Too Many Christians Have the Wrong View of ‘Faith.’ Do You?
Do you have the wrong view of faith?
Easter is just a day away. Christians live by the faith that Jesus rose from the dead. We look forward in faith to our own resurrection of eternal life with Jesus. But what is faith, really?
Peter Boghossian, professor and author of A Manual for Creating Atheists, says it’s “belief without evidence.” It’s “pretending to know what you can’t know.” A whole lot of atheists see it the same way. Faith, they say, is belief that isn’t based on good enough proof to be called knowledge. If you believe something without good enough reason, it’s faith. If you do have good reason, it’s knowledge.
Skeptics will illustrate by saying, “I believe the sun will come up tomorrow. I know it’s always happened that way, and I know why it happens that way. So even though I believe it, my belief isn’t faith, it’s knowledge instead.” What are they really saying about religious faith? Faith is claiming to know what you don’t know. It’s pretending to know what you can’t know.
Too Many Christians Are Confused About Faith
But it isn’t just skeptics who say so. In one Australian survey, more than a quarter of religious believers agreed that faith is “belief without evidence.” Only 55 percent “strongly disagreed.” I’ve run into enough anecdotes to believe it isn’t just Australian believers who think that way.
It almost sounds right, but it isn’t. In fact, there’s a huge, huge problem with it. How huge? Great enough that if that’s the true definition of “faith,” Jesus was one of the world’s great destroyers of faith. Seriously. If faith is belief that’s not quite good enough to be counted as knowledge, Jesus’ final mission on earth after that first Easter morning was to undermine and even eliminate faith.
Obviously that’s not what Jesus was about! Which means this view of faith must be wrong, and there must be a better definition.
Jesus, Destroyer of Faith?
If that’s the true definition for “faith,” then it makes Jesus one of the world’s great destroyers of faith.
How did Jesus destroy faith, you ask? The trail to that answer starts with the question, “What is it that can destroy faith?” Your first answer would probably be, “Anything that causes a person to quit believing.” And you would be right.
But there’s another answer, too. If faith is correctly defined as believing when you don’t have good enough reasons to know for sure, then if you do have good reasons for what you believe, then what you have isn’t “faith” anymore. Just like the sun rising in the skeptic’s example, it’s “knowledge” instead. Where you have knowledge like that, you no longer have to have faith. It replaces faith. Which means faith is gone.
So you could eliminate every trace of faith just by replacing it with well-grounded, certain knowledge based on good reasons.
But what then do we make of what Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus was doing after His resurrection? “He presented Himself alive to them with many convincing proofs.” He was trying to give them certainty, knowledge — knowledge based on direct evidence, in fact. Which isn’t faith, according to the definition we’ve been working on. It’s something else instead. Jesus gave them great reasons to know he rose from the dead. That was enough to take away their faith, right?
No, The Definition Was Wrong to Begin With
Wrong. We have another choice. We don’t have to say Jesus was a great destroyer of faith. We can back up a few steps instead and say, “Woah, maybe our definition of ‘faith’ was wrong from the beginning!”
So, are you ready to try again? Let me suggest a better definition. First, faith is trust. The two words are synonyms. They’re synonyms in the original Greek and Hebrew Bible, they’re synonyms in English; they’ve always been synonyms. Many times I’ve heard skeptics say faith isn’t trust at all, it’s just deciding you know something when you don’t have any reason think it’s true.
But they’re wrong. The word faith has always meant “trust.” And trust has nothing to do with “pretending to know” anything. Trust is a positive attitude we take toward something or someone we consider trustworthy, one that allows us to be willing to put something we value in their care. The same is exactly true of the word faith. We could call it an attitude of trust toward something or someone we consider trustworthy.
Faith Means Putting Something At Risk — Based On What We Do Know
Now, trust implies putting something you care about at risk. I trust the bank with my money. That’s not a big risk, because the bank has proved itself very trustworthy. If it fails, there are federal agencies that have proved themselves trustworthy in making up for losses. It happened in my hometown when I was a kid: Someone was careless in their accounting, the bank failed, and the FDIC paid the losses within days. (And someone went to jail for the error, but that’s another story.)
We trust airplanes to carry us across the country. That’s a slightly bigger risk, but not much. Why? Because we’ve seen airplanes’ excellent track record lately. The biggest risk is probably that our luggage will land in the wrong place, or that we will.
We trust weather reports, and we’ll make plans around them, despite the chance they might be wrong. We can do that because weather forecasters do a pretty good job — much more than a few decades ago. Yet we know they can still be wrong sometimes, so we temper our trust; we hedge our risk; we make a “Plan B” in case it rains.
We have faith in our spouses and significant others, but the degree of trust we place in them varies, depending on who they are and what we’ve learned about them in our relationships so far.
Do you see how faith really doesn’t come from not-knowing, but from knowing? It involves putting something at risk, but not because we don’t know, but because we do.
Christian Faith: Trust That’s Based on What (or Whom) We Know
The same applies to Christian faith. I’ve dedicated my entire life to Jesus Christ: my interests, my reputation, my finances, my daily choices, everything. That’s taking a risk for sure. I’m counting on Him to walk with me through my problems. I trust Him to keep His promises. I am counting on Him resurrecting me to eternal life, not because of my goodness but because of His promises and His love.
And also because I know that He is trustworthy. He’s proved it by His faithfulness to His people down through the centuries, as recorded in the Bible. He’s proved it with the Church since then — we are a motley group, often ugly with each other, and yet the Church survives and is growing worldwide. He proved His sacrificial love through Jesus’ willingness to die on the Cross. He proved His resurrection power by rising from the dead Himself.
I could continue further. I don’t just know all this is true “by faith.” That is, I don’t have the attitude, “I hope it’s true and it’s a nice idea and I believe it because it’s good to believe it.” That wouldn’t be faith, it would be foolishness.
The Facts Hold Up — So Therefore We Can Have Faith In What They Mean
No, I know it’s true because when I look into the facts, they hold up. They meet the test of history, of archaeology, of internal consistency, and even of what I know to be true about myself and other people. Along with that, I have the confidence of God’s own Spirit in me confirming that it’s true. I have faith that the first Easter will eventually mean my own resurrection, because I know the first Easter was real.
So don’t believe the skeptics. Faith isn’t claiming to know what you don’t know. It isn’t pretending to know what you can’t know. It isn’t believing things without evidence or proof. Faith is an attitude of trust, putting something of value on the line, based on real knowledge of the sort that gives us confidence in whatever we’re trusting.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream. His extended answer to Professor Boghossian’s Manual for Creating Athests is available as an ebook, Peter Boghossian: Atheist Tactician (Kindle, 2013). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.