Blind Men and the Elephant

There is an old known as “the Blind Men and the Elephant.”  In this story, there are 4 blind men who are asked to determine what an elephant looks.  The first blind man feels the leg of the elephant and says, “The elephant is like a tree because it is large and round like a pillar.”  The second man feels the tail and says, “The elephant is like a rope because it is small and coarse.”  The third man feels the ear and says, “The elephant is like a fan because it is flat and thin.”  The fourth man feels the trunk and says, “The elephant is like a snake because it is long and curves.” 

A king comes to the 4 blind men and says, “all of you are correct.”  The king goes on to explain that each one had drastically different descriptions of the elephant because they are all feeling different parts.  So, they are all correct.  The elephant has all the features described by the 4 blind men.

This story is used by several religions such as Jain, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even some forms of Islam.  The purpose of the story is to resolve what conflict between those with differing belief systems about God.  In the analogy, the elephant is God and the blind man is to represent each of us in our attempt to describe the unseen.

There is only one problem with the story.  The 4 blind men are not all right, as the king declares, but all wrong.  The elephant is not like a tree, a rope, a fan, or a snake.  The elephant is wholly other than all of those things.  So it is with God.  It is not as though all religions are describing different aspects of the same thing, but failing to describe what God actually is.  Sure, they may have aspects of truth described, but the blind men will always fall short in their descriptions.  And, since we are all blind, we will never be able to tell which descriptions are correct and which ones are not.

But, what if there was a fifth man who came on the scene?  But, the fifth man was different.  What if the fifth man was not blind, but could see clearly?  He could tell us that it is not a tree, a rope, a fan, or a snake, but an elephant.  We would trust that man’s knowledge of the elephant above all 4 of the blind men.  The fifth man could help us, as blind men, to rightly describe the elephant.  Jesus is the fifth man.

While our unaided descriptions of God will fall as short as a blind man’s description of an elephant, Jesus has given us knowledge of God.  Jesus is the only one who has the ability to give a trustworthy description because He is God.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Jim Shultz

Jim serves as Millennial Pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN as well as Philosophy instructor for Union University’s A.Div. program. His passions are to see God’s love work through transformational friendships and to equip the Church to think deeply about their faith in order to recover the knowledge of God in culture. Jim is a pastor and teacher at heart, having trained leaders and pastors, and lectured to undergraduate and graduate students in areas such as philosophy, theology, and apologetics at colleges and universities all over the United States including University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Oklahoma, University of North Texas and Texas A&M University. After completing coursework at Covenant Theological Seminary, Jim received his M.Div. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2009. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology focusing on apologetics and culture studying under Drs. J.P. Moreland and Garry DeWeese.

Twitter: @jimhshultz
Blog: jimshultzblog.com

  • Lion_IRC

    I always thought the blind men / elephant image was a very helpful meme
    to use AGAINST the counter-apologetic criticism that so many
    religions disagree…therefore none are right.

  • Phil Walton

    The story also contains the underlying assumption that God or ‘the ultimate reality’, is passive and non-communicating. If the elephant represents God or ‘the ultimate reality’, surely it would ‘speak’ or communicate in some way?

  • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

    Another problem with the parallel when used by religious relativists, is that one must ask who the king is. It seems that it is typically this very person who is the unique ‘enlightened’ one who has figured out that religion is like the parallel, and that no one has gotten it right. How do THEY know? What initially seems to be a humble position, really isn’t so humble at all.

    • Daniel Tibiriçá

      The story has many versions. The king is not in all of them, in some versions the blind men actually stop arguing and listen to each other, and figure out what it is they are feeling together. But even if we are to talk only about the version with the king, it is not an arrogant personal identification of the religious relativist telling the story with the king, rather the figure of the king should be interpreted to symbolize the Buddha-nature that lies dormant within every sentient being.

  • owenbevt

    The blind men were not wrong, though there descriptions could never be adequate. Without its “tree like” quality it would not be an elephant and would have to role around to get places. Likewise if an ultimate truth did not include every part of it that a mortal can sense (even ad primitively as we do) it could not be described as ultimate but fractured.