Defining Faith- Hebrews 11:1

I’ve recently been reading some material and watching some videos where the subject of faith comes up.  Many in the atheist community define faith a particular way and christians don’t like and don’t agree with that definition.

I think the most succinct definition of faith given in the literature is Peter Boghossian’s from his book A Manual for Creating Atheists.  He says that faith is “pretending to know things you don’t know” (p. 24).  In his interview on Phil Vischer’s podcast, Phil, as I’m sure many other christians do, took offense at this definition.

John W. Loftus, in his book The Outsider Test for Faith defined faith as “an irrational leap over the possibilities.  Because reasonable faith is an oxymoron. Faith is an attitude or feeling whereby believers attribute a higher degree of probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.  Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate confirming evidence and underestimate disconfirming evidence” (p. 207).  Although this is not as concise as Peter Boghossian’s definition, it gives us a little more to go with, and it gets into what I think is one of the more important aspects of the discussion: evidence.

I remember hearing in church most of my life that the best definition of faith was found in Hebrews 11:1.  I’ve heard many sermons on it.  In fact, one year at church camp when I was in my teens, the entire week’s sermons were based on Hebrews 11:1.  I memorized it and thought I knew what it said.  Now that I’ve grown out of my faith, I see it as saying something different than what I once thought.  It all seems so obvious now.

So let’s look at Hebrews 11:1.  It says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Merriam Webster’s Dictionary Online defines substance as

: a material of a particular kind

: a drug that is considered harmful and whose use is controlled by law or made illegal

: the quality of being meaningful, useful, or important

Without needing to address the second definition, we could easily paraphrase substance as the stuff.   This can be demonstrated in the movie title “The Stuff of Legend” or the Star Trek episode title “The Stuff of Dreams”.  We can see that the stuff means a material and also the inherent quality of that thing.  So when Hebrews says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”, we can understand that to mean that faith is the stuff or the inherent quality of things that are not, but we wish them to be.  The second phrase makes it more clear: “the evidence of things not seen”.  Faith is the evidence, or proof of something, that cannot be seen.  The Greek word for seen, as used in this verse, can be translated as to see with the eye, or to discern, but the most telling translations are to perceive by the senses, to feel and to discover by use, to know by experience.  In other words, faith is the thing that is proof of the things which we cannot perceive by our senses or know by experience; that is, the evidence for that which there is no evidence.  After all, you have to use your senses or know by experience in order to have evidence of something.  Interestingly, the definition for the word faith in this verse is defined as a conviction of the truth; the truth of god’s existence, or of christ’s messiahship, etc.  So, let’s put it all together in a lovely paraphrase: your conviction that god exists and that christ is his messiah is the stuff of what we hope for, your conviction of that is the evidence for that which we have no evidence.

So essentially, the bible admits there is no way to perceive god with our senses or to know him by experience, yet the fact that someone has a really strong feeling that he does exist is held up as proof positive that he does.  Am I missing something here, or is that all we have to go on?  The only proof that the best definition of faith I was offered as a christian has for god’s existence is a feeling that he exists… Wow!

As you can see, Peter Boghossian isn’t off the mark when he says that faith is pretending to know things you don’t, although I really don’t think christians are pretending.  I think they actually believe they know things that they actually don’t know.  But that could be chalked up to semantics.  And when John Loftus says that reasonable faith is an oxymoron, I get it that he is saying that faith cannot be by definition, reasonable.  But I think I’ll do him one better: faith, as defined in the bible, (reasonable or not) is an oxymoron.

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2 thoughts on “Defining Faith- Hebrews 11:1

  1. Atheists are often accused of using the word “faith” wrong; that we aren’t using it as it is meant in the Christian sense. I tend to base my usage of the word on how believers attempt to justify their beliefs. This seems to me to be the best way to define the term and to avoid conflating religious “faith” with related words like “trust” and “confidence.”

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