Hebrews Doesn’t Say What Atheists Think It Says about Faith

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 04/26/2018

An atheist objecting to one of my blog posts on Twitter said Christianity is “opposed to objective, empirical reality.” As evidence of this, he pointed to faith, saying Christian faith is “belief without evidence”:

Is faith not belief in the conviction/evidence of things unseen, which by their nature, do not have evidence? This is what your book says, does it not?

Is that what our Book says? Here’s Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

What Are the “Things Not Seen”?

Let’s start with the “things not seen.” What “things” is this chapter referring to? The verse parallels “things not seen” with “things hoped for,” and that is our first clue to what is going on in this passage. Here are some of the examples of faith given in the chapter:

  • By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen [i.e., the coming flood], in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household. (11:7)
  • By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance [as promised by God]; and he went out [as instructed by God], not knowing where he was going [i.e., where God was taking him]. (11:8)
  • By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised [i.e., she trusted He would fulfill His promise before she could see the fulfillment]. (11:11)
  • By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus [i.e., God’s future rescue] of the sons of Israel.... (11:22)
  • By faith Moses...refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. (11:24–26)

As you can see from these examples, “faith” is trust in God—trust that He will faithfully fulfill His promises in the future, trust that “He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (which is how 11:6 defines “faith”). It’s the kind of trust that leads to visible obedience now. The “things hoped for” were not yet seen by these faithful people because those events were in the future. In other words, the use of the term “not seen” is not meant to convey the idea of a lack of evidence; it merely stresses the idea of a future fulfillment.*

Here’s the key to understanding this chapter:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having seen them and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13–16)

What we see in this passage is that the faith being defined in this chapter is faith in God to fulfill His promises. It’s choosing what God has for us in the future over what the world offers us now because we trust Him. And when we express that trust by being obedient to what He has called us to do, we make it clear to the world that we think God is better than anything else that might vie for our attention and allegiance. “God is not ashamed to be called our God” when this happens because we’ve glorified Him before the world by rightly portraying Him, through our actions, as being worthy of our trust.

Do These “Things Not Seen” Have No Evidence by Nature?

With this context in mind, is it the case, as the atheist contended, that “things not seen” “by their nature, do not have evidence”? Certainly not! We have assurance of all sorts of future events based on evidence. For example, I have assurance that the sun will rise (so to speak) tomorrow morning. This is based on the evidence of past events and my knowledge of how the solar system operates.

But here’s a closer parallel because it involves the fulfillment of a promise: I have assurance that I will receive a tax refund from the IRS in the next few weeks. As of now, the refund is “not seen”—it’s in the future—yet I have faith in (trust in, assurance of) its arrival. Why? Because the IRS has promised it to me, and I have every reason—that is, the evidence of both knowledge and past experience—to trust they will fulfill that promise.

In the same way, the people in Hebrews 11 trusted God because they had good reason to. You can read about how God revealed Himself to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 18. As a result, Abraham believed His promises. Further, God revealed His righteousness and justice to Abraham when He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and He demonstrated His faithfulness and power when He fulfilled His promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah long after it was naturally possible. God didn’t leave His people without reason to trust Him; He interacted with Abraham and his descendants after him, giving evidence of His reality, His character, and His trustworthiness.

In fact, throughout the Bible, faith (that is, trust in God) is tied to evidence, with God acting in history for the explicit purpose of giving people the knowledge they need to undergird their trust in Him. Here are two examples of this—one from the Old Testament and one from the New (for more, see Greg Koukl’s “Faith and Wishing”):

  • I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. (Exodus 9:14)
  • “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.” And he got up and went home. (Matthew 9:5–7)

The Conviction of Things Not Seen

Now let’s move to the second half of Hebrews 11:1. What does it mean when it says faith is “the conviction [or “evidence,” in some translations] of things not seen”? It could be that this is a parallel of the first half of the verse, such that it’s simply another way of saying “the assurance of things hoped for,” but I think it could be saying something more than that. Consider what Donald Guthrie says in his commentary on Hebrews:

[The] word conviction (elenchos)...basically means ‘proof, test’, which suggests that faith is seen as the proof of the reality of things not seen. [Emphasis in original.]

In what way could the kind of faith Hebrews 11 describes (see the partial list above) serve as evidence of God’s faithfulness, the future fulfillment of His promises, and the value of obedience and an eternity with God? Go back to the 11:13–16 passage I quoted earlier. It says, “For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.... [T]hey desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” In other words, when they trust God and respond to Him in obedience, though they may suffer now because of it, they make it clear they think God’s country is better than this one—that He is worth the suffering because the joy with Him in the end will be greater than any pleasure the world can give us now.

To put it simply, our confident expectation of the joyful fulfillment of all the promises we don’t yet see is a testimony to the world of God’s value and the certainty of His faithfulness.

As 11:4 says of Abel, who demonstrated his trust in God by obediently offering a sacrifice of the best of his flock (and was killed by his brother because of it), “through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” That is, Abel’s sacrificial obedience at the cost of his life still stands as a testimony to us—i.e., evidence—that death by obedience to our good God is worth it because God is worth it. Joy with Him forever is better than avoiding death or having the world’s goods and pleasures now.

We see this same idea of our ongoing trust in God acting as a testimony of God’s glory expressed in 1 Peter 1:6–7:

In this [inheritance reserved in heaven for you] you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

When we suffer because of our trust in and obedience to God, yet we persevere, we give testimony—evidence—to the world that our unity with Christ and our coming inheritance (a “thing not yet seen”) is more precious and imperishable than gold. Just as Abel’s sacrifice, Abraham’s trust in God’s promises, Moses’ obedience at the cost of his comfort, and the faithfulness of so many other believers over the centuries still speak of God’s value and trustworthiness, so the testimony of our persevering faith now will “result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

*There is one example in the Hebrews 11 list that refers to the past rather than the future (God’s act of creation, which we were not there to witness), but the same principle applies: It’s an event no one has seen. It merely looks to the past rather than to the future.