There was a great cartoon that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal. A bewildered man is depicted in Hell standing in front of a smirking Devil with the caption: How can I be here? I didn’t believe any of this stuff. The great surprise for this guy, who still can’t quite believe it, is that the truth is hard. What is real and true is not affected at all by what we may believe or disbelieve. The humorous depiction about the hardness of truth in the cartoon is not particularly a message about who is going to Hell. Rather it pokes fun at a prevailing sentiment today that our inclinations about what is true or good are valid and viable simply because we believe them. We hear it said: These things are true for me, so you need to respect them simply because I believe them. We could call this soft truth – believing things are true, on account of belief in them.
Embracing life with soft understandings of truth has not been limited merely to disbelievers in Hell and the Devil. Christians have sometimes been susceptible to thinking that the verities of the Gospel are grounded in nothing more than the presence and strength of their faith in them. Perhaps you have heard expressions that reflect this understanding: I know that Jesus has risen from the dead because I believe He lives here in my heart. In religious circles, a soft understanding of truth is sometimes called fideism: having faith in faith. Some years back, it was Dr. John Montgomery who warned Christians against fideism asserting that faith does not validate God-talk. Biblical faith is in tension with the fallenness of the world, but it is not in tension with hard truth. Hard truth is objective truth; its veracity does not rely in any sense on anyone believing it. The Apostles and Evangelists in the New Testament exhorted trust in the saving grace of Christ because it was grounded in hard truth. They exhorted faith in God’s forgiveness not simply because sinners need it; but because it is anchored in the objective facticity of the saving work of Christ. Let’s consider some examples.
Jesus ministered to John the Baptist (or perhaps his disciples) with the hard truth about His own identity as the Christ when his disciples asked the question: are you really the one to come or should we look for another (Matt. 11:3)? This is the central truth question of the Christian faith. Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Turning to the disciples He said: “Go back and tell John of the things that you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:4-5). In order to shore up wavering faith commitments, both for the disciples and for us today, Jesus used His actions during a day’s worth of ministry to evidence the hard truth about His Messianic identity.
Foundational to the apostolic preaching of Jesus was the testimony, “Of these things we are witnesses” (Acts 2:32, 2 Peter 1:16). Faith and God-talk in the ministry of Christ and His Apostles was grounded by objective evidence about hard truth. When we reflect on authentic Christian faith, the heart trusts in the hard truth of what the head has come to know. As the late Edward John Carnell described a biblical understanding of faith, “Faith is the resting of the heart in the sufficiency of evidences.”
John constructed his Gospel around seven miracles of Jesus, capping them with His resurrection appearance to the skeptic, Thomas. He then stated their purpose to the reader: “Jesus did many other signs which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). The apostolic church proclaimed God's mighty acts through Jesus as hard truth to undergird our trust that God is gracious to us through His saving work. Indeed, John testified about multi-sensual contact with the works of Jesus to establish the hard truth that He is the Word of life in which we have life.
In order to shore up wavering faith commitments, both for the disciples and for us today, Jesus used His actions during a day’s worth of ministry to evidence the hard truth about His Messianic identity.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life-the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you (1 John 1:1-3)
Hard truth works both ways. As the apostle Paul declared, “If Christ be not raised from the dead, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). Should this be hard truth, it means that we also will not be raised from the dead. In which case, Paul advised believers to eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (v. 32). However, this is not the case. Our faith and God-talk are grounded in the corroborated multi-sensual testimony of the women, the Apostles, and over 500 witnesses. Their testimony provides overwhelming evidence of the hard truth that Jesus did rise from the dead, and therefore so will we (1 Cor. 15:3-8, 20-22).
The hard truth is that there is a Hell, souls in prison, and the Devil. However, because there is compelling evidence that Jesus conquered sin, death, and the Devil in His atoning death and glorious resurrection, we can have confidence that in His victory, we do not have to end up like the hapless fellow in the cartoon. After defeating all the powers of darkness, Jesus took a victory lap in Hell (1 Peter 3:19), and we former-citizens of Hell have become permanent citizens of the Kingdom of God. The devil is not in these details because they are grounded in truth that is hard. Believe it or not!