Is Truth Relative or Absolute?
By Christopher Jethro
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Is truth relative? A lot of people believe that it is. They say, “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” I hope this page will help you to understand the differences between relative and absolute truth and why it matters. Your view on relative or absolute truth is important because it affects how you understand reality, God, religion, and (most importantly) morality.
There are several simple examples that prove that there are at least some absolute truths. Nonetheless, many people choose to believe in relative truths simply because they don’t understand that absolute truths can be situation-dependent, which will elaborated on in the section “Contextual truths”.
The difference between relative and absolute truths
Absolute truth means that truth is not subject to people’s opinions, and humans do not create or determine truth with their personal beliefs. If you agree that the Earth was always been a sphere even when people believed it was flat, this means you agree with absolute truths.
Relative truth means that anything a person believes to be true is really true even if it disagrees with facts of history or the laws of science and mathematics. Relative truth also means that contradictory statements can both be true at the same time and nobody can ever be truly wrong. For instance, one person can believe that the Earth is a sphere, and another can believe that the Earth is flat. In relativism, somehow both of these statements can be “true” at the same time even though it makes no sense, being a logical impossibility.
Three reasons why truth can’t be relative
1) “And yet it moves.”
“And yet it moves” (Italian “eppur si muove”) is a phrase coined by Galileo Galilei when defending his position on the Earth’s true orbit. This expression basically means that what a person believes isn’t going to change the facts. (As Galileo used it, the Earth revolves around the sun – even if you don’t believe that.)
The follow examples demonstrate how absolute truth means something is true regardless of what others believe, unlike relativism which teaches the opposite.
What shape is the Earth?
- Absolute truth: “The Earth is a sphere, even if you don’t believe that.”
- Relative truth: “If you believe the Earth is flat, that really is true even if science can prove you wrong.”
- Absolute truth: “1 + 1 = 2. This is true, even if you don’t understand this, and even if you disagree.”
- Relative truth: “If you believe that 1 + 1 = 3 that is really true for you even if it contradicts what the laws of mathematics prove.”
2) The law of non-contradiction
This law of basic logic shows us that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time. (However, they can both be true simultaneously if the “contradictions” are only apparent which will be further elaborated in section about multiple layers of truth.)
The following examples present how two contradictory statements cannot be true at the same time, but relativism asserts this as possible anyways.
Is the Earth flat or a sphere?
- Statement 1: “The Earth is a sphere.”
- Statement 2: “The Earth is a flat plane.”
- Absolute truth conclusion: Statement 1 (the Earth is a sphere) is the truth. Statement 2 (the Earth is a flat plane) is false. Both can’t be true at the same time.
- Relative truth conclusion: The Earth is both a sphere and a flat plane at the same time. Whatever you want to believe is true for you.
- Statement 1: “1 + 1 = 2.”
- Statement 2: “1 + 1 = 3.”
- Absolute truth conclusion: Statement 1 (1 + 1 = 2) is the truth. Statement 2 (1 + 1 = 3) is false. Both can’t be true at the same time.
- Relative truth conclusion: 1 + 1 is equal to both 2 and 3 at the same time. Whatever you want to believe is true for you.
3) Relativism is self-contradictory
People who believe in relative truth often say, “The truth is that truth is relative, it just depends on what you believe!” But if that statement is really true, then the statement itself would be an absolute truth which proves that truth is not relative. The very statement “truth is relative” is itself an assertion of an absolute truth, which is false a priori and making the existence of relative truths wholly impossible.
In another light, are there absolute truths? If a relativist says “no” then it proves that truth is not relative because he just gave an answer that he asserts to be absolutely true. As you can see, on all fronts it is impossible for all truth to be relative. At minimal, one must agree that there are at least some absolute truths!
Consider the following self-contradictory statements that relativists often say…
“Truth is relative.” – Is that statement true?
“Nothing is really true.” – Is that statement true?
“There is no absolute truth.” – Is that statement absolutely true?
“What’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me.” – Is that statement an absolute truth? What if my truth says your truth is a lie? Is it still true, or is my perception not truth?
“You can’t know anything.” – How do you know that?
“You can’t know anything for sure.” – Do you know that for sure?
Examples which seem to prove relativism but don't
The story of the elephant in the room
A common example used by people to support relative truths is the well-known story of men examining an elephant. This eastern story says that a group of blind men are in a room (or a group of men in a dark room) with an elephant. They each touch a different part of the elephant and think that the elephant is something different. One person may grab its tusk and say, “It’s a spear”, another may press against its stomach and say, “It’s a wall,” and another may feel its legs and say, “It’s a tree trunk,” etc. The conclusion of the story is that truth is relative and each person can be right in their own way even if they contradict each other with their assertions.
Recently, an Atheist tried to use this example to prove to me that truth is relative. Afterwards, I asked a simple question, “So what was it all along?” “Oh,” he replied, “it ends up that it was an elephant all along.” “Exactly,” I responded, “that’s the absolute truth”. His face turned red at my reply. The absolute truth is that it was really an elephant all along. They were NOT each right; it ends up that they were each wrong. It was never a spear, a misplaced wall, or a tree trunk – it was an elephant all along. The analogy contradicts itself because it literally opens up with an absolute truth being stated – there was an elephant in the room (not a spear, misplaced wall, or tree). People can have different perspectives, but it doesn’t mean that their perspective is the truth!
Opinions vs. facts
Does pizza taste good or bad? Which is true? A relativist might try to use this kind of question to assert that truth is relative. But it turns out that the absolute truth is that pizza tastes good to some people but not to others. Nobody could truthfully say, “Pizza tastes good to everyone,” or, “Pizza tastes bad to everyone.” Indeed, people can have different favorite foods or colors, etc., but these are just opinions. Opinions are not facts. A fact cannot be asserted about how something tastes for everyone. The fact and absolute truth of this particular scenario is that people have different taste-buds that cause them to experience food differently.
There are absolute truths but you need to be careful not to confuse opinions for facts. What can seem like relative “truths” (e.g., one person says, “pizza is good,” while another says, “pizza is not good”) are just opinions that are explainable by absolute truths when the entire situation is taken into account. Note, for instance, how when a person says “in my opinion…” it means “this is just what I think and believe, but I could be wrong." People can have contrary opinions simply because they aren’t facts that universally apply to all people.
You can believe that the Earth is flat, but it isn’t. You can believe that 1 + 1 = 3, but it’s not. The bottom line is that perceptions do not establish reality. If I hand you a bottle of deadly poison, you can think it’s not deadly all you want and say, “Its deadliness is only true for you, that’s not true for me.” But if you drink it, you’ll soon be dead and discover that your “truth” wasn’t true at all. In other cases, sometimes the truth is unknown. But that doesn’t mean that whatever conclusions are formed in the meantime are true!
It ends up that people can think that they are right, but actually be wrong. Nonetheless, some people may appeal to relativism because they misunderstand how in a world of absolute truths there can still be partial truths, multiple layers of truth, and contextual truths (truths that depend on a context and setting). Below, these three forms of absolute truths will be elaborated on…
Three forms of absolute truth
Some statements can be partially true. Let’s say I went grocery shopping and went to both Wal-Mart and Kroger. If my wife asked where I went and I said, “I went to Wal-Mart,” the statement would be partially true because I technically did go to Wal-Mart, but the full truth is that I went to Wal-Mart and Kroger.
Multiple layers of truth
As stated earlier, when statements don’t conflict, they can both be true at the same time. I am reiterating this because some statements can have apparent “contradictions” that are explainable when the entire situation is reviewed.
For example, one person could say “cyan is blue” and another could say “sapphire is blue”. On the surface, both statements may seem contradictory, but it ends up that cyan and sapphire are both different shades of blue and thus both can be absolutely true at the same time.
Many people choose to believe in relative truths because they don’t understand how absolute truths can still be situation-dependent. For instance, is it always wrong to kill? Most people would agree that killing due to premeditated murder is certainly wrong, but would make an exception if it was absolutely necessary in self-defense against a murderer.
Whether or not it is wrong to kill, for instance, simply depends on the situation. But this is still an absolute truth. Many people who believe in relativism misunderstand this; they say “truth is relative, killing isn’t always wrong, it just depends.” But the very statement “whether or not it is wrong to kill depends on the situation” is itself a statement of absolute truth! If it truly always depends on the situation, that itself is an absolute truth!
It’s important to understand why absolute truths can still be situation-dependent because it will affect your understanding of morality. Truth being situation-dependent in some scenarios (primarily morals) is not the same thing as truth being relative. Due to a failure to understand this, some people mistakenly thought that these scenarios proved relative truths.
Why is it important?
Your view on relative or absolute truth is important because it affects how you understand God, religion, morality, and reality. When people believe that truth is relative, it can give them excuses to not seek out the real truth. Consequently, they become close-minded, won’t thoroughly search for truth, and form personal conclusions based on assumptions instead of desiring to know the real truth about life, God, religion, moral issues, etc.
How do you know what you believe is really true? How can you know truth?
Once you understand that truth is not relative, it brings up a question that is important for every person... If a person can believe something that they think is true but it's actually not true, how do you know that what you believe is really true?
Things aren’t true simply because they are believed to be true. What is the truth about God, religion, life, and morality? Whatever personal conclusions people may choose to believe obviously does not create truth. If truth exists outside of human minds, how can we know what’s true? How can we discover and really know for certain what is true?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘truth’ as “a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality” and “a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true.” Truth being something which is in the transcendental state of reality means that God is Truth because God is the highest pinnacle of all reality thus making Him the most transcendental Being of all (He transcends all things). And God being Truth, everything He says is true as well.
It ends up that you can know the truth. Since God is the omniscient Supreme Being of the universe, He obviously knows all truth. Being all-knowing, God sees things for what they really are – total objectivity can only be obtained by God who has all knowledge, knowing everything as it really is. Therefore, our ability to properly obtain objective truths will depend on our ability to receive it from God. And fortunately for us, Jesus said God would reveal truth so us when He said, “When He, the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). There is no other way to really know truth apart from God.
So instead of thinking that man-made philosophies and beliefs are true, you can trust God at His Word and be set free with real truth. If you want to know the truth, read the Bible. You might be thinking, “It makes sense that God would know and be able to reveal all truth, but how do I know the Bible is the real Word of God?” Despite what you may have heard, the Bible’s authenticity has been repeatedly verified by historical and archaeological evidence, it has demonstrated advanced science unknown to the time period, and the accurate fulfillment of hundreds of detailed prophecies demonstrates it is a supernatural text.
The reason why this is important is because if we know that God is Truth, what He says is truth, and His ways are true, it means anything contrary to that is false. Quite simply, we need God to know the truth! Without Him, how do we know if our beliefs are really true? By coming to God, we can dispel the fog of ignorance in our minds and know the real truth.
*If you don’t believe that God exists, then that means there can be no absolute truths. You would have no way of knowing what is true and have no concrete foundation for what you believe to be true (no way of proving your beliefs to be true). If God did not exist, you would be doomed to a world of dark ignorance and never know truth.
How it affects your view of God, religion, and morality
If all truth is relative, then how do know which one to believe? If they are all true, then how does one rightfully choose which “truth” is better? How could one choose which “truth” to believe in the world pool of near-infinite truths? How do you know what’s really true? Why teach “facts” in school if they aren’t absolutely true but just perceived as true for some?
When relativism is taken to the extreme, people start to question reality. If nothing is absolutely true, is anything even real? Many Hindu and Buddhist cults teach that everything you experience in life is just a grand illusion. If people start to agree with those teachings, they can enter a fearful or confused state of mind where they think they are living in some “Matrix”. It may be rare, but people who go down this path can commit suicide, become depressed, or become demonically oppressed.
The story of the blind men and the elephant, as mentioned earlier, originally comes from Buddhist and Hindu sects who use this story to try to call those in other religions "ignorant, blind fools". As a result, Satan could deceive a person to not seek real truth and further cause them to adhere to some occult belief instead.
Here’s the point: there are absolute truths and you can know them. When you accept the Lord Jesus into your heart, you become enlightened with the Truth and are made free from the lies of the world. You will no longer have to try to figure out life by yourself or rely on personal assumptions. You will no longer be confused, no longer will you have to trust those who think they know the truth, no longer will you grope the “elephant” of life in the darkness. When Jesus comes into your life, the light comes on and you can see the “elephant” for what it really is. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Why absolute truths affect morality
If you believe in absolute truths, it means you also believe in objective morality. If you believe in relative truths, it means that you believe in subjective morality. Objective morality means that deeds which are truly evil are wrong for everyone and it doesn’t matter if a person disagrees (e.g., rape is wrong even if the rapist doesn’t believe that). Subjective morality means that things which are immoral are only perceived that way, moral values cannot apply universally for all people, and things which we call “evil” (such as child abduction) are really just taboo.
When it comes to morality, moral truths usually fit into the category of contextual truths. For instance, it may be wrong to kill someone out of premeditated murder, but not in the incidence of self-defense. Even a relativist would concede that whether or not something is wrong depends on the situation because we all acknowledge that in order to make a perfect moral judgment one needs to take into account all the objective facts. This makes the appeal to God more necessary because, obviously, only God has all knowledge and wisdom, and even sees the intention of the heart, which makes Him alone perfectly qualified to make perfect moral judgments.
In a world of absolute truth, it means that things don’t cease to be immoral just because someone doesn’t think it is wrong. For instance, most thieves don’t think that stealing is wrong, but it doesn’t matter what they think; they are clearly just trying to justify their behavior to reap the benefits.
Thus far, we have logically proven that truth is absolute; something isn’t true just because someone believes it is, and truth comes from God. This matters because if God were to say that something is wrong, His moral verdict would be true even if people disagree. So hypothetically speaking, if God were to say “gay-marriage is wrong”, and God’s words and moral verdicts are absolutely true, then it logically follows that it wouldn’t matter who disagrees – it would truly be immoral.
The idea of relative “truths” certainly challenges the authority of God and His judgments on moral issues. If God says fornication is wrong, for instance, then that’s the truth despite who disagrees. If you don’t believe in God, then that means that anything which is “wrong” just depends on the cultural values. And if morals just depend on culture, then nothing is truly morally wrong or evil, it’s all just taboo. If you want to believe that rape, murder, child molestation, are not just believed to be wrong as taboo but are truly moral abominations, you must believe in God. Otherwise, we could just ask “why is it wrong? Just because you say so? Just because you think it is?”
*If you don’t believe that God exists, do you have any way of proving that anything is morally wrong? Can you prove it? If immorality is just culturally-dependent taboo, how is anything really EVIL? Why punish people for things that are just taboo but not really [absolutely] evil? Consider this example: Let’s say a person is guilty of rape but says, “Judge, I don’t believe rape is evil.” This scenario presents a brick wall of problems for those who believe in relative truths. Relativism says that all things are true that are believed to be true. Thus, in this situation, relativism would say, “Rape is not wrong for him, that’s true for him.” However, absolute truth says, “Rape was wrong for him, regardless of what he thinks!” I’ve used this example several times get Atheists to admit that morals must be objective (absolute) in order for it to be fair to punish them.
For instance, I recall asking one Atheist, “The rapist says it’s not evil, so should we let him off the hook?” He spoke too soon, ironically replying, “No, it doesn’t matter what the rapist thinks!” Uht oh. That’s an absolute truth, not a relative truth! Absolute truth means it doesn’t matter who disagrees or what they think, it’s universally true (true for everyone, applies to us all).
Again, if tomorrow the entire world decided that child molestation is not wrong, would it really cease to be wrong just because people believe that? Of course not! Child molestation is a moral abomination no matter who disagrees. That’s an absolute truth because it’s truly evil regardless of people’s opinions (it is not a subjective moral).
Absolute truths allow us to rightly discern, judge, and punish evil. Absolute truth means evil is real, not just taboo. Punishing evildoers like rapists, murderers, or thieves is not based on us thinking these things are wrong but because we know that they are [objectively] wrong.
If you would like to learn more about objective vs. subjective morality, then visit the page Proving God with Objective Morality.
Has this page helped you?
I hope this page has helped you to understand a clear difference between absolute and relative truth. More importantly, I hope that you have realized our need to appeal to God to know truth and have been inspired to seek God and His word to discover real truth. I hope you see now why (hypothetically speaking) if God were to say something like abortion or gay-marriage is a sin, then that would be true. I hope that in realizing this, you will become more open to what God has to say concerning moral issues.
If this page has helped you, or even changed your mind on the subject, then be sure to share this page with others!