Many atheists play word games when it comes to defining the word “faith.” They’ll reduce all religious faith to blind faith and then subject it to ridicule. That’s an easy way to score rhetorical points, but it’s also an anti-intellectual way to shut-down a serious discussion. The majority of Christian theologians throughout the centuries haven’t defined the faith this way.
That doesn’t stop critics from trying to redefine faith. In my last post, I discussed how atheists co-opt John 20:29 as a proof-text that Jesus praised blind faith when he rebuked Thomas. We saw from the context of John that the critic is way off-base, but the skeptics have another go-to passage to show that the Bible praises blind faith: Hebrews 11:1.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Biologist and outspoken atheist Jerry Coyne provides a prime example of this when he writes: “Faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Another example of this attitude comes from the popular atheist YouTuber TMM, who says:
“Atheists will often define faith as something people have without any reason or evidence to support that belief. The reason why I think this is an accurate depiction of Christian faith is that this is how the Bible defines faith. Hebrews 11:1 explains that faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This passage explicitly states that faith is belief specifically in things that are not evident.”
But is this really what the author of Hebrews had in mind?
Faith in what we can’t see isn’t necessarily blind faith
There seems to be some confusion about what the writer of Hebrews is saying. When he says faith is the confidence of what we hope for, that doesn’t mean wishful thinking. The Greek word for ‘hoped-for’ is ἐλπιζομένων. This comes from ἐλπίς; which means to expect, anticipate and welcome.
It’s not talking about a wishy-washy hope, like “I hope we have a mild winter this year” or “I hope the Browns win the Super Bowl someday”. It’s talking about a firm expectation based on trust.
There’s also this idea that what is unseen equals unreal, like some sort of delusional fantasy. But here’s the crazy thing about that. The fact that you’re thinking right now about what I’ve written here demonstrates that there are invisible things that we all trust.
Thinking about thinking
For example, suppose that you’re thinking about the football game you watched this past weekend. You mentally replay how the Chiefs beat the Patriots, and how the game could have easily gone a different way had not the referees been such a factor.
While you’re having that thought, there is an event going on in your brain that we can measure. Certain activations can go in in your left hemisphere with increased oxygen flow, and neuroscientists can project this on a monitor. We can look at what happens in your brain while you’re thinking about football. This is an observable event.
Perhaps we can see it’s closer to your left ear than your right ear and that it has a certain size and a shape. But think about it for a second — the actual thought about football doesn’t have size, shape or location. It doesn’t even make sense to say “how big was that thought?” or “how heavy was it?”. Your thoughts don’t have spatial geometrical properties, but your brain states do, so it seems like they’re not the same thing.
Not only that, but these brain waves aren’t true or false. Maybe for some odd reason, you think that the Patriots won. That belief has the property of being false. The state of your brain while you’re having a belief –true or false–doesn’t seem to be the same sort of thing where you can say that a brain state is false. Brain states just are, they’re seemingly not about anything. So my point here is there are invisible things we should all believe in and trust in the vast majority of the time — our own thoughts.
We All Have Faith In Things We Can’t See
Moreover, we believe that invisible realities are a part of our universe. For example, we believe in magnetic and gravitational fields, virtual particles, dark matter, electrons, and gravity are all invisible things that follow laws that allow us to test for their existence. But is this what separates them from our imagination and the real world? It seems like this would be where the rubber would meet the road in the debate.
But God is different than physical laws. And if He exists, He exists outside of our own minds. And He’s a person with intentions, unlike physical laws. And as such, the writer of Hebrews is careful to make a distinction that belief in God’s mere existence isn’t enough. We also have to believe something about His character. (Heb 11:6)
So then if faith is the basis for our expectations as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, then there are many things we believe and expect that we don’t yet see because of our trust in other people. By definition, expectation means we don’t have it yet. (Rom 8:24)
If I order something off eBay and the seller has several hundred positive reviews, I expect that when I buy something from them it will be as advertised even though I don’t yet have it in my possession. I trust in the wisdom of the crowds that this seller’s reputation is good.
Likewise, my children expect me to provide Christmas presents even though they haven’t seen them yet because they know that I want them to have things that they enjoy. Given my character, they know I’m not going to get them just socks and underwear, or worse, desert them altogether.
Cherry-picking the Book of Hebrews
It seems like atheists who are using Hebrews 11:1 as a proof text that the Bible preaches blind faith are guilty of cherry-picking and quote-mining. If you’re going to quote Hebrews, you should probably understand the background of Hebrews. Of course, it would help if you read the whole book, too!
The Book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish-Christians who came under persecution by local Jews in their area. These believers came under long-lasting fire and were tempted to grow weary, and worse, give up the faith altogether. (Hebrews 10:26-38)
The writer of Hebrews goes through great pains to remind them of the many reasons why they became Christians in the first place. For over 13 chapters he is persuading them about how Jesus is superior to the Jewish religion they left.
He argues from Scripture that Jesus is God and that he is superior to the angels, Moses and Joshua. (Chapters 1-4)
He demonstrates through the sacred texts that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they have a perfect sacrifice and an enduring High Priest. The old system is obsolete and ready to fade away. (Chapters 5-10)
The writers shows that they no longer need to strive to obey the Jewish Law, through the new covenant they have the Law written on their minds and hearts by the Spirit. And not only that, they now have direct access to God Himself rather than having to go through a priesthood and sacrifices. (Heb. 10:16-22)
If faith is blind and without reason, why is the writer of Hebrews going to such great lengths to argue and reason with them based on their pre-established beliefs about Jewish history, rather than just demand they stop thinking and just “have faith”?
The Writer of Hebrews Didn’t Think Faith Was Belief With No Evidence
Aside from the fact that Jesus was the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the Law, the writer appeals to publicly known facts about Jesus’ life and miracles as reasons why they shouldn’t abandon their faith. Note especially Hebrews 2:3-4:
“How will we escape [the penalty] if we ignore such a great salvation [the gospel, the new covenant]? For it was spoken at first by the Lord, and it was confirmed to us and proved authentic by those who personally heard [Him speak], [and besides this evidence] God also testifying with them [confirming the message of salvation], both by signs and wonders and by various miracles [carried out by Jesus and the apostles] and by [granting to believers the] gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”Amplified Bible
Does that sound like blind faith to any rational person? Moreover, he speaks with them as if some of them have experienced miraculous powers themselves, and this was a good reason why they shouldn’t apostatize. (Heb. 6:4-6)
Did the Faith “Hall of Famers” Have Blind Faith?
Finally, if we just read the remainder of the 11th chapter it’s pretty clear that none of the “elders who received commendation” (Heb 11:2) attained that for having blind faith.
- Abel had the testimony of his parents, who both personally experienced God.
- Enoch also was able to hear stories of how Adam and Eve walked with God and decided to have a relationship with God for himself.
- Noah heard the voice of God and built a boat even though he never saw a catastrophic flood before. He likely heard the story of Enoch and knew of the supernatural “sons of God”.
- Abraham also heard the voice of God and left his father’s family. He had physical experiences with God. (Gen 15:1-17, 18:16-33) He knew of the supernatural judgments of Sodom and Gomorrah. He prayed for men and saw them healed. (Gen. 20:17)
- His wife Sarah counted God faithful and was able to conceive past menopause. You can’t really count someone faithful with no evidence!
- Abraham received a child by supernatural birth and because of this had such strong faith he believed that if he sacrificed his own son, God would resurrect him! (Heb 11:17-19)
- Abraham’s family knew they wouldn’t exist if not for God’s supernatural acts, so they trusted in God.
- Moses witnessed supernatural signs from God during his calling and crossed the Red Sea by faith after he saw miraculous plagues and judgments upon Egypt. (Exodus 3-13)
- Rahab took in the spies because she heard how God had miraculously delivered Israel. (Josh 2:10-12)
The chapter concludes with reminders of how time after time God miraculously intervened in response to faith. And even in the times where God didn’t miraculously intervene but his people endured mistreatment, God was still pleased with their faith and they had a better hope of eternal life. (Heb. 11:33-40) He also uses unfaithful Israel as a negative example of those who have seen miracles yet refused to trust God. (Ch. 3-4)
Atheists pretending to know things they can’t know
You may think that the miracle stories referenced in Hebrews are fables. The Jewish-Christian believers who were risking their necks did not. You may believe that the miracles of Jesus and the apostles that the writer of Hebrews were delusional beliefs. Again, these Hebrew Christians didn’t. They were familiar with the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry and had experiences with miracles or knew those who had.
But disputes over these reported facts are beside the point. The point is that faith isn’t wishful, blind believing according to the writer of Hebrews. Faith is held as a high virtue in Hebrews not because the readers didn’t have any evidence. Nor did the heroes of faith that the writer references. They had evidence and personal experience with God himself.
The writer of Hebrews expertly reasoned with them through the Jewish scriptures and reminded them that their faith was based on Israelite history, recent miraculous events and their own experience of the Spirit. For these reasons, it would be tragic for them to abandon their faith, even if it cost them dearly. Even when it felt like God had forgotten them and they didn’t understand everything that was happening to them, they still had reason to trust God.
Here’s the bottom line: You can’t make sweeping statements based on a verse taken out of context and say your opponent is pretending to know things they can’t know. That would make you be the one who is actually pretending.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.