Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 21

The Skepticism of Pilate

Preached November 7, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?” - John 18:38.

The lesson which we are to draw from this verse must depend upon the view we take of the spirit in which the words were spoken. Some of the best commentators conceive them to have been words of mockery: and such is the great Lord Bacon’s view. “ ‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not wait for a reply.”

In all deference to such authority, we can not believe that this sentence was spoken in jest. In Pilate’s whole conduct there is no trace of such a tone. It betrays throughout much of uncertainty, nothing of lightness. He was cruelly tormented with the perplexity of efforts to save his prisoner. He risked his own reputation. He pronounced Him, almost with vehemence, to be innocent. He even felt awe, and was afraid of Him. In such a frame of mind, mockery was impossible.

Let us try to comprehend the character of the man who asked this question. His character will help us to judge the tone in which he asked. And his character, the character of his mind and life, are clear enough from the few things recorded of him. He first hears what the people have to say; then asks the opinion of the priests - then comes back to Jesus - goes again to the priests and people - lends his ear - listens to the ferocity on the one hand, and feels the beauty on the other, balancing between them; and then he becomes bewildered, as a man of the world is apt to do who has had no groundwork of religious education, and bears superficial discussions on religious matters, and superficial charges, and superficial slanders, till he knows not what to think. What could come out of such procedure? Nothing but that cheerlessness of soul to which certainty respecting any thing and every thing here on earth seems unattainable. This is the exact mental state which we call skepticism.

Out of that mood, when he heard the enthusiast before him speak of a kingdom of the truth, there broke a sad, bitter, sarcastic sigh, “What is truth?” Who knows any thing about it? Another discoverer of the undiscoverable! Jesting Pilate! with Pilate the matter was beyond a jest. It was not a question put for the sake of information: for he went immediately out, and did not stay for information. It was not put for the sake of ridicule, for he went out to say, “I find no fault in Him.” Sarcasm there was perhaps: but it was that mournful, bitter sarcasm which hides inward unrest in sneering words: that sad irony whose very laugh rings of inward wretchedness. We shall pursue, from this question of Pilate, two lines of thought.


I. The causes of Pilate’s skepticism.

II. The way appointed for discovering what is truth.


I. The causes - and among these I name first, indecision of character. Pilate’s whole behavior was a melancholy exhibition. He was a thing set up for the world’s pity. See how he acts: he first throws the blame on the priests - and then acknowledges that all responsibility is his own: washes his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person. See ye to it.” And then - “Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and power to release thee?” He pronounces Jesus innocent; and then, with wondrous inconsistency, delivers Him to be scourged: yields Him up to be crucified, and then tries every underhand expedient to save Him.

What is there in all this but vacillation of character lying at the root of unsettledness of opinion? Here is a man knowing the right and doing the wrong - not willing to do an act of manifest injustice if he can avoid it, but hesitating to prevent it, for fear of a charge against himself - pitiably vacillating because his hands were tied by the consciousness of past guilt and personal danger. How could such a man be certain about any thing? What could a mind, wavering, unstable, like a feather on the wind, know or believe of solid, stable truth, which altereth not, but remaineth like a rock amidst the vicissitudes of the ages and the changeful fashions of the minds of men? “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” “He that is of the truth, heareth the voice of truth.” To the untrue man all things are untrue. To the vacillating man, who can not know his own mind, all things seem alterable, changeful, unfixed; just as to the man tossed at sea, all things motionless in themselves seem to move round, upward, downward, or around, according to his own movements.

2d. Falseness to his own convictions.

Pilate had a conviction that Jesus was innocent. Instead of acting at once on that, he went and parleyed. He argued and debated till the practical force of the conviction was unsettled.

Now let us distinguish: I do not say that a man is never to re-examine a question once settled. A great Christian writer, whose works are very popular, has advised that when a view has once been arrived at as true, it should be, as it were, laid on the shelf, and never again looked on as an open question: but surely this is false. A young man of twenty three, with such light as he has, forms his views: is he never to have more light? Is he never to open again the questions which his immature mind has decided on once? Is he never in manhood, with manhood’s data and manhood’s experience, to modify, or even reverse, what once seemed the very truth itself? Nay, my brethren - the weak pride of consistency, the cowardice which dares not say I have been wrong all my life, the false anxiety which is fostered to be true to our principles rather than to make sure that our principles are true, all this would leave in Romanism the man who is born a Romanist. It is not so: the best and bravest have struggled from error into truth: they listened to their honest doubts, and tore up their old beliefs by the very roots.

Distinguish, however. A man may unsettle the verdict of his intellect: it is at his peril that he tampers with the convictions of his conscience. Every opinion and view must remain an open question, freely to be tried with fresh light. But there are eternal truths of right and wrong, such as the plain moralities and instinctive decencies of social life, upon which it is perilous to argue. There are plain cases of immediate duty where it is only safe to act at once.

Now Pilate was false to his conscience. His conviction was that Jesus was innocent. It was not a matter of speculation or probability at all, nor a matter in which fresh evidence was even expected, but a case sifted and examined thoroughly. The Pharisees are persecuting a guiltless man. His claims to royalty are not the civil crime which they would make out. Every charge has fallen to the ground. The clear mind of the Roman procurator saw that, as in sunlight, and he did not try to invalidate that judicial conviction. He tried to get rid of the clear duty which resulted from it. Now it is a habit such as this which creates the temper of skepticism.

I address men of a speculative turn of mind. There is boundless danger in all inquiry which is merely curious. When a man brings a clear and practised intellect to try questions, by the answer to which he does not mean to rule his conduct, let him not marvel if he feels, as life goes on, a sense of desolation; existence a burden, and all uncertain. It is the law of his human nature which binds him; for truth is for the heart rather than the intellect. If it is not done it becomes unreal - as gloomily unreal and as dreamily impalpable as it was to Pilate.

3d. The third cause of Pilate’s skepticism was the taint of the worldly temper of his day. Pilate had been a public man. He knew life: had mixed much with the world’s business, and the world’s politics: had come across a multiplicity of opinions, and gained a smattering of them all. He knew how many philosophies and religions pretended to an exclusive possession of truth, and how the pretensions of each were overthrown by another. And his incredulity was but a specimen of the skepticism fashionable in his day. The polished skepticism of a polished, educated Roman, a sagacious man of the world, too much behind the scenes of public life to trust professions of goodness or disinterestedness, or to believe in enthusiasm and a sublime life. And his merciful language, and his desire to save Jesus, was precisely the liberalism current in our days as in his - an utter disbelief in the truths of a world unseen, but at the same time an easy, careless toleration, a half-benevolent, half-indolent unwillingness to molest the poor dreamers who chose to believe in such superstitions.

This is the superficial liberalism which is contracted in public life. Public men contract a rapid way of discussing and dismissing the deepest questions - never going deep - satisfied with the brilliant flippancy which treats religious beliefs as phases of human delusion, seeing the hollowness of the characters around them, and believing that all is hollow; and yet not without their moments of superstition, as when Pilate was afraid, hearing of a Son of God, and connecting it doubtless with the heathen tales of gods who had walked this earth in visible flesh and blood which he had laughed at, and which he now for one moment suspected might be true; not without their moments of horrible insecurity, when the question, “What is truth?” is not a brilliant sarcasm, but a sarcasm on themselves, on human life, on human nature, wrung out of the loneliest and darkest bewilderment that can agonize a human soul.

To such a character Jesus would not explain His truth. He gave no reply: He held His peace. God’s truth is too sacred to be expounded to superficial worldliness in its transient fit of earnestness.

4th. Lastly, I assign, as a cause of skepticism, that priestly bigotry which forbids inquiry and makes doubt a crime.

The priests of that day had much to answer for. Consider for a moment the state of things. One - of whom they only knew that He was a man of unblemished life - came forward to proclaim the truth. But it was new; they had never heard such views before; they were quite sure they had never taught such, nor sanctioned such; and so they settled that the thing was heresy. He had no accredited ordination. “We know that God spake to Moses: as for this fellow we know not whence He is.” Then they proceeded to bind that decision upon others. A man was heard to say, “Why, what evil hath he done?” Small offense enough, but it savored of a dangerous candor towards a suspected man; and in the priestly estimate, candor is the next step to heresy. “ Thou wast altogether born in sin, and dost Thou teach us? and they cast him out of the synagogue.” And so again with Pilate: they stifled his soul’s rising convictions with threats and penalties - “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend.”

This was what they were always doing: they forbade all inquiry, and made doubt of their decision a crime.

Now the results of this priestcraft were twofold. The first result was seen in the fanaticism of the people who cried for blood: the second, in the skepticism of Pilate. And these are the two results which come from all claims to infallibility, and all prohibition of inquiry. They make bigots of the feeble-minded who cannot think: cowardly bigots, who at the bidding of their priests or ministers swell the ferocious cry which forces a government, or a judge, or a bishop, to persecute some opinion which they fear and hate; turning private opinion into civil crime: and they make skeptics of the acute intellects which, like Pilate, see through their fallacies, and like Pilate too, dare not publish their misgivings.

And it matters not in what form that claim to infallibility is made: whether in the clear, consistent way in which Rome asserts it, or whether in the inconsistent way in which churchmen make it for their church, or religious bodies for their favorite opinions: wherever penalties attach to a conscientious conviction, be they the penalties of the rack and flame, or the penalties of being suspected, and avoided, and slandered, and the slur of heresy affixed to the name, till all men count him dangerous lest they too should be put out of the synagogue; and let every man who is engaged in persecuting any opinion ponder it - these two things must follow - you make fanatics, and you make skeptics; believers you can not make.

Therefore do we stand by the central protest and truth of Protestantism. There is infallibility nowhere on this earth: not in Rome; not in councils or convocations not in the Church of England; not in priests; not in ourselves. The soul is thrown in the grandeur of a sublime solitariness on God. Woe to the spirit that stifles its convictions when priests threaten, and the mob which they have maddened cries heresy, and insinuates disloyalty - “Thou art not Caesar’s friend.”


II. The mode appointed for discovering the reply to the question, “What is truth?”

Observe - I do not make our second division that which might seem the natural one - what truth is. I am not about to be guilty of the presumption of answering the question which Jesus did not answer. Some persons hearing the text might think it the duty of any man who took it as a text to preach upon, to lay down what truth is: and if a minister were so to treat it, he might give you the fragment of truth which his own poor mind could grasp: and he might call it, as the phrase is, The Truth, or The Gospel: and he might require his hearers to receive it on peril of salvation. And then he would have done as the priests did; and they who lean on other minds would have gone away bigoted; and they who think would have smiled sadly, bitterly, or sarcastically, and gone home to doubt still more, “What is truth, and is it to be found?”

No, my brethren! The truth can not be compressed into a sermon. The reply to Pilate’s question can not be contained in any verbal form. Think you that if Christ Himself could have answered that question in a certain number of sentences, He would have spent thirty years of life in witnessing to it? Some men would compress into the limits of one reply or one discourse the truth which it took Christ thirty years to teach, and which He left unfinished for the Spirit to complete.

One word more. The truth is infinite as the firmament above you. In childhood, both seem near and measurable; but with years they grow and grow, and seem farther off, and farther and grander, and deeper and vaster, as God Himself; till you smile to remember how you thought you could touch the sky, and blush to recollect the proud and self-sufficient way in which you used to talk of knowing or preaching “the truth.”

And once again: the truth is made up of principles: an inward life, not any mere formula of words. God’s character - spiritual worship - the Divine life in the soul. How shall I put that into sentences ten or ten thousand? “The words which I speak unto you, they are truth, and they are life.” How could Pilate’s question be answered except by a Life? The truth, then, which Pilate wanted - which you want, and I want - is not the boundless verities, but truth of inward life. Truth for me: Truth enough to guide me in this darkling world - enough to teach me how to live and how to die.

Now - the appointed ways to teach this Truth. They are three: independence - humbleness - action.

First, Independence. Let no man start as if independence savored of presumption. Protestant independence, they tell us, is pride and self-reliance, but in truth it is nothing more than a deep sense of personal responsibility; a determination to trust in God rather than in man to teach: in God and God’s light in the soul. You choose a guide among precipices and glaciers, but you walk for yourself; you judge his opinion, though more experienced than your own; you over rule it if needs be; you use your own strength, you rely on your own nerves. That is independence.

You select your own physician, deciding upon the respective claims of men, the most ignorant of whom knows more of the matter than you. You prudently hesitate at times to follow the advice of the one you trust most, yet that is only independence without a particle of presumption.

And so precisely in matters of religious truth. No man cares for your health as you do; therefore you rely blindly upon none. No man has the keeping of your own soul, or cares for it as you do. For yourself, therefore, you inquire and think, and you refuse to delegate that work to bishop, priest, or church. Call they that presumption? Oh, the man who knows the awful feeling of being alone, and struggling for truth as for life and death, he knows the difference between independence and presumption.

Second, Humbleness. There is no infallibility in man; if so, none in us. We may err: that one thought is enough to keep a man humble. There are two kinds of temper contrary to this spirit. The first is a disputing, captious temper. Disagreement is refreshing when two men lovingly desire to compare their views to find out the truth. Controversy is wretched when it is an attempt to prove one another wrong. Therefore Christ would not argue with Pilate. Religious controversy does only harm. It destroys the humble inquiry after truth: it throws all the energies into an attempt to prove ourselves right. The next temper contrary is a hopeless spirit. Pilate’s question breathed of hopelessness. He felt that Jesus was unjustly condemned, but he thought Him in views as hopelessly wrong as the rest: all were wrong. What was truth? Who knew any thing about it? He spoke too bitterly, too hopelessly, too disappointedly to get an answer. In that despairing spirit no man gets at truth: “The meek will He guide in judgment. . . .”

Lastly, Action. This was Christ’s rule - “If any man will do His will. . . .” A blessed rule: a plain and simple rule. Here we are in a world of mystery, where all is difficult, and very much dark - where a hundred jarring creeds declare themselves to be the truth, and all are plausible. How shall a man decide? Let him do the right that lies before him: much is uncertain - some things at least are clear. Whatever else may be wrong, it must be right to be pure - to be just and tender, and merciful and honest. It must be right to love, and to deny one’s self. Let him do the will of God, and he shall know. Observe - men begin the other way. They say, If I could but believe, then I would make my life true: if I could but be sure what is truth, then I would set to work to live in earnest. No: God says, Act; make the life true, and then you will be able to believe. Live in earnest, and you will know the answer to “What is truth?”

Infer the blessedness of belief. Young men are prone to consider skepticism a proof of strong-mindedness - a something to be proud of. Let Pilate be a specimen - and a wretched one he is. He had clear-mindedness enough to be dissatisfied with all the views he knew: enough to see through and scorn the squabbles and superstitions of priests and bigots. All well, if from doubt of falsehood he had gone on to a belief in a higher truth. But doubt, when it left him doubting - why, he missed the noblest opportunity man ever had - that of saving the Saviour: he became a thing for the people to despise, and after ages to pity. And that is skepticism. Call you that a manly thing?

To believe is to be happy; to doubt is to be wretched. But I will not urge that. Seventy years - and the most fevered brain will be still enough. We will not say much of the wretchedness of doubt. To believe is to, be strong. Doubt cramps energy. Belief is power. Only so far as a man believes strongly, mightily, can he act cheerfully, or do any thing that is worth the doing.

I speak to those who have learned to hold cheap the threats wherewith priests and people would terrify into acquiescence - to those who are beyond the appeal of fear, and can only yield, if at all, to higher motives. Young men, the only manly thing, the only strong thing, is faith. It is not so far as a man doubts, but so far as be believes, that he can achieve or perfect any thing. “All things are possible to him that believeth.”