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Faith and Reason: What Is the Relationship?

by Ross Olson


A few months ago I spoke to a group, made up mostly of atheists, on the topic of the existence of God, as seen in a scientific analysis of creation. One came up afterwards and said, "But there is a verse in the Bible that says 'faith is believing something that is not true.'" No, there is not such a verse, but I know which one he is misquoting and will come back to it later.

Another atheist who has corresponded with me for many years, put up a web site called, "Reason vs. Faith." In it he attempts to show how he thinks reason will eventually drive out faith and leave the world with only scientific knowledge and no room for God. Many of the thoughts I have had on the topic of faith have been refined in debate with this man and through interaction with his writings.

Words are important and therefore it is crucial that we understand them. The meanings of common words may change over time and this is especially true of the very important word "faith." What most westerners now mean by the word is very different from the use of the term in the Bible.

Webster's New World Dictionary states that faith means: "1) unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence, 2) unquestioning belief in God, religious tenets, etc., 3) a religion or system of religious beliefs, 4) anything believed, 5) complete trust, confidence or reliance, 6) allegiance to some person or thing, loyalty."

Smith's Bible Dictionary states that: "Faith is the assent of the mind to the truth of God's revealed will." And it further states that, "Saving faith is an assent to the truth of revelation and an entire trust and confidence in God's character and Christ's teachings, with an unreserved surrender of the will." That definition seems to be closest to Websterís 5). The Bible also sometimes uses the term in the sense of Webster's 3) as when Paul states, "I have kept the faith."

Note that in the secular dictionary, the first two definitions start out with the word "unquestioning." This is the sort of understanding that average Americans today have of the concept. Therefore you hear things like, "I don't know for sure, I am taking it on faith." This is very different from the Biblical concept of faith which is based on truth - it must be faith in the true God - and involves a commitment which shows itself by actions.

Faith is a very large and complex topic and since I do not have advanced degrees in Theology, I am probably foolish to attempt a summary of it. Biblical scholars who are present will need to help me if I stray. But I do have nearly 60 years of life experience, have heard thousands of sermons by pastors and hundreds of lectures by scholars and have read the Bible from cover to cover dozens of times ever since I started reading it regularly in Junior High School.

I would like to show from selected examples in the Scripture what the Bible is referring to as "faith." I will also attempt to show that this sort of faith is not a strange concept but is actually very similar to the faith we need to live an ordinary life. I will also try to understand how faith is related to answered prayer. I will try to touch on the relationship of faith to doubt. Finally, I will talk briefly about why it seems that God has made faith the key to receiving salvation, which He makes available by His grace, and why faith is essential to a lifetime walk with God.

In the New International Version of the English Bible, "Faith" is referred to about 15 times in the Old Testament and at least 165 times in the New Testament and the related word "believe" is used about 20 times in the Old Testament and about 105 times in the New. We will NOT look at them all. But the 11th Chapter of Hebrews lists many persons from the Old Testament who are commended for their faith and we can certainly learn from them.

Hebrews 11 states: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (verse 1) Here we must also examine the meaning of the word "hope" since it has also changed into a sort of "wishful thinking" from the Biblical meaning of a confidence in things that are yet to come. We speak of the "Blessed Hope" of the Lord Jesus Christ's second coming, not because it is in doubt but because it has not yet happened. This is the verse that the atheist thought proved that faith is believing something that is not true.

But the passage goes on to say: "This (faith) is what the ancients were commended for." (verse 2) Then it gives the first example. "By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." (Verse 3) What does this mean?

We were not present at the creation of the Universe and do not have direct knowledge of what happened. But that does not mean there is no reason to believe that God did it. The Universe is running down and must have had a beginning. It is very intricately designed, from the basic laws of physics to the incredible complexity of the human brain. Whether a person looks at the beauty and exclaims, "There must be a God!" or whether that person has to sit down and calculate the probability of these things happening by chance, the conclusion of the honest seeker is that nature does not explain itself. So when in the Bible it says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," it is a step of faith to believe it, but not a leap in the dark.

Let us skip down to verse 7 "By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith." Noah was told by God that he must build an ark to save his family and pairs of all land animals from a great flood. First of all, it does not tell us if he had ever heard from God that way before, but it does say that Noah was a righteous man and walked with God. He had experience with God and there does not appear to be any doubt in his mind that it is really God speaking (unlike a comedy routine done by Bill Cosby several years ago.) And even though Noah's friends and neighbors probably ridiculed him and questioned his sanity, he went on to work for about 100 years building this great vessel, probably hundreds of miles from the ocean and in a land that had never seen rain. It was a rational decision but required faith in God to believe and act on that belief.

Another dramatic example comes in verses 17-19, where it says, "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death."

Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 when God promised them a son in their old age, and that through this son they would become the parents of a great nation. They had seen the first part of that promise fulfilled. They also had received the promise of a new land as their inheritance, but had not totally possessed it. Then, this God, Whom they knew, asked Abraham to take the son of promise and sacrifice him to the Lord. It tells us that Abraham obeyed in faith that God would still be able to fulfill the promise, perhaps by raising Isaac from the dead. As it turned out, once God knew that Abraham would obey and that he loved God more than he loved his son, an angel stopped Abraham from carrying out the act. It was a test of his faith and looked forward to the sacrifice of God's Son that would take place 18 centuries later.

In verses 23-29 we read, "By faith Moses' parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned."

Moses' parents risked their own lives to save Moses from the Pharaoh's edict to kill all baby boys, and then when he could be hid no longer, they put him in a basket to float on the Nile River where he was eventually picked up by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised as a prince. But when he was grown, learning of his origin, he turned his back on personal safety and accepted the fate of his people. His biggest test was being asked to be the leader because he felt inadequate. But when he tried to decline, God showed him supernatural signs that convinced him of God's power and were forerunners of the great miracles God would later do through his hand. It took faith to stand before the great Pharaoh and call for the release of the captives and declare that God would bring plagues on the whole land, but he had seen evidence to prepare him for that moment. And each time, God strengthened his faith, allowing him to be in tight spots but then showing him the way out. This is what happened when God parted the Red Sea and the Israelites walked through on dry ground.

But faith is not just a concept for religious situations. It is actually something we use everyday. We learn faith as infants when our parents leave us alone and we cry, thinking that they may never come back. But they do return and we learn to trust, even if the time of absence becomes longer. We need this trust to be able to leave their presence to explore our little world and we need faith to take bitter medicine when our parents tell us it will help. We have faith that the Dentist's painful drilling on our teeth is for our good because our parents or others we trust have given him their endorsement.

If you ever ate food that you did not grow yourself and even food that has momentarily been out of your personal supervision, you did so in the faith that it was not poisoned. Your faith is bolstered by the track record of the food companies, that they do not (at least deliberately) poison people, and certainly not with quickly lethal agents, and your faith is built on trust of the person who prepares food in your home. This is not blind faith, and if your room mate happens to be a convicted homicidal maniac, you would not be expected to have a great deal of faith in him or her. Likewise, if you have never been to Afghanistan, you take it on faith that the place really exists. Now, of course, you have multiple avenues of confirmation, but ultimately, you have to decide whether to trust them or not. That is no different from the faith I have in the existence and nature of God. The evidence is so strong that I could not walk away from it. And as I have walked with God, the evidence continues to pile up even higher.

Throughout the New Testament, there are examples of people being healed by Jesus and told that it is because of their faith. For example, in Matthew 9: 20-22 it says, "Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, 'If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.' Jesus turned and saw her. 'Take heart, daughter,' he said, 'your faith has healed you.' And the woman was healed from that moment." Then in verses 27-30 it continues, "As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, 'Have mercy on us, Son of David!' When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, 'Do you believe that I am able to do this?' 'Yes, Lord,' they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, 'According to your faith will it be done to you'; and their sight was restored."

Those who have a non-Biblical understanding of faith sometimes talk about it as being just the power of positive thinking. They point out that when we have faith in ourselves, we can achieve more than when we doubt our ability. Thus a jumper with positive thinking can jump higher than he otherwise might. But there is a limit. I could not jump over a two meter bar no matter how positively I thought.

In these Biblical healings, the crucial factor was that the faith was in Jesus. These people knew something about Jesus and probably had seen Him heal others. They did not just come up to any person on the street expecting to be healed. That would be insanity. But they knew enough to expect that Jesus could do it, even though they could not be sure in advance that He would do it for THEM. They had to take action and risk failure or embarrassment to touch Him or ask Him for healing.

A dramatic example comes from the Old Testament where Elijah and the prophets of Baal had a contest on mount Carmel. You can read about it in 1 Kings 18. Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to call down fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifice on the altar. They were very sincere, but they were praying to the wrong god and after a long time, they gave up. Elijah then prayed to the true God and fire came down, burned the sacrifice, and even the stones and the water Elijah had poured around it to make the miracle harder. Then even the people watching had faith and worshiped the true God. The prophets of Baal were all killed. The popular phrase which states, "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe something," is completely wrong.

A separate question is whether, if we have enough faith, God must always heal us. That is a large topic but even though we are told to pray in faith, we must remember that we are finite and ignorant while God is infinitely wise. We are not in charge of the Universe, He is. We must ultimately bow to His will. The great Apostle Paul prayed three times to be relieved of an affliction he called a "thorn in the flesh." God did not heal him but told him, "My grace is sufficient for you." Paul understood that this was actually a blessing to keep him from pride because of the great things God had done through him.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 says, "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Why has God made faith the key to receiving salvation? First, remember that it is not our faith that saves us but God's grace. If God had not loved us, sent Jesus Christ to take the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross and then rise again to take authority over death, we would be doomed to an eternity without Him. Yet He has chosen to make this salvation available to us if we receive it by faith. Ephesians 2: 8-9 puts it this way, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." Even the faith to believe is a gift from God. That principle may also be the key to the verse that states, "If you have faith, nothing will be impossible," (Matthew 17:20) if it means that the faith has to ultimately come from God.

Yet we are indeed given the power of decision. God does not force Himself on us. And he has chosen a way that does not depend on intelligence. Some who come to Him are very simple and only vaguely understand that God is there and loves us and that we are sinners in need of salvation. Some are brilliant scholars who have mastered the learning of the ages. It takes faith for either one to humbly bow, pray to God and trust that He will respond to them. But it is not a blind faith. The whole universe cries out that it has been created. Scripture has the ring of truth and explains the human condition. If we dig into the archeological and historical evidence, we find the Biblical record passes the test. But we cannot know for sure what the future holds. We must have faith that since the Scripture has been trustworthy in things we can confirm, we can believe what it says about the way we should live and concerning life after death.

Yet there can always be some doubt, just as we can always question whether we are awake or dreaming. But when we put together all the evidence, we must make a decision to go in one direction or the other. Either we accept or reject what we have learned to be true and commit our future to one of two roads. Either the way of Christ is correct or it is wrong. There is a cost to either choice. If Christ is the only way and we reject Him, we may or may not have worldly success, but we then have the prospect of eternal suffering. If we accept Christ's way and it is wrong, then we may suffer persecution here on earth and reap no reward for it. But If Christ is the way and we trust Him, then our lives have real meaning because they are lived as part of His great kingdom work and we will be rewarded in His presence for all eternity.

To doubt is not the opposite of faith, for we must be sure that we are believing the truth. Rather it is unbelief, the active rejection of what God has shown, and the suppression of truth, that angers God, as it clearly states in Romans 1: 18-22 "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools...."

But sometimes, after we have been given enough evidence to believe and still resist, healthy doubt has turned into resistance. Moses was given supernatural experiences in Exodus 5 that should have proved to him that God was really with him. His rod was turned into a snake and then back to a rod. His hand became afflicted with leprosy and then whole again. But after all this, he still questioned God's choosing him as a leader by claiming that he could not speak properly. Then God became angry. God still used Moses, but made his brother Aaron the spokesman, and indeed it was not ideal because Aaron later allowed the people to go astray by making the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain.

God has chosen to use a requirement which is necessary for following him our whole life and made it part of the first baby step we make towards Him. It is then necessary for every step of our life, because to follow Him may seem unwise in many ways. It may endanger our career. It may make us the laughingstock of our peer group. It may put our lives in danger. But once God has shown us enough to convince us that He can be trusted, then we can walk on in faith. Romans 1:17 says it this way, "The righteous will live by faith." To live righteously may not seem like the wise thing in the world's eyes, but if we walk by faith, we will come through the darkness and out on the other side guided by our Lord Jesus Christ and then we will see clearly what we only saw dimly and will praise Him both for His grace and the faith He gave us to trust Him through life.

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