“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” – this should be familiar to most readers by now, it’s from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, so it’s about the most authoritative definition of faith in the Christian context that you’re ever going to get.
But what does Paul mean, what is he referring to? We know that the bible was written for lay people because Jesus’ message was supposedly intended for even the most lowly of humans; therefore we have to take it at face value. It is in fact quite an astute observation, because it provides a link from the day-to-day world into the supposedly unseen, ethereal, spiritual if you will, realms that we cannot perceive with our regular senses or instruments.
But more than this, Paul claims an almost causal link between what occurs in those realms and this physical one, because he says that faith, presumably as exhibited by a christian, is inextricably tied to those other-worldly events. What’s the evidence for them? It’s the faith of the disciple. What’s the evidence for scriptural truth? It’s the faith of the disciple. What’s the evidence for God? It’s the faith of the disciple. Just as a thermometer tells us the temperature within an oven, so the faith of that disciple tells us that the content of that faith is true.
But here’s the rub… he also says that faith is the substance of things “hoped for”. So really, he has simply swapped a synonym in for the word “faith”, meaning that faith is what results when one truly hopes for a particular circumstance. In doing this, he requires us to understand the meaning of the word “hope”.
The two top dictionary definitions for “hope” are “a feeling of desire for something and confidence in the possibility of its fulfillment”, and “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best”. So hope is a feeling. It may be a gut feeling, it may a joyful feeling, but it’s a feeling.
Dictionary synonyms for hope are “achievement”, “ambition”, “anticipation”, “aspiration”, “belief”, “concern”, “confidence”, “desire”, “expectation”, “faith” and “goal”. The thesaurus offers “to long for” and “to dream about” as equivalents to the verb “hope”.
So Paul is talking about faith being the worldly manifestation of what a disciple dreams about, longs for, desires, expects, anticipates and wants to achieve. This is also almost a word-for-word definition of the word “wish” – and this is where critical non-believers take issue with christians promoting their ideas in the world, simply because they try to assert their values, which are all based by Paul’s definition, on wishes and feelings about what may or not be happening in the unseen world, the ethereal, the invisible arena of hope.
When a christian group lobbies to have parts of the country’s constitution lifted for them to practise their faith, they are asking the rest of the country to compromise simply for what they are wishing for. When a major world church bans contraception, it’s based on their wishes and feelings about the unseen world – specifically their wish and feeling that contraception should be regarded as immoral. When evangelists preach against homosexuality, it’s based on their personal wishes and feelings that same-sex love should be outlawed. When they advocate and predict end times and war in the Middle East, it’s based on their FEELINGS and WISHES for an end to the world as we know it and their FEELINGS and WISHES for some unseen, undetectable power to take over the earth. Just because they feel and want that it should be so. However much they claim that a law is against the moral authority of God – yes, you’re getting it now - it’s based on their personal feelings and wishes.
And Paul’s description has a further element. Because faith is the substance or evidence of things wished for, it means that any believer can claim that something is true just because he has faith that it is so. This truly is fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden stuff. Imagine if we all did that – stalkers would use it as an unopposable chat-up line (“I know you love me, I have faith that you do”); bankers would have clients disputing their bank statements based on faith (“I know the statement says the account’s empty, but it actually has a million dollars in it, now pay it to me”); estate agents would sell houses over the phone, saying that the buyer must have faith that the property description is true (“No, ‘close to major routes’ doesn’t mean under the overhead freeway”). What a pickle we’d be in.
So whenever someone you meet responds to a question with “Well, I’m a christian, and so…” or “As a muslim…”, or “The Book of Mormon teaches…” I suggest you be VERY careful about what follows. Remember – whatever they say, and however much they claim that it’s according to the authority of God, it’s all based on their inner desires and wishes – just because they want and feel that it should be so.
And it should go without saying – claiming faith as a defence against a reasoned argument is the same as just wishing the argument not to be true. It’s not a defence or a rebuttal, it’s a childish ploy to get out of trouble in a debate. And believers regularly assert this, expecting non-believers simply to accept it. If wishes were fishes, Jesus would be Cod!
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