‘What is truth?’ These words from Pontius Pilate, quoted in the Bible in John 18:38, are the summary of what this article is about. However, the words of Pilate can be interpreted and used in different ways. Pilate used it to express his skepticism. Jesus Christ, standing before Pontius Pilate, his judge, responded to a question from Pontius Pilate and testified that He is a king. He said, ‘For this cause, I was born, and for this cause, I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ But Pilate showed his unwillingness to listen to the Truth with the words ‘What is truth?’ Right after he had spoken these words, he went out again to the Jews. He didn’t want to listen to what Jesus had to say and with that, he rejected the only Truth that could set him, and us all, free.
It is interesting that according to some traditions, Pilate later repented and became a Christian. We don’t have any proof of this. This possibly is one of the many examples from history where the wish is the father to the thought. And that is how many ‘lies’ come into this world. Myths are traditional or legendary stories that may or may not have a kernel of truth in them, usually concerning some being or hero or event which is considered to be important in the history of a people. It seems like many stories in the ‘tradition’ of the Roman Catholic Church are much like myths. The story of Pontius Pilate repenting from his sin and becoming Christian is one of those stories. We don’t know if it is true or not.
The Present Age
Turning from history to our present time, it is regrettable that with regard to many stories being reported in the news media, we have the same uncertainty. We don’t know exactly what happened and sometimes are not even certain if something happened at all.
The position of the media has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, and much of that change goes together with the rapid spread of the Internet and the possibility for everyone to publish his or her own story online.
In the past, journalists were often considered experts in gathering the truth, and journalism was a necessary tool to keep governments to account in democracies. One of the determining marks of a dictatorship is that the free press is limited or even eliminated. Those who grew up in the time of the Cold War, probably know quite well that the Pravda was not to be believed, because all the news published in there was cooked up by the apparatchiks of the ruling Communist Party. Much the same can now be said about the state-controlled news media in China. Many journalists risked their lives, not only in communist countries but also in other dictatorially governed countries, in search of the truth.
In those days, to work as a journalist for reputed news media, you needed to have a high standard of journalism and of integrity. If you were found out to be not so precise with reporting the truth, your career was usually over.
Yes, it is true that also in those days, the news media could be and often were biased. It was commonly known that some newspapers favoured the unions, while other newspapers were inclined to the more (politically) conservative ideas. Many Christians also deemed it necessary to have a newspaper from a Christian perspective, and for good reasons.
However, despite all their bias, there was still respect for the facts. Often, at least in Europe (where I grew up), the facts were still reported, but the evaluation of the facts, or the commentary of the editors, was much influenced by their bias. It was possible to have a thorough discussion about the facts. The disagreement was not so much about the facts, but more about how to interpret and evaluate the facts.
Over time this changed. If we compare the way the ‘reputable’ news media reported on the events that happened for instance under President George Bush (1989-1993), with the way these same media reported the events happening under his son President George W. Bush (2001-2009) and even the way the media report in this time about everything that President Donald Trump is doing, we see a progressive deterioration in their concern with the truth. Even so far that they now either openly admit to their bias or do no longer respond to accusations of being untruthful. They often do not care anymore.
In the time in which we live now, there is an abundance of news sites that can be found online. Whether it is from newspapers or broadcasting corporations or news agencies or bloggers with millions of followers. It is so easy now to publish your own opinion and present it as the truth. In a way, we can say, with the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers”. True, in the past it was not always true doctrine to which people turned when they used the media. Nevertheless, in today’s society, it is even more clear than in the past that people will turn to those media sites which tell them a truth that they want to believe. They create for themselves a truth by excluding everything that does not fit into their idea of the truth. And this is not only true for those on the left end of the political spectrum, but those on the right participate in this as well. While Christians should be different and be known for their desire to speak the truth, I am sorry to have to say that even among Christians this sometimes does happen. More about that later.
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
A witness standing before court to give a testimony in a criminal case swears to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Despite this solemn oath (or promise), it does happen that two witnesses, both genuinely concerned with the truth, contradict each other. To use an (imaginary) example: One witness heard a teacher tell the class that ‘there is no God’. He testifies before the school board that this teacher blasphemed God by saying that God does not exist. The next witness coming before the school board is one of the students of this teacher. He is asked: did your teacher blaspheme God by saying ‘there is no God’? The student denies it. He never heard the teacher say something like this. Two witnesses contradicting each other. What happened? Did the teacher say it or did he not? How does the board have to judge?
Then a third witness comes in and gives his testimony. What did your teacher say? This student, first confused because he cannot believe that his teacher would ever have said this, then catches on to what has happened and tells the story. The teacher was reading from the Bible at the beginning of class, from Psalm 14: ‘The fool said in his heart, “there is no God.”’ So yes, the teacher had said ‘there is no God’. However, the students in the classroom all know the context of these words and it would never enter their minds to accuse the teacher of blasphemy. However, the first witness was not a student who was sitting in class but a parent who just happened to walk past. The teacher was really doing his best reading the Bible and used an expressive voice. The parent only heard the words ‘there is no God’ and, since they were spoken loudly, he thought that the teacher was in a heated discussion and shouted, ‘there is no God’.
All witnesses spoke the truth when they reported the facts. However, the truth lost out when it comes to the evaluation of the facts. The parent did not have the full context and came to conclusions before having heard all the facts. For the second witness, what had happened was so in line with what he had expected, that he didn’t even remember the exact facts. Thankfully, there was a third witness who understood what went wrong in the process and was able to produce the whole truth.
This is a simple example, and many court cases are much more complicated than this one. However, because of its simplicity, it can teach us some important lessons. Lessons which the Bible teaches us as well and which are summarised in the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 43. The first part of answer 112 says: ‘I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard.’
We can get so upset when we hear others telling us their story and believe that they have been treated unjustly. Almost immediately we have formed an opinion and are angry with the other party. We decide to exert our influence by publicly addressing the matter, based on the information we have heard, and condemning the other.
In this case, there are a few things that could have gone wrong.
In the first place, we may have condemned or joined in condemning the other while not having heard the other. The lesson to learn here is that we should not let our emotions rule over us, but first hear all information before coming to a judgment.
In the second place, the one party may be closer to us and we feel we must protect this person; our judgment is clouded by our feelings for this one person. Because the other person has hurt the one who is close to you, you feel the other person is wrong. You think you have received all information, you have talked to the other party and heard them out, but in your anger, you have already determined that they act wrongly and therefore you interpret the information you receive from that perspective. You are no longer able to function as an unbiased judge. Even though you have heard the other, yet you still have condemned the other rashly.
In the third place, we can be so upset by hearing something, that we come to quick conclusions, without knowing the complete truth. It is our strong desire to defend the Name of our God, and therefore we believe that the ‘sinner’ must be punished quickly and harshly. However, we did not act out of love for the truth and our zeal, which we believe was for God, was not pleasing to God. Zeal for the name of God must always go together with love for the truth. God is truth and God is not pleased with those who claim to defend His Name or even the truth, but who do not love the truth. With regret, I notice that this sin is committed in the church often and has contributed to many splits and schisms in the churches, now and in the past. This teaches us the lesson that our zeal can be well-intended but ultimately wrong and not pleasing to God.
The use of social media
The rapid rise and spread of social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and others, is part of the problem. We cannot blame social media for all that goes wrong. It is a technology that has been developed and with so many other technologies, it can be used in a good way and serve mankind, Christians can use it for their benefit and in a way that is pleasing to God.
However, the Bible teaches us that toward the end of times things will get worse and events will happen in much more rapid succession. The Word will spread over the earth with increasing speed, but the lie will do so as well. Wherever the Rider on the White Horse went, conquering and to conquer (Revelation 6), there the other three riders and horses went as well and brought destruction on earth. Social media can help to spread the gospel rapidly, even to countries that we have a hard time reaching now. It can be a blessing. It can also be used against Christians, as is indeed happening often. We should be careful and not condemn social media rashly and unheard. Ultimately, with social media, as with so much of technology, whether it is good or bad depends so much on what is in the heart of the user.
It is important to be aware of the dangers of social media so that we do not fall into Satan’s trap. It is important just as much to be aware of the blessings of social media so that we can use this tool as a gift from God and turn it against Satan. In that light, we should have a critical look at our own use of social media.
The Editorial Committee of Reformed News discussed the matter of media, social media, and the ninth commandment. There are many aspects and we decided to focus on several aspects of the issue. Much can be written about it. We cannot be exhaustive, but in a series of articles which will be published on this site, some important matters will be addressed.
We will begin by looking at the ‘News’ and the ninth commandment, from a Biblical perspective. The Bible also teaches us how destructive the lie can be. Speaking the lie is doing the work of the devil. Enough material for another article. A further article will be addressing the question of how we can love the truth and speak it honestly if the sources of our basic information are polluted.
Also an article about the question ‘to judge or not to judge’: how do we find balanced information, how do we recognise bias in articles, how do we discern what is truth; and, finally, an article with some historical perspective.
We will also look at the use and abuse of social media among ourselves as Christians, sometimes just making us look silly, other times with harmful consequences. And over time, probably other related topics will come up as well.
Stay tuned! In the coming days, these articles will appear on the website, one by one.