Unbelieving man spends a great deal of effort trying to account for a great many things that can simply be explained by the existence of God. Where did we come from? How did we achieve all of the complexity we see around us? What is the purpose of life?
Man tries to account for all of these questions without reference to God, or without reference to a God uncontrolled by man. Man declares himself the arbiter of what can and cannot be true, and then examines all truth claims to decide whether or not to accept them.
But it is the word of God which declares what is and what is not, what can and cannot be. God calls man to simply accept His truth, and indeed we cannot even function without reference to this truth. We are not independent. In Him we live and move and have our being. Man can only know anything insofar as he accepts the revelation of God.
Unbelieving man is therefore like a man standing on scaffolding claiming he can fly. You point out to him, no, you’re standing on scaffolding. And he says, But I am dismantling the scaffolding under my feet, and when I am done, that will prove that I can fly. One of two things must inevitably occur. The man will continue to stand on God’s scaffolding, operate on God’s truth, and pretend that he is not, and make a show of dismantling the very thing he is standing on. Or, he will succeed, and truly dismantle the structure of his own thought, and fall into nihilism.
The conversation between Jesus and Pilate, recorded in the book of John chapter 18, perfectly reveals this dilemma in the mind of the unbeliever. Pilate is confronted with Jesus, the revelation of the truth of God. Jesus Himself makes this claim to Pilate, telling Pilate that He came into the world for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth. Pilate’s response, perhaps his most famous words, is “What is truth?” Pilate then proceeds to declare that Jesus is innocent, and orders him to be crucified.
Pilate is a man caught on the horns of this dilemma. He is trying to judge reality using his own faculties, but comes upon an impossible case, the case of Jesus himself. In Pilate’s understanding, a man like Jesus simply cannot exist. He defies all of Pilate’s expectations. He does not cower before Pilate. He is not afraid. He does not defend himself, flatter Pilate, or all of the things that Pilate must be accustomed to for a man of his power. Jesus is accused of things by the Jews that He cannot possibly be guilty of. As long as Pilate insists on the independence of his own mind, he has no way at all of dealing with the situation he is in. Jesus is innocent of the charges, but Pilate’s own survival will be jeopardized by antagonizing the Jews, who have threatened to accuse him to Caesar of tolerating a rebel. But if he declares Jesus to be guilty, then he is acting contrary to what he knows is the truth and will be giving the Jews, whom he hates, the victory over him. He has the option of simply submitting to the truth, doing the right thing and trusting God to take care of him. But this he cannot do. Instead, he says, “What is truth?” He denies the validity of thought itself, declaring Jesus innocent and then condemns him to death for a crime that Jesus, by Pilate’s own admission, could not possibly have committed.
Tradition tells us that Pilate committed suicide some years later. We don’t know for sure. But we know that he committed a kind of suicide, right here in John 18. He commits intellectual suicide, declaring that it is impossible to know the truth, or even that truth does not exist, for the alternative is unthinkable, to submit to God. Rather than admit that he cannot fly, he tears up the scaffolding under his feet and falls to his doom. Rather than admit that his mind is not independently capable of understanding the truth, he declares that there is no truth and destroys the validity of his own mind.
This is always the option facing man. In hell, Jesus tells us that there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sorrow and rage. The unbeliever in hell has completely destroyed his mind, refusing to acknowledge that God is the rightful judge and king, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
So we can continue to insist on our own autonomy, the independence of our own minds. This is a pure assumption. No evidence is even possible for such a claim, since that evidence could only be judged by that very mind in question. It is a pure assertion, and is made because the alternative is unacceptable to man. The alternative is that we think God’s thoughts after him, that our minds, to work properly at all, must be subject to the God that made our minds. But this second alternative is the truth, as declared by the Scriptures and revealed by Jesus Christ. In man’s desire for freedom, to fly on his own strength, he ends in despair and death. But by embracing the truth of Jesus Christ, we become what God intends for us to be, creatures made in His image.
And this is just what Jesus told us, that the truth will set us free.