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Is an iPhone depicted in an 1860 painting? Time travel and the truth of God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The Expected One (Cropped), Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Public domain
The Expected One (Cropped), Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Public domain

Austrian artist Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller created a painting called The Expected One. It depicts a woman standing or walking toward the viewer while holding what looks very much like an iPhone in her hands. If the picture were painted today, you would think she was reading or texting on her device.

The Expected One, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Public domain

Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch painted Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House. It depicts a woman sitting in the corner of a room while a man steps toward her. The object in his right hand looks just like an iPhone. Again, if the picture were painted today, you would think that he was reading from the device.

Historians assure us that neither is the case. The first picture was painted in 1860, the second in 1670.

The woman in the first painting is holding a religious tract of some kind such as a hymn book. The man in the second picture is holding a letter, as the title of the painting suggests. But the iPhone and other technologies have become so ubiquitous in our lives and culture that we tend to see them even where they could not exist.

There’s a larger lesson here.

Time travel and subjective truth

Our culture has taught us that truth is personal, individual, and subjective. For decades, postmodern ideology has insisted that objective truth does not exist. Of course, this is an objective truth claim.

Nonetheless, it is popular today to claim that truth is whatever I believe it to be. I filter reality through my senses as interpreted by my mind. If I see an iPhone in a woman’s hand, it is an iPhone for me. If you see one in the hand of a man walking toward a woman, it is an iPhone for you. Or so we’re told.

Such claims are obviously nonsensical with regard to historical art. Until someone invents time travel, it will be impossible to believe that objects were painted centuries before they were created. Science is likewise impossible in a world where objective truth does not exist.

However, we find the claim that truth is personal and subjective attractive when such truth is appealing to us. Whether the issue is abortion, sexual activity, or other moral subjects, we want to believe that our beliefs are reality.

But as with contemporary objects in historic paintings, the truth is not so malleable.

“The truth will set you free”

We are seeing the consequences on every side of a culture that has abandoned objective truth. More than sixty million lives lost to abortion, a movement that would sacrifice religious liberty for sexual freedom, and the rising popularity of euthanasia all point to the tragic results of subjective truth.

The biblical response is to measure truth claims by the truth of God.

In John 8, Jesus said to his followers, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (vv. 31–32). Notice the order: we must abide in the word of God in order to know the truth of God that sets us free.

Abiding in biblical truth begins at the beginning of the day. We each need time alone with our Lord to study his word and listen to his voice. J. I. Packer taught us that the Bible is “God preaching.” However, as with all sermons, we must listen and heed what we hear before it becomes operative and powerful in our lives.

Next, we walk through the day while listening for God’s word and obeying his will. When we face challenges or opportunities, we ask what Scripture says and pray for wisdom and strength to obey. When we fall to temptation, we claim the biblical promise of God’s forgiveness as we confess and repent of our sins. When we meet others facing challenges, we speak the truth in love as we offer them what has been given to us (Ephesians 4:15).

By thinking biblically, we learned to live biblically. When we live biblically, we experience the freedom of Jesus, a transformation the culture will seek as well.

Artists and iPhones cannot travel through time. However, your next act of obedience will resound in heaven for eternity.