True for You, but Not True for Me

Sean McDowell

This past summer I was the guest speaker at a youth Bible camp in Northern California. The theme throughout the week was Matthew 22:37—loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. I taught from passages such as 1 Samuel 16:7, which shows that God judges the heart rather than appearance. I challenged the students to consider Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” And students were challenged to use their minds to consider the claims of Jesus as the truth and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). At the end of the week when I asked the counselors for feedback the responses shocked me. One camper basically summed it up: “We like his stories, but that’s just his truth. I don’t want to judge him, but I have a different truth.”

Her response probably should not have shocked me so much, especially since the majority of our youth (81%) have adopted the view that, “all truth is relative to the individual and his/her circumstances.”1 Alarming as it may seem, recent studies reveal that the majority of our youth would agree with this girl. When it comes to religion and morality, “Something may be true for you, but not true for me.” While many young people believe Christianity offers a truth, I can’t help but wonder how many truly understand that it is the truth, the only hope for salvation, and the sole opportunity for a relationship with the living God who created the universe.

What is Truth?

In the recent book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologist Christian Smith demonstrates that for youth today, “The very idea of religious truth is attenuated, shifted from older realist and universalist notions of convictions of objective Truth to more personalized and relative versions of ‘truth for me’ and ‘truth for you.’”2 Smith says we often hear youth proclaim, “Who am I to judge?” “If that’s what they choose, whatever,” “Each person decides for himself” and “If it works for them, fine.”

Rather than holding to the traditional definition of truth as correspondence to reality, youth today seem to have adopted a pragmatic approach to truth. In other words, many youth see truth as what “works” in their lives, rather than a belief that accurately reflects the world. A recent Newsweek article put it this way: “Even more than their baby-boomer parents, teenagers often pick and choose what works for them…”3 If Hugh Hefner’s motto, “If it feels good, do it,” characterized the sixties, today’s youth seem to buy the idea that “If it works, it’s right for you.”4

Divided Truth

Why do youth think they can pick and choose religious beliefs, as if they were merely choosing between movies on a Friday night, or what color dress to buy? In her recent book, Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey explains that the very concept of truth is divided in our culture today. According to Pearcey, our culture has drawn a division between the secular and the sacred, ascribing religion and morality and the like to a private, subjective realm, whereas the secular realm, dominated by science and other “public” knowledge, is considered to be the objective realm.5 She explains, “In short, the private sphere is awash in moral relativism….Religion is not considered an objective truth to which we submit, but only a matter of personal taste which we choose…”6 In other words, religious and moral claims are matters of personal preference rather than knowledge claims about the real world.

For some religions, this divided truth realm poses no problem. But for Christianity, this cannot do—and we must help our youth to grasp this. You see, what makes Christianity unique is that it is based on the life, character, and identity of Jesus Christ—a real person who walked on the earth 2,000 years ago. While most religions of the world are based on principles, Christianity is based on the historical life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (NASB). Remove the historical Jesus from Christianity and the faith is gutted.

Similarly, we must help our young people to see that morality is not based upon consequences, but it stems from the character of God as revealed in Scripture. Consequences might reflect the wrongness of a choice, but they don’t prove it. For example, premarital sex is wrong not because of the bad things they happen as a result, but because of God’s moral will as revealed in the Bible. Even if many of our students disagree, there is an objective truth about morality.

Today one of the greatest obstacles we face in our ministry to youth is their distorted view of truth. In fact, Paul warns us of this in his second letter to the church in Thessalonica when he says that people perish for not loving truth (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10). Unless we rebuild the foundations of truth among our youth, they will be “tossed and carried about” by all kinds of deceptive philosophies (Ephesians 4:14; 2 Corinthians 10:5).

Come On, Do Youth Really Care About Truth?

Dr. Francis Beckwith, philosophy professor at Baylor University, had a very skeptical student in his ethics class who questioned him everyday. One day she said, with an air of superiority, as though her question would undo her professor’s philosophical foundations, “Dr. Beckwith, why is truth so important?” After thinking for a moment he gave this witty reply, “Well, would you like the true answer or the false one?” In other words, her very question assumed the existence, knowability, and importance of truth. Deep-rooted in the hearts of young people is the awareness that truth is a necessary bedrock for life. We often dismiss the fact that youth believe in truth, that they want truth, and that they organize their lives around what they believe is ultimately true.

Dave Geisler, founder of Meekness and Truth Ministries, recently wanted to find out what non-Christian students consider the greatest obstacles to evangelism to be. What barriers are preventing young people from becoming followers of Jesus today? He interviewed students at the University of Texas, Austin, and recorded the three most popular responses. In an open-ended survey, the top three concerns students expressed were, “Can everyone be right?” “Is the Bible reliable?” and “Who is Jesus Christ?”7 Many students today have intellectual questions about the truth of Christianity that are preventing them from becoming followers of Jesus.

Dan Kimball, pastor at Vintage Faith Church, reinforced this truth in his book The Emerging Church: “I am finding that emerging generations really aren’t opposed to truth and biblical morals. When people sense that you aren’t just dogmatically opinionated due to blind faith and that you aren’t just attacking other people’s beliefs out of fear, they are remarkably open to intelligent and loving discussion about choice and truth.”8 While youth are clearly turned off by people who arrogantly think they have all the answers, I have found that students respond positively to someone who can lovingly lead them to truth.

Clearing Up the Confusion about Truth

So, how do we help young people see that Jesus’ claims are about objective reality, and simply cannot be “true for you, but not for me”? I once performed the following experiment to help my students grasp the reality of Jesus’ claims. I placed a jar of marbles in front of them and asked, “How many marbles are in the jar?” They responded with different guesses, 221, 168, 149, and so on. Then after giving them the correct number of 188 I asked, “Which of you is closest to being right?” They all agreed that 168 was the closest guess. And they all agreed that the number of marbles was a matter of fact, not personal preference.

Then I passed out Starburst candies to each one of my students and asked, “Which flavor is right?” As you might expect, they all felt this was an unfair question because each person had a preference that was right for him or herself. “That is correct” I concluded, “the right flavor has to do with a person’s preferences. It is a matter of subjective opinion, not objective fact.”

Then I asked, “Are religious claims like the number of marbles in a jar, or are they a matter of personal opinion, like candy preference.” Most of my students concluded that religious choice belonged to the category of candy preference, which opened the door for us to discuss the objective claims of Christianity. I pointed out to my students that Christianity is based on an objective fact in history—the resurrection of Jesus. I reminded them that while many people may reject the historical resurrection of Jesus, it is not the type of claim that can be “true for you, but not true for me.” The tomb was either empty on the third day, or it was occupied—there is no middle ground. I also pointed out that Christianity has an objective view of creation, the nature of man, and the Bible.

Can All Religions Be True?

Another great challenge we face today is to get kids to realize that all religions simply can’t be true. In a recent interview, George Lucas said, “I remember when I was 10 years old, I asked my mother, ‘If there’s only one God, why are there so many religions?’ I’ve been pondering that question ever since, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that all religions are true.’”9 Forty-eight percent of conservative Protestant youth agree with Lucas that many religions may be true.10

To help youth see that all religions can’t be true, you might try the following illustration. Ask for three student volunteers and have them guess what your first-grade teacher looked like (or anyone else they don’t know). Students will likely pick both genders, as well as conflicting heights, hair-color, and even eye-color. Before you tell them what she (or he) actually looked like, ask a simple question to your three volunteers: “Can all of your descriptions be true?” They will quickly realize that the three descriptions cannot all be true because they contradict.

The same is true of different religions. While various religions may have some similar teachings, they have radically different perspectives on reality (like the student descriptions of your first-grade teacher) that cannot all be equally true. I often use the chart below to help students visualize the radically different worldviews shared by the top five religions in the world. A quick glimpse at the chart can help students to realize that, logically speaking, all religions may be false, but they cannot possibly all be true.

BUDDHISM No God Self-reliance True Way
HINDUISM 1,000’s of Gods (Impersonal) Reincarnation All True
JUDAISM One God—Yahweh Works Just Judaism
ISLAM One God—Allah Five Pillars Just Islam
CHRISTIANITY One God, Three Persons Grace Just Christianity

The Truth Factor

For the past 10 years the Christian marketplace has been flooded with new books about how to do ministry in a postmodern world. While many cultural changes have rightly been pointed out, we often fail to realize how much has actually stayed the same. Sociologist Christian Smith points out that youth today don’t need a “radically new ‘postmodern’ type of program or ministry.”11 In fact, Smith says, one of the key things our young people need is to be challenged to consider why they believe what they believe and to learn how to articulate their faith.

This is why Pastor Dan Kimball said, “I must tell them why I choose to place my faith in Jesus and why I trust the Bible as being inspired. I need to teach them why I believe in one God and in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.”12 Peter put it this way: “…Always be prepared to give a defense (apologia) to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15; NASB). We need to give our youth reasons—yes, reasons—why Christianity is objectively true, why the Bible is God’s word, and how we know Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. If we don’t, we may lose our kids. And this is exactly what is happening.

According to the 2005 report, “National Study of Youth and Religion,” thousands of interviewed non-religious teenagers said they had been raised to be religious, but that they had become “non-religious.” The teenagers were asked, “Why did you fall away from the faith in which you were raised?” They were given no set answers to pick from; it was simply an open-ended question. The most common answer (32%) was intellectual skepticism. Their answers included, “Some stuff was too far-fetched for me to believe in,” “I think scientifically there is no proof,” and “There were too many questions that can’t be answered.”13 The message is clear—many kids are leaving the faith because we are giving them a “heart” faith without an equally powerful “mind” faith.

But there is good news too. In his recent book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider demonstrates that the small circle of people with a biblical worldview demonstrate genuinely different behavior. They are nine times more likely to avoid “adult-only” material on the Internet, three times as likely not to use tobacco products, and twice as likely to volunteer to help the poor.14 Not only are kids with a biblical worldview less likely to leave the faith, they are more likely to practice it in their own lives.

It seems, then, that our students’ beliefs about God, the world, and truth itself do make a difference in their practice of the Christian faith. Truthful beliefs do matter. Mr. Sider put it this way, “Barna’s findings on the different behavior of Christians with a biblical worldview underline the importance of theology. Biblical orthodoxy does matter. One important way to end the scandal of contemporary Christian behavior is to work and pray fervently for the growth of orthodox theological belief in our churches.”15

It is not enough to teach our students that Jesus is one truth that “works” in their lives. If we want to transform our kids’ behavior, one thing we must teach them is that Jesus is not one option among many, but that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). And this is not merely a truth they store away in their heads, but an invitation to a relationship with the God of the universe—the only one who can truly sustain and comfort them.

*This article was first published by YouthWorker Journal, January/February 2006.

1 George Barna, Third Millennium Teens (Ventura, Ca.: The Barna Research Group, 1999), p. 43.
2 Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 144.
3 John Leland, “Searching for a Holy Spirit,” Newsweek (May 8, 2000): 61.
4 Josh McDowell, Beyond Belief (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2002), pp. 14-15.
5 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 20.
6 Pearcey, Total Truth, 20.
7 Dave Geisler, “Evangelism Training for the New Millennium: Conversational Evangelism”
8 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003), p. 86.
9 Time, April 26, 1999.
10 Christian Smith, Soul Searching, p. 73.
11 Christian Smith, Soul Searching, p. 266.
12 Kimball, The Emerging Church, p. 72.
13 Smith, Soul Searching, p. 89.
14 Ron Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Grand Rapics, Mich.: Baker, 2005), 128.
15 Ibid, p. 129-130.

Sean McDowell is a speaker, author and popular high school teacher. In 2008 he received the “Educator of the Year” award in San Juan Capistrano, California. Sean graduated summa cum laude from Talbot Theological Seminary with a double Master’s degree in Theology and Philosophy. Learn more at:

Copyright 2016 © Sean McDowell Worldview Ministries    All Rights Reserved

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