No, Mr Dawkins, faith is not belief without evidence.
by Michael J. Penfold
Faith is anathema to outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, who scornfully describes it as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”.1 Without evidence, faith is silly; with evidence, faith is superfluous. Game, set and match to atheism?
Not so fast.
When Christ appeared alive in a room in Jerusalem, two weeks after his resurrection, he faced skepticism from ‘doubting Thomas’, a disciple who had made clear he wasn’t about to believe in any kind of miraculous resurrection without evidence. However, when invited to reach out and touch Jesus’s crucifixion wounds, Thomas, overwhelmed by the convincing evidence before him, exclaimed “My Lord and my God”. Christ responded, “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Ah, you say, Dawkins’s point exactly: Christianity teaches that you are blessed if you believe without evidence. Not if you examine the context of Jesus’s words. In commending “believing without seeing”, the Lord was not promoting “believing without evidence”. In the very next verse of the Bible, the author – the apostle John – states that Jesus’s various miracles were included in his Gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20.27-31). Did you catch that? The Bible includes evidence to convince us that Jesus is who he claimed to be. Indeed, Jesus Christ Himself, in defending his claim to equality with God in John Ch 5, included his miracles as one of a number of corroborating evidences.
So, why call people “blessed” for believing without seeing? Because Christ was referring to those who in later centuries, though never having seen Christ physically post-resurrection, would believe in him on the sole basis of the written eye-witness record in the Gospels. They will believe without seeing Christ with their own eyes; but not without reading the historical evidence recorded in the Bible. Such a faith excels!
But if Thomas believed on the basis of physical evidence, and others in later centuries on written evidence, why the need for faith? Because the kind of faith we are talking about isn’t just mental assent to this or that claim. The physical evidence Thomas saw didn’t cause him simply to believe in the resurrection, it convinced him to believe in Christ; to actually worship Jesus as his Lord. His believing was wholehearted saving trust in the risen Son of God.
It is possible, of course, to believe in the resurrection – in the sense of holding it to be historically true – without becoming a committed believer in Christ. The evidences for the resurrection are clear enough: Jesus’s empty Jerusalem tomb; the historical record of the resurrection both in Scripture and in other ancient history books; the transformation of Christ’s early disciples from run-away cowards to bold missionaries and martyrs; and the resurrection-inspired explosion of Christianity in the Christian-persecuting Roman Empire. But whether it is belief in the sense of “holding something to be historically true” (belief about), or in the sense of “total commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour” (belief in), in neither case is it belief without evidence.
But what about the kind of everyday ‘blind’ faith that believers talk about when they say things like, “I don’t understand what God is doing, but I just have to have faith”. Surely that kind of faith fits Dawkins’s description of “belief without evidence”?
Possibly the Bible’s most extreme case of personal faith was Abraham’s response to God’s promise that his very old childless wife Sarah would conceive and give birth to a son. God gave nothing to Abraham by way of the miraculous to help him believe, yet the Bible says, “Abraham staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God…being fully persuaded that, what God had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom 4.20-21). Abraham believed God in the teeth of biology, logic and the dismissive laughter of his incredulous wife, Sarah. How can such a faith be defended, or commended as good? Simply because, though Abraham had nothing to cling to by way of physical scientific proof, he did have the unshakable promise of a God who cannot lie.
Suppose a father tells his daughter, “I’ve put £500 into your bank account”, but she refuses to believe him until she checks her banking app. What is she doing? She is calling her father’s word into question. Of course, she may have good reason to do so. He may be a habitual liar, or it may be April 1st. But if the trustworthy God of the Bible gives you a promise, you can believe it unreservedly.
So, though Abraham believed without physical evidence, He didn’t believe without warrant. He had reason to believe the unreasonable. He had God’s word. His faith was neither silly nor superfluous: it was reasonable and necessary. Reasonable because it rested on the promise of God; necessary because of the human impossibility of its fulfillment. In one glorious moment of trust, Abraham ventured everything on the word of the Almighty and took a giant leap into the light, in total defiance of accepted logic and reason. How was he able to do that? Because faith, at its most basic, is naked confidence in the trustworthiness of God, whose word is the surest evidence in the Universe.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.
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1. Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1989), p. 198.