The Confident Christian
6/14/12 at 04:55 PM 36 Comments

Challenging Atheism’s Definition of Faith

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I have what may seem like a startling confession to make as a Christian: I appreciate the writings and thoughts of Frederick Nietzsche.

For those unfamiliar with him, Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher who was a vehement critic of religion in general and Christianity in particular. A reading of his work “The Antichrist”, which can be found online[1], will clearly demonstrate what I mean.

But I admire Nietzsche for one thing: being an honest atheist. So many atheists want to live with one foot in the Christian worldview and one foot out. Not Nietzsche. He took his medicine like a man and followed the atheistic worldview to its logical conclusions. Then he went crazy.

When it came to the subject of faith, Nietzsche wasn’t shy about what he thought:

"Whoever has theological blood in his veins is shifty and dishonourable in all things. The pathetic thing that grows out of this condition is called faith."[2]

"Truth and faith: here we have two wholly distinct worlds of ideas, almost two diametrically opposite worlds—the road to the one and the road to the other lie miles apart."[3]

"But when faith is thus exalted above everything else, it necessarily follows that reason, knowledge and patient inquiry have to be discredited: the road to the truth becomes a forbidden road."[4]

"'Faith’ means the will to avoid knowing what is true."[5]

I would speculate that 99.9% of all skeptics and atheists would nod in agreement with Nietzsche’s assertions of faith. But they’re all wrong where the Christian definition of the word is concerned. Let’s take a look at what real Biblical faith is and see if we can’t redeem the word from the faulty image that’s painted by today’s unbelieving culture.

Why Believe Anything at All?

A number of years ago, James Sire wrote an excellent book and held a series of seminars on college campuses that were both entitled: “Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?”[6]

That’s a very good question, don’t you think?

I believe I have a good answer to the question. The reason to believe something – the only reason to believe something – is because that ‘something’ is true.

If atheism is true, then we all need to be atheists. If Muhammad truly is God’s last prophet and the Qur’an represents the true word of God then we all need to be Muslims. And if Christ really did rise from the dead and His words were accurately recorded by the New Testament writers then we all need to be Christians.

The writers of Scripture who talked a lot about faith understood this all too well. They realized that truth matters where belief is concerned because consequences exist for being wrong. For example, the Apostle Paul, in his famous defense of Christ’s resurrection recorded in 1 Corinthians 15, said: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:16-19, emphasis added).

Notice three key things in Paul’s statement. First, he understood that if Jesus wasn’t resurrected, Christianity is “worthless”, which in the Greek literally means “lacking truth”.

Second, Paul shows that consequences exist for Christians if Christ wasn’t resurrected; above everyone else, we are “most to be pitied”. Lastly, Paul provides the primary way to prove Christianity untrue: produce the body of that Jewish carpenter. In other words, Paul showcases the fact that Christianity is founded upon truth claims can be falsified if contrary evidence is presented that shows those claims to be incorrect.

So how does all this factor into the Biblical concept of faith?

The Biblical Meaning of Faith 

Skeptics are fond of saying that faith is the absence of evidence, but from a Biblical perspective, truth, evidence, reason, and faith all go hand in hand. But wait – how can that be? Why do you have to have faith when you have evidence and reasonable arguments supporting your position? The answer comes by first understanding how the Bible defines faith and secondly by understanding a key distinction in how faith is used in Scripture.

In the Greek language there are a number of words that could have been used to convey the meaning of faith. The Hellenistic and classical Greeks used the term “nomizo” to describe faith in their gods. The word basically means “I believe” only because something was passed along by tradition (e.g. by parents, etc.) In other words, there is no real foundation to the belief.

That word is never used in the Greek New Testament to speak of faith.

Instead, the term “pistis” is used in Scripture. It is a noun that comes from the verb “peitho”, which means “to be persuaded”. If you check the best lexicon (BDAG) for the meaning of “pistis”, you’ll find the following:

  • State of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted
  • Trust, confidence
  • That which evokes trust
  • Reliability, fidelity
  • Pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust

The atheistic concept of blind faith or faith without any reason/evidence is foreign to the New Testament, which is why the book of Acts constantly says Paul “reasoned” with his audiences. In fact, the writer of Hebrews specifically says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, KJV). Do you see that? “Substance”, which is literally defined as “actual being” and “reality” in the Greek. And there’s the word “evidence” as plain as day.

“Wait”, says the atheist, “See – it says ‘evidence of things not seen’! That’s not real evidence!”

Not so fast. Such a claim fails to make an important distinction in how the word faith is used in Scripture. There is a huge difference between faith that and faith in.

For example, if I say I have faith in my wife, what is it that you hear me saying? Do you think I’m saying “I believe there is an ontological being living with me who is my spouse”? Of course not. Instead, you understand me to say, “I trust my wife. I have complete confidence in her and believe what she tells me and what she’s promised me.” You’ll also understand that I likely have good reasons to trust her that you can’t put under a microscope; in other words, I have “evidence of things not seen”.

Now, I won’t have faith in my wife unless (1) I know she’s real and I’ve experienced her, (2) She’s given me good grounds to trust her. Such things bring not uncertainty, but solid faith. On this truth, Thomas Aquinas said: “Faith signifies the assent of the intellect to that which is believed. . . . Now if this be accompanied by doubt and fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion; while, if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith.”[7]

Without question, where faith is discussed in Scripture, it mostly relates to faith ‘in’, which is why in various interlinear Greek/English New Testaments you’ll see it listed in the text as the word ‘trust’ and not ‘faith’. But you do occasionally see both types of faith mentioned in the Bible such as in Hebrews when the writer says, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is [there’s faith ‘that’] and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him [and there’s faith ‘in’]" (Heb. 11:6).

Christians have nothing to fear from good science and philosophy where the ‘that’ side of faith in God is concerned. True science and philosophy walk in unison together towards a personal Eternality from which everything came. Our faith is in response to a God who is real and true; not one who is imagined, but rather as Francis Schaeffer said: a God who is there.[8] And the more you understand how real God is, and how true He is to His character and His word, the more you will trust Him. But the less convinced you are, the less you will trust Him. In other words, the weaker your faith ‘in’ will be.

The Will to Believe the Truth

Remember Nietzsche’s last definition of faith – “the will to avoid knowing what is true”? He didn’t know it, but he actually penned the definition of the faith held by hardened unbelief.

You see, evidence is not enough to make someone a Christian. Atheists will talk themselves hoarse about needing evidence, and how it’s because there’s not enough evidence for God that they won’t believe.

I beg to differ. The fact is people act contrary to evidence all the time. The problem is not evidence, but something else.

For example, people know all the evidence about smoking, excessive alcohol use, poor eating habits, ignoring exercise, and such. And yet, many people die of lung cancer, liver failure, struggle with obesity, and suffer the effects from being out of shape. And still they persist in their lifestyles. Why? Lack of evidence? Lack of information?

Not at all.

Conservative columnist Irving Kristol put the problem like this: “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mysterious as the obvious.”

The faith issue is a matter of the will, not so much a matter of the mind. This is why you will see Jesus over and over again not address an intellectual deficiency in His detractors, but instead His rebuke to them was: “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts?”(Mark 2:8, emphasis added), which is how the Bible refers to the seat of the will. Faith is a gift from God (cf. Eph. 2:8-9) and until it’s given, the only thing anyone does in response to God is turn away.

Like I said in the beginning, I appreciate Nietzsche’s writings because he’s an honest atheist. And what did this honest atheist admit to when it came down to why he really chose to discard Christianity?

"It is our preference that decides against Christianity, not arguments."[9]

Again, give the man an “A” for honesty.

[7] Thomas Aquinas. On Faith and Reason. Stephen F. Brown, general editor. (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1999, pg. 48.)

[9]  H. Lubac. Drama of Atheist Humanism (Ft. Collins: CO: Ignatius Press, 1995), 49.

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