There Is a Difference between Faith and Belief in the Existence of God
Some Christians depreciate the value of studying natural theology, or of using apologetics in evangelism, because they think that belief in God is a matter of faith. They hold that belief in God should not be approached from the standpoint of argument and evidence, for that would take away the faith aspect of it which is necessary for salvation. Moreover, some from a particular theological camp maintain that convincing the unbeliever of God’s existence is a futile endeavor, because the human mind is so corrupted that it cannot accept such a thing without faith.
Faith Is Not Required to Believe That God Exists
This sort of resistance to apologetics is, however, based on a theologically erroneous assumption. It assumes that the belief that God exists is a matter of faith, rather than reason. Such an assumption may be taken for granted in a culture that is increasingly both secular and anti-intellectual, but it seems to me clearly false. Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul agrees:
The Bible never tells us to take a leap of faith into the darkness and hope that there’s somebody out there. The Bible calls us to jump out of the darkness and into the light. That is not a blind leap. The faith that the New Testament calls us to is a faith rooted and grounded in something that God makes clear is the truth. (Defending Your Faith, 25)
Faith itself is rooted and grounded in the reasonableness of the belief in God’s existence (among other beliefs), which is itself supported by the evidence and arguments of natural theology that God makes clear to us (see Rom. 1:18-20).
But why is the belief that God exists not a matter of faith? Simply because a person can believe that God exists without having faith in God. Faith as described in the Bible is not mere belief, but trust, and more specifically, trust in a person, not an idea. To have faith in God, according to Scripture, is to trust God to save you from your sins, to save you from the consequences of your sins, to protect you, to provide for you, and so forth. Belief that God exists is required to have this faith, but clearly there is a difference between faith and belief in the existence of God.
Hence, many in the Bible believed that God exists without having faith in him. The best example of this is in James 2:19, where James notes that even the demons are monotheists, but they shudder because they have no faith in him.
The same is true when we look at our world today. The vast majority of the world’s population believes that God (or something like God) exists. Over a billion of them are Muslims, meaning that they are strict monotheists. Yet we would be quick to say that, though they are monotheists, they are not saved if they do not have a saving faith relationship with him. Certainly they have faith of some sort, but it is not the kind of the faith posited by the Bible to be necessary for salvation. But this is to admit that belief in God’s existence does not require faith in this biblical sense.
What about Hebrews 11?
One may argue, in response to what I argued above, that Hebrews 11:6 teaches that belief in God’s existence does in fact require faith. It reads:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
As the objection goes, this verse says that faith is necessary to please God, and then when it defines faith, it includes belief in the existence of God. Therefore, the belief that God exists is a matter of faith.
But in response, this verse does not obviously imply that belief in God’s existence is part of the faith itself, as opposed to merely being necessary for it. It may be that the belief that God rewards those who seek him is the description of faith here, whereas belief in his existence is necessary for that faith. And of course, this claim is quite different from the claim that faith is necessary for belief in God existence, which is what I am arguing against.
This interpretation is plausible as well, as it fits with Romans 1, where the existence of God is said to be known even by the unrighteous who do not have faith. It also fits with James 2:19, which provides a clear example of someone believing that God exists but not having faith.
Finally, it fits with what we pointed out earlier, that biblical faith refers to trust in a person to do something, rather than trust that some proposition is true. Hence, the trust in God to reward those who seek him is a more natural example of biblical faith than the belief that God exists.
Thus, while one can interpret Hebrews 11:6 to hold that faith is necessary for belief in God’s existence, this verse does not unambiguously affirm this. Moreover, the biblical definition of faith, James 2:19, and the fact that there are theists today who plausibly do not have faith in a biblical sense – all work together to make a powerful case for the conclusion that faith is not necessary for belief in God’s existence.
This conclusion leaves open that the belief that God exists may be supported on the basis of arguments and evidence. This in turn implies that it is worthwhile for the Christian to study natural theology. It implies as well that apologetics is relevant for bringing non-theists to believe that God exists. For an illustration of this last point, consider this quote from R. C. Sproul on apologetics:
The task of apologetics is to show that the evidence that the New Testament calls people to commit their lives to is compelling evidence and worthy of our full commitment. That often involves a lot of work for the apologist. Sometimes we would rather duck the responsibility of doing our homework, of wrestling with the problems and answering the objections, and simply say to people, ‘Oh, you just have to take it all in faith.’ That’s the ultimate cop-out. That doesn’t honor Christ. We honor Christ by setting forth for people the cogency of the truth claims of Scripture, even as God himself does. We must take the trouble to do our work before the Spirit does his work, because the Spirit does not ask people to put their trust and faith and affection in nonsense or absurdity. (Defending Your Faith, 25)
The belief that God exists is not nonsense or absurdity, but is supported by evidence and good arguments, and therefore is grounded in reason. The upshot for us is that, rather than simply admonishing the atheist to have faith, we should first provide her with good reasons to believe that God exists, trusting along the way that the Holy Spirit is also calling her to place her faith in God for salvation.
Do you agree or disagree that faith is not required to believe that God exists? Leave any thoughts or questions you have about this article in the comments section below!