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What Ever Happened to Right and Wrong?, Part 1

In this series, Chip tackles issues pertaining to politics, the environment, abortion, and human sexuality. Today, the search for truth - whatever happened to right and wrong?

Message Notes more broadcasts from this series


We’re going to talk about a journey that’s happened in about the last sixty to eighty years beginning with the philosophers all the way down to modern culture about how truth has changed.

I want to read something that is deeply disturbing. It’s a bit graphic. But what’s happened is you can watch the ten o’clock news and read an article or hear something and get so desensitized like I am that I read this article and it shook me.

And it shook me not just because it’s a terrible, insidious thing that occurred but it shook me because of the response of the people that did it.

Let me pick up the story. It happened in Houston. Two young girls, Elizabeth and Jennifer had gone to a party in the suburbs. They called their moms and dads at eleven thirty and said, “We’re on our way home.”

The two girls decided they would take a shortcut through the woods. And as they took the shortcut through the woods there was a gang. It was called the Black and White Group.

There were about six young men, ages fourteen to eighteen. They had just finished an initiation rite where they were fighting and proving their machismo and who was strong.

And these young girls were walking by and as the article says, one of them yelled, “Let’s get them!” Those six men descended on those two young girls. Four days later, their naked bodies were found in the woods. It’s too graphic to give the details here but they were raped multiple times, strangled, killed.

Now you say, “Well, Chip, those things happen all the time.” No, no, no, no. Wait a second. Ironically, one of those gang members was caught on television the day before with these words, “Human life means nothing.”

Human life means nothing. All six of those young men, ages fourteen to eighteen, participated in both the rape and the murders. All of them were indicted. And upon hearing that they were going to go on trial for murder one of these young men’s response was, “Hey! Great! We finally made it to the big time.”

My point of that story is not that murder occurred or rape occurred. That’s happened for centuries. My point is there is no remorse, there’s no thought that this is wrong or right.

My point is what you’re going to see is those exact words, “Life is meaningless. Human life is meaningless,” came from about a seventy year journey of the transformation of truth beginning with German philosophers, then through Europe, across the Channel to England, over to America by the early 20th century, into everyday culture and then when existential thought came into full bloom we have people who say, “Who’s to say what’s right? Who’s to say what’s wrong?”

Truth is completely relative. And so people indiscriminately kill other people for pleasure with no remorse.

The symptom is our moral issues and it’s not just isolated. I noticed as I did my research every twenty-four hours one thousand unwed teens become pregnant, five hundred adolescents will begin using drugs, a hundred and thirty-five thousand kids will either kill someone or take a weapon to school, and six youths will commit suicide.

That’s not every week. It’s not every month. This time tomorrow, another six of our teenagers will commit suicide. Human life is meaningless. There is no purpose.

The real issue has to do with ethics and values. Now when things begin to roll out in the sixties, and the seventies, and the eighties and business people found that you can’t trust people anymore, the universities begin to [focus more on] ethics and we have to have a standard of conduct, and honesty, and integrity.

You see, life can’t work without some values and ethics. But here’s the dilemma. Whose ethics? Who is to say what’s right and wrong? Who can say, “This is right and this is wrong” when relative truth gets into the core, and the fabric of a society, where everyone says, “Well that’s true for you but that’s not true for me.”

And so as you see here the question behind what’s right and wrong is always, “Well, what’s true?” If you can’t identify, “this is true” you cannot make up any right, or wrong, or code of ethics.

To understand the real problem you need to really get your arms around what’s occurred historically, philosophically. And for this I’m going to take you on a journey.

About seventy percent of the philosophical and some thinking and some truth and some history and about the last twenty-five or thirty percent will be, we’re going to deal with the Scriptures, and then the next number of weeks we’re going to apply, “So what’s true?” to the most controversial issues in our day? Like sexuality, and homosexuality, and abortion, and then the Church and politics, and the environment.

But before we do I put a list of four books that will trace this journey. The first is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It was published in 1943. When the intellectuals were debating the issues of truth he talks about the oughts and the shoulds within every soul and he is that famous person who was an atheist, Oxford professor, who became the greatest apologist in the last century.

The next book is The Closing of the American Mind. It was written in 1968 and this is a very secular book written by someone who makes absolutely no claim to Christianity. But Allan Bloom wrote this, was very, became a bestseller. Was very controversial in the day.

And he writes in the introduction of his book, “There’s one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of.” He was teaching, he taught at Yale, Cornell, later Chicago University.

“Every professor can be absolutely certain that every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. The students’ backgrounds are as varied as America can provide. Some are religious, some are atheists, some are to the left, some are to the right, some intend to be scientists, some humanists, others professionals or business people. Some are poor and some are rich. But they are unified only in their relativism and then their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight to them but a moral postulant.”

Do you hear what he’s saying?  This is 1968 and he basically claims that the universities are ruining the entire next generation because they’re teaching that all truth is relative and now the students believe that.

The next book is by a Berkeley law professor, Phillip Johnson. It’s called Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism. And he takes the issue of relative truth, applies it to the law and to the sciences. He is a Christian, he debates all over the world.

And finally, Francis Schaeffer, who wrote from the sixties all the way through the nineties. And Schaeffer begins to trace philosophically, and in culture, and in art how did we get here?

See, I entitled this sermon, whatever happened to right and wrong? What happened to right and wrong? How did we get to where there is no real right or there is no real wrong or at least no one can agree on a few basic things.

Historically, I’m telling you, for thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years, up until about the last fifty or sixty, everyone agreed, telling the truth, not stealing, being faithful to your partner, being kind, being respectful, not hurting other people indiscriminately, keeping your word, forgiving people who have done you wrong, not murdering, these were absolutes.

And it produced, people may have disobeyed them, but when they disobeyed them they thought what they were doing is wrong. They didn’t do it with a calloused, “Human life has no meaning. We just killed and raped two little girls and it doesn’t matter. And who’s to say it does?”

See that’s the logical end when there is no absolute truth.

I was not a Christian most all my life growing up, totally disillusioned with the organized Church, which, in my particular case, not to say that others were but in my particular case, was filled with hypocrisy. No one believed God’s Word and no one lived it. And so I rejected it.

I came to Christ at eighteen and after coming to Christ I began to grow rapidly after about three or four years. And then in grad school I found myself with a lot of relative truth, and a lot of sociology professors, and psychology professors, and a lot of people challenging my faith.

And what I found myself was, I was in the situation where I had this amazing experience, I was experiencing God, my life was changing, but I didn’t have good answers for the intellectual questions that were being thrown at me.

Anybody ever go through that? And I made this internal decision that I’m not going to throw my brains in the trash to follow Christ. I’m not going to be led into… you know, maybe it’s just my emotions.

And so I went on a journey. I went on a journey in terms of philosophy, and other religions, to dig out what is true and how could we know?

I was playing on a basketball team at the time, there was a pre-med student named Steve Vogel, and Steve was very familiar with Francis Schaeffer. I’d never read anything by Francis Schaeffer.

He has three key books. One is, He is There and He is Not Silent. The other is, Escape from Reason. And then the other I put in your notes here, The God Who is There.

It’s Schaeffer in those three books that the core of his trilogy will trace for you and me the movement from absolute truth of all of history, how it started, how it changed, and then how it moved through the different disciplines, to where it gets all the way to the point where someone kills two little girls and says, “Life is meaningless.”

And what I want you to know, that didn’t just happen. There was a clear shift in how people viewed truth that impacted morals, that’s created the world, by the way, that you live in and your kids live in.

And I just want to tell you, this whole series will not be banging the table about people are doing what’s wrong and we need to do what’s right, and this right and that’s wrong, and those are terrible people and the problem’s the government or the problem’s Hollywood, or the problem’s the media.

That’s not what this is about.

This is about us saying, “We have a problem. We, the Church, have a problem. We don’t believe in what’s true. We don’t know how to think anymore. And that’s why we can’t understand why the average age of a teenager leaving the faith is sixteen years old.

There are only four percent of the teenagers today that would self-identify as a follower of Christ. Ninety-one percent of teenagers don’t believe in absolute truth. Sixty-six percent of adults in America don’t believe in absolute truth.

And then the eighteen to thirty-five year? Seventy-two or three out of four people don’t believe in absolute truth.

In a recent Barna research, very, very interesting. They went on a campus after doing all this research, went on a large university campus and went randomly to twenty people and just asked them, “Do you believe there is an absolute truth, that’s true of all people of all time, that is just absolutely true?” And the responses went like this, “Truth is whatever you believe. There is no absolute truth. If there were such a thing ‘absolute truth’ how could we know what it is? People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous.”

Nineteen of twenty of those people that was their response. The twentieth was an evangelical student who said, “I believe absolute truth is in the person of Jesus Christ.”

Most of mankind’s history has believed that there is truth that is absolutely true, whether I experience it or not. For example, things like, if I take a book I can say, “I don’t believe in gravity,” but if I drop the book, whether I believe in gravity or not, the book drops.

To get more personal people can say, “I don’t believe in gravity,” but if they get to a three story building and step off, their belief system may change very quickly. Or at least their experience does.

We act on things that we don’t see like electricity. When we want to have brain surgery we’re really hoping the person believes in absolutes like that might be the right tumor to take out instead of that.

We believe in absolutes when we pull up to a gas station. We don’t say, “Any liquid will do.” Who are you to say, “Why don’t we just put water in? It’s cheaper! I mean, how narrow and intolerant to think the only thing that you can put in a combustion engine is gasoline or diesel!”

We live on the basis of absolutes in all these areas except in the things like, “What is life all about?” “What’s right and wrong?” “Is there meaning or purpose?” “Why am I here?” on the biggest issues of life.

And so, for most all of history, it’s been there’s absolute truth.

By contrast, you’ll notice that truth is relative is an existential concept of truth. In the sixties and the seventies is it went from the philosophers down to everyday people you heard phrases like, “Just do your thing.” “If it feels good, do it.”

Later as it moved on it was, “Well, truth is different for me then different from you.” And then finally the one we hear all the time, “Well, who are you to judge?”

The premise of, “Who are you to judge” is pluralism. Pluralism simply states that all opinions all the time have equal value. And so the number one virtue of relative truth is tolerance. Not the meaning of the word “tolerance,” in terms of accepting people for where they are, but tolerance as in anyone who says, “This is right and this is wrong” on any issue is intolerant.

The number one virtue of absolute truth is truth and justice.

And what I’d like to do is take you on a little journey and talk about how we got here.

I told you I met that friend on that basketball team and my first book by Francis Schaeffer, I wasn’t a philosophy major, and so I was getting words like “metaphysics” and “epistemology” and so I remember having a 3x5 card where I would read a paragraph, go to a dictionary, look things up.

Later that became the basis of my master’s thesis at West Virginia University because I decided I needed to dig in and find out what’s true, what’s not, what’s happened.

And so as those three books, along with a lot of other information, became the heartbeat of - why do I believe what I believe, why do I believe, or do I believe that there is an absolute truth?

And what I want to do is give you a thumbnail sketch. And here’s my challenge: some of you need to pick up some of these books and read and think. We are so technically savvy to get right now information what happens, we’re living inside of a bubble.  And you’re living inside of a bubble about what’s practical and what can you get and what about this and what about that?

But you don’t stop to ask the big issues of life. Sometimes you need to read some books that are hard to read, that are thoughtful, that are deep.

And then you need to take those concepts, especially if you’re a parent, and sit around the table and talk about not just what’s right and what’s wrong and be a good person, but why do you think the way you think and what’s the basis for it?

Wisdom, according to the Scriptures, is built on knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is about the what. Understanding is about the why.

So bear with me but let me give you a little journey on what happened. How did our view change so dramatically?

For the first twelve hundred years of the Church, truth was defined by revelation. In other words, God has spoken, He’s spoken through His Word, Old Testament, New Testament.

But most people didn’t have a Bible. There wasn’t a printing press. The only people that had the truth were the “clergy.” Well after twelve hundred years, actually after about five hundred or so, we saw that what the Church was saying, what the Bible actually taught, there was corruption. Just like there’s corruption in the Church today.

And so little, by little, by little, the Church began to teach things that the Bible would say this, but the Church would say this, and you have the period that’s called the Dark or Middle Ages.

People didn’t know much. Lot of things were said in the name of God that were contrary to God, contrary to His will. And religion got used and mixed up with the state.

Then we saw the big breakthrough. And the big breakthrough happened in the thirteen to about the fifteen hundreds called the Renaissance. And the Renaissance, in essence, the word means “rebirth.”

And a rebirth happened in two streams. The one stream in the secular world was a going back to the classics, to Greek literature, to Plato, to the arts, to David, to statues and pretty soon instead of man being this worm and this person that has no value or nobility the Renaissance was the birth of humanism.

It’s that man has value and nobility and given enough time and energy we can change the world and make the world what it is. And so the classics and art was changed.

The other stream was among Christians and there was a return to historic Christianity - to the original text. And so people like Martin Luther began to actually study the Bible for themselves in the original texts, the Hebrew and the Greek, the Latin vulgate, and they began to do things and realized, “You know what? The Church is saying this but the book of Galatians and the book of Romans says this.”

And that gave birth to the Reformation. It was a calling back to truth, a calling back to, “What does God say?”

And so the Reformation occurred and you had Zwingli, and Luther, and Calvin, an Melanchthon, and this return to truth and this return to, “What does the Bible say?” and the authority of Scripture and you had a revolution occur.

Overlapping that was then the Enlightenment in the sixteen to seventeen hundreds. It was called the Age of Reason. Rousseau would say that man is basically good.

But what we need is we’ve had all these difficult, painful things that have happened in history but man is basically good. With enough time, with enough education we can produce a utopia.

Immanuel Kant would follow up that and you had what was called the Rationalists and people that though reason instead of revelation.  Now it’s man’s thinking, man is the center, man is the measure. And we and our thinking and our reasoning is the authority. When what we think is different than what God says, reason champions.

And so you had this birth of the Enlightenment.

After the Enlightenment, again, crossing over was the Industrial Revolution of the seventeen, eighteen hundreds. More inventions in that period of time happened than probably the last two thousand years.

Amazing inventions. Inventions that began to change the world, and prosperity occurred, and industry occurred, and things are just multiplying and so now man is the center, reason is the authority, and with self-sufficiency where we can actually change the world. We’ll make the world what we want it to be.

In the midst of that in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, Charles Darwin wrote a book, did you know he was a theology student? 1859 he wrote a book called Origin of the Species.

Now what you need to understand is that it had little or no scientific impact. No one bought into it whatsoever. But at the end of the nineteenth century it became a buzz word: evolution.

And it was the soft, or the social sciences, that picked up on evolution as a way of thinking and relationships and it began to become how people began to think. Not that there was scientific credibility behind it.

At the same time another young man, the theory of relativity would be birthed by Albert Einstein. Einstein never thought truth was relative. What he was talking about was a new way of looking at the world, a new paradigm instead of through just one reference point he said, “No, no, no, no. You can look at reality through more than one reference point.”

But the buzz word in the early twentieth century was about this idea of relativity.

Now, the philosophers then got a hold of this. German philosophers first, and then those German philosophers began to extend through Europe, and then from Europe across the Channel, as I said, then to America.

And so that gave birth to what’s called the Age of Modernity or modern thought -1890 to about 1930. You had people in ways like never before saying, “You know what? Truth isn’t absolute. It’s relative.”

And so as they came through all these seasons in history a group like Jaspers, later it would be Kierkegaard, a Dane. And then later, across the Channel, in France, John Paul Sartre.

And pretty soon Nietzsche and the “God is Dead” movement and all this was way out there, kind of weird intellectuals. And then it came across to America and Huxley, who is a biologist, picks this up and believes, and Spencer, who is a philosopher picks it up.

And then they began to teach this in the universities and it began to make its way early in the seminaries of the major denominations.

Dewey, then, in the early part of the 20th century would say, “You know something? The real issue isn’t what’s right or what’s wrong. The real issue is what works,” and pragmatism was birthed.

And basically the whole educational system rather than the classics, and this is true, and what we know, and God being the authority. It’s, man is the center, our reason trumps everything, truth is something that is a matter of perspective.

And then it moved because since that doesn’t work, that reality doesn’t work in real life, we’ll look at it in a minute. But then what happened, people began to experience despair.

So Kierkegaard would say from a religious perspective, “You need to take a leap of faith to find meaning.” Jaspers would say, “You need a final experience.” And so pretty soon the only way to authenticate truth is your experience. Existentialism. So if it feels good do it.

This would give birth to situational ethics. And so I still remember as about a ten year old, my mom was a guidance counselor and William Coffin Sloan, William Sloan Coffin, excuse me, wrote the book and then all of our public schools would begin to teach situational ethics.

And it was taught by giving these people these impossible dilemmas, you know, what would you do if there are five people back in the room, would you lie in order to protect them? And, no sense of, “Yes there are competing values.”

And so in our, all of our public schools, we begin to teach, “There is no absolute right or wrong. There is no moral fabric.”

And so you get the birth of the sixties. And the sixties is a throwing off of all moral constraint. And then the seventies is the age of experimentation. The eighties becomes the “Me” generation. It’s not just what works but what works for me, and greed is paramount.

And then the nineties, we have the kids of the parents of the sixties who grew up without any sense of absolutes. And so now we’re surprised because the divorce rate goes from single digits to over fifty percent. Why? Who’s to say?

The question in life isn’t, “What’s right?” It’s not, “What’s wrong?” It’s, “What works?” In fact, it’s “What works for you?” Do your own thing. That’s true for you but not true for me.” Do you get it?

Here’s what you gotta understand. All of what I just shared, philosophically and historically, is why when your kids go to trade school, or college, or hang out in your high schools, at sixteen or seventeen and say, “I believe in Jesus” and people start asking them questions, one, two, three, and four that they don’t have any good answers.

And that’s why, by the way, inside the Church the problem may be as big or as difficult. Research right now in the people in their twenty and thirties in Bible teaching churches now would say that living together is morally acceptable.

We have about a third of our teenagers who would say homosexuality, or loving another person of the same sex, is morally acceptable. This is in the Church. And when you say things like, “This is right and this is wrong,” you’re pegged as some sort of old fashioned, don’t you get it…

They have no idea where they got that. When the guy hoists up a beer and says, “Life is meaningless!” and kills someone indiscriminately, what he doesn’t understand is that’s what John Paul Sartre said. Exactly. There is no meaning. There is no rhyme. If we’re from chaos, random chance, this is just the logical flow of what’s happened.

And the Church has got to wake up.