Two Concepts of Truth: Truth as the Power of Death or the Power of Life

Pilate pronounces what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “most subtle witticism of all time.” With his question, “What is truth?” Pilate “annihilated the New Testament,” according to Nietzsche.  The strong “revel in ambiguity” while the weak cannot “afford uncertainty and so demand a clear dichotomy.” The strong man must take a stand “beyond good and evil” and presumably Pilate, with his question ventures beyond mere morality and religion. The superman braves subtle shades of grey and refuses the dictates of a determinate notion of truth. Jesus, in Nietzsche’s scheme, is the subject/slave of truth – his life depends upon a determinate truth while the judge and executioner can allow for “subtleties” or “contingencies” in truth.

The religious authorities and the emperor constitute what Michel Foucault, following Nietzsche, will refer to as “regimes of truth.” Truth is a product of politics: it is regulated, distributed, and circulated by kingdoms and cultures – it is produced. One can be part of the production or its subject, depending, in this case, how one aligns with Caesar. Caesar wields the power of death and the necessity, as Nietzsche describes it, that compels the drive toward truth is this raw power. Thus, Jesus’ shift to the topic of truth, in the midst of the discussion of kingship and kingdoms, is no shift at all but the positing of an alternative truth based on an alternative kingdom. In Pilate’s kingdom, the power of death is circulated as the equivalent of truth. Pilate asks Jesus, “Don’t you understand I have the power to crucify you?” The crowd yells, “Crucify him,” after threatening Pilate with the same power he wields, “If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar” and “We have no King but Caesar.”  Jesus kingdom has its origins in life, not death.

From Pilate’s question we know there are two notions of truth at work here. For Pilate truth is a “what.” Truth may be information, a set of propositions, or something which is “objectively” determined. For Jesus truth is not a “what,” it is a “whom.” Truth is not a set of propositions but a dynamic living person.  Truth is not out there to be discovered, as there is no gap between Christ and the truth. The Word which is Christ is not about the truth – or a pointer to the truth – he is the truth. Pilate is not prepared for the truth standing right before him. His indeterminate notion of truth blinds him to the immediate reality of truth which confronts him.

Jesus gives us the full answer to Pilate’s question elsewhere, “I am the way, the truth and the Life.” Jesus equates himself with the truth but he also equates himself with life. It is where truth has been separated from life and presumes to engineer death that deception has entered in. The very possibility of “regimes of truth” is built upon this “truth” separate from life.

In Genesis the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, seem to represent truth grounded either in life or the counter truth grounded in death. The first tree – the tree – of life offers full access to God and his presence. It is not called the tree of truth but it is certainly representative of God – who is truth. The second tree is removed from the first in every sense of the word. It does not contain life and to eat it is to believe a lie. Knowing good and evil is held out as a promise of life; “You will not die. You will be like God.” Life is held out as the end of this knowing but the reality it entails is death. The pursuit of life (power, existence, being, etc.) is on the basis of being already separate from it. Deception enters in the space or gap between knowing, language (the knowledge of good and evil), and life.  The truth equated with life in Christ is precisely aimed at closing the gap between truth and life in which deception enters in.

Christ is repeatedly identified as the true and living one. He is the foundation of “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). This truth delivers what it promises as it comes “by him who is declared to be living” (Hebrews 7:8). This truth is all encompassing: “I am the First and the Last; I am the living one” (Revelation 1:17). “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). Of the Word (truth) that is at the Beginning, John’s prologue declares: “In him was life.”

Pilate’s notion of truth is certainly not connected to life but is connected to Rome.  Rome can constrain life, shape it, subordinate it, and ultimately punish by taking life, but it cannot give life. Before Pilate stands one whose life the grave cannot constrain. The Roman seal on the tomb will be broken and the kingdom of life and truth break forth.

There is no gap in this Word between what is said and its object. As Michel Henry has claimed, all philosophies of language agree on the gap between the utterance and the referent. Language always refers to something outside of itself. Christ closes this distance, so lying and deception cannot enter in between utterance and referent, between subject and object, between speech and act. In Christ’s resurrection the gap of death is closed which would sustain this world’s regimes of truth.

The truth of the world is undone by the truth of Christ. Pilate is confronted with the “phenomenological immediacy” of the incarnate, living truth.  But Pilate stands for the world in its initial confrontation with the Gospel. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63); “‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people these words of life’” (Acts 5:20). This is the answer to Pilate’s question.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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