Richard Dawkins, among many others, have contended that ‘faith’ is believing what you know isn’t true. Less severe, but equally inaccurate, is the view that faith is a thing completely apart from evidence, or even in spite of the evidence. This view isn’t restricted to atheists. Unfortunately, many Christians themselves take that view. It is unfortunate because it is not true, it is not how the Scriptures actually present it, and it takes Christians out of discussions they should be involved in.
The simplest way to put it that would be accurate would be to understand ‘faith’ as including, front and center, the idea of ‘trust.’
Christian faith is not merely the confident belief that certain propositions are true. It isn’t even the confident belief that a God exists. The Scriptures forbid such a narrow understanding: “So you believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” James 2:19
Another passage puts it in better context: “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he awards those who earnestly seek him.” Hebrews 11:6
Real Christian faith includes and transcends beliefs in propositions and speaks to the trust that we have in God and our reliance on his nature (ie, most prominently, his goodness).
But the important thing to take note of here is that the Scriptures frequently appeal to evidence as a basis for trusting faith. God very much respects our need to have evidence. (see, for example, John 14:11) There is a point where trust is required, but this trust is based on a pattern that we have observed to hold true. In short, Biblical faith calls us to step out into the unknown, based on what is known.
Here we see that Biblical faith is not all that different than the kind of faith we have in all sorts of things, the main difference being the object of our faith. For example, let’s say that one’s wife wants to go out with friends some Saturday night. The husband who has faith in his wife does not have blind faith: over the years, she has showed that she is faithful and true. Yes, it is entirely possible that this one time she is deceiving him and means to cheat, highlighting the fact that he is blind to the future outcomes of her behavior. Given her previous faithfulness, however, his faith is completely reasonable- and also based on evidence: the pattern of his wife’s behavior in the past and a knowledge of his wife’s present character.
How would a hard boiled atheist like Richard Dawkins regard this faith? Well, I suppose since he relies completely on evidence and the scientific method, he wouldn’t dare let his wife leave his sight. He would follow her or hire a private detective just in case… after all, it is possible she’s deceiving him. He may establish scientifically that she’s been faithful once again, but it cannot be said that he trusts her. If she has been consistently faithful to him, one can even say that there is something wrong in Dawkins’ head and/or heart for demanding such an unending chain of evidence and demonstration.
To demand such a thing from one’s own wife would be insulting. It is likewise insulting to demand it of God. But not demanding it is not blind faith at all. It is reasonable faith.
Reasonable, that is, if God has proved himself over time and provided a solid basis for our confidence in his nature. I think its important to speak to that.
There are many directions we could take this, but I want to focus on one area of God’s nature and character that I think is of central importance in the call to trust God (by God himself), and is his desire to save, his promise to save, and his ability to save. It will help highlight what I mean about faith involving evidence and an observed pattern of trust.
Imagine that you are out boating and a storm comes up and dumps you into the water. You are treading water desperately, awaiting salvation. Now, let’s say you are presently located off the coast of Mexico, and you notice a speed boat coming in your direction, loaded with men with assault rifles, bandanas, and crates filled with what look to be blocks of weed. When they come upon you, you might have second thoughts about reaching out and taking the outstretched hands. Or imagine this happens on a lake in Pakistan (just imagine!) and a bunch of jihadists with sharp blades are on their way? Perhaps in these two cases you may wish to conceal yourself in the wreckage of your ship, hoping for someone else to save you. Perhaps.
Now imagine it is the US Coast Guard.
Besides the fact that you know that the people in the Coast Guard more likely share your values, you are well aware of their demonstrated desire and ability to save. You’ve seen movies, national geographic episodes, and news footage. You will gladly take their outstretched hands. This despite the fact that it is theoretically possible that they will chop off your head as soon as you are on board.
Looking at the Scriptures from this perspective, we see that God has been eager to show that he is reliable like the Coast Guard. Let’s look.
Genesis 3:15, God issues the first promise to rescue the drowning human race.
Genesis 6, God promises to save Noah from the calamity to come… and does.
… God saves Joseph.
… God saves the entire Jewish people from slavery to Egypt through a powerful demonstration.
… God saves Jerusalem from Assyria.
… God returns the Jews from captivity.
There are many more instances where God makes a promise to save and then keeps it. He makes promises about many things, and keeps them, to show that when Jesus- having demonstrated that he is God himself- makes the promise to save, he not only intends to keep that promise, but has the power to do so. This is emphatically demonstrated one more time by the resurrection from the dead.
… God finally saves the whole human race- all the human race has to do is take hold of the outstretched hand. They have a good reason to do so, and a whole history of God’s character to rely on.
Of course, there is this little problem: many humans don’t even know they’re drowning. Moreover, they refuse to be told.
In the New Testament, God makes quite a few promises through his son and the apostles that have not yet come true. God has a history of keeping promises, though, so I for one am living on the assumption that he’ll keep those ones, too. The Scriptures are filled with his appeal to people to remember what he has done in the past. There is a reason for that: he does not call us to a blind faith, but an informed, evidence based faith.
As a quick aside, haven’t you ever pondered how the Jews continue to exist as a people and have even taken hold of the land historically- ‘allegedly’- promised to them by God? Where are the Canaanites? The Phoenicians? The Vikings? The Druids? With few exceptions- and the Jews are the most noteworthy of them all- the small tribes of the ancient past have disappeared into the mists of time. Yet the Jews have remained distinctly a people, even what with all the persecutions and attempts to render them extinct. And, after 2,000 years! they have their own nation again. Now THAT’s an impressive fulfillment of a promise!
So, Richard Dawkins is quite wrong. Faith isn’t believing what you know isn’t true. At least, Christian faith isn’t. Christian faith is a trust in God and his character, which he has documented for us over the eons. It is trust that he really made us, that he wasn’t joking when he said disobedience would bring us death, that we are really ‘drowning,’ and further more, that he intends to save- and has done it.