Blind Men and the Elephant

When I was overseas a couple of years ago, preparing to teach a course at a Bible Institute in an East European Country, I was lent the book “Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology” by Roger E. Olson, to read in my spare time. After hearing a brief account of it from an American visiting lecturer who left the book behind, and working my way through it, I found myself faced with some familiar questions. ‘What do we mean by ‘conservative’, ‘evangelical’, and so on? How definite should we be about our position?’

I said these were familiar questions because I have heard them repeated from some pulpits in Australia in recent years, by pastors who have used the Hindu parable of ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’, to claim that Christians should avoid being dogmatic about their beliefs. The parable has actually been widely used as an argument for religious pluralism.

Each blind man has his hand on a different part of the animal, and is asked by the king to tell him what the elephant is like. None of them knows the whole truth from their limited experience. The lesson is that we should be humble about our religious convictions and not arrogantly assume that what we believe must necessarily be true for everyone else. The supposed lesson, is that each religion has only one aspect of the truth.

Unfortunately, this pluralistic perspective has been uncritically absorbed by some church leaders who continue to claim that they are evangelical in their beliefs. They have tried to use this parable to warn Christians about being too confident about their beliefs, and not criticise those who see things differently. The words that usually accompany these statements come from the hymn that says,

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,

By notions of our day and sect, crude, partial and confined.

Now let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word.

George Rawson wrote the words to this song based on a 1620 farewell speech spoken by John Robinson to the pilgrims who were about to set sail on the Mayflower. Here is a portion of that speech:

"I charge you before God and His blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument [servant] of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His Holy Word."[1]

What Robinson was referring to when he said, ‘the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His Holy Word’, was the truth that he had passed on to them while he had served them as a pastor. In other words, ‘In preaching and teaching you, I haven’t exhausted all the truth that God’s Word has for you. Be open to others who will be able to fill you in on the inexhaustible treasures that lie in God’s Word.’ He was not referring to some kind of esoteric knowledge that would come to them from outside the Bible. It had nothing to do with any ‘so-called’ truth that would come to us through increased scientific research, or ‘advance thinking’. For truth to be truth, there can only be one source of it. The Christian claim is that truth can only come from God, and it has to be revealed by him, if we are to come to know it at all.

Missed the point

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin pointed out how this popular Hindu parable about the ‘Blind men and the elephant’, has missed the point.

The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.[2]

In this parable, the king sees the whole picture, even if the blind men don’t. In Christian understanding, the King (God) has revealed all that we need to understand.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Obviously, there are aspects of God’s nature and the way he works we will never understand. If we could, we would be ‘gods’. But what we need to understand has been given to us in his Word, the Bible. (See Deuteronomy 29:29). It is God’s gift to us to lead us to himself through Jesus Christ, and to help us understand what life is to be about, and how we fit into God’s purposes in this world. Life is meant to be purposeful and meaningful. God hasn’t left us blind to himself or to what he is seeking to achieve.

Israel in the Old Testament was accused of being blind and deaf to all that God was trying to show them.

“Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see!
Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?
Who is blind like the one in covenant with me, blind like the servant of the Lord?
You have seen many things, but you pay no attention;
your ears are open, but you do not listen.”
It pleased the Lord for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious.
But this is a people plundered and looted,
all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons.
They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them;
they have been made loot, with no one to say, “Send them back.”

Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come?
Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers?
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned?
For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law.
So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war.
It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand;
it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart. (Isaiah 42:18-25).

Blindness is not a condition that needs to continue for any person. To remain blind is a choice people make. It is the refusal to believe that God, who is the Father of Jesus Christ, is the only one who is able to shed light on what is reality. The Hindu parable is true for people who have rejected the King’s interpretation of reality. For them, everything is still vague, uncertain, and meaningless. But that is a self-imposed blindness. Although we are all born ‘blind’ to the reality of God, and to life as it was meant to be for us, to continue in that blindness is a personal choice.

It is sad to see that some church leaders have become blind through their own arrogance. While calling on Christians to display humility by being less dogmatic about their theological position, they have placed themselves in the ‘superior’ position of questioning what the Bible is really saying. Their claim is that we need to adapt God’s laws and demands to ever-changing times. We need to interpret the Bible through the eyes of contemporary society. Instead of understanding what is happening in contemporary society in the light of the message of the Bible. After all, it is the message of an unchanging God. Times may change, but human nature does not change.

Arrogance is the refusal to accept the Bible as God’s Word, and replacing its wisdom with our own finite, warped, confused understanding that is one thing today, and something else tomorrow. It is the insistence on the right to make our own judgements on what is right and wrong. We see this in the reinterpretation given to the significance of the cross of Christ by ‘enlightened’ theologians. For them, the cross is the ultimate illustration of self-giving, and has nothing to do with Jesus taking our place in God’s judgement against sin. They see the Gospel as the good news that liberates oppressed people from poverty and injustice. In more recent times, they have capitulated to social pressures to view homosexuality, and the ordination of homosexuals to ministry, as acceptable in modern society.

When Christians reduce the teachings of the Bible to ‘love’, they are like the blindfolded men who are asked what they think the elephant is like. From their limited experience, they deduce their whole understanding of the Bible. This happens only when people reject the King’s interpretation of the whole picture. God is misrepresented when we do not portray him as he is. God’s love and judgement, and his law and grace, are two related aspects of his nature. We can say they are two sides of the same coin. Just as we would never accept a genuine coin that had a head without a tail, so God refuses to be recognised in a truncated form. That is not a judgement we come independently of the Bible. That is how he has revealed himself.

Understanding God more correctly as he is revealed in the Bible, is the starting point for understanding what it means to be a true human being.

Degradation of humanity

Perverted morality is destructive of the very fabric that constitutes our humanity? Paul the apostle expresses the downward slide of human being in these terms.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:20-27).

That is a picture of our fallen-ness. But that is not what God intended us to be like. When we look at a patient on her deathbed, emaciated and in pain, we know that is not what a person’s life is supposed to be like. In the same way, when we see the rapid moral degradation in society, we need to admit to ourselves that is not what we human beings are supposed to be like. It is a warped, twisted lifestyle that has degraded itself, and wants everyone else to accept it as normal. Many in our society are finding themselves spiralling downward at a pace they cannot halt. Not all the self-justifying arguments that we have a right to set our own standards of morality can quench the voice of a conscience that isn’t quite dead. This is obvious. Otherwise, why would people who are on a downward path try so hard, and so aggressively to convert everyone else to their way of thinking? Nor are extremely well educated people immune to moral degradation. That is what is so confusing to unthinking people.

Misplaced wisdom

Unfortunately, some theological students have opted out of serious study of the Bible while they have been studying for their theology degrees, and have preferred the wisdom that comes from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. They have rejected the wisdom of God as a foundation for evaluating all other knowledge. If Christian leaders can’t understand this basic principle in formulating what is true and what is not, they will hardly help their followers to do it. When we become increasingly ignorant of what the Bible really teaches, it is not surprising that an alternate ‘wisdom’ kicks in. What’s more, when preachers and teachers begin to quote sources that do not come from the Bible as the basis for their belief, and that the congregations are ignorant of, they give the impression that they have a superior source of wisdom from which they speak. Sadly, they become blind leaders of the blind. (Matthew 15:14).

Pluralism and relativism

Pluralism and relativism are closely related. Pluralism is the philosophy that says no single explanatory system or view of reality can account for all the phenomena of life. In other words, the Bible can’t possibly present us with the whole truth. Relativism is a view that truth, morality, and claims that the criteria by which we make judgments of what is right or wrong, may vary from individual to individual, depending on our environment.

Both of these theories of understanding what is true have removed God’s role in defining truth. It is true that if we try to understand truth blindfolded, and have only our own limited perspectives to guide us, we have no hope of coming to know what is truth. However, when God, who does see the ‘whole picture’, reveals truth to us, it is then up to us whether we are prepared to accept what he offers. The alternative is to reject it, and to continue to grope around blindfolded, claiming that there is no way anyone can come to know the whole truth.

When Jesus came to earth, he said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6). God did not leave us to grope around in the dark to discover what we could never discover by ourselves. He gave us his own Son, Jesus Christ, who, as the embodiment of truth, is the only one who can lead us to discover it. He does this through the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17: 16:13). He reveals God’s truth to anyone who is prepared to accept it. (John 16:13). Truth begins with a person, not with information. Only a reconciled relationship with God can place us in the position of even understanding what is true and what is false. Jesus Christ becomes for us the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30). When that relationship is right, we have no problems in accepting God’s revelation of truth. No, we never claim to understand the whole truth, but we are in the position where we have no difficulty in accepting what God, in his infinite wisdom, wants us to understand.

When churchmen have difficulty accepting God’s judgement about what is right and wrong, it is because that relationship with God either does not exist in the first place, or has lapsed into an unhealthy one.

God, the final arbiter and judge

Who is to blame when people become increasingly ignorant of what is the truth? Is it church leaders; or is it the people who reject the truth that is available to all through Jesus Christ? According to the Bible, both are culpable. The ordinary people are just as culpable as the leaders. This is made plain to us in the way our own laws judge us. We are told that ‘ignorance of the law is not an excuse.’ It is our responsibility to know the law of the land and to obey it. It is equally our responsibility to know the Law by which the Creator of all humanity rules this world, and by which he will judge all human beings whatever religion they have chosen to hide behind. He is not any ‘god’. He is the God and Father of Jesus Christ.


[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002) pp9-10).