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Tolerance - That Loaded Word

Cody Knox February 2, 2014


Tolerance. Few words have provoked so much tension, debate and all-round discomfort as this one. Tolerance. Perhaps its ugly sibling has caused more. Intolerance. It has caused many people much pain. It has brought conflict to countries, cities, families and friendships. Many uncomfortable situations may have been avoided if one of the characters involved had simply been a little more… tolerant.

As I look back over my pretty standard New Zealand upbringing and English language education, I distinctly remember being taught the definition of this word. How about you go and grab that dusty, old dictionary from the box in the cupboard (or get the app) and take a look at what it has to say. You will probably find something like this:

tolerance noun [mass noun] the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.

Did you catch that? Read it again… It may surprise a few readers to see that this orthodox definition of tolerance is not at all how we currently define the word. Something has happened. Something big. A profound cultural shift has taken place.

The tolerator under the ‘old’ tolerance might say something to this effect – “I may disagree with you, but I insist on your right to articulate your opinion, despite how utterly absurd and ridiculous I find it.” This was the true, and beautiful, meaning of tolerance. Disagreeing, even quite vehemently, with someone but still giving them the space to live and breathe and hold to that particular position. And, if need be, even fighting for their right to voice their opinion. That was the ‘old’ tolerance.

A relatively young worldview has arisen coined the ‘new’ tolerance, which states that all beliefs are equal, and then accepts them all as valid ways of seeing the world and how it works. This tolerance accepts and affirms each individual or corporate claim to truth, despite the obvious and often contradictory differences. The only view that is not allowed is the view that only one view has got it right. D.A. Carson sums it all up rather nicely: “No absolutism is permitted, except for the absolute prohibition of absolutism.”2

Somewhere, somehow, as time ticked over, we have fallen under its spell. “We’ve gone from accepting the existence of other views to believing that we need to accept all differing views.”3 This battle for tolerance has implications far bigger than a nine-letter word or getting our feelings hurt. Insisting that different beliefs should have the right to exist and advocate their views is one thing. Stating that they are all on the same playing field in terms of value, validity and truth is another thing entirely.

Does tolerance work

By stating that all stances are equally valid, all opinions are equal in value, and all worldviews are equal in worth, we are making a rather large claim. We have crossed over from the realm of personal preference to that of ontology (what is real) and epistemology (how we know what is real).

This movement is built on inconsistent and incoherent logic; there can be no tolerance for anyone who does not agree with the contemporary usage of the term. Hence this new tolerance is quite inherently intolerant. It doesn’t (and can’t) even follow its own laws. It contradicts one of the rules of logic – The law of (non) contradiction. Inconsistency – check.

Not only does it simply not make sense, but when confronted with its obvious flaws in thinking, we discover the most frightening flaw in this stance on reality. “At the very point where it comes up with that which disagrees with it the most, it has to dismiss all opponents as intolerant and bigoted, and therefore becomes, in fact, totalitarian.”4 The new tolerance just can’t be challenged. And when it is, it shows its true colours. Just like a dictator from a bygone era, he crushes the faintest hint of rebellion, not allowing his servants to even move, nor think, without his permission. Do you really want to be a part of that?

Where to now

When I came to university in 2008, and was first confronted with truth claims of Christianity, I had three choices. 1. I could dismiss it as rubbish, without giving it a second thought or even a decent chance. 2. I could take the path of tolerance and simply accept it as one of the many ways to get to God, whoever He/She was. Or 3. I could actually look into it, give it a shot and listen to what it had to say. What I discovered was certainly not what I was expecting.

A logically, historically, philosophically, archaeologically and scientifically sound case was put in front of me that I could simply not ignore. Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Countless other explanations have been put forward throughout the two millennia following the event, some more reasonable than others5, but the fact remains that for 2000 years, the argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ has survived. It has endured through centuries of abuse and mockery, emerging stronger after every skirmish and demonstrating the intellectual and rational nature of the Christian claims to truth.

We can argue until the cows come home about evolution and a handful of other topics (that are important, don’t get me wrong), but we cannot be fooled and let them steer our focus away from the real, pressing issue – a man came back from the dead. The Bible even makes this clear when the apostle Paul states this in his first letter to the Corinthian church: “…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we (Christians) are of all people most to be pitied.”6 (parentheses added)

The entire Christian faith is built upon this fact. If Christ was not raised, then there is no point in any of it.

How does this relate to me

“So what?” you might say. “A dude being resurrected 2000 years ago has no bearing on my life today.” And you would be right, if he was merely a man. The fact of the matter is – Jesus claimed to be God. Not simply the type of claim that a crazy dude on the street would scream at the top of his lungs, or you would feel coming from a completely narcissistic guy. No, it was the type of claim supported by a sinless life and ministry of love, healing, forgiveness, prophecy, sacrifice, and ultimately culminating in his resurrection.

But here is the marvellous conclusion to the story. The part that blew me away and completely transformed my life. Jesus, the God-man, did not come to tell us to stop being naughty and to be good. Did you catch that? You read it right. He came to us as, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”7, not to merely correct our lifestyle, but to show us that we had a deeper problem. We have all committed wrongs against a perfect God and we stand justly condemned in His court of law.

But in the ultimate act of tolerance, God sent Jesus Christ, to die on a cross, bearing the punishment for every wrong of all people who would give up trying to be a good person, and fall at his feet. There is no amount of good we can do to make up for the wrong we have done in this life. We need One who is spotless. We need the goodness of Another. God shows Himself to be the Tolerant One, as He patiently waits for people who hate him to come to Him.

As humans, we are meant to know truth. We are meant to know it and pursue it, giving deep purpose to our lives. Truth is too important to belittle and devalue. The new tolerance does this, denying truth and collapsing in on itself while doing so. There has to be more. As was wisely said 2000 years ago:

If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Jesus 


  1. Oxford English Dictionary
  2. D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2012), pg. 13
  3. Tim Challies, a review of The Intolerance of Tolerance
  4. D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance lecture, YouTube
  5. Some explanations from more plausible to almost not worthy of your time.
    • –  Jesus’ disciples somehow broke into the tomb and stole his body.
    • –  Jesus didn’t actually die after his gruesome torture and death, but walked, albeit groggily, out of the tomb.
    • –  Jesus had an identical twin brother, separated from birth. No one knew this and he onlyappeared after Jesus’ death. Sounds like a movie I have seen…(refer to the recommended resources below for some good places to read more about the arguments for and against)
  6. 1 Corinthians 15:17, 19, The Holy Bible ESV
  7. Hebrews 1:3, The Holy Bible ESV
  8. John 8:31-32, The Holy Bible ESV

Recommended Resources

  • More Than a Carpenter by Josh mcDowell
  • The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh mcDowell
  • The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

Cody Knox graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in media Studies and modern Languages from Victoria university of Wellington. He now works full time in Wellington.

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