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The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 1)

March 3, 2015

What is faith? How is it conceptualized in Christianity?

In certain circles, it has somehow become popular to think that "faith is believing in something without evidence". That... is just wrong. That is manifestly not what the Bible teaches, nor is it anything that any thinking Christian has claimed. In fact, a Google search of the phrase basically returns a bunch of atheists attempting to get that charge to stick on Christianity, and a bunch of Christians saying that this is not what Christian faith means. It's a portrait of a typical fight against an attempted straw man, painted in a single search. In this series of posts, we will examine the meaning of the word "faith" in Christianity, and how it's based on evidence.

Part of the confusion is that Christianity uses "faith" in multiple, different, but intertwined senses. In particular, "faith" may refer to:

1. Intellectual assent to a set of propositions, which are backed up by evidence.
(e.g. 1 Cor. 2:4-5, "My message and preaching were ... with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.") 

2. Taking action based on "faith" in the first sense.
(e.g. Matt 15:28, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.")

3. The personal degree of trust or confidence that a Christian places in Jesus, resulting from the accumulation of many instances of "faith" in the first and second sense.
(e.g. Gal. 2:16, "[A] person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.")

4. The lifestyle that incorporates "faith" in the first, second, and third senses.
(e.g. 1 Cor. 16:13, "[S]tand firm in the faith")

The word "believe" is also used in the Bible in these multiple senses. One can merely intellectually assent to a statement as in the first sense (even demons believe there is one God), but to "believe in the Lord Jesus" is to be understood in the third sense. The confusion comes because the Bible focuses a great deal on "faith" in the third sense, as it's the mechanism of God's salvation in us. However, note that the different meanings of "faith" all build on each other, and that they all build on the first sense, which requires evidence.

The situation is as if someone ignorant of quantum mechanics came across a group of physicists discussing it. He sees the physicists pushing around a bunch of mathematical symbols, and saying things that make little sense to him, while hardly discussing, say, the photoelectric effect, or the hydrogen emission spectrum (which are the things that actually serve as evidence for quantum mechanics). This is because physicists do not reiterate all of the evidence for quantum mechanics every time they work with it; they just get to the part that interests them at the moment. But it would be a mistake to then conclude that quantum mechanics is not built on experimental evidence.

The parallels go far deeper than just that single analogy. My faith in Jesus Christ shares many similarities with my faith in science. Consider the above four senses of the word "faith", and you'll see that they are essentially how we process science as well. We first place our trust in some new hypothesis or theory, based on some experimental evidence (first sense). We then act on this belief, by making new predictions and coming up with new technological applications for the theory (second sense). Eventually, based on the many successful tests, the theory becomes scientifically established as it gains our confidence and trust, and we use it to evaluate and interpret other experiments or theories (third sense). And by repeating this process over and over, we become scientifically minded individuals (forth sense).

Wait, but can't scientific theories be wrong? Isn't "being wrong" one of the hallmarks of science? What does that say about my ideas on God? Of course I can be wrong about God. Like in the sciences, in such circumstances it's the new evidence that compels me to adjust my views. This is what it means for faith to be refined - changed for the better through more evidence, such as trials and life experiences. The Bible has multiple instances of this taking place, and it is considered something positive in every case.

So, Christianity (and science) is evidence based. The multiple meanings of the word "faith" all start from the evidence-based assent to some statement. Over the next several posts, I will discuss the Biblical evidence which clearly shows that this is how God has always worked in the Bible.


You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 2) (Next post of this series)
What is "evidence"? What counts as evidence for a certain position?
Sherlock Bayes, logical detective: a murder mystery game
Another post, from the table of contents

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2 comments on “The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 1)”

  1. There are two types of belief happening here. One is believing in a concept; the other - and usually the more important - is believing in a person. As I've just been (re)watching in "Once Upon A Time In Wonderland", the latter form of belief should exist between two people who know, trust, and love each other. If you love your daughter, you should believe in her - whether or not you believe her story.

    Do you believe that dead people can be brought back to life? Maybe, maybe not. But do you believe the Person telling you about it? Then act on that faith. I hope that, if ever something happens to me so bizarre that my past history in software development hasn't jaded my family to it, they would believe *me* and accept that I wouldn't be lying to them. That is the faith that requires no proof, not even evidence - it requires only trust.

    God wants us to believe Him, and - where possible - to have evidence to support that belief. But when we have none, we can still believe Him on the basis that He has never lied to us and never will (and never can... nor even tell us "the truth from a certain point of view", which is how some authors get around a retcon). That's faith.

  2. When you say that "we can still believe Him on the basis that He has never lied to us and never will (and never can.." is that not evidence? I hope that when your family trusts you, it's because you've been honest and faithful to them in the past, and because they understand that you have their best interests at heart. Your repeated history of trustworthiness and a strong reason for believing that you're telling the truth would count as evidence in my analysis. And all that evidence gets wrapped up in a general feeling of "trust" or "faith" and even "love", if there is enough of it.

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