Is Ignorance Necessary to Preserve Faith?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/26/2013

Is faith in opposition to knowledge? Are Christians ignorant by definition or is there a place for reason and faith?

Materialists—people who don’t believe in God and souls and demons and angels and heaven and hell and the afterlife and all of that—believe in what you can experience with the five senses, and that is the physical realm. That’s their metaphysical view. Metaphysical views are views about what you believe is real, and a materialist believes that the only thing that is real is matter in motion. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for example, hold to this view. “Materialism” is the view that, at least methodologically, drives modern science. It’s the worldview of the “new atheists” who are very aggressive arguing that religion is irrational and dangerous.

They say you can believe in God if you want, but when it comes to doing science, you cannot make reference to agency outside of the natural realm. Materialists have a tremendous amount of confidence that science will answer all of the relevant questions, because all of the relevant questions only entail things that are physical, since only physical things exist. There’s no need, in other words, for sticking God in the so-called gap.

I think that Christians are in part responsible for the confidence that materialists have that science will fill the gap because many Christians make a consistent mistake regarding the relationship of faith and reason. The error itself is evidenced in this question that I hear variations of this all the time: “If there is so much evidence for God, then what’s the point of faith?” If our evidence for Christianity is so great that it amounts to giving us knowledge of facts that we can know for sure, then it squeezes faith right out of the equation.

Notice something very important about this perspective that many Christians hold. It puts faith in opposition to knowledge. There’s an inverse relationship between the two, such that when you increase one, you decrease the other. You increase knowledge, faith decreases because you can’t have faith in what you know. Faith is what you exercise when you don’t know. This casts faith as a kind of religious wishful thinking because wishful thinking is all that’s available to you when you don’t know something.

Knowledge is what you know so faith is reserved for ignorance. This is what some people think Paul meant when he said, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” We walk by believing—faith—not by knowing—sight. And if we know, it’s no longer faith. Knowledge, in this equation, is the enemy of faith, and Christians are told to have faith.

This view is clearly false in a moment’s reflection and examination of Scripture. The opposite of knowledge is not faith, it’s ignorance. And the opposite of faith is not knowledge, it’s unbelief.

It’s also not what the Bible teaches about faith, and this is the salient point. There are many Christians who have a view of faith that is not Biblical. In fact, it is contrary to the Bible. And this view of faith that’s contrary to the Bible ends up giving aid and comfort to materialism, theism’s primary worldview rival in our time.

The Bible teaches that faith is trusting in what you know to be true because you have reason to believe it’s true. I develop this point at length in an article entitled “Faith Is Not Wishing,” so I’m not going to pursue the details here, except to give you a couple of examples.

Jesus said in Mark 2, “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins,” because He had just said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” This annoyed people. Of course, nobody could see whether the sins were actually forgiven, so He said, “In order that you may know that I have the power to forgive sins, I say to you, take up your pallet and go home.” The act of healing was something they could see to secure the reality, the knowledge, the certainty, the fact of something they couldn’t see—forgiveness of sin. And it was this that inspired their acts of trust. They had knowledge that sin could be forgiven, and this is precisely why they were able to exercise trust.

Acts 2, Pentecost Sunday. Peter gave his message about the resurrection of Christ and the visible effects of the Spirit on their lives—the manifestations of speaking in many languages and tongues of fire that the people heard and saw. Peter said, “We’re not drunk. This is the Holy Spirit.” This is a fulfillment of prophecy, another evidence. He explains the evidence of the manifestations they could see and hear, evidence of fulfilled prophecy, and Jesus risen from the dead. “This man you crucified, God raised from the dead.” That’s another proclamation of an evidence—the empty tomb, the resurrection of Christ—and this was also prophesied. David the Psalmist spoke of it—another evidence. He gives evidence, after evidence, after evidence, and then concludes, Let all the House of Israel take a big leap of faith, because you can’t know any of this. No, of course not. He says, “Let all the House of Israel know for certain that God has caused Him to be Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you’ve crucified.” There is no leap of faith. There isn’t faith based on ignorance, but rather an act of trust that is based on knowledge, and the knowledge is based on the evidence.

The atheist looks at the misconstrued equation about faith and knowledge in exactly the same way as many mistaken Christians do. There are things you can know, and therefore there’s no need for faith. Faith is what you use when you’re ignorant.

As science and other fields of knowledge have advanced, we are ignorant about fewer things. Therefore, on this errant definition of faith, the things that we can actually exercise faith in has decreased because science has explained it. So those things that we might have, in ignorance, posited God for, have now been explained by science or will soon be explained. Science has explained so many things that seemed to need God to account for them, that there is now less need for God, on this view of faith. As a result, the God hypothesis, then, has less and less explanatory power, because the mysteries are giving way to knowledge and science.

Materialists, atheists, are buoyant. They’re exuberant. And I am completely sympathetic, at least in principle, to the atheists’ point if this is the way it is with faith and knowledge. The gaps, at least in principle, will all be filled by scientific knowledge and religion will be finally seen to be wishful thinking and superstition. That’s what we’re facing on this view of knowledge and faith as polar opposites.

On the contrary, faith is not opposite or contrary to knowledge. The expansion of knowledge by science, or by any other means, is no threat to faith and Christianity. If faith involves trusting in what we know, then the more we know, the more opportunity we have to trust. Faith and knowledge are companions that help us place our trust in God.

On the Biblical understanding of knowledge and faith, as knowledge increases, the ability to trust increases—the ability to exercise Biblical faith, which is an act of trust. The more we know about the intricate design in the universe, the reality of Jesus the Nazarene, the historical fact of the resurrection, all as well-justified true beliefs, the more we can put our trust in the God who became a man in Jesus, rose from the dead to rescue us from the debilitating and ultimately deadly disease of sin.

There’s no wishful thinking here. No leap of faith. No blind faith. Just a reasonable step of trust—trusting something we have good reason to believe is true. That’s the Biblical view. And it does not aid and abet the atheist.