Friday, May 29, 2020
If you’ve missed the first couple posts in this series, here’s a quick summary to bring you up to speed (although I’d also recommend reading the introduction). A common critique of Christianity from skeptics and atheists is that faith is belief without evidence. Aron Ra, a popular atheist speaker and writer with almost 250,000 subscribers on YouTube, asserts the following: “Faith is an assertion of unreasonable conviction, which is assumed without reason, and defended against all reason. In my essay, I specified that by ‘reason’, I meant ‘evidence’, the only reason to believe anything. Since defenders of the faith often refuse to amidst that faith is a belief that is not based on evidence, then I’ll have to prove that I’ve got that right.”1
Well, if Aron Ra wants to prove that he’s “got it right”, it seems a good place to start would be accurately representing New Testament references to faith. The word “faith” appears far more often in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. For example, in the English Standard Version the word appears 278 times in 257 verses, approximately nine times more than in the Old Testament. In approximately 90% of the cases, “faith” is translated from the Greek word “pistis”, which is defined by Strong’s Concordance to mean “conviction of the truth of anything” or “belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervour born of faith and joined with it.” In the Old Testament, the term “faith” seems to often be synonymous with devotion, whereas in the New Testament the term does seem to be more closely associated with one’s beliefs. However, are the critics such as Aron Ra correct when they claim that this belief is without evidence?
There are far too many occurrences to examine every one, but let’s take a look at a few times in which the Greek word “pistis” is translated as “faith” and see if it fits the representation as “belief without evidence. In a famous gospel story, four men lowered their paralyzed friend through a hole in the roof of the home where Jesus was preaching to a packed crowd in hopes that he would heal their friend.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5)
Would it be accurate to describe the friends’ faith as belief without evidence? Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had already driven out demons and healed many, including a man with leprosy. As a result of reports of these miracles, the crowd that had gathered around Jesus was so great that the men had to improvise and dig a hole in the roof to bring their friend to Jesus. They took such extreme measures because they trusted that Jesus would heal their friend based on the power and compassion he had already demonstrated. Their faith was not belief without evidence, but active conviction as a result of evidence.
A couple chapters later, Jesus and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a strong storm arose and threatened to swamp the boat. The disciples ran to Jesus, who was sleeping in the stern and asked, “Don’t you care if we drown?” After rebuking the storm and calming the waves, Jesus turned to his followers, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:38-40). If faith is belief without evidence, what grounds would Jesus have for rebuking his disciples? If they had not been given any evidence that they could trust him or any proof of his identity as the Son of God, then they should have been afraid in a life-threatening storm. Yet, they had already seen him perform many miracles. In this context, the disciples would have had faith if they had trusted that Jesus would guide them safely through the storm, but not without reason to do so.
Now, it is true that the word faith is more synonymous with belief in the New Testament than the Old Testament, where it often connotes devotion. For example, a major theme in the New Testament is that Christians are justified by faith. For example, Galations 2:16 says, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” To examine whether this faith is belief without evidence, we must examine the full gospel message that the apostles preached, but first it will be fruitful to analyze how Jesus’ actions and words shed light on the connection between faith and evidence.
John the Baptist was appointed to herald and prepare the way for the coming Messiah. However, as a result of John’s critique of his illegitimate marriage, Herod had thrown John in prison and John began to question whether Jesus truly was the Messiah. Like the rest, John had expected a conquering Christ and this turn of events didn’t fit his expected script. So, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the promised one or whether they should expect someone else. Jesus’ response is telling. Does he instruct John to just believe and take it on faith? No, instead after healing diseases, freeing people from evil spirits, and bring sight to the blind he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22-23).
We see in this account two ways in which Jesus consistently gave evidence or proof for his identity: miraculous signs and Biblical prophecy. Jesus demonstrated his identity to John’s disciples by first performing miracles and then directing them to scripture that attests that he is the expected savior (compare Jesus’ words to Isaiah 61:1-2). Instead of expecting the questioners to believe without evidence, Jesus sends them away with two powerful forms of confirmatory evidence.
Jesus points to his miracles as evidence of his identity in an altercation with unbelieving Jews. They threatened to stone him because, in their eyes, he had committed blasphemy by “claim(ing) to be God” by saying, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30,33). Jesus responds, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:37-38). Once again, Jesus’ response completely undercuts the claim that faith is belief without evidence. Even though the unbelieving Jews don’t believe in Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, he points them to his works as evidence that should lead to belief.
In another altercation, the scribes and Pharisees approach Jesus asking for a sign of his authority. Knowing that their intentions were not genuine, Jesus refuses their request but does give a prophetic sign saying, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Johah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Although Jesus denies their immediate request, he ends up giving a prediction of the greatest evidence for his identity: his resurrection. Once again, this evidence is connected to the Old Testament scriptures, which weave a narrative of God’s redemptive work that further confirms Jesus' work and identity as Messiah.
After Jesus death and resurrection, his disciples took the baton in preaching the gospel and continued to prove the truthfulness of their message through miracles and Old Testament prophecy, but also added their eye-witness testimony of the resurrection as an added line of evidence. These three types of verification are woven throughout the early church and all three can be seen in an incident that occurred soon after the resurrection (See Acts 3:1 - 4:4 for the entire text). Peter and John healed a lame beggar as they were walking to the temple and the onlookers were astounded by this miracle. As a crowd gathered, Peter shared the good news of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, “whom God raised from the dead” and declared, “To this we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:15). He also tied these events to Old Testament Scripture by explaining, “Brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers (when they crucified Jesus). But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” (Acts 3:17-18). As a result of these three lines of evidence - miracles, eye-witness testimony, and Old Testament prophecy - “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4)
The earliest surviving creed of the early church, which likely dates to within three years of the resurrection, incorporates both eye-witness testimony and Old Testament prophecy. This is one of the earliest teachings of the Christian church and it is clear that faith is supported by evidence, not held in absence of evidence.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, emphasis added)
These two examples are not isolated occurrences. The apostles healed many people, drove out evil spirits and performed miraculous signs; as a result, many people came to believe in the Lord (Acts 5:12, Acts 8:6-7, Acts 9:32-42, Acts 13:6-12, Acts 14:8-10, Acts 16:16-18, Acts 19:11-12). The Apostle Paul’s routine on his evangelistic missions was to go to the synagogues and reason from the Old Testament scriptures to provide evidence that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:2-4, Acts 17:17, Acts 18:4, Acts 18:9). The Bereans are praised for having noble character because they received the gospel with eagerness and examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11). The apostles routinely appealed to their status as eye-witnesses of the resurrection and the life of Jesus in their public sermons and letters to the churches (Acts 2:32, 1 John 1:3, 2 Peter 1:16). Hopefully, this landslide of examples proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christian faith is not belief without evidence.
Yet, there is more. Bertrand Russell, one of the twentieth century’s most famous atheists, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if his atheistic hypothesis was incorrect. Russell replied, “I think I should say to him: Sir, why didn’t you give us more evidence.”2 Unfortunately, this excuse will not hold-up in God’s court of law. A clear teaching in the New Testament is that every person has received sufficient evidence to believe that God exists. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul writes:
For what can be known about God is plain to (all men), because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20).
When one looks at the wonder of nature and ponders the vastness of the universe, even in an age when people knew far less about the mind-boggling dimensions and intricate fine-tuning of the cosmos, it should be obvious that there is an all-powerful, creator God. Furthermore, when one looks within they see that humans have been given a conscious and innate knowledge of right and wrong, which points to a moral law-giver. Paul puts it this way:
For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)
So not only does the history of the early Church show that the gospel message was accompanied by miracles, eye-witness testimony, and Old Testament prophecy as corroborating evidence, but Paul clearly teaches that everyone, even those who claim that faith is belief without evidence, have received sufficient evidence to believe in God.
However, there are a few passages that some skeptics, such as Aron Ra, will cite to claim that Christian faith really is belief without evidence. The most famous of these is Hebrews 11:1, which says, “Now faith is the assurance of this hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I will be dealing with that passage, and other objections, in the next post in this series.
1) Ra, Aron. “Religious Faith IS ‘Belief Without Evidence.” Reason Advocates. August 29, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/reasonadvocates/2015/08/29/religious-faith-is-belief-without-evidence/
2) Kreeft, Peter. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascals’ Pensees Edited, Outlined and Explained. Ignatius Press, 1993.
Thursday, May 21, 2020
In this series, I am responding to the common assertion from atheists and skeptics that faith is "belief without evidence." If you haven't done so already, I would recommend reading the introduction to this series to properly set the stage for this post.
One thing that is important to note is that the purpose of this series is not to provide or defend evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity. If you are interested in such evidence, I have written an entire series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and have plans for future writings on other lines of evidence and reasoning. Instead, this is an internal critique of how the Bible defines faith. Authors such as Peter Boghossian claim that when Christians speak of having "faith" in God, they really mean "things they pretend to know." Yet, regardless of one's own beliefs, it seems vitally important to look at how the Christian worldview defines faith. Does the Bible give the impression that faith is something that should be accepted blindly without any evidence? To keep things manageable, in this post we are only going to be looking at how the Old Testament speaks of faith.
First, let's examine how the term is used in the Old Testament. The number of times that the word "faith" appears depends on the translation. For example, in the English Standard Version, which is on the word-for-word side of the translation scale, a variety of different Hebrew words are translated as "faith" for a total of twenty-seven appearances. In over half of the usages, faith is used in the context of showing or failing to show devotion to God or another person. An example occurs when the rest of the tribes of Israel mistakenly thought that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh erected an altar of rebellion against the Lord.
Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord? (Joshua 22:16)
The next most common context is for faith to be used synomonously with trust or confidence. After being led out of slavery in Egypt and witnessing numerous signs and wonders, the Israelites did not trust that God would lead them to victory in the promised land, but instead "they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise." (Psalm 106:24). Far from being belief with no evidence, the Israelites are condemned for not having faith despite all the evidence they had seen of God's power and might in rescuing them out of Egypt (read Psalm 106:1-23).
Possibly the most famous "faith" verse from the Old Testament is Habakkuk 2:4, which says, "the righteous will live by his faith." In context, the righteous man is contrasted with the man whose "soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him." The contrast doesn't speak to the reasons for the righteous man's faith, but instead how his faith in God impacts the way in which he lives.
Finally, a few other verses speak of acting in "good faith" or with truth and integrity (See Judges 9:15 - 19).
Beyond studying individual word usages, there are larger themes that emerge in the Old Testament that fly completely against the claim that faith is belief without evidence. First, one purpose of prophecy was to provide evidence that the LORD had spoken to Israel. God doesn't instruct the Israelites to blindly trust anyone who claims to be a prophet, but instead tells them to look for evidence of fulfilled prophecy to determine whether they speak for the LORD or not.
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
Later, God declares to Israel that he has predicted future events through the prophets to provide evidence that he, and not their man-made idols, had brought these things to pass.
The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth, and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew
and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from of old,
before they came to pass I announced them to you,
lest you should say, "My idol did them,
my carved image and my metal image commanded them." (Isaiah 48:3-5)
Second, the Israelites were taught to remember the things God had done in the past and to pass them on to future generations so that they would also trust in him. Most people know that God parted the Red Sea as the Israelites fled from the Egyptians, but a second water crossing occurred with God stopped the Jordan River so that the Israelites could enter the promised land. As this miracle occurred, Joshua gave the following instructions:
“Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:5-7)
Previously, Moses had taught the people, "Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country...But it was your own eyes that saw all these great things the Lord has done." (Deuteronomy 11:2-3,7). To prevent future generations from forgetting these acts, the Israelites were to "teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." (Deuteronomy 11:19). In the oral culture of the time, God's people were to trust him in the future based on what He had already done in the past. This idea is further demonstrated in the Psalms. Both Psalm 78 and Psalm 105 give detailed accounts of how God has protected and provided for his chosen people.
Finally, God provides evidence to prove that He is the only true God. When Moses is called to lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he wonders how he will convince them that the LORD sent him. God provides Moses with two signs - his staff turns into a serpent when he throws it to the ground and his hand changes from leprous to fully healed when he slips it in his cloak. However, God provides a further proof if the Israelites still will not listen: "If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” (Exodus 4:9). After living among false idols for over four centuries, God is going to provide undisputable evidence to his people that he alone is worthy of praise.
When God later afflicts Egypt with the plague of the frogs, Moses agrees to pray that they will return to the Nile. When Pharaoh requests that this occur the next day, Moses responds, "Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God." (Exodus 8:10).
Centuries later, the LORD once again proves that He is the only true God in the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. I suggest reading all of 1 Kings 18 for context, but here is a brief summary. These were dark days in the northern kingdom of Israel and most of the people had forsaken the LORD to worship Baal. Elijah, the prophet of the LORD, challenges hundreds of false prophets to a test to see who is the true God. Each side builds an altar and calls for their God to ignite their sacrifice. Elijah ups the ante and even douses his sacrifice with water three times. The prophets of Baal call frantically to their God and even mutilate their own bodies, but nothing happens. Yet, when it was Elijah's turn to call to the LORD, this is what happened:
Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” (1 Kings 18:36-39).
Whether we look at specific usages of the word "faith" or at broad principles that are woven throughout scripture, the conclusion is very clear. The Old Testament clearly teaches that faith is trust or devotion to the LORD and does not call for blind faith in absence of evidence, but instead encourages confident trust based on the evidence of what God had already done to show his mighty power to the nation of Israel. In the next post in this series, we'll examine whether a similar picture of faith carries over into the New Testament.
Thursday, May 14, 2020
When Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, released A Manual for Creating Atheists in 2013, it broke into Amazon's top 100 overall best seller list and shared a blueprint for aspiring anti-evangelists to de-convert the religious. The main message of the book is to sow doubt through asking questions to a believer. One piece of advice that Boghossian gives to readers is that when a Christian or follower of another religion uses the word "faith" during a conversation, the reader should mentally replace the word "faith" with the term "pretend to know things that I don't know."
The book has multiple pages of examples of this tactic. If a Christian says, "I have faith in God", the reader should interpret them to mean, "I pretend to know things I don't know about God." If a Christian says, "Teach your children about faith", the atheists should interpret this to mean, "Teach your children to pretend to know things they don't know." Boghossian even extends his advice beyond the confines of religion, claiming that when a person says, "You have faith your spouse loves you", they really mean, "You pretend to know things you don't know about your spouse's love." Honestly, I find this kind of thinking quite silly, but it is part of a wider narrative from the skeptical community that faith is not based on sound evidence or reasoning.1
This claim is pervasive among the atheist community, particularly in the scoffing culture that infects YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms. Richard Dawkins, a leading proponent of atheism says, "Religious faith...is based upon no evidence at all" and that "faith is belief in something for which there is no evidence."2 Eric Murphy, from the radio program Talk Heathen, says, "The best definition for faith that I've read is belief without evidence."3 This representation certainly predates the rise of internet atheism. Betrand Russell claimed, "Where there is evidence, no one speaks of faith. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."4 This definition for faith is often combined with a heaping spoonful of mockery and can be very rhetorically powerful and persuasive. However, is this an accurate definition of Christian faith?
Now, to be fair, one definition of faith on Dictionary.com is "belief that is not based on proof." This is not the only definition, though. Other definitions given include "confidence or trust in a person or thing", "belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion", and "the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc." While helpful, none of these definitions ultimately determine what is meant by Biblical Christian faith. When a skeptic is challenging what "faith" means from the Christian perspective, they are providing an internal critique of the Christian worldview. So, while an atheist obviously would not accept the Bible as authoritative, they need to consider how the Bible describes faith instead of choosing their preferred definition from the dictionary.
In this series, I will be supporting the claim that Christian faith is not belief without evidence, but instead is a confident trust and devotion to God based on past evidence. I will be examining a number of texts within the Old and New Testament to support my claim. I believe that this series is important for a couple of reasons. First, it is impossible for Christians and skeptics to have meaningful discussions if skeptics dismiss Christian faith as "belief without evidence" or "pretending to know things you don't know." This view makes it difficult to even make it out of the starting gates or have any mutual understanding. Second, no one should ever be persuaded to leave the Christian faith based on the misrepresentations of faith that I have described above.
This series will include the following posts:
Part 1 - Faith and evidence in the Old Testament
Part 2 - Faith and evidence in the New Testament
Part 3 - Does Hebrews 11:1 describe faith as belief without evidence? Respond to misrepresentations of New Testament teachings on faith
Part 4 - What If I don't need evidence to have faith in Christ?
Part 5 - Why I don't use pre-suppositional apologetics...most of the time
I am really excited to deeply explore the Biblical connection between faith and evidence and hope that this will be a fruitful and informative series for both Christians and non-Christians.
1) Boghossian, Peter G. A Manual for Creating Atheists. Pitchstone Publishing, 2013.
2) "Richard Dawkins: Faith | Big Think." YouTube, uploaded by Big Think, 2 June 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm220Q5wks4
3) "Please Stop Saying Faith is Belief without Evidence." YouTube, uploaded by Mike Winger, 16 January 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm220Q5wks4
4) Russell, Bertrand. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/9563310-where-there-is-evidence-no-one-speaks-of