By John Dickson
Jesus often called on people to believe in him, to exercise faith in him. His opening words in Mark’s gospel, for example, are “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe. Have faith in the good news.” The word “faith” of course has a bad rap in our scientific age. It’s often thought to be the opposite of reason. One well-known atheist (no prizes for guessing which one) has said, “A case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the small pox virus, but harder to eradicate. Faith being belief that isn’t based on evidence is the principal vice of any religion.”
This badly misunderstands the biblical usage of this word. Faith is a relational term. It means to trust someone. When I married my wife, Buff, there was no proof she could love me “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” and so on. But there were indications. There was some evidence that made that step of trust – that step of faith – reasonable. And more than 26 years later, there’s still no proof that she will continue to love me until death do us part. The future is unseen, unprovable. So faith is always future-looking, trusting past indications that make it perfectly reasonable to put my faith in my wife.
When you think about it, if we decide only to believe what we can see and touch, and reject what comes to us by good testimony, we aren’t going to know much at all.
The same point was made in a lovely little exchange between Oxford professor, and Christian, John Lennox (a good friend of Undeceptions) and outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins in a debate said, “We only use the word ‘faith’ when we don’t have evidence.”
Lennox replied, “Do you have faith in your wife?”
Richard Dawkins replied, “Of course I have faith in my wife.”
Lennox: “Is that faith based on any evidence?”
Dawkins: “Lots of evidence.”
And as the words left his mouth, he realised the trap. The crowd erupted with applause, fairly or not (I’m not sure). Faith, though, is not the opposite of reason and evidence. It is a reasoned trust in someone’s reliability.
That’s the sense of the two Bible passages often put forward to mean that faith is the opposite of evidence. One of them is Hebrews chapter 11:1.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
This isn’t a total definition of faith. It’s not a textbook entry. It just highlights an important dimension of faith for a church going through a painful present, which is what chapter 10 of Hebrews is all about.
The author is just saying the God who gave us his Son and then raised that Son to glory can be trusted to do what he has promised to do: to bring about a glorious future from this painful present. The visible out of the invisible.
The whole chapter functions like a court of law: witness after witness is called to testify that God can be trusted to make good on his promises, which is why the closing statement of the whole section – Hebrews 12:1 – says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us hold on…” The author’s argument is not that readers should keep trusting God without any reason. He’s saying that there are 21 reasons to think that God will come through for his people: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and all the others listed in the section right before it (Hebrews 11), who displayed their faith.
The other passage people sometimes use to say that Christianity rejects the notion of evidence in favor of blind faith is in the Gospel of John, where Thomas (the original “doubting Thomas”) says he’s not going to believe that Jesus is raised from the dead unless he sees the risen Jesus for himself.
“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25
This is really strong stuff. He’s not just saying in a sort of humble atmosphere, “I don’t think I’m able to believe.” He’s actually in Greek saying, “ou me pisteuso”. Which means “not ever shall I believe”. Thomas has made a decision not to trust the testimony of his closest, trusted friends, but only to trust what he himself can see and touch.
He sounds very modern. But actually in the next scene, Jesus picks him up on this.
“A week later, [Jesus’] disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God.” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:26-29
That last line is the one that people think means that faith is the opposite of evidence. But here’s the important thing: Jesus, isn’t saying “Shame on you, Thomas, for needing evidence. Blessed are those who can believe without evidence.” No way.
He’s just criticising Thomas for thinking that the only way of knowing anything is by seeing and touching, rather than believing on the basis of good testimony. And when you think about it, if we decide only to believe what we can see and touch, and reject what comes to us by good testimony, we aren’t going to know much at all.
Most legal judgments in courts – except where there is forensics – are based on witness testimony or expert authority. Same with history – most of what we know about the past comes through written testimony. In fact, unless we happen to be scientists ourselves, most of what we all believe about science we got through testimony, whether some textbook we trusted or a science teacher.
I know that people often think that faith is believing stuff blindly without evidence, but faith in the Christian tradition is more like the way the Oxford English Dictionary puts it in Definition Seven of the word “faith”, which is “belief based on evidence, testimony, or authority.” That’s an excellent description of Christian faith.
When Jesus asked people to believe – to trust, to have faith in him – he wasn’t calling for blind faith. He was asking people to look at him, assess him, weigh the testimony about him, and then depend on him and his offer of grace. Faith is a reasoned trust in the goodness and mercy of Christ.
5 Minute Jesus: Faith that is not blind