“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This verse has been dancing around my head recently because of a conversation my daughter and I had after a faith preacher came to town to offer healing to whomever wanted to come forward for their miracle.
The Word of Faith brand of Christianity is quite popular in Mongolia. If you are a preacher who claims to heal or do miracles you’ll find an easy audience here. Word of Faith theology is a form of heresy, that is, it is predicated upon ideas foreign to the Bible so that the biblical text is reinterpreted apart from its historical intent to bring meaning to the scriptures that distract from its central themes. Word of Faith theology is part of the Charismatic wing of evangelicalism. Not all charismatics are Word of Faith oriented, though Word of Faith ideas do have a significant influence on the charismatic movement today. Some have described Word of Faith theology as charismatic Christianity turned into charismania.
I got to thinking about these things again because of the predilection by Word of Faith preachers (I scarce call them teachers) to claim that miracles and healing can come to you “if you only believe.”
I bring this up to preface my main subject this week: Faith. You may have heard the old saying that, “Faith doesn’t require evidence.” Some well-meaning Christians have said this taking Hebrews 11:1 to heart, from older, less accurate translations that read: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (1769 KJV). That little phrase, “Evidence of things not seen,” is problematic for two reasons.
- The translation is not accurate to the original text, and
- “Faith” is not “evidence,” in the modern sense of the word
That last point is simple common sense. Faith, as Hebrews 11:1 says in the ESV is, “conviction.” We can take a liberty with the KJV translator’s words and phrase things like this: “If faith is assurance, and faith is evidence, then all faith is evidence of assurance.” The writer of Hebrews was not saying that faith is substantively the same as evidence (conviction), or that faith is some mystical belief in that which has no evidence. He is simply saying that faith is the action borne out of assurance and conviction of a previously evidenced truth. This means that a person is convinced that something is true and then takes action based upon that belief. Thus, “faith is evidence,” or as in the preferred ESV and NASB translations, “faith is conviction.”
Unlike most religious systems, Christianity does not teach a philosophy per say. Christianity is the expression of personal faith in and obedience to the historical living person of Jesus Christ. “Faith in Christ” as we say, is predicated first upon various evidences that claims Jesus made about himself are accurate and completely truthful. Those “evidences” convince (or convict) us that Jesus is whom he claimed. In other words, “evidence” precedes “faith.” In fact in every story in the scripture whether a small exercise of faith, or a risky exercise of faith is required by a person, evidence that that faith is well placed is ALWAYS provided before the exercise of faith is required. As one example: Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham obeyed God, trusting God’s intentions because he already had a past track record to indicate that God was also trustable in this new, and yes, extreme command. Even when God approached Abraham for the first time and told him to move to the Promised Land (Genesis 12:1-4), Abraham was able to trust God because God had already revealed himself to him as a real and living God, unlike the so-called gods of the cultures around him. The “evidence” of God’s existence was revealed first, then Abraham put his faith in God and obeyed his command.
Hebrews 11 is that famous “faith chapter” of the Bible that recounts the exploits and suffering of great men of God who put their faith and trust in God not because they were to simply believe without evidence for belief, but because God had already provided evidence which lead these men to believe and trust God—even in the midst of great suffering.
The deaths of the Apostles and early disciples who witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus also offers strong circumstantial evidence. Nearly every one of these men died horrible, painful, and in some cases prolonged deaths of great suffering—yet not a one recanted that what or who they were dying for was a fraud or mistake. Men don’t die for that which they are convinced is a lie. Those men died for something they believed was true, because they witnessed the risen Jesus first hand.
The idea of what faith really is, is important for the Christian to understand. Nowhere in the Bible does God ever instruct us to trust him or have faith without evidence that he is trustworthy. Evidence always precedes faith. Compare this with other religious systems where the adherent is required to believe something without any evidence in the real world that what they are enjoined to believe is factual, accurate, or even real. A perfect example of this is the Buddhist concept of rebirth.
There has never been any real world evidence to support the idea that people experience multiple lives. Some adherents cling to philosophical teachings, claims by so-called masters, and even dreams or visions to try to give their belief some measure of personal substance. But none of these are evidences for the rebirth position. They are only unsubstantiated claims. A claim for a philosophical or religious belief is not evidence. Though available cumulative evidence leads to an inescapable conclusion that rebirth is a fiction, yet millions of people cling to the belief. They “have faith” without solid, verifiable, real world historical evidence that rebirth is a reality. In their case the principles of Hebrews 11:1 also apply. They have “assurance,” and “conviction” of things they “hope for” that are “unseen.” Yet tragically their assurance, conviction, and hope are placed in an unseen that is unseen because it also happens to be unreal.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is remarkably different. The resurrection was written about by eyewitnesses who personally saw the risen Christ and who accepted the testimony of up to 500 who saw the Lord Jesus at the same time. Remarkably, the resurrection of Jesus was attested to by him for three years in advance, and written about more than 600 years in advance by the prophet Isaiah, and about 1,000 years prior by King David.
Central to the concept of faith in the scriptures is that when we place our faith in what God will do, our faith is to be placed with the understanding that God will only act on our faith to do that which is in agreement with his character. Jesus and the Apostles performed many miracles, and many people were healed, but virtually every example is used as a testimony about the identity of the Lord Jesus and/or the authority of the Apostles. Healing and miracles for the sake of healing and miracles are not in God’s character because it is not in God’s character to flaunt his power or use it without creative or redemptive purpose.
I had an interesting discussion with a pastor friend of mine last year and asked him, “When you heal people, what percentage of those people end up putting their faith in Christ?” His answer was revealing.
“If you’re speaking of non-believers, some do and some don’t. The greater percentage of them don’t. It’s just like the ten lepers who came to Jesus for healing, but only one returned to follow him” (great point, by the way).
“So you wouldn’t say that a healing or miracle ministry is a great way to do evangelism?” I asked. He agreed, but added, “Jesus did more miracles than were able to be recorded, and He did them because He loved the people He healed. But, He knew, and I know, there is no guarantee they will love God in return.” Interestingly my friend is a charismatic preacher, but is NOT a Word of Faith guy. He in fact is a hardened opponent of the Word of Faith heresy.
Lots of people make a big show out of proclaiming God’s power while claiming they have it, or claiming that you have it (funny how you only have it when you attend their services). But their claims are not backed up with evidence that the faith they demand is wisely affixed in reality, or in the long track record of God’s already established character. They want you to exercise faith in faith all the while calling it faith in God. The object of faith becomes our own faith (thus, ourselves) instead of God, and therefore genuine miracles rarely, very rarely happen. In this sense they are no better than the one who encourages a belief in rebirth (that never happens) which denies not only the reality of the Lord Jesus, but of reality in general. How interesting that so many adherents of one form of unreality (rebirth) eagerly flock to embrace the animistic expressions of another unreality (the Barnum and Bailey Miracle and Healing Circus).
Whatever your particular brand of faith, examine it and ask yourself, “Is my faith supported by real world evidence and God’s previously revealed character?” If you can’t find real world evidence for what you are putting your faith in, or by faith hoping for, then perhaps you’ve put your faith in something that doesn’t or cannot exist. A turn to reality would be in order.