Faith, Doubt, and Sight

The idea of faith is probably the cornerstone of Christianity. The Reformation doctrine of sola fides declares that we are saved by faith alone, and that salvation by faith as opposed to self-righteous works is itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-10) [1]. Due to this, faith is preached to us from the time we are children, and when we do believe it’s not a one-off thing, but a continually growing and dynamic faith that we exercise throughout our life. So faith is common, but do we understand it? Sometimes things are obscure and difficult to understand because they are uncommon or hidden, and rarely see the light of day. Other times, however, ideas and events that are ubiquitous can be just as obscure and mysterious precisely because they abound in our lives. Perhaps faith is one of these: we hear about it, practice it, and teach it to others, but if we were asked to explain what it is and what it is not, could we do it?

Attacks Against the Faith

In recent years, Christian faith has come under attack by atheists and skeptics, most notably the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett). Other have weighed in as well, and a consistent critique they make is to dismiss religious faith in the following manner:

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

“Faith is believing in the absence of evidence.”

“Faith is blind hope when the evidence is stacked against you.”

The common idea in all these is that faith is blind, stupid, and ignorant; a grasping hope that flies in the face of the evidence and refuses to be teachable or corrected. Thus, Christians (or Jews, Muslims, etc.) are what’s wrong with society, as we represent epistemic neanderthals, stuck in prehistory and the fallacies of the premodern world, unenlightened and uneducated. From this perspective, preaching and teaching our religious beliefs amounts to spreading lies, falsehoods, and willful ignorance. This is despised by skeptics, and so they fight tooth and nail against the spread of the monotheistic faiths in their crusade to “save” civilization.

Hebrews 11:1 – Definition(s) of Faith

Of course, this is not what Christians believe faith is – it never has been and never will be (although I’m sure there are some well-meaning Christians who don’t understand their faith and inadvertently end up confirming the skeptics’ fears). This isn’t to say the exact definition and nature of Christian faith has never been debated; it surely has been and will continue to be. But most Christians believe their faith is rooted in truth, knowledge, and evidence: namely, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-14).

When discussing the definition of faith, most people will rightly go to Hebrews 11:1, which is probably the closest thing you can get to a direct and unequivocal definition. Let’s check some translations to see what it says.

  • “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see” (NIV)
  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV)
  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (NASB)
  • “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see” (NLT)
  • “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV)

What do we notice about these various translations? The first three are very similar, and the last two are very different. The NIV, ESV, and NASB all focus on “confidence,” “assurance,” and “conviction,” while the NLT and KJV translate the same words as “reality,” “evidence,” and “substance.” Obviously these are very different ideas, even if we can conceive of some overlap or relationship (e.g., evidence gives us assurance). What gives?

Hebrews 11:1 – Getting It Right

Recently I had the opportunity to teach through the theology of Hebrews to a seminary class, and we spent a while discussing this issue to see if we could figure it out. A straight translation of the verse confirms that the KJV and NLT have it right (ironically in the case of the NLT since it is supposedly a dynamic equivalent translation and not as “literal” as the ESV or NASB are!):

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

Which is translated as:

“But faith is the substance/reality being hoped for, the proof/evidence/demonstration of deeds not being seen.”

The two key words are ὑπόστασις (substance/reality) and ἔλεγχος (proof/evidence/ demonstration). There are no words in this verse related to “confidence,” “assurance,” or “conviction.” How is it, then, that translators continue to use these words to translate Hebrews 11:1?

In my research I found a helpful article by Robert G. Hoerber entitled “On the Translation of Hebrews 11:1” (Concordia Journal [1995]: 77-79). He notes this very problem and then, quoting from Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) (vol. 8, pp. 586f), he says that,

In the translation of ύπόστασις here [Hebrews 11:1] and in Hb. 3:14 Melanchthon advised Luther to use the rendering “sure confidence.” Whereas all patristic and medieval exegesis presupposed that ύπόστασις was to be translated substantia and understood in the sense of ουσία, Luther’s translation introduced a wholly new element into the understanding of Hb. 11:1. Faith is now viewed as personal, subjective conviction. This interpretation has governed Protestant exposition of the passage almost completely, and it has strongly influenced Roman Catholic exegesis. It has also had a broader effect. Yet there can be no question but that this classical Protestant understanding is untenable. The starting-point of exposition must be that ύπόστασις in Hb. 11:1 has to have not only a meaning like that in Greek usage elsewhere but also a sense similar to that it bears in the other HB references.

We can see that the concepts of assurance, conviction, and confidence are invalid interpolations from the Reformation era. [2] They introduce a subjective element to faith that isn’t what the author of Hebrews intended. On this translation, faith becomes dependent upon our subjective assurance and conviction, meaning, if we were to lose assurance, confidence, or conviction, we might lose our faith. But this isn’t what Hebrews teaches!

Instead, Hebrews teaches something quite different. Faith is not based upon our own assurance but upon the promises of a faithful God. Faith is not about our confidence, but our knowledge of the true nature of reality and of evidence and proof of that reality. Of course, confidence or assurance might result from such knowledge, but this isn’t the essence of faith.

Notice that the first half of the verse speaks of the ὑπόστασις (substance/reality) of what we hope for. What is this? Of the five times in scripture that ὑπόστασις is used, three of them occur in Hebrews (1:3; 3:14; 11:1) (the other two are in 2 Cor. 9:4; 11:17). In fact, the majestic and high Christological opening of Hebrews has this word (vv. 1-4), when it says, “He [i.e., Christ] is the radiance of the glory [of God] and the representation of his ὑπόστασις.” In other words, the author of Hebrews asserts that Christ is the reflection of God’s essential nature. When we come to Hebrews 11:1, our faith is defined as hope in this substance, i.e., hope in God’s promises that have been initially fulfilled in Jesus Christ and which remain to be consummated by him at his parousia (second coming). These promises fulfilled in Christ come from God’s nature, a nature which cannot lie (Titus 1:2), cannot be tempted by evil (Jas. 1:13), is faithful to his word (Ex. 34:6), and which is love (1 John 4:8).

Therefore we can summarize the nature of Christian faith like this:

  • The object of our faith is the substance, proof, and evidence of God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ (which is genuine knowledge, not blind luck).
  • The act of our faith is hoping in God’s promises that are now unseen and yet to be fulfilled.
  • The basis of our faith is God’s word and his promises, which are trustworthy because of his nature, despite present uncertainties and struggles.

Faith, Doubt, and Sight

What’s the big deal about all this? Namely the following: the opposite of faith is not doubt, but sight. The rest of Hebrews 11 recounts the “heroes of the faith,” demonstrating again and again that their faith was in God’s promises to them despite the fact that they could not see how such promises could ever come true and that many never saw these promises come to fruition in their lifetime (cf. Heb. 11:36-39). Notice Hebrews 11:13:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

The “having seen them and greeted them from afar” is a metaphor, lest you think I’ve refuted myself! We might poetically say that faith is “seeing” the unseen: it is the ability to envision the future actualization of a present promise, even if now we “see” dimly or only in part, and even if we are not sure we will live to witness its fulfillment in our lifetime.

We have a tendency to think that the opposite of faith is doubt, and this is precisely because of the mistranslation of Hebrews 11:1 above. If faith is defined as assurance, conviction, and confidence, and doubt undermines these three subjective experiences, then faith and doubt are not only opposites, but mutually exclusive. In other words, if you have faith, you will not doubt; and if you doubt, you no longer have faith.

But this is unbiblical! Did some doubts enter Noah’s mind as he waited for the flood deluge to begin while the people on dry ground outside laughed at him? Almost certainly. Do you think Abraham doubted God’s promises of a land, seed, and blessing beyond his comprehension? Probably (Gen. 17:17; but cf. R0m. 4:20). Did you think Sarah doubted that she could bear a son in her old age? Absolutely (Gen. 18:12). Moses doubted so much that Aaron had to accompany him (Ex. 3:11-4:17), the people of Israel doubted, Jacob wrestled with despair, Joseph struggled with doubt, and so forth and so on. Probably not a single one of the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 never faced doubt in their lives, and yet they still had faith in God’s promises.

It is human to doubt. Asking Christians to have faith and never doubt is impossible, and thankfully, scripture takes a realistic approach to this issue. In fact, Hebrews clearly teaches that we can have faith in God’s promises even in the midst of doubt, because the opposite of faith is not doubt but sight. It is okay to struggle with doubt, so do not think you have lost your faith if doubts emerge. I’m afraid too many Christians believe that doubt is exclusive to faith, and so when they begin to doubt they suppress it, deny it, or cover it with religious activities and zeal, or worse, a kind of blind and ignorant trust. Instead, face your doubts and engage with them. Ask questions, seek good and genuine answers, talk with others, and most of all cover them in prayer. This isn’t to say that doubt, if left to fester, cannot eventually undo and defeat faith (cf. Mk. 11:23; Jas. 1:6; Jude 22), but that faith and doubt can coexist even if the goal is to eventually confirm our faith over and against our doubts. I’ve certainly found this to be the case in my life. [3]

We can take comfort in that this is the example of Jesus, who himself is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2a). [4] Jesus endured the cross despite his doubts, agony, and lack of assurance in Gethsemane precisely because of God’s promise about what the cross would accomplish (i.e., “the joy set before him”). What did the cross accomplish? Redeeming a people to himself, victory over sin and death, and having all things put under Christ’s feet as he took his rightful place of authority and power at God’s right hand. None of this was yet seen on the march to Golgatha and we only get a glimpse of Jesus’ agony when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” Jesus had to place his faith in God’s promises to him of the victory that would come through his death, despite severe doubt, desires to abandon the mission, overwhelming sorrow and suffering, and being forsaken.

Likewise, as disciples of Christ, we must place our faith in God’s promises to us through Christ, despite pain, suffering, and trails, and despite the doubts we continually face.

Notes

[1] I am not of the persuasion that faith itself is a gift from God; we believe in Christ, God doesn’t make us believe, nor does he pick winners and loser for salvation and damnation. Notice that Eph. 2:8-10 says, “For you are saved by grace through faith; and this not from you, [but] a gift from God.” The “this” (underlined) is a nominative, singular, neuter demonstrative pronoun, and as such, its antecedent is neither “saved” nor “grave” nor “faith,” but the whole clause. Some might therefore conclude that all three components are gifts from God; but it’s more likely that the “this” is in reference to salvation of this nature, in contrast to other systems of salvation. In other words, the fact that by God’s grace he has provided a means of salvation where we place our faith in Christ as the way to be reconciled and redeemed, is the gift from God, and thus it is available to everyone, although not forced upon anyone.

[2] The 500th year anniversary of the Reformation is this coming October 2017, and there is much to celebrate. However, I think it’s also important that we learn from the Reformers in both what they got right, and in what they got wrong. That, in fact, is the spirit of the Reformation, to question tradition and established doctrine in our quest to a richer knowledge of Christianity.

[3] A good book to confront and help with common doubts is Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions about Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2003).

[4] Hebrews defines faith slightly differently than John or the Apostle Paul. Both of them generally define faith as believing or trusting in Christ. Notice that this definition doesn’t work in Hebrews, as Heb. 12:2a speaks of Jesus as the “founder and perfecter of our faith.” If faith in this verse is defined as believing in Christ, then Jesus is said to believe in himself – which sounds like some kind of hip, modern theory of self-actualization. Instead, if we start with Hebrews 11:1 and we define faith as trusting in God’s promises that are currently unseen, we can easily understand how Jesus, during his earthly life, embodied that kind of faith. Notice also what Jesus says to doubting Thomas: after showing himself to Thomas (i.e., physical sight and touch) and encouraging him to believe and not disbelieve, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who never doubt and yet believe”! Thus even Jesus recognized that faith and sight stood in opposition with one another (i.e., you cannot have faith if you can see what it is you are to have faith in), not faith and doubt; and so we see that the two definitions of faith (trust in Christ; trust in God’s promises) are not contradictory, but complementary.

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