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61.240The Parable of the Elephant and the Blind Men is a well-known story that resonates in a culture where diversity is valued and multiple perspectives are promoted.

The story originated in India and has been used in Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi contexts. The most common version in the West comes from Lillian Quigley's children's book about six blind men who visit the Rajah's palace and encounter an elephant.

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

Greg Koukl summarizes the story:

  1. The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.”
  2. The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake.”
  3. The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.”
  4. The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall! An elephant is like a tree.”
  5. The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.”
  6. The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope."

An argument ensued, each blind man thinking his own perception of the elephant was the correct one. The Rajah, awakened by the commotion, called out from the balcony. “The elephant is a big animal,” he said. “Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”

Enlightened by the Rajah’s wisdom, the blind men reached agreement. “Each one of us knows only a part. To find out the whole truth we must put all the parts together.”

The Application of the Parable

The moral of the story goes something like this: we all have different experiences. Therefore, whenever we find ourselves at odds with others, we should be humble and recognize our limitations of knowledge, our need for other perspectives, and trust that others may grasp truths that we do not.

Applied to religion, the story says no one has the comprehensive vision of truth. We need all the religions of the world if we are going to grasp the truth about spiritual reality.

The Parable Backfires

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant is memorable in its delivery of a message and its prompting toward humility. But as an explanation for why no religion or perspective can claim to be right and others wrong, it backfires in three ways.

1. The story undercuts its call to humility through the arrogant claim of having the comprehensive truth it says is unavailable.

Lesslie Newbigin, famous missionary to India, pointed out the flaw in the story:

"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 the 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.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 9-10)

Tim Keller sums up the contradiction this way:

“How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?

“How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?" (The Reason for God9)

2. The story undercuts the idea that the blind men should be satisfied with partial knowledge by revealing the full truth at the end of the tale. 

When you first hear the parable, you think the moral is to look for whatever is true in someone else's perspective. But the story backfires when you consider that each of the blind men was wrong about what the elephant was.

In "The Elephant in the Room," an article in the July/August 2016 issue of Gilbert, David Fagerberg writes:

"Far from being satisfied with their idiosyncratic, partial, perspective-driven, limited understanding, the blind men would have wished for the light by which they could see the whole, the true, the real, that upon which they could all agree, the final reality that would account for each of their perceptions."

Fagerberg then applies the tale to the university setting:

“We each grope in our individual darkness (touching our part of the elephant), but the liberal arts should turn on the light so we can learn reality. The reason it is called a UNIversity is because there is one truth, one goodness, one beauty, particularized in an infinite number of ways, and we fail the elephant and we fail our own perceptiveness if we content ourselves with MULTIversity. There ought to be a reality toward which our perspectives should advance, even if it is done by dialogue.”

Instead of humbly acknowledging that we are blind and cannot see the full elephant, the story should drive us to seek the truth. In that search, we do indeed rely on others--not so we can be satisfied with multiple perspectives, but so that we can argue toward Truth together.

“The point of the story is that in their darkness the men were not seeing the elephant truly. There is a reality, and it is incumbent on us to see it accurately.”

3. The story undercuts its idea of blindness by opening the door for revelation at the end.

Notice that the story ends with the Rajah (who can see) explaining the reality of the elephant. The blind men need revelation in order to receive the truth.

Revelation changes everything. The reason the Blind Men and the Elephant doesn't work as an illustration of the various religions is because the three Abrahamic faiths would say that the elephant, as a metaphor for God, can speak!

Greg Koukl writes:

“Even though the men are blind, the elephant isn’t necessarily mute. This is a factor the illustration doesn’t allow for: What if the elephant speaks?

“The claim of Christianity is that man doesn’t learn about God by groping. Instead, discovery is through God’s own self-disclosure. He is not passive and silent, leaving us to guess about His nature. God tells us what He is like and what He wants.

“If God speaks, this changes everything. All contrary opinions are silenced, all conjectures are put to rest. God has made Himself known, giving us a standard by which to measure all other religious claims. The parable of the blind men does not take this possibility into account. Yet three of the world’s great religions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--make this claim.”

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8 thoughts on “3 Ways ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ Story Backfires”

  1. Mike Tisdell says:

    I have pointed out this fallacy in my therapeutics class for a while. After presenting the “elephant story.” I remind students that we need to begin with prayer because God can open the eyes of the blind.

  2. George S says:

    I think the Elephant parable is a good one when applied to certain areas of life. Businesses can likely function better if different viewpoints are acknowledged and acted upon if they make sense. Wise leaders look at different perspectives and opinions before making decisions.

    However, this article is exactly right when it comes to religion. Either one of them is true, or none of them. They can’t all be true, no matter how people try to fit different pieces of religions together.

  3. Doug Sachs says:

    When I use this story, God is the king and His truth (not any “truth”) is the elephant. None of us can see the whole elephant and won’t while we are still in our current state. We need to have grace toward those with whom we disagree. Maybe God has only shown them a different part of His elephant or our interpretation is flawed because of our inability to comprehend His ways and His thoughts. I guess this could apply to our interpretation of this parable, too.

  4. Tim Z says:

    One thing that always strikes me about the Elephant parable is that someone had to lead the blind men to the elephant. The way it is often used, the assumption is that they all somehow found the same thing. I’d rephrase the parable this way: “Three blind men were out where they’d never been before, and thought that maybe there was an elephant nearby. One touched a pond and said that the elephant was like water, one touched an ant and said that elephants were small and prone to biting, and the third touched the elephant’s leg and said the elephant was big tall and sturdy. The elephant, being a wild animal and not really liking people, bellowed out and ran away, leaving the blind man who touched it knowing that the elephant was more than he had originally thought, while the other two blind men were confused at what that strange noise was since it obviously couldn’t have been the elephant.”

  5. Jeff Cate says:

    What often goes unmentioned is that there was a seventh blind man who felt the ground under the elephant and said, The elephant is warm and mushy…

  6. Sandi says:

    Jesus does claim Exclusive Inclusiveness.HE IS THE ONLY NAME GIVEN (Acts 4:12), but all are Invited. Walter J. Veith & David Asscherick give very good presentations on this topic. ISA. 55:11

  7. Simon says:

    Dear Trevin. In a previous post about the Canaanite killings you essentially argue that God commanded a bunch of people to kill another bunch of people. The reason the people needed to be killed was because they were really bad. The people doing the killing were bad too of course, but hadn’t quite reached the same degree of badness. One of of the reasons the really bad people needed to be killed was because they did really bad things like sacrifice their children. So, clearly it was important to kill the children too … huh(?).

    Meanwhile you critique another guy (c s cowles) who has a different point of view to you about all this and who doesn’t believe a Christ-like God could command a baby killing spree. Cowles can believe in the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even of judgement and hell. But his more nuanced view on scripture is apparently ‘beyond’ you. Really? Are you really just going to dismiss his perspective as ‘beyond you’ because it’s easier not to question your own position on inerrancy? (Which leads you to justify the killing of children by soldiers, by the way).

    Rather than actually deal with his arguments properly you misrepresent his views on salvation, brand him (unfairly) a Marcionite heretic, and then claim his understanding of the work of Christ is in direct opposition to the evangelical view of sin and salvation. ‘Heretical’ ‘direct opposition’ … strong, condemning stuff … doesn’t take huge leap of the imagination what you really think of Cowles. You separatise yourself and there is no attempt from you to engage with, or speculate on how to synthesise different points of view.

    Just for a moment, do you think YOU might actually have a worldview that is distorted and wrong – one that sanctions baby murder, for example.

    Just for a moment consider that this parable is just the one YOU need to hear because you could be deluding yourself about reality, whilst constantly going round making the claim you understand it – humbly and by grace of course.

    I think this parable infuriates evangelicals so much because it threatens their crumbling view on inerrancy. There is so much out there that makes inerrancy an increasingly flawed view – science, history, not to mention morality your average 4 year old can clearly see. Rather than accepting this, you’ve gotta keep claiming you know the truth and putting yourself in the position of the elephant seeing king (yeah, yeah I know, it’s only by grace you’ve been given the humility to see). Could your ‘self-justifying hearts’ be going into ‘attack mode every time you feel threatened, criticized, or condemned.’?

    BUT evangelicals have got so much to bring to the table (or the bottom of the elephant), you’ve just gotta stop being such a bunch of ‘know-it-alls’.

    Sent from my iPhone

  8. At base, my view is that this story or metaphor misrepresents the realities that it tries to critique (and thus its solutions and / or conclusions are skewed). Here is how I would characterize the misrepresentations and their results, accompanied by at least two examples of what I think is missing (and what impact their presence may have on the enterprise of “seeking God,” however understood).

    First, the Rajah’s perfect perception is a fiction: there is no “God’s eye point of view.” Rather than seeing—and so knowing—perfectly all human beings interpret. Second, “blindness” exaggerates the human condition relative to finitude (regarding our limited abilities to acquire true knowledge and understanding). Third “momentary groping,” by contrast, under-represents the possibilities for acquiring knowledge and understanding available to those willing to develop the necessary skills and devote themselves to such a matter. Fourth, the “non-interactive and static nature” of the subject misrepresents the possibilities available by engaging with a diversity of informers: the value of a broadly informed, multi-disciplinary view. Fifth, categorizing the “missing ingredient” of the Rajah’s sight (as if there were only one missing ingredient) as “revelation” rather than the more generic “information,” of which revelation is a sub-set actually furthers the metaphor’s mistaken direction by promoting the assumptions that a) the only viable answer to questions of God involves there actually being a God (and particularly, a God as conceived according to a revelational model), and b) that revelation stands above or before other types of information, and thus true understanding can be derived from revelation unassisted by, say, science, philosophy, the arts, etc.

    For example, one important (yet missing) ingredient in the matter of truth-seeking relative to self, God, and the relationship between the two is the notion of self-deceit: the reality that human are not only ignorant, misinformed, or dishonest but that we also act and think in ways—and according to the very principles—that we claim to disavow. A second necessary ingredient, given the necessarily relational quality of the enterprise, is the crucial role that love plays in human fulfillment. In other words, does not love—in the sense of being truly loved by one whom I love in return—represent the greatest “truth-for-me”? Thus truth-seeking itself is not simply cognitive or oriented toward knowledge but also involves relational truth (and its success hinges upon the full gamut of human faculties, including the imagination, the will, experience, etc.).

    Indeed, by engaging suspicion as a “virtue” that may both corroborate and correct trust, and by engaging love as a co-central necessity to truth (such that each may likewise affirm and critique the other) my wager is that we would be more likely to arrive at position where the abuses of knowledge (as my first four points, above) can be avoided. More so, we would be more likely to avoid the one-sidedness of leaning overly on revelation (as my fifth point) and, instead, be prepared to allow revelation to be properly—and productively—complimented by engaging all valid informers in a hermeneutically sound manner, such that the claims of each are considered according to their context and remit.

    On self-deceit, this podcast may be helpful: Untangling Christianity

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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