Friday, May 29, 2020
Faith and Evidence in the New Testament
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.