What is absolute reality?Question: "What is absolute reality?"
Answer: “What is reality?” is one of the great philosophical questions. To be fair, one could argue that it’s the core question of philosophy, religion, science, and so forth. To refine the question slightly, “Is there such a thing as ‘absolute’ reality, and, if so, what exactly it is?” Of course, trying to define reality is beyond a brief discussion, a single article, or even an entire ministry. It’s a subject literally beyond any one person. That being said, there are unique Christian perspectives on the nature of reality. These may not answer every question, but they can point us in better directions.
First of all, a common term used to reference reality is truth. Truth is that which corresponds to reality—it is the word used to describe things that actually are as opposed to those things that are not. This is important in the context of discussing “absolute” reality, which is inevitably the same thing as absolute truth. Reality (truth) must, eventually, be absolute, or else there is no such thing as reality at all. If reality is not absolute—if there is no ultimate, single, all-encompassing truth—then there is literally nothing else to discuss. All statements of all kinds would be equally valid or wholly invalid, and there would be no meaningful difference.
The very nature of the question “what is reality (truth)” assumes a subject that can be defined by statements that are either true or false—accurate or inaccurate—real or unreal—actual or nonexistent. Even those who claim everything is relative must make an absolute statement about the way all things are. In other words, there is absolutely no escape from absolute reality and no denying some form of absolute truth. A person who chooses to jettison that idea is simply operating outside of the bounds of logic.
With that in mind, we can refer to “absolute reality” either as “reality” or “truth” and go from there. The Bible clearly espouses a belief in reality vs. fiction (Psalm 119:163) and that we can in fact know the difference (Proverbs 13:5; Ephesians 4:25). This has applications in spirituality, philosophy, and daily life. Some things are (they are true, they are real), and some things are not (they are false, they are not real) beyond personal opinion or knowledge.
Spiritually speaking, the idea of “truth” implies that not all religious ideas can be true. Christ said He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), and that statement necessarily means that claims contradictory to His cannot be true. This exclusivity is further supported by passages such as John 3:18 and John 3:36, which clearly state that those who reject Christ cannot hope for salvation. There is no “reality” in the idea of salvation apart from Christ.
Philosophically, the fact that the Bible references truth is useful. Certain philosophical views question whether or not human beings are capable of really knowing what is real. According to the Bible, it is possible for a person to know the difference between truth and falsehood (Zechariah 10:2) and between fact and fiction (Revelation 22:15). In particular, this is knowledge at an “ultimate” level, not merely on a personal, experiential level. We can, in fact, have insight into some aspect of absolute reality. Contrary to philosophies that claim man cannot know, such as solipsism, Scripture says we have a means to see at least some of the critical truths of absolute reality.
In daily life, the Bible’s stance on reality precludes ideas such as moral relativism. According to Scripture, moral truth exists, and anything opposed to it is sin (Psalm 11:7; 19:9; James 4:17). One of the longest-running philosophical debates is over the difference between “abstract” realities and “concrete” realities. Concepts such as “length,” “happiness,” or “the number four” are not concrete themselves. However, they do have a meaningful connection to concrete things. Biblically speaking, the same is true of concepts such as justice, good, sin, and so forth. You cannot fill a jar with “good” in the same way you can fill a jar with sand, but that does not mean “good” is not true—or “real”—in a meaningful way.
With that idea in mind, we can also distinguish between abstractions that exist and those that technically do not exist. Evil is one such abstraction. Sin is “real” in the same sense that “good” is real—but neither of them is concrete. That is, there is no physical particle or energy that God created as a unit of good or of sin. However, both are “real.” The difference is that sin, in and of itself, is defined only in terms of the absence of goodness. In other words, sin is only “real” in the sense that goodness is real, and sin is the lack of goodness.
In other words, God can create “good,” as an ideal or an abstraction, and sin can “exist” where there is a lack of goodness. This is not as convoluted as it sounds—we make the same distinction in physics. “Darkness” is an abstraction, but it corresponds to something real: the absence of light, which (depending on the sense we are using) is a real, physical thing made of photons. “Cold” is an abstraction, but it corresponds to the absence of heat—heat being a “real” thing. Neither darkness nor coldness exist in and of themselves; they are both defined entirely as a lack of something else. “Length” is not a substance or a concrete thing but is an abstraction with implications for the concrete world. “Shortness,” then, is only real in that it’s the lack of “length.”
As part of understanding the Bible’s stance on absolute reality, it’s critically important to separate the “reality” of experiences from the “reality” they are caused by. Human beings have the ability to use their minds to parse the difference between experiences and thoughts, in order to compare them to a more objective “reality.” This is not entirely intuitive; part of the uniqueness of human beings is the knowledge that our feelings and experiences are not always reliable (Jeremiah 17:9) and thus need to be compared to something objective (Romans 12:2; 1 John 4:1). This is not the same as solipsism, of course, since Christianity presumes that there is some actual, real point of comparison that we can know.
That, more or less, brings the idea of truth, or “reality,” full-circle. According to Christianity, “absolute reality” is truth, “truth” is what actually exists and that corresponds to what is real, and the most important aspects of truth are given to us by God. Reality can be known, and it applies to all aspects of our lives, according to the Bible.
There may not be a uniquely Christian definition of absolute reality, because virtually all people agree on what the term means. There is, however, a uniquely Christian perspective on reality, because not all people agree on what reality itself is.
Recommended Resource: True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World by Art Lindsley
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Questions about Worldview
What is absolute reality?