“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)
Before we take a deep dive into the meaning of Hebrews 11:1, there are two passages we should look at that push back against the idea of blind faith. The first is found in Matthew 15:14 in which Jesus refers to some of the Pharisees as “blind guides.” “If the blind lead the blind,” he says, “both will fall into a pit.” His warning seems to be relatively straightforward. Blindly following religious ideas or authorities should be avoided at all costs since the results can be quite dangerous.
Another text worth considering is Acts 17:11 in which Luke tells us that the Jews of Berea “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” So, why were these particular Jews commended above others? According to this verse, it was due to the fact that they did not immediately believe Paul, or blindly follow his teaching (even though he claimed to be an Apostle). Instead, they chose to examine his claims carefully, comparing them with the Scriptures to see whether Jesus really had fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies and promises related to Israel’s coming Messiah.
It is interesting to note that in his book, The Proof of the Gospel, the fourth-century bishop Eusebius complained that the Christians of his day were often caricatured by their opponents as “irrational animals” who “shut their eyes and staunchly obey what we say without examining it at all.”1 But as we just saw above, this is a complete misrepresentation since it goes against the clear teachings of both Jesus and Paul. According to Eusebius, “[Our opponents often slander us] with the accusation that we are unable to present a clear demonstration of the truth we hold, and think it enough to retain those who come to us by faith alone.”2 Thus, in his view, faith was not seen as a kind of blind irrational leap, but was a deep and abiding confidence that rests upon certain demonstrable truths.
So, what truths in particular did Eusebius have in mind? Well, in that same passage, he argued that, “Because of the extraordinary foreknowledge shown in the prophetic writers, and of the actual events that occurred in agreement with their prophecies [both Jews and Gentiles should be convinced] of the inspired and certain nature of the truth we hold.”3 In other words, he believed that the study of Jesus’ fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies provides compelling evidence that has the power to convince all men of the truth of Christianity. In fact, at one point he specifically says that Christianity is established “on the basis of the[se] antecedent prophecies.”4 In my reading of both the New Testament and early Christian literature, this appears to be one of the primary apologetic arguments of the earliest period of church history. For example, in the sermons we find throughout the book of Acts, we find the apostles repeatedly appealing to Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.5
As I have mentioned on numerous episodes of The Humble Skeptic podcast, last year I polled close to a hundred Christians at a variety of events and gatherings, asking them questions related to “faith.” When I specifically asked about the meaning of this word, the overwhelming majority of those I surveyed responded by saying that it is a blind leap, since faith is not something that can be proved.6 But if faith is blind, then why should a leap toward the God of the Bible be favored over other possible faith options? When I asked believers this follow-up question, most ended up appealing to their own subjective feelings, intuitions, and experiences.7
Many of those who claimed that faith is blind ended up citing Hebrews 11:1 (frequently using the language of the KJV which is presented at the beginning of this article).8 So then, how are we to interpret the meaning of this verse? If “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” cannot this be understood as a kind of proof text for blind faith? And if faith itself is evidence, then perhaps it could be argued that faith is all the proof we need.
First, we need to recognize that this verse has been translated in a variety of different ways over the centuries. According to the ESV, this verse says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” whereas in the most recent edition of the NASB it says, “Faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen.” So, the first question we need to investigate is which of the above translations best represents the Greek original.
The Greek word for “faith” is pistis, which is what we find here at the beginning of Hebrews 11:1. One of the problems with the way this word is translated in English is that over the past two centuries or more, it has taken on a kind of religious connotation. The biblical writers, however, did not choose to use the word pistis because it conveys a particular religious sensibility. No, pistis is simply the ordinary Greek word for “trust,” which is something that none of us can live without. Can I trust the chair I am about to sit in? Can I trust the food I just ordered? Can I trust a particular babysitter or financial advisor? These are not religious questions, but sometimes Christians speak of faith as if it is a kind of “spiritual sixth sense.”9 Wherever the apostles attempted to share the faith, however, they appealed not to their own private subjective intuitions, feelings, or experiences, but to publicly known truths,10 and to external facts corroborated by numerous trustworthy and reliable eyewitnesses.11
Now, the word “substance” in our verse from Hebrews 11:1 is a translation of the Greek word, hypostasis. According to the widely used BDAG Greek lexicon, this word relates to “the essential or basic . . . nature of an entity . . . essence, actual being, reality.”12 In fact, this lexicon specifically addresses the way this word is used in Hebrews 11:1: “The sense of ‘confidence,’ or ‘assurance’ . . . favored by Melanchthon, Luther [and Tyndale] . . . has enjoyed much favor but must be eliminated, since examples of it cannot be found.”13 In this instance, it prefers instead to translate hypostasis as a “guarantee of ownership . . . or title deed.”14
Another lexicon I consulted came to a nearly identical conclusion. In his Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Ceslas Spicq points out that in the ancient world, “all owners of building and land had to have deeds on record establishing their property rights. Thus, a hypostasis is a collection of documents establishing ownership, deposited in the archives, and proving the owner’s rights; hence it is a guarantee for the future.”15 Along these same lines, an exhaustive lexicon of classical Greeks known as Little, Scott, Jones argues that hypostases were “title deeds” and “documents recording ownership of property,” and cites an example from a second-century Egyptian papyrus that uses the word in precisely this manner.16 Therefore, with all this helpful background, perhaps it is a viable option to translate the first part of Hebrews 11:1 as saying that “faith is the title deed of things hoped for.”
Now the second half of this verse says that faith is the “conviction (or possibly evidence) of things not seen.” The Greek word we find here is elenchos, which is the word Josephus used when he encouraged his readers to “consider the weight of the evidence” he presented in one particular instance. This I believe is a good way to understand the way elenchos is being used in Hebrews 11:1. The author is simply using different words to restate what he has already said. Faith “is the title deed, of things hoped for—it is documentary evidence of things not seen.”
So, if we look at the broader context of Hebrews 11, what specifically is the thing that is being hoped for? Well, according to verse 10, we are told that Abraham “was looking forward to the city . . . whose designer and builder is God.” And in verse 16, all the patriarchs are described as those who desired “a better country, namely, a heavenly one.” Therefore, when Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the title deed of things hoped for,” the larger context makes clear that the focus is on the believer’s ultimate inheritance. This is the thing “not seen.”
So now, let us take a moment to consider what Hebrews 11:1 is and is not saying. This verse is not saying that faith is blind, because, at the end of the day, it is not actually defining the nature of faith itself. Instead, I believe Hebrews 11:1 is simply highlighting one of the most important aspects of faith—namely, that anyone who believes in Jesus can have immediate confidence regarding their eternal destiny since faith is the “title deed” of our future inheritance. The fact that it is still yet future is why it is described as “unseen,” and “hoped for.” There is simply no evidence to suggest that this verse is presenting faith as a kind of “spiritual sixth sense.” Rather, it is simply another passage that teaches salvation by “faith alone.”
When people misinterpret Hebrews 11:1 to refer to the definition of faith itself, rather than to the nature of the Christian hope about the afterlife, I believe this creates a great deal of confusion, and contributes to the increasing acceptance of the idea of faith as a blind leap. To challenge this misunderstanding, I believe it is crucial to walk through numerous passages in the New Testament where faith comes as a result of evidential considerations, including sight. For example, the apostle Thomas himself refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched him with his hands (John 20:24–28).
Now, because most Christians have not been given the opportunity to see, hear, or touch Jesus directly, there is certainly a sense in which we can say that faith in Jesus is rooted in something “unseen.” In fact, this was precisely the point that Jesus made to Thomas when he replied to him saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). He was not, of course, suggesting that faith is always blind, or that Thomas failed to have true faith, but rather that faith can and often does rest on many different kinds of evidence, just as Paul himself argued when he said that “faith comes by hearing . . . the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The great majority of Christian believers throughout history have never actually seen Jesus with their own eyes, but they put their trust in him because of the reliable testimony they heard with their ears.
In Acts 1:3 Luke reports that Jesus “presented himself alive to [his apostles] after his suffering by many convincing proofs,” and the things which the apostles saw with their eyes, heard with their ears, and touched with their hands (to borrow the language of 1 John 1:1–4) is what they ended up proclaiming over and over again throughout their sermons and collected writings (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 10:39–43, 13:30–31, 1 Cor 15:3–8, 2 Peter 1:16–18). In 1933, Max Planck, the famous physicist known for the role he played in originating Quantum Theory, wrote a book titled, Where is Science Going?, in which he argued for the general “trustworthiness of oral and written information in scientific reports.”17 This is scientific information that all of us receive, not by our direct experience or observation, but indirectly through the observation and reports of others. In fact, he argued that to reject this kind of information would actually end up destroying science, since, if one could never trust the reports of other scientists, then each of us would be limited exclusively to our own experiences, and no comprehensive knowledge of the world could ever be established.18 According to Planck, trusting the testimony of other observers is merely to follow “the call of common sense.”19
In John 15:27, Jesus famously told his disciples that they would bear witness of him because they had been with him from the beginning. Therefore, when we put our faith in Jesus on the basis of their reports, the faith that comes to us by hearing, is itself rooted and grounded in their eyewitness testimony, along with other forms of evidential reasoning. And as the author to the Hebrews states, anyone who has such faith currently possesses the title deed of his future unseen reward.
- Eusebius, The Proof of the Gospel (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 2001), 6.
- Ibid., 5.
- See for example Acts 2:21–38, 3:15–19, 4:10–19, 5:30–32, 42, 10:39–43, 13:28–38, 17:3–11, 18:28, 26:22–27, 28:23). Outside the New Testament, see Ignatius’ Epistle to the Philadelphians (6:3), The First Epistle of Clement (16:1-17 which walks through Christ’s fulfillment of Isaiah 53), The Epistle of Barnabas (5:1–2, 6–7, 12:10–11), The Epistle to Diognetus (11:5–6), The Apology of Justin Martyr (Book 1, sections 30–54), and Augustine’s Reply to Faustus the Manichaean (sections 43–45).
- Only a handful of respondents disagreed with this approach and instead provided evidence for the truth of Christianity, but of this group, only 1 or 2 specifically referred to Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, which was an essential component of evangelism in the early church.
- If you’d like to hear some of these responses, I’d recommend Episode 2, Is Faith a Feeling?, and Episode 28 Faith & Experience.
- I would estimate that as many as 20% of those I interviewed appealed to this verse. I discuss this on Episode 3, Is Faith Blind?
- In fact, one of my respondents actually defined it using this exact phrase, which you can hear on Episode 6, Faith & Certainty. For a lengthy discussion of the proper definition of faith, I would recommend Episode 2, Is Faith Irrational?
- See Acts 2:22, 10:28, 37, 26:26. These verses should be compared with language we find in all four Gospels. According to Matthew 4 “[Jesus’] fame spread throughout all Syria. . . And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” The word “crowd” actually occurs 144 times throughout the Gospels, and in 35 of those cases, it appears with adjectives such as great or large. Luke 12 describes a scene in which “myriads of crowds” gathered to see Jesus, which actually caused some to be trampled, and in John 12 the Pharisees say to one another, “Look how the world has gone after him!”
- The most famous example of this is found in the early Christian creed cited by Paul in 1 Cor 15:1–7 (see also: Acts 1:18, 2:32, 3:15, 10:39, 13:31, 1 Jn 1:1–4, etc.).
- BDAG, 3rd edition, 1040. This is the 1st definition that appears for the word ὑπόστασις.
- Ibid., 1041 (see the 3rd definition).
- Ibid., (note the concluding sentence of section 3, along with the substance of section 4).
- Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 423 (under the heading for ὑπόστασις).
- If you are interested, the reference is to P.Oxy. 237 viii 26, which you can find online here. On page 176 of that same resource, the authors note that the word hypostasis in this document “is used here for the whole body of documents bearing on the ownership of a person’s property…deposited in the archives, and forming the evidence of ownership.”
- Max Planck, Where is Science Going? (Ox Bow Press, Woodbridge, CT, 1933), 78.
- Ibid. 67–77.
- Ibid. 81.
©Shane Rosenthal. All Rights Reserved.
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