The Unbearable Truth

“Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear my word.” (John 8:43)

In the climax of the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men,” Col. Nathan R. Jessep vehemently responds to Lt. Daniel Kaffee’s inquiry for the truth with the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” In the colonel’s mind, revealing the truth about “code red” will limit his ability to protect the citizens of the United States, not to mention tarnish his honor. To keep everyone else in the dark is to protect his ability to defend their freedoms from the enemy. He never understood that his clandestine “code of honor” was destroying the freedoms he was so desperately trying to protect.

In John 8:43, Jesus says something very similar but for very different reasons. He tells his would-be followers, “You cannot hear my word.” Or, in other words, “You can’t handle the truth!” These would-be disciples cannot bear His word, which is truth, because they belong to a different father and another world (John 8:23, 44). No matter how much truth He may speak, they simply will not understand.

Why? Because truth and untruth are incongruent. They are on two different planes of existence.

If something is true, say 2+2=4, then it cannot be untrue. Something is either one or the other; there is no in-between.

And so when Jesus speaks, the men hear truth but cannot understand it. To them, the truth is a lie for which Jesus must die because the truth is too terrible to bear. They can do no less because they belong to the father of lies, to the realm of untruth. Thus, in order to understand truth, one must first be in the truth.[1] So how can one be persuaded to the truth if it is unbearable?

Much research deals with this knowledge paradox. One such study outlines what is now called the Kruger-Dunning effect.[2] Basically, it states that the knowledge necessary to produce correct judgment is the same knowledge necessary to recognize correct judgment. If one happens to be incompetent in a certain field for lack of knowledge—like English grammar, for example—it is that same lack of knowledge that impedes one from realizing he is incompetent in English grammar. So if your grammar is bad, you won’t know it, because you are bad at grammar!

In other words, you need to know what you don’t know in order to know if you are right. What an insurmountable paradox!

Philosophers and scientists have dealt with this question of discovering that which is unknown for millennia. How is it possible to seek what we are unaware of? How can we recognize what we don’t know?

One Christian philosopher, Kierkegaard, probably comes closest to finding a solution to this problem. He argues that mankind, who is in a perpetual state of untruth due to past actions, is in need of an other-worldly Teacher, who ultimately becomes a Savior, who can give us truth and the condition to understand it.[3] Without this Teacher-Savior, we are lost in perpetual untruth.

Clearly, Jesus is the only Teacher-Savior who can do this. In His earthly ministry, we see Jesus continually speaking truth, but its reception is varied. Many are curious but confused. Some interpret it to serve their own personal agendas. Others flat out reject it (like those in John 8). And one even wonders, “What is truth?”[4]

A few sense a shimmer of the truth, but it is not until after the cross and outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the disciples finally receive the condition to understand. People can hear, see and even parrot the truth all day without ever understanding it. As Kierkegaard argued and Jesus taught, it is not until individuals receive the condition to understand the truth that they can bear it.[5] Without being given the condition to understand, we remain on the dark plane of untruth.

What can we make of all this? First, do not underestimate the power of the Gospel. Remember that we used to be a Col. Jessep on some level, preferring the darkness because it allowed us to live and work by our own code of honor. Yet some gutsy Christian challenged our untruth and planted the seed of truth in us. And one day, by the grace of God, that tiny seed of truth burst forth in power and overcame our untruth! Remember, the Gospel overpowers all untruth (Romans 1:16).

Second, proclaim boldly the Gospel in the fields of untruth. The culture in Jesus’ day reviled the truth, and many in our postmodern culture can’t handle it either. Still, our mission remains, and we must bravely follow in our Teacher’s wake. We belong to God and speak His truth, not our own ideas. We represent Christ and His Kingdom, not our personal relativism or agenda. Let us, then, as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, boldly proclaim the unbearable truth with love, compassion and courage.

Lastly, do not fear the mission. Fear is one of the reasons Christians refrain from proclaiming truth. We get apprehensive about being called a liar, put on the defensive and challenged to “prove” something to those who cannot understand it. It truly is a hopeless cause because the Gospel cannot be explained, only announced. We do not need to make excuses for the truth to those who cannot grasp it yet. The Gospel may appear weak because, at the present time, it is an offer of grace that can be rejected. But again, do not confuse gentleness and grace with weakness; the Gospel is the power of God and the only way anyone has to escape untruth. No matter how hopeless it may feel to preach the truth in our world of untruth, preach on! In the end, truth will prevail.

[1] Jesus alludes to this fact in John 18:37-“Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
[2]Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 77 (6): 1121–1134.
[3]Søren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard 4th Printing Edition, ed. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 116-125.
[4]Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38).
[5]There are many examples where the disciples’ minds and eyes were opened so they could recognize truth. Some examples include illumination to recognize the identify of Jesus (Luke 24:31; Acts 9:18), to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45) and to turn from Satan to God (Acts 26:18). The opposite is also true, where eyes or minds were “darkened” so they could not understand (Romans 11:8-10).