There are terrible implications if truth is relative instead of absolute. Tolerance has become the ultimate virtue, especially on university campuses. Scott Scruggs provides a Christian response to this alarming trend.

If I were to ask you what our culture deemed more valuable, truth or tolerance, what would you say? To emphasize the purpose for the question, consider the following three illustrations.

Case 1. Recently, I had a conversation with a young man about Christianity. He listened closely to what I had to say about how Jesus Christ had saved me from my sin, but immediately became very defensive when I tried to suggest that he too had that same need for Christ as his Savior. He explained to me that because we live in a pluralistic society, all religions are equally valid roads to God. “You’re just being too closed-minded,” he said. “Jesus works for you, just like Buddha works for someone else. So if you want people to respect what you have to say, you need to be more tolerant of beliefs unlike your own.”

Case 2. Last year, a dean at Stanford University began to pressure evangelical Christian groups on campus to stop the practice of “proselytizing other students.” Ironically, what angered the dean was not the content of the message that was being shared, but the practice of sharing itself. He believes that in approaching someone with the Gospel, you are implying that the person’s beliefs are inferior to your own. Such an implication is unacceptable because it is self-righteous, biased, and intolerant.

Case 3. Graduate student Jerome Pinn checked into his dormitory at the University of Michigan to discover that the walls of his new room were covered with posters of nude men and that his new roommate was an active homosexual who expected to have partners in the room. Pinn approached the Michigan housing office requesting that he be transferred to another room. Listen to Pinn’s own description of what followed: “They were outraged by this [request]. They asked me what was wrong with me–what my problem was. I said that I had a religious and moral objection to homosexual conduct. They were surprised; they couldn’t believe it. Finally, they assigned me to another room, but they warned me that if I told anyone of the reason, I would face university charges of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”{1} In their mind, Jerome had no right to a new room because he was being intolerant.

Notice that in each of these scenarios, Christians are not accused of “false teaching,” but of “false practice.” The young man, the dean, and the housing officials never challenged the truth of these moral claims, but the legitimacy of making such claims in the first place.{2} Similar situations occur every day in schools, universities, the media, the marketplace, and the halls of government. Consequently, Christians are being silenced, not by superior ideas, but by our culture’s impeachment of moral absolutes and inauguration of moral openness.

So what are Christians to do? Are we not called to be confident carriers of the truth of the Gospel? Then how do we voice our belief that Jesus is the only way without being intolerant of someone who thinks differently? This is one of the most difficult dilemmas facing Christians today. In this essay we will examine the nature of the tolerance revolution in our culture, expose its strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, establish a Christian response to the question of truth or tolerance.

Tolerance Under a Microscope

On two different occasions, Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, sponsored a campaign to encourage its community to speak out against the excessive amount of violence and sexual promiscuity on television, in the movies, etc. To bolster this drive, they distributed bumper stickers that read, “Speak Up For Decency.” Within days of the arrival of these stickers, another bumper sticker appeared that looked practically identical to the first one, except it read, “Speak Up For Liberty.” The seriousness of this reaction was nailed home when I came to a stop light and counted over ten “Speak Up For Liberty” stickers on the back of the van in front of me; it was as if the driver was protecting freedom from fascism.

After considering the message on each sticker, I found myself at an impasse. On one hand, I agree that there is too much indecency on television, yet on the other hand, I believe that liberty is our nation’s most prized resource. Yet after more consideration, I came to the conclusion that this was not a debate over freedom, but a discrepancy over the interpretation of tolerance.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines tolerance as “the capacity for or practice of recognizing and respecting the options, practices, or behavior of others.” First, tolerance demands recognition, which is a legal imperative. Naturally, the Constitution recognizes and protects the diversity of religious beliefs and practices. Second, it calls for respect, which is a social imperative. The Declaration of Independence declares that we are all created equal, indicating that we need to respect all men, even when there are differences of opinion.

However, in our culture, tolerance is not being discussed as a legal or social imperative, but a moral one. In response to a survey concerning beliefs about God, a sixteen-year-old girl replied, “In my mind, the only people who are wrong are the people who will not accept different beliefs as being, well, acceptable.”{3} This girl believed that the only real sin is to not accept or tolerate other people’s beliefs. Likewise, openness or “uncritical tolerance” has become our society’s moral standard. Consequently, people who seem intolerant are wrong.

But is tolerance a moral virtue? By definition, the function of tolerance is relegated to the legal and social arena in order to protect moral issues, not enforce them. As a result, talking about tolerance as a moral virtue is a circular argument. Listen to the following statement: “It is morally wrong to say that something is morally wrong.” Is that statement not self-defeating?

In addition, any moral standard necessitates intolerance of anything which violates that standard. Merely using the phrase “a moral standard of tolerance” is a contradiction in terms. In S. D. Gaede’s words, “If you are intolerant of someone who is intolerant, then you have necessarily violated your own principle. But if you tolerate those who are intolerant, you keep your principle, but sacrifice your responsibility to the principle.”{4} Consequently, a person who is wholly committed to tolerance, must resort to total apathy. Yet putting over ten bumper stickers on a car is hardly apathetic and thus anything but tolerant.

The notion that tolerance is a virtue is a paradox. Nevertheless, it has become the dominant moral guideline for our culture.

What If Truth Is Relative?

Believe it or not, our world is waging a war against truth. Allen Bloom writes, “Openness–and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth . . . is the greatest insight of our time.”{5} The philosophical basis for the uncritical tolerance that is so prevalent in our society is the replacement of truth with relativism.

According to the Barna Report, 66% of the entire population believe “there is no such thing as absolute truth.” Another poll estimated that 72% of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five also reject the notion of absolutes.{6} So what do the majority of Americans believe? Well, without absolutes, they are left with moral relativism: the notion that all values are legitimate, and that it is impossible to judge between them. Truth is reduced to personal preference; what’s true is what works for you.

The assumption that truth is relative has infiltrated almost every facet of our society: the marketplace, the arts, government, education, family, and even religion. According to a poll, 88% of evangelical Christians claim that the “Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all it teaches,” and yet 53% also believe there are no absolutes.{7} Ironic? Not when one considers how powerful and pervasive this philosophical trend really is. Allen Bloom summarizes the logic behind the assumption that truth is relative:

The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.{8}

Bloom is saying that instead of searching for mankind’s past faults, the world has condemned our ability to claim to be right at all.

But is the viewpoint that truth is undefinable a plausible philosophical position? Is not the claim, “there are no absolute truths” intrinsically self-contradictory? Gene Edward Veith notices that “[t]hose who argue that ‘there is no truth’ are putting forth that statement as true.”{9}

So to make this claim, there must be at least one truth that is universal. And if there is one universal truth, then the premise that there are no absolutes is false.

Another problem was illustrated by R. C. Sproul. He recalled the Senate hearings over Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination and the opposing testimonies of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Sproul admitted that he didn’t know who was telling the truth. However, what he knew with absolute certainty was that “they both couldn’t be telling the truth.” In the same way, Christianity claims exclusively that salvation is an unearnable gift from God, whereas Islam claims exclusively that a man must earn his salvation. It is possible that both are not true, but it is impossible for both to be true.

Moral relativism is hard-wired into our culture. But let’s reclaim the superiority of truth—God’s truth—as the solution for the sickness of our culture, a sickness that tolerance and moral relativism cannot cure.

Tolerance and Chapped Lips

I would bet that you are familiar with the dry, burning sensation of chapped lips. With this in mind, what is the almost instinctual reaction when you feel your lips drying out? You lick them, right? For a moment they feel better, but then what happens? They get even drier, don’t they? In fact, the more you lick, the worse they get. This is an example of mistaking the immediate solution for the correct solution. If moist lips are the desirable end, shouldn’t we lick them to make them well again? Of course not, even if it feels right at first. As most people know, the appropriate cure for chapped lips is not licking, it’s lip balm.

Well, the same is true in life. We live in a world burdened by injustice, discrimination, and inequality; they are the “chapped lips” of our culture. Many people insist that the best solution is a greater degree of tolerance. In some ways this answer sounds right. But is tolerance the lip balm for our culture or are we just licking our lips? Are we just mistaking the immediate solution for the correct solution?

To answer this question, I want to glance at a couple of what I call “tolerance trends.” The first is political correctness. S. D. Gaede notes that the goal of political correctness “is to enforce a universal standard of tolerance, regardless of race, gender, cultural background, or sexual orientation.”{10} Thus, the Golden Rule for a politically correct person is to not do, say, or even imply anything that any other individual or group might find offensive.

A second tolerance trend is multiculturalism. Whereas political correctness is more legalistic, the goal of multiculturalism is greater inclusiveness. Schools and universities are not just teaching history from the traditional “dead white male” perspective, but including the experiences of African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and other groups who have been marginalized. Businesses are supporting this movement as well. “Multicultural workshops” are being created to help workers get along in a more culturally diverse business environment.{11}

On one hand, there is much to be praised about these movements. Christians have more reason than anyone to abhor discrimination and prejudice. God hates injustice and loves to liberate the oppressed, and so should we. Therefore, a Christian perspective should transcend cultural, racial, or class distinctions.

At the same time, these tolerance trends are merely impulsive reactions to the problem and not well-thought-out solutions. The reason is simple. If our goal is just more tolerance, then discrimination isn’t wrong in a moral sense, it’s only offensive. Yet what constitutes “being offensive”changes according to the whims of the ethnic and social group involved. Consequently, a standard of tolerance becomes arbitrary and variable because it is subject to interpretation based on an underlying bias. Ultimately, no matter how legitimate it sounds, how right it feels, or how rigorously it is enforced, tolerance alone can never eliminate prejudice any more than licking can cure chapped lips.

Justice and equality will become realities not by superficially incorporating tolerance, but by embracing absolute truth—a transcendental truth that includes the foundation for both moral law and human value—an unwavering truth which at times may even demand intolerance. It is a truth that only a God who is a righteous Judge and a loving Creator can establish.

Restoring Credibility and Confidence in the Christian Solution

To this point we have examined the short-comings of tolerance and the superiority of truth. But understanding the situation is only half the battle. As Christians, we are called to action. So how do we reach a world that is choking on its own tolerance?

First, we must remind ourselves of the authority and power of God’s truth. In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us to “put on the full armor of God” as our defense against the enemy. In verse 14, Paul reminds Christians that first and foremost we are to “stand firm . . . having girded your [our] loins with truth.” In a culture that is bearing down on Christians, we must remain steadfast and resist evil. We do so by preparing ourselves for the fight, by girding ourselves with the truth. It is the foundation for everything else. In the words of the late Ray Stedman,

Truth is reality, the way things really are. Therefore it is the explanation of all things. You know you have found the truth when you find something which is wide enough and deep enough and high enough to encompass all things. That is what Jesus Christ does.

The writer of Hebrews wrote that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and yes, forever.” The truth of Christ is much more encompassing than anything this world has to offer.

Second, if you are walking in truth, you will discover that there is a time for both tolerance and intolerance. For example, Jesus associated with the sick, the poor, and the dejected. He shared meals with prostitutes, tax collectors, and criminals. Christ doesn’t judge us by our skin color or social status, but by the condition of our hearts.

Unfortunately, Christians have a long way to go in matching His standard. All too often, we are hampered by racial differences and social barriers. Perhaps it’s time that we began to raise our voice against injustice and not leave it up to the ebbing multiculturalist movement.

Yet as accepting as Jesus was, He was extremely rigid about the exclusiveness of His claims. Of all the choices in life, He tells us there is only one way, one truth, and one life—His. How much more exclusive, even intolerant, can you get? Christians need to remember that loving another person may sometimes mean being respectfully but firmly intolerant of what is not true.

Earlier I told of a conversation I had with a peer about Christianity. After I realized we had actually been disagreeing regarding our assumptions about truth, I started over. I asked him why tolerance was an issue of morality. He thought for a moment. Then I asked him how truth could possibly be relative, and we began questioning his own assumptions about morality. Finally, I shared C. S. Lewis’s notion that any moral law, including his claims regarding tolerance, implies the existence of a Moral Law Giver. And by the end of the conversation, he was beginning to consider the possibility of God and his own accountability to Him.

This young man was not ready for a spiritual tract about the Gospel, but he was eager to hear about truth. And there are people everywhere—people you know—who are just like him. Without hearing a verse from Scripture, this man moved one step closer to his Creator. Why? Because, as Paul writes, “truth is in Jesus.” That means that sharing truth is sharing Christ, no matter what form or fashion it takes.


1. Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education(New York: The Free Press, 1991}, 8-9.

2. S. D. Gaede, When Tolerance is No Virtue (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993}, 12.

3. Lynn Minton, “Fresh Voices,” Parade Magazine, 11 June 1995, 10.

4. Gaede, 23.

5. Allen Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987}, 26.

6. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times (Wheaton, Ill.:Crossway Books, 1994}, 16.

7. Ibid., 16.

8. Bloom, 26.

9. Veith, 59.

10. Gaede, 21.

11. Ibid., 36.

© 1996 Probe Ministries

Scott Scruggs served as a Probe Intern while attending Stanford University. After serving as the teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California for 12 years, Scott is now Senior Pastor at Northshore Community Church in Kirkland, Washington.

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