Reasoning Without Truth
“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God” (II Corinthians 4:2).
You can prove anything when you start with a falsehood. If I presented made-up evidence I could use the imaginary “proof” to justify a false doctrine. I could use false evidence to justify something that just happened to be true. You see, when you start with false evidence, you cannot make a judgment about the conclusion. The conclusion can be true or false. The only thing that we can conclude is that the evidence presented is useless for establishing the truth. Hence, if you are going to persuade others of the truth, the goal doesn’t justify the means used to reach that goal. You must use truth to persuade others of the truth, just as the apostles did. “For our exhortation did not come from error or uncleanness, nor was it in deceit. But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts” (I Thessalonians 2:3-4).
Ways that the lack of truth are hidden
Earlier, we pointed out the need to keep passages within their proper context. However, what happens when a person pulls a passage out-of-context to justify a point? It gives only the illusion that truth is being presented. Consider Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the Devil. “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'"” (Matthew 4:5-7). Satan quoted God’s Word to challenge Jesus to prove his deity. Jesus countered by showing that Satan’s use of the Bible was in conflict with the greater context of the Bible. Satan’s use of the Scriptures contradicted what God had said elsewhere in the Bible and, therefore, was not true.
In a similar vein, many false ideas are promoted by only citing evidence favorable to the position. For example, those advocating salvation by faith alone will cite the passages that mention the necessity of faith to be saved, but they neglect to refer to passages like Acts 2:38 which mention other things related to salvation. The Psalmist stated, “The sum of Your word is truth” (Psalm 119:160). Using only a portion of the Bible to give the impression of credence to a false idea is mishandling the Truth.
Many times falsehoods are justified by counting on the laziness of the audience. Few are like the noble-minded Bereans who searched their Scriptures to verify the truth of the arguments (Acts 17:10-11). One way to slip in falsehood is to make two or more claims, but only justify a portion of the claims. There is a natural tendency to assume that if part of the points is true, then the remainder must also be true. There is a classic example of this in Jesus’ sermon on the mount. “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'” (Matthew 5:43). Even to this day, I have heard people say that the Old Testament taught hate while the New Testament teaches love. Yet, both the Old and New Testaments were written by the same God! How can there be such a contrast? The falsehood had become accepted by Jesus’ day because it was hidden behind a truth. The law of Moses did teach that you should love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). But, it did not teach the Israelites to hate their enemies. Quite the opposite. In Leviticus 19:17, it was stated: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Even foreigners were to be loved. “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34). How were enemies to be treated? “If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.” (Exodus 23:4-5). Or as Proverbs 25:21-22 clearly states, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you.”
A similar method is to give so much “proof” that your audience is overwhelmed. This is a favored technique used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their material is loaded with scriptural references – so loaded that few bother to look up the verses – but if you do you will often find that the verses cited have little or nothing to do with the arguments that they are presenting. The citations only give the appearance of evidence. Beware of the preacher who cites passages without actually turning to them and reading them. It is very easy to interject a falsehood when such is done.
Accepting what cannot be proven
When Jesus was proving his deity, he noted, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5:31). Jesus never told a falsehood (John 8:13-14), but he noted that arguing from insufficient evidence does not establish truth. Throughout the Bible, there is a requirement for multiple witnesses to be used as the basis of judgment (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:16; II Corinthians 13:1-2; I Timothy 5:19). Yet, brethren will ignore this point if the statement is juicy enough to shock the hearer. What is stated might be true, but it could also be false. Even Jesus did not want us to believe in him by his word alone, so even if the most honest brother states he witnessed something, his witness alone does not establish the truth.
Sellers of various products will often use anecdotal evidence as proof that their product really works. The greatest problem with anecdotal evidence is the fact that some people get better even if nothing is done. Usually, there is no proof that a person improved because he used the product. In addition, many testimonials are not verifiable. “Susan in Grand Island, Michigan, says, ‘I took X and my life has never been better!’” So how do you get a hold of Susan to see if that is really what she said? You see, the sellers of product X are certain that most of us will never bother to check.
People who believe in modern-day miracles will rely on the same anecdotal evidence. “I was feeling ill, so-and-so prayed over me, and I got better.” Was the improvement because of the prayer or was it simply a coincident?
And have you noticed how often third-hand evidence is presented to “prove” that miracles are happening today? I once asked a man if he had proof that miracles were happening today. He told me that a friend of his had seen a man drink a cup of coffee that he was told had poison in it because this man’s wife was trying to get rid of him, and he didn’t suffer any ill effects! So how can this story of a story be verified? I’ve known a few who tried. I have a book written by a man who believes in miracles who was trying to verify the stories. He had been searching for five years at the time he wrote his book. He hadn’t been able to verify any story yet, but he knows they must be out there – somewhere. I heard on the radio five years after he wrote his book – he was still looking. Another man told me of looking for evidence of miracles. His friend told him that he had recently prayed for a man in India to be healed of blindness and the prayer was answered. The problem was this man did not know the man who was blind. He believed the man existed and was blind because someone told him that it was so. Similarly, he does not know that the man was healed of blindness. He was only told that the unknown blind man was now seeing. Do you see the many opportunities for fraud to be perpetuated? My response was to ask how much money was requested by the informer from India. Look again at the evidence of miracles presented in the Bible. If one person involved in the events wanted to commit fraud, could it have been done? What you will quickly find is that it is impossible. There are too many independent people involved. Evidence that miracle took place was verified by multiple sources – many of whom had no reason to desire that a miracle take place. Consider an example, the evidence offered for the resurrection of Jesus. Paul tells us over 500 people witnessed the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:5-8). How many claims of miracles today offer sufficient, verifiable evidence?
Rejecting what isn’t there
We all understand that a bad argument does not prove an idea to be true. It may be subtle, but just because a bad argument is made for an idea, it does not imply that the idea is false. A bad argument is just that – a bad argument! The idea under consideration must be proved or disproved by some other means. However, it is our natural tendency to reject all when a portion is wrong. For example, people involved in denominations write on the subject of money. Often their supporting evidence is clearly a misuse of the Scriptures. Does this mean that their ideas are bad? No, it just means that they don’t know how to prove their point. It is still possible to go through the writings and glean the good ideas and the few good proofs.
Unfortunately, I have seen this faulty reasoning used against brethren. Because a man holds an incorrect view on one topic, people treat him as if everything he states is false. I’m sure much of this comes from laziness. It is easier to reject everything than to carefully examine every point. As an example, I know of a man who holds a false position concerning God’s covenants. This man happened to run across evidence of fraud being perpetuated within the church in another country. Almost no one would even look at the evidence he had gathered because of his stand on an unrelated matter. As a result, the fraud continued for many years. You see, his false belief did not imply he was dishonest.
People in arguments often fall back on this tendency to reject the whole when only a portion is disproved. Politicians will accuse their opponents of taking a controversial stand. They will then prove how that stand is wrong. There is only one thing missing – they never prove that their opponent holds the wrong position, they merely accuse him. The tactic is called straw-man arguments. You are not able to defeat the real person, so you create a dummy that is easily defeated and attack the dummy. In the ensuing fray, everyone forgets that the real opponent is not the dummy. Unfortunately, the use of straw-men arguments happens very frequently in religious debates. Those who stoop to such tactics need to realize that misrepresenting your opponent’s position is a form of lying; you are lying to the audience about what your opponent believes. Now, I understand that at times it is difficult to present an opponents position accurately when you don’t subscribe to it, but frequently I hear arguments where the person doesn’t even come close.
A good example of straw-man arguments is found in how people fought against the spread of Christianity in the days of the apostles. “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: "That You may be justified in Your words, And may overcome when You are judged." But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world? For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And why not say, "Let us do evil that good may come"? --as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:3-8). This statement by Paul illustrates several of the points I have just made. Just because someone, who should have known better, is found unfaithful; his unfaithfulness does not change the truth about the faithfulness of God. If a man who is sinful teaches the truth, he will be justly punished for his sin; but his sinfulness is not a reason to reject the truth of God. In fact, Paul had to contend with people who falsely claimed that he stated: “Let us do evil that good may come.” That claim was a straw-man argument. It is easily shown to be false, but it was not a position that Paul held, though it was attributed to him.
Another example is found in Acts 17:5-8. “But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, "These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. ‘Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king--Jesus.’ And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. “ Notice that in the middle of the Jews’ accusation is the claim that the Christians were “all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar.” Such was a false accusation (Romans 13:1), but most people forget that an accusation is not proof.
Similar to a straw-man argument is an attack on an opponent’s character. Instead of dealing with the issue at hand, the opponent is accused of having shady motives. When debating people over whether the Bible permits preachers to be located in one congregation, I have frequently been accused of simply trying to protect my job as a preacher. In other words, my opponents figure that the only reason I argue against them is because I make my living in a way that they oppose. The argument is not proof of what is true. It is merely a distraction technique designed to place doubt on the evidence that I have presented. It is no different than an atheist arguing, “Of course you would expect him to say God exists, he is a preacher!”
Paul once dealt with the opposite problem. He was accused of not being an apostle because he did not ask those he was teaching to support him (I Corinthians 9:1-15). We do not know exactly the argument used against Paul, but from his defense, we can see that people were trying to spread doubt concerning his teaching because he did not behave as they thought he should. “For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles. Even though I am untrained in speech, yet I am not in knowledge. But we have been thoroughly manifested among you in all things. Did I commit sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to you. And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself. As the truth of Christ is in me, no one shall stop me from this boasting in the regions of Achaia. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows! But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ “(2 Corinthians 11:5-13).
One falsehood does not justify another falsehood
We have a common saying that two wrongs don’t make a right. Generally, we apply this to the urge to get revenge. Just because someone does me evil, it is not justification for me to return evil in turn (Romans 12:19-21). This lack of reasoning is used to justify sinning. Because brother X smokes, brother Y sees nothing wrong if he takes a drink or two socially. Brother Z then feels justified to use drugs recreationally because it is no worse than what brother Y is doing. This is one reason sinful behavior easily spreads (I Corinthians 5:6). The good or bad behavior of another is not proof as to whether a certain action is right or wrong. Yet, people are often irrational.
Paul warned the Corinthians about giving a wrong impression. Idols are nothing, so food sacrificed to idols does not become corrupted because it is used in the service to an idol. Yet some, seeing a brother eat meat that they know was used in idolatry might come to the wrong conclusion (I Corinthians 8:1-12). They might begin a practice that they did not fully believe to be righteous (Romans 14:19-23). Or they might wrongfully conclude that they could participate in idolatrous worship (I Corinthians 10:19-24).
The end does not justify the means
Commonly people conclude that if we arrive at truth, then the means used to arrive at that truth must be correct as well. Among the denominations, people have decided that getting people to express a desire to follow Jesus is a good thing. This has led to streamlining the conversion process so that they can get many people “saved” in a short period of time. Hence, we have street preachers telling people about Jesus and urging them to pray the sinner’s prayer and then announcing that they are saved. If you ask for proof that such prayers actually save, often you are questioned as to how such a good thing can be wrong.
Paul had to deal with such arguments. There were people who thought that since God’s grace will cover any sin that I might commit, I should sin big-time so that God’s grace might be further demonstrated. Paul dealt with this false reasoning in Romans 5:20-6:23.
The idea that anything may be done so long as some good results is dangerously false. As Paul said in Romans 3:8, the claim is false. It is dangerous because too few people look beyond the result.