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“Faith” No More

It's Time We Did Away with the Notion of Religious Wishful Thinking

by Greg Koukl

Article originally appeared in the Salvo 26 supplemental issue on Science & Faith

I don't like the word "faith." It's not that faith isn't valuable. True biblical faith is essential for salvation. But faith is often deeply misunderstood in a way that hurts Christianity and harms Christians.

Some think that having a level of certainty about the truth of Christianity makes faith unnecessary or irrelevant—that this kind of knowledge undermines genuine faith and offends God. The reasoning goes something like this: We all know that God wants us to have faith. In fact, without faith, it's impossible to please him (Hebrews 11:6). However, gathering evidence for God and Christianity leaves little room for faith. After all, how can one have faith in something that he knows is true? Faith, then, is opposed to knowledge. Therefore, apologetics undermines the faith project and displeases the Lord.

In this view, faith is believing the unbelievable, clinging to your convictions when all of the evidence is against you. Faith is a "leap"—a blind, desperate lunge in the darkness. When doubts or troubles beset us, we're told to "just have faith," as if we could squeeze out spiritual hope by intense acts of sheer will. This view of faith reduces Christian conviction to religious wishful thinking. We can hope, but we can't ever know.

But this will never work. Someone once said, "The heart cannot believe that which the mind rejects." If you are not confident that the message of the Bible is actually true, you can't believe it no matter how hard you try. The "I just take Christianity on (blind) faith" attitude can't be the right approach. It leaves the Bible without defense, yet Peter directs us to make a defense for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Also, the biblical word for faith, pistis, doesn't mean "wishing." It means "active trust." And trust cannot be conjured up or manufactured. It must be earned. You can't exercise the kind of faith that the Bible has in mind unless you're reasonably sure that some particular things are true.

In fact, I suggest that you completely ban the phrase "leap of faith" from your vocabulary. Biblical faith is based on knowledge, not on wishing or blind leaps. Knowledge builds confidence, and confidence leads to trust. The kind of faith that God is interested in is not wishing. It's trust based on knowing, a sure confidence grounded in evidence. The following biblical examples make my point.

Blood, Boils, Frogs & Flies

Israel's exodus from Egypt was depicted in a clever animated film called The Prince of Egypt. After seeing the movie, my wife and I spent time reading the original account in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though I'd read this passage a number of times, something jumped out at me that I hadn't seen before, a phrase that God kept repeating over and over in the account.

The material relevant to my point starts in Exodus 3. Reading about Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush, we realize that Moses was reluctant to be God's deliverer. And that's understandable. Why would Pharaoh, the most powerful leader in the world, submit to a renegade Jew? Why would two million Hebrew slaves follow a murderer and a defector?

"What if they won't believe me, or listen to me?" Moses demurred. "What if they say, 'The Lord hasn't appeared to you'?"

What God didn't say in response is as important as what he did say. He didn't say, "Tell Pharaoh he's just going to have to take this on blind faith. Tell the Hebrews the same thing. They've got to have faith."

Instead, God asked, "What's that in your hand?"

"A staff," Moses answered.

"Throw it on the ground."

So he threw it down, and it became a serpent.

"Stretch out your hand," the Lord said. "Grab it by the tail."

Reluctantly, Moses did as he was told. When he grabbed the snake, it became a staff again. "Do this," God said, "and then they'll believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, has appeared to you."

More signs followed that got the people's attention: the river of blood; frogs covering the land; the gnats, flies, and locusts; the boils and pestilence; the hail; the darkness; and finally, the angel of death. All for one purpose: "That they might know there is a God in Israel." Not simply "believe," "hope," or "wish." Know. This is no idle comment, but a message that is central to the account. In fact, the phrase is repeated no fewer than ten times throughout the story.1 What was the result? "And when Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31).

Note the pattern: powerful evidence (miracles, in this case) gives the people knowledge of God, in whom they then place their active trust (faith). Knowledge—some level of certainty—went before belief in each of these cases.

God didn't ask the Hebrews, or even Moses, for mindless faith, blind leaps, or wishful thinking. Rather, he demonstrated his power, giving them a good reason to believe, and that resulted in obedience. But the good reason was given first. This then grounded the Hebrews' investment of faith (active trust) in God. Pharaoh got the picture, too, but his response was not humble surrender leading to salvation. Instead, it was submission under compulsion. In both cases, though, each was compelled to act based on the unmistakable evidence of God's power.

In The Prince of Egypt, Miriam breaks into a song of praise following Israel's deliverance. The song is titled "When You Believe" and includes these words: "There can be miracles, when you believe. . . . Who knows what miracles you can achieve, when you believe. . . . Just believe. . . . Gotta believe. . . ."

Is that the way it happened? The people achieved miracles because of their belief? No, reality was just the opposite. In the original account, miracles didn't follow belief; they preceded it. Acts of power led to knowledge, which then allowed faith to flourish.

Taking the Easy Way Out?

Fast-forward to the New Testament and you'll find the same pattern in the life of Christ. In Mark 2, we encounter Jesus speaking to a group of people who had gathered in a home in Capernaum. An overflow crowd blocks the front door, keeping a paralytic—being carried by his four friends—from gaining an audience with the healer. The only way in is from above, so they dig through the earthen roof and lower the deformed man down on a pallet.

Jesus is impressed. Seeing their faith, he says to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." His words offend the scribes, though, who grumble among themselves at such an audacious claim. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" they whisper.

Jesus, aware of their complaint, puts a question to them. "Which is easier to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or, 'Arise, take up your pallet and walk'?"

How would you respond? If you were in Jesus' position, would it be easier for you to claim to forgive sins or to claim to heal paralysis? Clearly, it's always easier to boast about something that no one can check up on than it is to claim to have supernatural powers and run the risk that you'll fail the test.

Jesus knew that it looked like he was taking the easy way out, which is why he added, "But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—he then turned to the paralytic—"I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home." Then, in the sight of everyone, the paralytic got up and walked out.

Jesus gives us the same lesson that we find in Exodus. He proves something that can't be seen—his power to forgive sins—with evidence that can be seen—his dramatic healing of the paralytic. Jesus heals "in order that you may know." Once again, the concrete evidence allows the doubters to know the truth so they can then trust in the forgiveness that Christ could give. Once again, there is no conflict between knowledge and faith. Rather, the first is the basis for the second.

The Apostle Peter

Peter's dramatic sermon on Pentecost, recounted in the book of Acts, gives us another vivid example of the evidence/knowledge/faith equation. The crowd is both amazed and bewildered by the manifestations of the Holy Spirit that they see with their own eyes. Peter takes his stand before the throng and explains that it isn't intoxication that they witness, but rather prophecy being fulfilled in their midst by the hand of God.

He recounts how Jesus—one attested to by miracles, signs, and wonders—was murdered at the hands of godless men. Death couldn't hold him in the grave, however; he had risen. And not only had King David himself foretold such a thing, but Peter and the rest of the disciples had seen the risen Christ themselves. Now the Holy Spirit, the gift promised by the Father, was being poured out in a way that Peter's entire audience could "see and hear."

Peter then closes with a statement that is tailor-made for all who think that certainty somehow diminishes genuine faith: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36).

When the people behold the evidence—the miracles, the fulfilled prophecy, the witnesses of the Resurrection, the powerful manifestations of the Spirit in their midst—they are pierced to the heart. They are convinced of their error, they know the truth, and thousands believe, putting their trust in the Savior.

Hear, See, Handle, Believe

John, the beloved disciple, brings it all together for us in 1 John. He opens his letter with the evidence of his own eyewitness encounter with Christ. Notice how many senses he appeals to:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also. . . . (1 John 1:1–3)

Then he closes his letter like this:

And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11–13)

To John, faith wasn't a blind leap. It wasn't wishing on a star. It was grounded in evidence that led to knowledge. And when the evidence is so overwhelming—as it was for the earliest followers of Jesus (and many since then)—the knowledge is certain.

The record is clear from the Old Testament, the Gospels, the very beginnings of the Church, and the epistles of the apostles: Biblical faith isn't wishing; it's confidence. It's not denying reality, but discovering reality. It's a sense of certainty that is grounded in evidence that Christianity is true—not just "true for me," but actually, fully, and completely true.

Spiritual growth involves increasing our knowledge and our certainty of God. So there are two things here: knowledge, and confidence in what we know. How do we increase confidence? By wishing harder? Hoping against hope? Stopping our ears to the sounds of the critics without, and ignoring the doubts of the agnostic within? This will never work, because confidence cannot be fabricated. It must be earned. As you gather substantiating evidence, your confidence automatically grows and your faith is deepened.

Faith is not about wishing, but about confidence, and the facts make the difference. You get hold of the facts, you study, you learn—even a little—and you'll realize that you're not just wishing on a star about eternal things. You'll realize that Christianity is really true. And that changes everything. 



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