Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
For the first 18 years of my Christian life, I interpreted this verse as meaning that believers have faith instead of evidence. This was a deeply unsatisfying interpretation of these words as it seems to imply that Christians must abandon reason and skepticism. How can we reconcile this with the requirements in other parts of the Bible that we “test the spirits”? How does one love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul and mind if one has faith in lieu of evidence? As I was meditating on the word of God recently, however, an alternative interpretation of this verse occurred to me. Consider the following verse from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always have good remembrance of us, greatly desiring to see us, as we also to see you— therefore, brethren, in all our affliction and distress we were comforted concerning you by your faith. For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 3:6-8)
On the basis of this verse, therefore, I would propose an alternative phrasing of the verse in Hebrews, “Now faith is the manifestation of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In this way, our shared experience of faith strengthens our beliefs and helps us to know that what we believe is true. Perhaps an illustration of this principle is in order.
A while back, an older woman in the church that I was attending stood up in front of the congregation and shared her shocking testimony. In her youth, this woman had been sexually molested and abused by her alcoholic father. She shared how God had healed her from that horrible injury to the point where she was able to serve as his nurse at the end of his life and lead him to Jesus Christ. When she was done, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Now honestly, when I hear a testimony like that I am absolutely blown away. If she had picked up a car and jumped over the Empire State Building, I couldn’t imagine a more superhuman feat. I have had such a hard time forgiving people of far lesser sins that to hear what God did in her life is extremely powerful evidence that she has experienced the same love, the same joy, the same person that I have. She has met Jesus Christ, the risen Lord.
Now, of course, atheists are going to pooh pooh such stories. “Every religion has stories like that”, they will say with absolutely no evidence. But how could other religions have such testimonies? They don’t teach forgiveness or turning the other cheek or that all human beings need the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ and therefore must forgive others. If they don’t teach it, then why would we expect them to have such experiences? In my experience, forgiveness is one of the hardest virtues to learn and when I see the faith of someone who performs an incredible feat of forgiveness, it is powerful evidence of things unseen.
After I finished this essay yesterday, I thought about this essay for a while and it bothered me that I had implied the claim that it is impossible for those who do not walk with Jesus Christ to forgive others. The Bible says, ” But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20) and I believe that this means that God empowers all men to forgive people if they earnestly desire to forgive. I decided to leave the essay as written, however, because I believe in being honest about mistakes.
So to illustrate what I mean to say in this essay a bit more clearly, imagine someone came to me and said, “Rob what is your evidence for what you believe?” I used to think that Hebrews 11:1 was urging me to say, “You want evidence? I offer you my faith which I possess in lieu of evidence.” I now believe that what Hebrews 11:1 really means can be illustrated by a slightly different scenario. “Rob, what is the evidence that you have that God is good and loving and kind?” “You want evidence of God’s love? Let me tell you about some other people that I know who have had the same experience of love and joy and forgiveness that I have had. Our shared experience of faith is the manifestation of God’s love in the world.”
So this essay has had to be amended twice. I suppose that this is a good place to say that while I feel free to correct grammatical or spelling mistakes that I have made on this site at any time, I don’t quite feel that way about substantive changes to what I have written. I guess I want to emphasize that my walk of faith is really an exploration where my understanding is constantly changing. Many Christians present a static picture of Christianity which is impossible for human beings to relate to. As human beings, a process of growth and change is what we experience on a daily basis. When Christians represent ourselves in a static way where we claim to have known everything about the Bible from the very beginning we present an alien and unappealing experience to those around us. I tried to make this point in a recent post called “The Great Sin of Elisha“.