by Shane Scott
Does faith consist of belief without any evidence? Lots of people think so – Christians and non-Christians. I have heard many Christians speak of faith and reason as polar opposites. And I have also heard many atheists and agnostics brush aside the concept of faith as mere superstition.
Further, there are certain Scriptures that seem to support the notion that belief is simply a “blind leap of faith,” a decision to commit to Christ without any kind of evidence. After all, didn’t Jesus say to doubting Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)? And didn’t the apostle Paul declare that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)? And didn’t the writer of the Book of Hebrews define faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)?
I want to take a look at these verses in context to understand more clearly what the Bible means when it speaks of faith. But first, let’s take a quick peek at the dictionary. It is true that one of the definitions for faith in Webster’s is “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” However, the primary definition is “allegiance to a duty or a person.” And a later definition is especially helpful: “complete trust.”
Trust is really the key word to think of when you encounter the word faith in Scripture. If you look up its Greek counterpart (pistis) in a lexicon, you will see definitions like these: “that which evokes trust and faith…state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted” (A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature). Notice that this definition revolves around trust, and that this trust is not blind or unthinking, but is based on evidence – “the reliability of the one trusted.”
What then should we make of the passages that seem to suggest that faith is a decision void of reason or evidence? Let’s take a closer look at each of those Scriptures.
Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen And Yet Have Believed
Jesus did indeed say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). But the context of this statement has to do with the refusal of Thomas to believe in the testimony of the disciples. They had seen the risen Jesus on an earlier occasion when Thomas was absent (John 20:19-23). When he returned to their gathering, the rest of the apostles told Thomas about what they had seen with their own eyes, but he refused to accept this testimony. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). On the heels of this expression of disbelief Jesus once again appeared in the place where the disciples were gathered, this time with Thomas in attendance.
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although 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, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-28).
Jesus replied to this astonishing confession with a question and a blessing: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Thomas believed because of his personal, eyewitness encounter with Jesus, but not everyone would be able to have such an experience. But they could nevertheless believe that Jesus rose from the dead. How? The testimony of the eyewitnesses.
This is exactly what John goes on to say in the next two verses:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
According to this text, faith is not a blind leap into irrationality. It is the decision to trust in Jesus as the Messiah based on the eyewitness testimony of the apostles. Thomas did not believe their testimony, but many people through the centuries have. And those people “who have not seen and yet have believed” are blessed according to Jesus.
Despite his initial refusal to believe the witness of the other disciples, Thomas is given the opportunity to believe. The wounds in the body of Jesus serve for him as a sign, pointing to the revelation of God in Jesus as the crucified and risen one and eliciting from him the appropriate response of belief in Jesus as Lord and God. But it is made clear that a relationship with the risen Jesus is not limited to his immediate followers. Authentic faith is based on testimony and the Gospel narrative itself, with its witness to Jesus’ signs, including his resurrection, makes such faith available to later readers (Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel according to Saint John, p. 504).
We Walk By Faith Not By Sight
The second text that suggests that faith is a groundless plunge into belief is Second Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” But blind faith is not at all what Paul is talking about here. One of the key themes of Second Corinthians is Paul’s weakness and suffering. And in the fourth chapter, Paul expresses his great hope in the resurrection, “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). Notice that Paul’s belief in his own resurrection is based squarely on reason – God raised Jesus from the dead, so he can raise me as well. It is that hope of future glory that Paul continues to discuss through the remainder of chapter four on into chapter five.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1).
What should be clear by now is that Paul’s faith in this context is his trust in God’s promise to raise him from the dead in a glorified body. And since that event is yet future, is is unseen by natural vision, but it is seen by the spiritual vision of faith.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
Though he could not see the Lord or see his future glorified existence, Paul continued to walk in trust that God would keep his promise to bring him into glory. And remember, Paul’s hope here is not groundless – it is grounded upon the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. On the basis of that trust in the reliability of God, Paul confidently walked in the hope of his future life with God, even though at the moment he was immersed in suffering. That is what Paul means when he says he walks by faith rather than sight.
The Conviction of Things Unseen
This aspect of faith as trust in a future reward lies behind the statement in Hebrews 11:1 that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Indeed, this verse virtually spells out the nuance of faith as trust regarding the future by its parallel structure. The “things hoped for” are equivalent to the “things not seen.”
And as you continue through the eleventh chapter, the writer emphasizes this trust in God’s promises regarding unseen future realities. Some examples:
- “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household” (11:7).
- “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (11:8).
- “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13).
- “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (11:22).
You get the idea. The “things not seen,” in the words of one commentator, are “those yet unseen because they belong to the eschatological future” (Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, p. 400). Each of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 demonstrated profound trust in God as they looked to the future He promised them. And that is what faith means for us as well, trust that God “rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
This trust is not blind and irrational. It is based on the objective realities of God’s power displayed in the natural order, His mighty works in history, and most of all, in the resurrection of His Son. And on the basis of our confidence in God, we can trust in His promises regarding the future.
Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised (Hebrews 10:35-36).