Faith in Hebrews 11:1

Here is one of the Bible’s “greatest hits” for non-Christians trying to show that it is absurd to believe it,

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

For people who insist on arguing that faith is simply belief without or even against evidence, this is their go-to verse to show that the Bible teaches this very thing (of course, many Christians also buy that definition and use this verse to prove it as well). However, I will argue that this verse does not teach blind faith.  As is the case with most verses of the Bible, you can’t just take a single verse, pull it out of its context, and expect to interpret it correctly. Let’s examine this verse.

First, I want to examine the verse by itself. What about this verse makes someone say that it teaches blind faith? It isn’t clear to me. First, the verse says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for. . .” Is THIS the part that teaches blind faith? How? People can have a hope in some thing or some event happening because they have good reason to believe that it’ll happen. Second, the verse says “the conviction of things not seen. . .” Is THIS the part that teaches blind faith? This is probably the part that gives people this idea, since it clearly says “not seen,” but that is still not convincing. The fact that you have a conviction of something that you can’t see doesn’t mean that you have no reason or evidence to believe it. For example, cosmologists cannot see many of the planets that they postulate in different solar systems, but that doesn’t mean that they have no evidence that they are there. They are meant to explain the movements of certain celestial bodies. Also, many philosophers out there believe that numbers and propositions exist as abstract objects, or that there are moral facts which aren’t physical. They certainly can’t see these things, but that doesn’t mean that they have no reason to believe them. They believe them because they do think that there are good reasons to believe them.

So it is not obvious that this verse, taken by itself, is teaching that faith is blind, without reason, against the evidence, etc., since “assurance of things hoped for” and “conviction of things not seen” do not imply belief in something without reason or evidence. Now I want to go into the textual context to argue that Hebrews 11:1 isn’t saying that faith is blind.

What follows Hebrews 11:1 is the famous “Hall of Faith”, where the author speaks of the great faith of past Biblical figures and what they accomplished through it.  Many of these people, including Noah, Abraham, Rahab, Moses, David, Gideon, etc., had many reasons for believing in God.  God manifested himself to them many times, fulfilled his promises to them, and displayed his power to them.  If Hebrews 11:1 teaches that faith is blind, then these people should not be considered examples of great faith.  Take Gideon,

Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judges 6:36-40 ESV)

Gideon was an ancient skeptic!  He asked for evidence that God was with him, and God gave it to him.  If Hebrews 11:1 is teaching that faith is blind belief in something without evidence, then Gideon should not even be mentioned later on in the chapter.  Here is the argument in a syllogism,

1) If the author of Hebrews teaches that faith is blind, then he would not consider people like Moses, David, or Gideon examples of great faith.

2) The author of Hebrews considers people like Moses, David, and Gideon examples of great faith.

3) Therefore, the author of Hebrews does not teach that faith is blind.

So it seems that Hebrews 11:1 does not support the thesis that the Bible teaches that faith is blind.  First, the verse taken by itself does not at all imply that.  Second, people who were considered great in faith later on in the chapter had a lot of evidence and reasons to believe in God and trust in him.  They should not have been included in the list if Hebrews 11:1 was talking about blind faith.

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One Response to Faith in Hebrews 11:1

  1. Pingback: A History of Defining Faith | Into the Harvest

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