Critics of the Christian faith have noted that, in a number of passages, the Bible encourages blind faith and anti-intellectualism. Are the critics interpreting the Bible rightfully or have they merely jumped the gun?
The nature of faith is something that I have thoroughly discussed on this site, however, I have yet to take a deeper look into the various objections made by skeptics on the nature of faith. Is it based on reason and evidence or is it a form of blind, anti-intellectualism and wishful thinking?
I’ve noted elsewhere (here and here) that Biblical faith is one that is founded on evidence. It is our reaction to the evidence, a reaction most commonly referred to as trust or loyalty, and trust is something that has to be earned by performance. But does Scripture tell us a similar story or does it encourage us to do away with reason and intellect? Let’s take a look at the most commonly cited verses.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)
This verse in Hebrews is often quoted in the KJV but in relation to the original Greek, I find the ESV gives a clearer portrayal of its intended meaning. Instead of the words “substance” and “evidence” (which can easily lead one to mistakenly believe that faith is the evidence in and of itself) the ESV and similar translations swap them out with “assurance” and “conviction.” This makes a great deal of sense in relation to the rest of Hebrews 11, which gives examples of faith as used by familiar characters in the OT. These are examples of people who had undeniable proof of God’s power and faithfulness and thus, having already witnessed His ability to follow through on His Word, stepped out in trust, knowing that He will always perform it.
Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith (or pistis) is the assurance of things hoped for (the word used here means expected) and the conviction of things not seen, which, in context, means that we expect, based on past performance, God to always follow through on His Word. We don’t find encouragement of blind faith here, and if we believe so, we run the risk of misunderstanding who God is by unwittingly portraying Him as a cruel ruler who won’t do a thing for us unless we do something for Him first. In truth, faith is simply our response to the goodness and love of God: a love that was fully revealed to us on Calvary.
While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Out of context, this could be potentially used as a defence of the kind of faith that goes contrary to evidence, but in context, intellectual problems are not what Paul has in mind here, as verses 16 and 17 reveal.
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)
In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul talks about the ministry of the Corinthian church and we see him encouraging them to focus on spiritual things and not to fear or worry about earthly things which are temporal and will eventually waste away. This passage is not talking about discussions around pieces of evidence or logical arguments.
Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” (Romans 3:7 NIV)
Is Paul admitting that his entire ministry is a lie? Once again, the KJV text makes this verse a little unclear as it omits the note that Paul is arguing with an imaginary opponent. Paul is not admitting his falsehood, rather, he is hypothetically creating an argument that someone might use against his, that even if God is glorified by our unrighteousness, that does not justify our sin. Paul is talking about our sin nature and how our first reaction to it is to attempt to justify it by arguing that “If the means justify the ends God should not punish us.” Or “If our sin nature magnifies the goodness of God how can He then punish us?”
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8)
Some use this verse as evidence that skepticism is frowned upon by God. I’ve addressed this passage before but in summary, this verse has less to do with intellectual testing and more to do with hypocrisy and self-centeredness in the face of temptation. James is addressing people who want the blessings of God without wanting to commit their lives to Him because of shame or dishonour (see here) and is not condemning intellectual doubt in the existence of God.
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20:29)
Is Jesus rebuking Thomas because he asked for evidence? To see why this is not so we need to step into Thomas’ shoes. Was Thomas someone who, like our modern atheists, lacked a belief in God? Quite the opposite. Firstly, Thomas had had the opportunity to know and walk intimately with Jesus for the entirety of his ministry. Secondly, we can conclude that Thomas had witnessed firsthand the miracles of Christ (including the raising of Lazarus from the dead). Thirdly, he was in the company of the other disciples whom he had grown to trust and love as brothers over the past three years and who had also witnessed Christ’s miracles. And fourthly, there was an empty tomb. Considering all of this evidence, Thomas had no reason to distrust his fellow brothers and doubt the resurrection.
Jesus rebuked Thomas’ doubt, not because he was playing the role of the honest skeptic but because his skepticism had turned into pride. Thomas didn’t want to be associated with a crucified Messiah because of how shameful and offensive such an idea was to the Jews (see Galatians 3:13). He had been given evidence that was more than sufficient yet, because of his pride, he didn’t want to accept it. This kind of attitude rings a bell, doesn’t it? How often do we refuse to seek after Christ because we’re worried about how our friends will see us? Or how often do we refuse to do something for Christ because we’re worried we might offend someone? Jesus is rebuking Thomas’ distrust to his patron who had already proven Himself. Since “blessed,” in this context, is translated into “honourable,” Jesus makes the point that it is honourable to trust with sufficient evidence. Wanting more than what’s needed is evidence of an underlying, dishonest motive. It is false to claim that John 20:29 encourages blind faith.
Those are the few verses I’ve seen used by critics that directly address the nature of faith. A couple of others I’ve seen include Galatians 5:19-26 which condemns factions and taking part in rivalries. Claiming that this includes intellectual debate and individual opinion is a stretch I’m not willing to take. 2 Timothy 2:14 is also used to discourage intellectual debate, however, the qualification is things that have no profit. It’s unreasonable to assume that Paul is telling Timothy to avoid any sort of discussion period, especially when he specifically mentions “fables and endless genealogies” in 1 Timothy as something that has no profit. Those are not arguments as used by apologists and skeptics today.
Other examples include places where Paul warns against the “philosophy of man,” such as Colossians 2:8, but those find Paul warning against movements or heresies that were pre-eminently anti-intellectual and highly suppositious. These kinds of mystical movements were often connected to false, mystical spirits and demonic powers. Additionally, the word philosophy had a much broader meaning back then and was even used to refer to the practice of magicians (we don’t even need the help of scholarship to support this one, we can use the name of the first Harry Potter book in Britain: the Philosopher’s Stone).
There is a hilarious irony in the critic’s insistence that the Christian faith is blind, wish-fulfilment that goes against all evidence. If not the Bible, where do they get such an idea from in the first place? Other Christians who have misread the Bible? If critics won’t believe what Christians say about miracles or the resurrection why do they believe them here? If not other Christians, then do they attain the idea from the Bible itself? Possibly, but as we’ve demonstrated, to do so would be to take a select verse at face value and assume that it means what they think it means without critically checking it. Perhaps they have the idea because some Christians believe things that go contrary to science? If so, why take the actions of a select number of Christians and assume that their view of faith is what Christianity itself teaches? There is no way around it. In order to claim that Christian faith is blind, the claimant needs to utilize blind faith himself, for if he bothered to check the Scriptures critically he would find a different story.