The word ‘faith’ is the atheist’s favourite cudgel. In every theist-atheist debate, there comes a moment when the atheist will describe himself as being on the side of reason, while painting his opponent as being a man of faith. But to understand why ‘faith’ is so often thrown around as a pejorative term, we need to look at how these atheists define it.
In his The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins defines faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence,” which makes it a “form of mental illness.” He further calls it “the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.” Peter Boghossian, in his A Manual for Creating Atheists, gives three definitions of faith, namely pretending to know things one doesn’t know; belief without evidence; and an irrational leap over probabilities.
Now, if any of these definitions are true of biblical faith, it would be true that biblical faith is indeed opposed to reason. And the opponents of the Christian faith attempt to demonstrate just this when they cite several biblical passages which allegedly present this notion of a blind, irrational faith that considers no evidence whatsoever.
This article is intended as a response to such challenges, although I will not be approaching them in the way that most apologists do- by first defining what the Bible means by the word faith (or pistis in the Greek) and then giving examples of passages that support this definition. Instead, I shall take a more offensive approach by tackling some of the most common alleged ‘blind faith’ passages to see whether they actually fit the atheist’s definition of faith. Only then will I discuss, briefly, a biblical definition of faith that fits these and all the other passages that discuss the issue.
So without any further ado, let us examine these passages that allegedly promulgate blind faith.
Verses Allegedly Describing Faith as Blind
2 Corinthians 5:7
This short verse is arguably the most used by atheists (and Christians who dislike apologetics) to argue that Biblical faith is blind to the evidence.
The verse reads, “For we live by faith, not sight.” At face value, the verse in itself does seem to speak of faith as being opposed to sight, and therefore blind. But the verse read in context tells a different story. If you go to the beginning of chapter 5 and read through to verse 8, you will notice that Paul is presenting a juxtaposition between living in our present earthly bodies and living in our future heavenly bodies. In verse 6, Paul makes an obvious distinction between these two bodies, stating that as long as we live in our material bodies, we are spatially-separated from God. It is then that he says in verse 7, “For we walk by faith, not sight.”
So what Paul is saying is, when we are in our mortal bodies that keeps us spatially separated from God, we are living in a realm where we cannot physically perceive Him and therefore must believe in His existence by faith. Note that this belief by faith does not preclude evidence other than literally perceiving God with our senses. Then, in verse 8, he goes on to say that one day, we hope to be taken from the realm of faith into this realm of sight, and be “present with the Lord.”
Tying together the entire passage, especially verses 6 to 8, shows us that faith in verse 7 is not presented as contrary to evidence or reason. The verse is descriptive of how a Christian life is led, not prescriptive of how a Christian life ought to be led (which is what the atheist suggests it is). The use of the term ‘sight’ has nothing to do with the awareness of evidence (as the atheist assumes), but instead has to do with the literal act of perceiving Christ. Thus, we can safely conclude that this verse says nothing about faith being a phenomenon that ignores evidence or precludes reason.
This is another popular verse used by atheists to pummel the theist’s concept of faith. The context is Jesus speaking to Thomas after He has given Thomas evidence of his resurrection.
“Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed,” Jesus says, “[But] blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
At first glance, it does seem like Jesus is suggesting that He’d rather have Thomas exercise blind faith to believe in the resurrection, than to wait until he sees the evidence. But a careful reading of the Gospel of John shows us that it greatly values evidence. Right from chapter 2 verse 11, where Jesus performs His first miracle to demonstrate His divinity, to John 20:30, where Jesus is said to have performed many more miracles in the presence of His disciples, John seems to place special focus on what he calls Jesus’ “signs” to prove who He is. He even records Jesus as telling his followers to believe in Him at least for the sake of the signs and wonders that He performed through the Father (John 14:11), which shows that He did acknowledge the importance of evidence. So if the Gospel of John seems to be for evidence and against blind faith, why does Jesus seem to encourage blind faith in 10:29?
The answer is, that isn’t what Jesus is doing. What Jesus seems to be pointing out here is that Thomas had been given more than enough evidence already, yet continued in his refusal to believe. He had been around Jesus for at least three years, seen numerous miracles (including the dead being raised), he had heard Jesus predict his resurrection, he had heard eyewitness testimony about the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances from his closest group of friends, and yet refused to believe until he was given the exact evidence that he wanted to see.
In comparison, those of us who live after Christ’s ascension do not have the same access to direct evidence as Thomas did. It’s not that we do not have evidence, but the evidence we do have is indirect evidence, which, while sufficient for us to make the right inference, is not as much as Thomas was given.
Translating this into the passage, it is far more appropriate to understand Jesus as saying, “It’s not that you weren’t given sufficient evidence; you were given more than that and yet you refused to believe until now. How much more admirable are those who accept the truth of my resurrection based on sufficient evidence, without demanding extra proof.”
Understood this way, the passage no longer reads as an affirmation of blind faith, but rather as a chastisement of hyper-skepticism and a commendation of openness to evidence.
This last passage is often referred to as the definition of faith in the Bible. The verse says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Once again, at first reading, the verse seems to present faith as necessarily blind; it makes faith sound like wishful thinking about things we can’t see. But let’s take a closer look at it.
The verse calls faith “the substance of things hoped for.” The Greek word that has been translated as “substance” is ὑπόστασις (hypostasis), which is better translated as an assurance or a confidence in something. So faith is the confidence of receiving that which we hope for. The verse also refers to faith as the “evidence of things not seen.” This “not seen” part is what triggers the atheist to jump to the conclusion that faith is blind.
But if faith is confidence in things you hope for, what’s wrong with it being related to things not seen? After all, no one hopes for things that they have already; we hope for things precisely because we haven’t seen them or they are currently out of our reach. Yet, we often do feel confident that we will achieve what we’re hope for.
Consider the time you last got on an airplane. You didn’t know with absolute certainty that the plane would successfully take you to your intended destination, but you hoped that it would. You didn’t know with absolute certainty that the pilot was capable of taking you there without crashing the plane along the way, but you hoped he was. And given your knowledge of how planes work, how pilots are trained and tested, plus any prior experience flying in a plane, you have a confidence that what you hope for will come to pass. In other words, you have faith in the plane and its pilot.
That’s exactly what Hebrews 11:1 describes- your faith is the confidence of things hoped for, but not necessarily blind to the evidence. As a matter of fact, you are relying on past experiences, among other things, as evidence for feeling confident about the future; that is, having faith is very evidence-based, and is certainly not a blind leap.
So faith isn’t blind. This leads us to ask one final question,
What, then, is faith?
As you might have heard from countless apologists in the past, the word ‘faith’ is a translation of the Greek word πίστις (pistis), which is synonymous with the concepts of trust and confidence. And this is exactly the picture of faith we see in the Bible; faith in God is an unquestioning trust or confidence which is not necessarily unhitched from evidence.
Take the life of Abraham. His faith in God was famously tested in Genesis 22, when God asked him to take his son up a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham followed God’s instructions without question, and God stopped him right before he killed his son and commended him for his faith and obedience. This is often cited as an example of blind faith and how it is set as the paradigm in the Bible.
This is far from being the case. If you turn to Hebrews 11:18-19, we find that Abraham wasn’t blindly obeying God’s commands in spite of the evidence, but was demonstrating his full trust in God because of the evidence. You see, God had made many promises to Abraham in the past and had managed to fulfill every single one of them, including the most unlikely promise that Abraham would have a son at the age of hundred. These promises served as evidence of the trustworthiness of God, which helped build Abraham’s faith in Him.
Now there was still an unfulfilled promise, which was that God would grant Abraham numerous descendants through Isaac. Given that God had kept all his promises so far, Abraham had good reason to believe that God would keep that one as well. So while we do not know how Abraham reacted when God asked him to take his son to the mountains of Moriah and offer him up as a sacrifice, we do know that Abraham did not doubt that God would still keep his promise. That, I believe, is what made Abraham’s faith extraordinary. He was willing to trust God (on the basis of past evidence, mind you) even in the most unlikely of circumstances. Hebrews 11:18-19 tells us that because Abraham knew that God had promised him offspring through Isaac, and he knew God to be faithful with His promises, so he reasoned that God would keep His promise, even if it meant raising Isaac from the dead to fulfill it. From this one passage, we recognize that knowledge, reason, and evidence can play a significant role in one’s faith, and such faith cannot be dismissed as blind.
More importantly, we recognize what faith truly is; it is complete trust in God on the basis of His past faithfulness and goodness in our relationship with Him. Without this sort of faith, Hebrews 11:6 tells us, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must first of all believe that He exists (obviously, since we don’t trust people who don’t exist), and that He is faithful in rewarding those who earnestly seek Him. None of this precludes evidence or reason, and none of this comes close to constituting a “leap into the dark”.
To quote apologist Gregory Koukl, who I believe defined Biblical faith in a way that is second only to the Bible itself:
“Biblical faith is based on knowledge, not wishing or blind leaps. Knowledge builds confidence and confidence leads to trust. The kind of faith God is interested in is not wishing. It’s trust based on knowing, a sure confidence grounded in evidence.”
In short, don’t fall for the caricatured concept of blind faith. The Bible requires our faith to be informed, well-reasoned, and grounded in what we know, not blind and based in what we feel. That’s the kind of faith we ought to have and maintain.