativists appeal to moral absolutes when they feel their own rights have been violated. Just ask one if he would mind if you stole his wallet or if she would care if you snatched her purse.
Sixth, people, therefore, know innately that absolute truth exists. As Scripture says, the law—God’s law—is “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15).
We began by saying that relativism is inconsistent. Our seventh point expounds on this principle. Relativism is inconsistent—so much so that it collapses under its own weight. It does not work in the real world. Relativists attempt to dodge this by appealing to relativism when they encounter an idea they like and ignoring it when they encounter one they dislike. Relativism’s inconsistencies, therefore, are mirrored in the behavior of its adherents.
Aspect Two: If relativism is so thoroughly flawed, then why is it so enticing?
First, it appeals to people’s emotions. The notion that everyone can be right sounds and feels good and noble.
Second, relativism appeals to people’s imaginations. The temptation to create one’s own “reality” is powerful. I believe this is a primary reason the transgender movement has gained so much ground.
Third, social pressure to espouse relativism is extremely intense. Just a scant few decades ago, tolerance meant showing respect for those with whom one disagrees. Today people are accused of being intolerant if they don’t 1) agree with and 2) celebrate whatever a person chooses to do or to be. No one wants to be condemned as judgmental or full of hate—but do you see the hypocrisy here? Those who condemn people who believe in absolutes of being hateful and judgmental actually are being hateful and judgmental themselves!
Fourth, believing in absolutes requires people to think through their positions and defend them intellectually, at least in their own minds. It’s much easier to “go along with the crowd.”
Fifth, relativism appeals to human pride. It gives each individual an excuse to become his or her own god.
Aspect Three: When people are given a philosophical excuse to become their own gods, bitter fruit results.
Although untenable, relativism is enticing in that it rids people of restraints that discourage them from doing whatever they wish. This pushes society into treacherous waters. If every viewpoint is just as valid as every other viewpoint, then no one can challenge ideas like these9 from Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (1879-1966):
“The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”
“The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”
“Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease. . . .”
Are you ready to affirm those statements? If you claim to be a relativist, then to be consistent, you can’t condemn them! I once heard Josh McDowell say that relativism, or what he called the new tolerance,10 makes it impossible to distinguish between the wheatfields of Kansas and the ovens of Auschwitz.11 Relativism refutes the notion these are substantively different in any way.
Because it can’t recognize either good or evil, relativism is incapable of distinguishing between the two and incapable of preferring good over evil (see Isa. 5:20). Often, those who espouse relativism will recommend a practice that actually is evil (but may not appear so) to achieve a “greater good.”12 This is a natural result of a belief in evolution. If all that exists came into being from random, impersonal, material forces, then everything is morally neutral. Immaterial ideals such as values and moral standards of right and wrong could not have arisen from matter alone. God is out of the picture, and so, therefore, are good and evil.
As we have seen, relativism not only excuses tyrants and despots but also “ordinary” people, like the lost son, and like you and me, when we allow natural desires and inclinations to chart our courses. Do you want to avoid unnecessary heartache and pain in your life? Do you want to help society cultivate a respect for others and cohesiveness conducive to authentic liberty? Reject relativism and defend the existence of absolute truth—not any form of absolute truth, but a set of beliefs reflecting the truth of God as revealed in the Bible. In other words, adopt and uphold a biblical worldview.
Next time we’ll explore what this means in practical terms. Be sure to return.
This article was adapted for The RenewaNation Review magazine from a series titled Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes at wordfoundations.com/contending- for-the-recognition-of-absolutes.
B. Nathaniel Sullivan is a writer, Christian educator, and blogger at wordfoundations.com and discoverbedrocktruth.org.
1. “The Absolute Truth,” Josh McDowell Ministry, https://josh.org/daily-devo/the-absolute-truth-7.
2. Dennis Prager, “‘Does It Do Good?’ vs. ‘Does It Feel Good?’ Left-Right Differences: Part III,” DennisPrager.com, June 9, 2015, https://dennisprager.com/column/does-it-do-good-vs-does-it-feel-good-left-right-differences-part-iii.
3. Zig Ziglar, “If you will be hard on...” AZquotes, https://azquotes.com/quote/815000.
4. Bill Pratt, “What Is the Law of Non-Contradiction,” Tough Questions Answered, December 28, 2011, http://toughquestionsanswered.org/2011/12/28/what-is-the-law-of-non-contradiction.
5. Timothy H.J. Nerozzi, “Biden admin agencies refuse to answer, 'What is a woman?',” Fox News, April 4, 2022, https://foxnews.com/politics/biden-agencies-define-woman.
6. EWTN, “Democrats Think Men Can Get Pregnant,” YouTube, May 28, 2022, https://youtu.be/mh0eyPJ4VaU.
7. Michael Robinson, “No Uterus, No Opinion? Should Men Have a Voice on Abortion?,” LifeNews.com, Mar 1, 2019, https://lifenews.com/2019/03/01/no-uterus-no-opinion-should-men-have-a-voice-on-abortion.
8. B. Nathaniel Sullivan, “Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 9,” Word Foundations, 2017, https://wordfoundations.com/2017/04/02/contending-for-the-recognition-of-absolutes-part-9.
9. “21 Quotes by Margaret Sanger that Will Probably Make You Sick,” FP Student Action, November 20, 2017, https://tfpstudentaction.org/blog/margaret-sanger-quotes.
10. B. Nathaniel Sullivan, “A 3½-Minute Presentation that Will Rock Your World,” Word Foundations, https://wordfoundations.com/mcdowellontolerance.
11. Wikipedia. 2022. “Topf and Sons.” Wikimedia Foundation. Last modified June 3, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topf_and_Sons.
12. “C.S. Lewis > Quotes > Quotable Quote,” Good Reads, https://goodreads.com/quotes/19967-of-all-tyrannies-a-tyranny-sincerely-exercised-for-the-good.
Copyright 2022 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.