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

by Tom Gilson

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…

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