Why Hebrews 11:1 Doesn’t Mean Faith Is Without Evidence

Edited and republished from a post on November 15, 2013.

Jerry Coyne’s recent Slate article on science and faith gives another chance to clarify the contentious meaning of “faith.” In that article he presents three religious and one putative scientific usage of the word, then comments,

The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such 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.”

Kaufman’s definition as quoted here isn’t bad. If Coyne had stuck with it he might have stayed on solid ground. Oh, well.

Misunderstanding Hebrews 11:1 and Faith

Coyne points to one Christian source, Hebrews 11:1, and tells us it clearly expresses that faith is wish-thinking. Which is an odd conclusion for him to draw: Hebrews 11:1 by itself doesn’t express anything clearly. It’s part of an extended discourse on faith. It wasn’t intended to be read on its own. Ripped out of context, its full meaning is impossible to discern.

We can’t review the whole book of Hebrews, but we can at least look at what else the author of Hebrews has to say about faith. There’s another semi-definitional usage in Hebrews 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Knowing What We Have Not Seen

Christian (and Judaic) faith is about believing in the reality of God and his goodness to those who seek him. This is the hope that’s referred in verse 1. Of course it’s not seen. Does that mean, however, that it involves “pretending to know things you don’t know”? Not at all. We know all kinds of things we haven’t seen and can’t see. Up until the 1960s we hadn’t seen the far side of the moon, but we knew it was cold and lifeless. Two months ago a long-lost Monet was found in storage at The Louvre. No one had seen it in decades, but everyone who heard the news, and who knew anything about Monet, instantly knew its style was Impressionistic.

All it takes is enough information and good reasoning, and you can draw a sound conclusion about things you haven’t seen.

Bad Evidences, Unsound Reasoning, Unreasonable People?

There is unseen knowledge in Christian faith, but it, too, is a matter good conclusions drawn from relevant evidence and sound reasoning. It rests on a foundation nearly as firm as our knowledge of the other side of the moon or the style of  a newly discovered Monet. Not quite, of course: the evidence and reasoning behind Christian faith are not sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.

Still there are many among us who think we have good evidence and we’re using sound reason to conclude that God exists and rewards his seekers. Jerry Coyne and Peter Boghossian, from whom Coyne borrowed his definition of faith, would undoubtedly dispute that. They could argue in any of three ways: that the evidence is not there, that our chain of reasoning is unsound, and/or that we are not reasonable people.

Unreasonable People?

I’ve seen some atheists rush straight to that last option: that Christians are not reasonable people. I keep hearing “the title ‘Thinking Christian’ is an oxymoron.” But that would mean Blaise Pascal, James Clark Maxwell, Galileo Galilei, Michael Faraday, William Wilberforce, St. Patrick, and many others like them were unthinking, unreasoning persons, which is obviously wrong.

Some atheists say that Christians are unreasonable for accepting non-empirical, non-scientific evidences in favor of our beliefs. To define reasonability that way, however, is to beg the question. It’s a logical fallacy, which means it’s not rational thinking; for the reasonability of non-scientific knowledge is the very point in question.

In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, the person who says Christians are by definition unreasonable people reveals him or herself as an irrational person, at least as far as that claim goes.

Who’s Pretending To Know Things They Don’t Know?

Coyne’s article is about whether science involves faith, which he denies. I don’t disagree with him much, for while I think there’s a kind of faith involved in science, it’s not the same as what’s involved in religion. Reasonable people can and do disagree — often, and persistently — about fundamental religious convictions. Reasonable people really ought not disagree so often and persistently about basic science. In mature sciences they rarely do. So while the faith of Christianity and the faith of science have some things in common, they also differ in significant ways. Let’s grant that to Jerry Coyne.

But we cannot reasonably grant that Christian faith involves pretending to know things we don’t know. But there is much evidence for God. It ranges from philosophical to documentary to archaeological to experiential; for Christianity claims that God works in history in identifiable ways.

In fact, here we can return Hebrews 11, where the author speaks of men and women who sought God and were objectively rewarded for doing so. Abraham founded a nation. Noah survived a flood. Moses led a people out of Egypt, with many signs and wonders accompanying. Joshua led the same people to the conquest of Canaan, again with signs and wonders.

Faith Tied to Evidence

Did all this really happen, or are we just playing pretend-knowledge games again? Let’s not jump ahead too quickly to that question, because if we do, we’ll miss answering an earlier one: does Hebrews 11:1 describe a wish-thinking sort of faith? No. In context, it’s speaking of people having faith that’s tied to observable evidence. If Hebrews 11:1 is about wish-thinking, then the author changes the meaning of “faith” right afterward when he launches into his history of the faithful.

And consider Hebrews 2:3-4:

It was declared at first by the Lord [the reference here is to Christ on earth], and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Does that sound like Coyne’s version of evidence-free faith?

Consider also the entire letter to the Hebrews, which is a closely argued explanation for how the way of Christ fulfills and supersedes the ancient way of the Hebrew religion. This is reasoning in action. Granted, the letter contains less appeal to contemporary evidence than, say, the Gospel of John, but that’s for good reason: it was written to people who needed a different kind of question answered. But evidence and reasoning are by no means absent.

Again: Who’s Pretending To Know Things They Don’t Know?

In this post I have not explored whether we have sufficient evidence to support Christian faith today. I’m convinced we do, but that wasn’t my topic of discussion. This has been about the meaning of faith in Hebrews 11:1. In its original context, as intended by its original author, it simply could not have meant “wish-thinking.” Still Jerry Coyne, Peter Boghossian, and others tell us with great assurance that it does. When they do that, they display an unreasoning willingness to draw dogmatic conclusions based on conveniently selected, incomplete, context-free evidence.

They pretend to know things they don’t know.

P.S. I’ve grown accustomed to people objecting to my using the Bible to support my position on faith. It’s happened so often I’ve begun aggregating the objections and my answers. Let me add here: if anyone objects to my using the Bible to explain how Coyne and Boghossian misread the meaning of a passage in the Bible, I’m going to petition your school to lower your GPA.

Image Credit(s): Ben White/Unsplash.