May 20, 2008

Is Faith Blind?The Role of Reason in Believing in God

We all know that baloney is not "real" meat. It's just animal parts that are spiced up and mashed together. In other words, it's a cheap imitation of the real thing. In the same way, some ideas are "baloney," cheap imitations of the truth.

The next time you hear someone making a claim about something, turn on your baloney detector. You can do that by comparing it to the ideas that come from a biblical worldview. One way to dig deeper into the underlying assumptions is by asking the question, "What do you mean by _______?" and fill in the blank with the idea just expressed.

For example, try this question on the following idea you might hear from someone who is not a Christian:

You Christians just accept everything on "faith"!

What baloney (imitation of the truth) do you detect in this statement? Did you notice there is a hidden assumption? When someone challenges your belief in God in this way, the first thing you should do is to ask the simple question: "What do you mean by 'faith'?" You may be surprised by the reply.

Blind Faith

Many people today assume that a Christian's faith in God is what might be defined as blind faith. This is the idea that belief is based on . . . well, just belief. In other words, there is no evidence or logical reason to believe something, it just "faith." In other words, faith is simply a subjective feeling or emotional response to the idea that God exists.

The idea that faith is "blind" is found throughout our culture. For example, in the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana, played by Harrison Ford, must retrieve the Holy Grail of Christ to save the life of his father (Sean Connery). He makes it through a long corridor of deadly obstacles only to find himself standing on the edge of a deep chasm. He hesitates, but finally takes a "step of faith" and finds, to his surprise, he is actually walking on a camouflaged footbridge. This scene illustrates the popular notion that "faith" means believing something that you can't see. It was only after Indy "blindly" stepped out that he felt and saw the solid bridge leading across the chasm.

The latest salvo of atheist attacks on Christianity assumes that faith is blind. Richard Dawkins, for instance, wrote, "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."1 More recently, he declared that "Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument."2 And Christopher Hitchens has written, "Faith is the surrender of the mind; it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals."3

Is faith blind, an excuse to evade the need to think, and the surrender of reason? Biblical worldview analysis answers that question by going back to the source, the Bible.

True Faith

What does the Bible mean by faith? The main verse in the Bible defining faith is found in Hebrews 11:1. One popular translation reads: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (NIV).

Some people read this by putting the emphasis on "hope for" and "not seen." This interpretation seems to agree with the idea that faith means working up a sense of assurance when there is no real evidence or reason to support it. We can't see it, but believe it anyway. Like Indiana Jones, we just step out "in faith" and hope for the best.

But I suggest that a better English translation of Hebrews 11:1 is this:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (NKJV, emphases mine).

Put this way, we find three words that need to be explored further. First, what is meant by the word "faith"? The original Greek word means "firm persuasion," or "a conviction based upon hearing."4 This carries the meaning of forensic evidence, which is the kind of evidence used in a court of law. Far from being an irrational belief, faith in this sense is the height of reasonableness, the result of weighing the evidence and reaching a logical conclusion in light of the facts.

The Apostle Paul used the idea of forensic evidence in his speech in Athens. In Acts 17:31, Paul was speaking to the pagan leaders of this major Greek city. He said, "For he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man [Jesus] he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" (emphasis mine).

The "proof" Paul referred to was the kind of testimony or facts presented during a court trial. He is saying that the evidence for Jesus rising from the dead is the same sort of evidence used to convince the jury of the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

Can you imagine a judge reporting the verdict after a long trial with these words, "I have decided to find the defendant guilty as charged because I take it on faith that he committed the crime. I have no evidence he did it, but I just believe he did it. I just believe!" This would truly be "blind faith." It would also be absurd. We expect judges to make decisions according to the evidence. Paul appeals to this kind of reasoning when asking his pagan hearers to respond to the Gospel.

The second word to look at in more detail is "substance." This word refers to something that is "set under" something else as a support. This means there is something substantial that supports one's faith. It's not the Indiana Jones "step of faith" where he saw nothing! Instead, it is knowing what supports you before taking a step. It's not a "step in the dark," it's a step into the light!

The third word is "evidence." This refers to proof, or a personal conviction based on the facts. This is very similar to the idea of forensic evidence as we noted when defining "faith."

What we find when we examine a biblical definition of the word "faith" is totally different from what many people assume. It turns out not to be "blind" belief, but a personal conviction based on solid evidence.

Evidential Faith

What kind of facts supports your faith as a Christian? The New Testament provides many examples. We'll look at a couple related to the life, death, and, particularly, the resurrection of Jesus.

Take, for instance, when Jesus was eating his last meal with his disciples before his death (see John 14:8–14). Philip asks Jesus for proof of his deity.

Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves."

Notice that Jesus does not respond to Philip, "Just believe." Instead, he referred to the "evidence" of his miracles. The miracles he had performed and that Philip had witnessed provided tangible proof of his deity.

Or consider how Thomas seriously doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This is a legitimate doubt, since people don't normally come back from the dead! We pick up the story in John 20:24–29:

Now Thomas (called Didymus), 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 it." A week later his 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 into 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."

In this passage Jesus does not say to Thomas, "Stop doubting and believe. Just believe." No, Jesus first provided physical evidence by offering his hands and side for Thomas' inspection. Thomas believed that Jesus was alive from the dead because he had seen and touched Jesus' body. He had evidence, in this case physical evidence, which convinced him something was true: Jesus had been raised from the dead and was therefore God incarnate.

But What about Today

At this point some people will point to the last part of Jesus' comment to Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." This, they say, means that since we no longer see Jesus physically, we must accept his resurrection on blind faith. But this is to misunderstand the basis for our belief.

Even though we do not have the same kind of evidence that Thomas had, physical evidence, our conviction is based on the personal testimony of the disciples who had seen and touched Jesus. This kind of personal testimony is used in courts to prove the guilt or innocence of a person. In the same way that a jury reaches a verdict based on eyewitness testimony, we reach a conclusion based on the testimony of those who had spent three years living side-by-side with Jesus. It is these men and women who gave testimony of having personally seen, talked to, eaten with, and touched the resurrected Jesus.

The disciples were aware of the power of personal testimony. They appealed to their experience of seeing Jesus alive from the dead as they spoke to others. In fact, this was the central feature of their message. Luke writes in Acts 1:3, "After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God."

In Acts 2:1–36 is recorded the disciples' first time speaking openly in public. Peter, as the spokesman for the group, appealed to the knowledge of his audience who had seen the miracles of Jesus. He offered this as evidence of his deity. He said, "Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know" (vs. 22).

Next, Peter makes mention of the eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection, saying, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact" (vs. 32). Based on these two experiences, Peter concludes that those listening to his voice can be confident that Jesus is the Christ. "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (vs. 36).

Conclusion

In summary, the Bible defines faith in a totally different way from the common understanding of today. Faith is not wishful thinking, a blind hope, or a surrender of reason. Biblical faith is a decision to believe something about God or Jesus based on evidence, the kind of evidence that would stand up in a court of law.

The next time someone comments that faith is blind, turn on your baloney detector. Then, point your friend to how the Bible defines faith.

And when someone asks you what you believe about God, will you be able to give a reason for the hope that you have? Peter says you should not only be able to give a reasoned explanation, but should do with gentleness and respect to the person you are talking with.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . . (1 Peter 3:15)
Footnotes
  1. A lecture by Richard Dawkins extracted from The Nullifidian (Dec 94), http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Dawkins/Work/Articles/1994-12religion.shtml.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 308.
  3. Christopher Hitchens, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, Season 3, Episode 5: "Holier Than Thou" {2005-05-23}, quoted on http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christopher_Hitchens.
  4. From Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words.

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