Truth is Like a Skeleton

Truth is Like a Skeleton

‘Truth! Truth! You can’t handle the truth!’ [1]

You remember the film A Few Good Men, where Tom Cruise is passionately demanding that Jack Nicholson tell the truth, and back comes the classic line. ‘You can’t handle the truth.’

In our current social climate where critical thinking is part of our education system, very much a result of the Post Structuralist movement of the mid-twentieth Century, truth as a concept has become abstract and experiential, and to a large degree, unknowable. The deconstruction of past ideals and philosophies has left us with a very shaky foundation. In some cases, no foundation. Conservative Christians, on the whole, reject the idea that Christian doctrine and theology needs to be deconstructed, and hold fast to ideals that have been in place for centuries.

But before I get bogged down in some very disconcerting philosophies and arguments, let me go back to the simile: Truth is like a skeleton. How did I come up with this word picture?

But before I get bogged down in some very disconcerting philosophies and arguments, let me go back to the simile: Truth is like a skeleton. How did I come up with this word picture?

One night when I was getting ready for bed, I began to rub my aching shinbone. As I rubbed, I could feel the bone beneath the skin. At the angle I was approaching from the bone felt pronounced, and my mind began to imagine it as part of a skeleton—which it is, but that is not what I usually see or think of when I look in the mirror each morning. My active imagination continued, and when I shared these thoughts as a sermon to a congregation, I asked them to stop and imagine that on every seat there sat a skeleton. A room full of skeletons, everywhere—bony skeletons, with skulls and creepy bone like fingers and everything.  And in fact, the room was full of bony skeletons with skulls and creepy finger bones, but the only reason we were not all freaked out was that every skeleton in the room was covered with flesh and skin, and had life and breath—soft, cuddly, happy people.

So originally, when I was thinking about all this, I felt God say to me, ‘truth is like a skeleton’.

As I continue to build this narrative, I want to keep referring back to three Scriptures, which I are printed below:

John 14:6 (NIV)

‘ Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

John 8:31-32 (NIV)

‘ To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”’

John 1:14 (NIV)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’

(Emphasis mine)

To start with, in a quick summary:

 Jesus is the truth, He is full of truth, and if you walk in Him, you walk in the truth.

Using the simile—truth is like a skeleton—I am going to go through five responses to a skeleton, which will hopefully illustrate my point.

Response #1 to a skeleton:  It is dead and no longer of any use. Let us bury it and leave it alone.

Drawing the first parallel to truth:

Over the years, the Christian church and many societies have been built on certain moral and spiritual truths originating in the Word of God (the Holy Bible). Truth, as a traditional Christian understands it, starts from our fallen condition through to our need for a Saviour, and includes the Gospel of redemption, healing and salvation. There are many other doctrines that have formed through the ages that we may understand to be truth, and they are like a skeleton—the framework upon which our faith has been built and is now supported.

But one response to this truth in today’s western-post-modern society, whatever our particular doctrine may be, is that these so-called truths are dead and no longer relevant. This response goes far enough to say that, while we may acknowledge the doctrines as part of an ancient religion, it is now only a memorial of something that is no longer useful.

Response #2 to a skeleton:  It is repulsive! Disgusting!

Drawing the second parallel to truth:

When a person sees a decomposing body, they usually have a very decisive reaction of disgust and revulsion. Such a sight would be something that would likely make them feel sick.

 In a similar way, there are those, in today’s post-modern intellectual world of personal rights and entitlements, who are disgusted by some of the doctrines and ideas that a conservative Christian might consider the framework and structure of our faith. Particularly those fundamental ideals and principles that in the Christian world we would call morals.

That does not even take into consideration the jargon that Christians speak. For example, we speak of the need to be crucified with Christ; we need to be washed in the blood; we need to take hold of the broken body of Christ and eat it!

Yes, we know what we mean when we say these things, but if you’re not from the Christian tradition, just think of the very graphic, bloody and sadistic images that are conjured up with this language, if it were to be taken literally.

It gets worse! In the Pentecostal tradition, there is another set of jargon that is used: We will lay hands on you and you will be slain in the spirit!

If I didn’t know what that meant, I could possibly think that is downright creepy.

When we speak of our moralistic truths—how we believe people should live their personal lives in relationship—not all people understand why or even how it might be good. Some folks might think our strict moral codes are dangerous, and that we are cultish in the way we put it forward. I’m sure you’ve heard the accusations about how the Christian Church are a group of people who are full of hate and judgement. Could that be because what people have seen are the bones and not the living, breathing, soft and gentle hands of the Saviour?

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I am not saying there is no truth in the morals that we live by and believe in. But this is about how we present the truth.

One of my university lecturers said to us as a class that we could measure the veracity of an idea, whether it is truth or not, by whether it was consistent with whom Jesus is. [2]

One thing that has consistently helped me with this search for truth is coming back to the understanding that truth is a ‘who’, not a ‘what’ (refer back to John 14:6)

Response #3 to a skeleton: It’s fascinating and bears more scrutiny. In fact, let’s write a thesis on it!

Drawing the third parallel to truth:

The first parallel saw the religious truths as dead, but whereas in the first case it needs to be buried and a memorial constructed, in this instance it is more like when an archaeologist painstakingly extracts bones from the ground, and studies them with different sorts of scientific methods to get the bones to give them ideas about the past. These bones are not irrelevant, but something worth studying with intense focus. But they’re still dead.

Most universities study Christian history, doctrine and Biblical theology—but not as a living truth—more as a dead religion for anthropological and historical reasons. And it is lined up alongside all the other ancient religions, one of many that have developed over the history of humankind. I was surprised to learn that these academics could quote Scripture and verse the same way I could—possibly better—but there was no power of life in it. There is truth in there somewhere, but without the breath of life, it has no power to change, build and bring life.

This reminds me of the story in Ezekiel where God asked the prophet to speak to the dry dead bones in the valley.

Ezekiel 37:4-6 (NIV) ‘‘‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

When the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy over the dry bones, it was a metaphor for dry spirits, lost hope, and how the Lord would restore life and hope to his people.  If you recall the Scriptures at the beginning of this chapter, John 1:14, Jesus was the Word made flesh, and He dwelt among us. He was not a scary, disgusting skeleton clattering around amongst the population, pointing his bony finger at people and staring at them with hollow eye sockets. He was a man who had life and who gave life. He was a living breathing man who touched people in a real way.

While we may study Jesus, ultimately, He came in life that we might come into intimate spiritual relationship with him. He is not a dead religious figure.

Response #4 to a skeleton: Evoking fear and terror

Drawing the forth parallel to truth:

Just as skeletons are used in horror movies and high-tension thrillers to add that element of fear, Truth can be a handy tool to scare people into submission. We do have some fun doctrines that have been used for centuries to keep the general population in line. Holding the threat of hell or the threat of being stuck in purgatory over people was often used in the past to make sure that people adhered to the doctrines and dogma that was approved by the ruling church hierarchy during the dark ages. And while we might sit on our moral high ground and feel as we are so much more enlightened in the new millennium, I’ve witnessed plenty of occasions when church leaders and teachers have used some threat or other to keep people faithfully following. A few that come to mind is the threat of disapproval—that you are in danger of falling away from God if you persist in this attitude or behaviour. And there were the years where there were a couple of dramatic presentations going around the circuit who had frightening and graphic dramatisation of people either being dragged kicking and screaming to hell, or being welcomed into the loving arms of Jesus. I’m not just criticising here—I actually performed in one of these dramas. Luckily, I got to go to heaven. I realise that the motivation behind these performances was to give people a good jolt and hopefully get them running to Christ. I know a lot of people did respond at the time. Who wouldn’t. The drama presented a very frightening scenario for people to consider.

Whatever your doctrine of hell may be, and I’m not discounting it by any means, I have a strong feeling that Christ wants us to show the power of His love and the salvation he offers. Salvation, by inference, means we are being saved from something. I cannot say that I have a fixed doctrine on hell in terms of what it may look like. The idea of burning flames and the devil with a red suit and pitchfork finds its inspiration more in Renaissance religious art than it does in Scripture. But I am settled with the idea that an eternal separation from God is possible. I have always thought that if a person chooses to be separate from God after this life on earth is done, they are choosing to be in a place where God is not. Being as God is love, God is light, God is peace, God is joy, God is healing and restoration, God is forgiveness, God is fullness of life, God is hope, then to choose where he is not is to choose a place where all of these things are absent. Hell, by this estimation, is a place where there is no love, it is dark, there is no peace or joy, no healing for hurt or pain, no opportunity to be forgiven or restored, there is no hope—for eternity. I don’t know about you, but who needs flames? This is a place I do not ever want to be. Somebody might say, I’m already there, to which I would reply, please don’t make it permanent. I am certainly not against helping people understand that there is a loving Saviour in Jesus Christ, and that salvation can change the dark experience you may be living now, as well as secure an eternity in life, love and hope.

But when we run around with truth, using it like a skeleton, to scare people into salvation, to me it would seem we are using fear to get the response. Jesus Christ came to deliver us from fear, not to drive us with it. I should note that there is a difference when the Bible speaks about fear of the Lord—reverence, respect and honour—and terror and anxiety, which is a completely different animal.

One last comment while we are talking about salvation, heaven and hell. I’ve heard it said many times: ‘Why would a loving God send people to hell?’

This is how I see it. Using a metaphor again, I see our life on this earth like the people on the Titanic. Except in my picture, the Titanic has enough life boats for every single soul aboard. We know the ship is sinking, and at first it is just some leaking in the lower levels. People on the upper decks are having a good time, eating, dancing, and laughing with friends. There are folks going about handing out life jackets and telling folks to get aboard a life boat. But the others are annoyed that their party is being spoiled. They can’t see any evidence that their ship will sink, so they ignore the invitation. They carelessly leave the life jacket and go about their eating and drinking. Some people respond and get in the boats. They call out to their family and friends to respond, but are met with anger and mockery. It isn’t until the ship has tilted badly and is quickly going under that they realise they’re in trouble. Then they look for their life jacket which by this time has disappeared, and they can’t seem to get to the boats. It is too late, and they are sucked under with the ship. At what point did anybody make the decision for them to sink to the bottom of the freezing ocean waters? The decision was their own, ignoring the message and sneering at those who tried to help them.

Just like in this picture, I still have a feeling that God will pluck people from the freezing waters, right at the last, because that is who He is. His heart is that none should perish. But that is just my opinion.

Response #5 to a skeleton: Sharpening bone to use as a weapon

Drawing the fifth parallel to truth:

In ancient times, bone was often shaped and sharpened to use as a knife or arrowhead, and meant to be used to attack, kill and tear apart.

Sometimes we can shape the truth so that it becomes a sharpened weapon with which we attack people. If we have just the bare bones of the truth, we can often go so hard at people we bludgeon them to death.

Standing firm against our enemy, the devil, using the Word of God as a weapon is not the same as shaping and manipulating Scriptures to suit our own agenda and to use to attack another person’s life decisions. There has been too much history in the church of broken people under a load of judgement, condemnation and shame, sadly perpetuated by the people who’ve preached condemnation in the name of Christ. The message of Christ is that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…’ Romans 8:1 (NIV) (emphasis added)

I hear an argument: ‘But people can’t just live how they want to! Sin is sin!’

Sin is sin, yours and mine included. I wonder if this idea might not be a case of putting the cart before the horse—the idea of: you clean yourself up, and then you will be acceptable to God.

Have you ever heard someone say: ‘The roof would cave in if I ever came to church!’

Sadly that is a common idea. While some might furiously and indignantly object to the idea that anyone should say they have sin, there are others who know that their lifestyle is not pleasing to God. Both groups assiduously avoid the church.

Jesus, however, doesn’t call us to clean up our act, make sure we’re squeaky clean, above reproach, and performing everything in the right order and THEN we may come to Him. The message of the Gospel has always been that ‘…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Romans 5:8b (NIV) The whole process of sorting ourselves out usually comes as a response to the gift of salvation, not the other way round. And the sorting ourselves out phase usually is a process over a long time—maybe even a lifetime.

So What is Truth?

There is so much doubt in the world today, even amongst Christian people.


In the last couple of decades we have suddenly become aware of real persecution, injustice, horror and abuse. In times gone by, before the advent of the world wide web, there was a lot happening across the world, but we in the western, industrialised, democratic societies were not aware of it. We lived in a mostly secure and stable environment, and our Christianity fit nicely in our Sunday school routine. We blindly accepted the doctrines as preached from most church pulpits, and never questioned how those doctrines might fit for people in another culture, living in very different conditions.

During the period of the First World War, the truth of what was really happening in the trenches was not reported to the folks back home in Australia. It was censored and sanitised. The waiting families only knew what the war office wanted them to know. As far as they were aware, their sons were heroes, bravely fighting on behalf of the cause of right.

Today, history and a questioning culture has brought to light many different perspectives on that war. Were the sons brave? Were they heroes? Was the cause they were fighting for right?

If you were a Turkish mother of a teenage boy killed defending their land around Gallipoli, she would probably have said ‘no!’ This rattles our patriotic cages to a fair degree. We don’t like to think of our ANZAC boys as being the villains, but from that mother’s perspective, our young men were vicious invaders of their land. The political perspective would have meant nothing to her.

The problem in our life is when we insist that our perspective is the truth. Sometimes we are so sure that our doctrine is truth, and we will hotly defend it. And it might be true. But sometimes perspective has a part to play on how things are interpreted.

It’s a little like saying: ‘It’s a beautiful day today, no one can disagree with that. The sun is shining and the skies are a clear azure blue.’

Except for the folks in the drought-stricken countries whose crops have long since failed, and their water supply is on the brink of drying up. Our beautiful day is for them just another step closer to death by starvation.

We very often quote the Scripture in Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…”’

In our safe and stable western Christian societies, we take this to mean that we will get the job we want, and the house we want, and the calling we want.

But for a Christian family escaping with their lives from some war-torn country, having seen family members murdered, having seen their home destroyed, and now alone, wandering and rejected by the rest of the world, that Scripture would take on a very different meaning. Considering it was originally written to the Jewish people in exile, having been forcibly taken from their homes, having seen their temple destroyed and numbers of their people murdered by the Babylonians, this verse could actually be more encouraging to a modern-day refugee. But it is not usually the way that a western Christian will read it.

Forgive me for where I have the Bible right, but Jesus wrong. Forgive me for where I have prioritised doctrine over love. [3]

Even dwelling on these two sentences from this prayer I heard in a sermon, I can predict that some folks will be ruffled.

Are you undermining what we believe – the truth?

No. I am asking that we consider who is the truth. Jesus put flesh on the bones, the breath of life in his lungs, and that will look and behave very differently to the bare, ugly, dead bones of the facts as we know them.

When we look at Jesus’ ministry, he always sat with people, particularly the ones he should have avoided if he was following the law—the unclean, the sinners, tax collectors and the immoral.

Yes, but Jesus wasn’t always ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Jesus turned over the table and made a whip!

This argument is often brought forward when someone is trying to defend a position they believe is righteous, and trying to highlight certain people’s sin.

The only thing I can ask is: Did Jesus have a whip for the woman at the well, the one who drew water in the middle of the day because she was an outcast as a result of her adulterous lifestyle? Did Jesus have a whip for Matthew, the thieving, cheating tax collector? Or the woman who had been caught in adultery? Or for Peter who had denied him three times within his hearing?

This passionate display that involved a whip took place in the temple courtyard, and the folks Jesus was taking aim at were the religious people who were making money from selling animals to people, so they could sacrifice them to cover their sin. Jesus saw the extortion that was taking place to get money from ordinary people all in the name of religion. He was not happy. He took the whip to drive the animals out of the temple court, and it was his way of dealing with a problem of religion taking advantage of the people.

“‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” Matthew 21:13 (NIV)

This was supposed to be a house of prayer, his father’s house, and the religious people had started making a profit from people’s sin.

Whenever Jesus took a hard line, it was with the religious, outwardly righteous people.

Matthew 23:27 (NIV)  ‘“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.’

There are those dead bones again.

If we believe a hard line needs to be taken, then we need to start with the temple—which in the new covenant is the heart of every Christian. Your heart and mine. We need to clean out attitudes and ideals that suit our own purpose and position, that serve our own agenda for comfort, wealth and prosperity, and we need to allow the life that is Jesus to front and centre. Our temple (heart) needs to be a house of prayer and openness to God.

We need to consider, in our context, whether the best way to serve the truth to people is to serve it with a placard that states our doctrine and position, so that people know where we stand, or is it better served with a blanket, food and kindness to the least of these, no matter what they look like or how they have lived.

When it comes down to it, can we handle the truth—Jesus in us, through us and for others.

[1]  A Few Good Men, 1992, Directed by Rob Reiner, Written by Aaron Sorkin, Columbia Pictures.

[2] Price. T., 2012, Tabor Adelaide, Adelaide SA

[3] Shane Willard – Audio recording