A Well-Placed Trust
God has put enough into this world to make faith in Him most reasonable, but He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by reason alone.
Adapted from Ravi Zacharias, “Jesus among Other Gods” (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2000). Used by permission.
The noted atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked, “If you meet God after you die, what will you say to Him to justify your unbelief?”
“I will tell Him that He did not give me enough evidence,” Russell snapped.
Bertrand Russell may have been an unusually hostile voice against all religious belief, and Christianity in particular, but his thirst for evidence or his demand for proof is not unique.
For my part, I confess that I wonder more about those who seek no such support for the things they believe than about those who do. There are hundreds, if not thousands, whose paths I have crossed in my journeys who have not only “theoretically believed” in some divine entity but also have made their commitment with heartfelt devotion. “Gods” and “goddesses” with ghastly features and attributes are venerated by millions bringing their offerings and prostrating themselves in worship. I am confounded by such unquestioning commitment, practiced because of a feeling that is engendered or as the bequest of their culture.
On the other hand, I also grant that finding a hard-nosed rational justification for belief can be a tedious and sometimes hazardous pursuit. But if truth is the motive for the search, when reasonably pursued, it has its rewards. There is an old adage that says, “It is better to debate a question before settling it than to settle a question before debating it.” My own intellectual battles were rather necessary in a land filled with as many “gods” as people.
Unfortunately, for reasons justifiable and unjustifiable, individuals hostile to belief in God often malign faith in Him as the lure of emotion clinging to an idea with the mind disengaged. They do not believe that faith can sustain the weight of both the emotions and the mind.
I realize we are all built with different capacities for thinking on such matters. However, that will not serve as reason enough to support one view over another. We cannot evade the questions that opponents have posed to those who “live by faith.” They are justified in wanting to know what distinguishes faith from foolishness or irrationality, when no coherent logic is ever offered for one’s “faith.”
My mother, in great frustration, on one occasion asked me, “From where do you come up with all these questions? Must there be an explanation for every-thing?” I envied her simplicity. But our idiosyncrasies aside, I have to raise the counterpoint in a world plagued with contradicting ways of defining ultimate reality. To commit one’s life, habits, thoughts, goals, priorities—everything—to a certain worldview with no questions asked is, from the antagonist’s point of view, to build one’s life upon a very questionable foundation.
The Demand for a Sign
Common sense dictates that in asserting a conviction of belief, we do more than offer a heart’s desire or present some isolated strands of the claimant’s credentials with which to leap to grandiose conclusions. A true defense of any claim must also deal with the evidences that challenge or contradict it. In other words, truth is not only a matter of offense, in that it makes certain assertions. It is also a matter of defense, in that it must be able to make a cogent and sensible response to the counterpoints that are raised.
And here something very important surfaces. Sometimes the choice is not between that which is manifestly contradictory and that which is consistently coherent. To contrast the former cult leader Jim Jones with Jesus Christ is not difficult. The challenge emerges when a claimant to deity may have some unique features that attract, while covering up a multitude of contradictory teachings or a contradicting lifestyle.
Unsuspecting people make a fatal mistake when they give their allegiance to a system of thought by focusing on its benefits while ignoring its systemic contradictions. The entire life of anyone making prophetic or divine claims must be observed in concert with the teaching offered. Numerous historical and philosophical matters come into play when one seriously evaluates such claims.
This is precisely what makes Jesus so unique. The whole range of both his life and his teaching can be subjected to the test of truth. Each aspect of his teaching is a link in the greater whole. Each facet is like the face of a diamond, catching the light as it is gently turned.
We assume, at this time in the history of thought, that the ancients were more gullible than we and that we have come of age when, in truth, some of the credulity we have displayed would have rightly made them squirm. If anyone denies that reality, just ask those in the marketing industry whether it is form or substance that sells. Several times in the Gospels, someone in the audience challenged Jesus to give a sign in order to prove his claims. They were not a naive bunch. It is telling that in virtually every instance, the challenge came on the heels of a miraculous act that Jesus had just performed. They were not even satisfied merely to see the miraculous. They wanted something more.
For example, in John 6:30, the demand for a sign follows his feeding of five thousand people from a handful of loaves and fishes. Immediately after the miracle, the skeptics in the group reminded Jesus that Moses had fed the masses with manna. “What miraculous sign then will you give that we might see it and believe you?” In Matthew’s Gospel, the demand for a sign came after the healing of a blind and mute man (12:22–45).
These give us clues to what Jesus was up against and why he responded the way he did. When the Pharisees and the teachers of the law demanded a sign of him in Matthew 12, He replied with some rather pointed words:
A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. . . . The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. (vv. 39, 41–42)
Jesus is charging that the very motivation that impelled them to demand a sign revealed not just that they were not genuinely seeking the truth; their resistance to truth, though they were religious, made the hardened pagan look better than they. In other words, it was not the absence of a sign that troubled them. It was the message behind the signs that provoked their discomfort. If Jesus could sustain who he was, the ramifications for them were cataclysmic. Everything they pursued and owned, every vestige of inordinate power they enjoyed, was dependent on them being the determiners of other people’s destinies. Sometimes religion can be the greatest roadblock to true spirituality.
The bitter tip of Jesus’s verbal arrow struck a raw nerve in them when he said that even a murderous people like the Ninevites were more honest than they were. Why? Because Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites resulted in a national repentance on such a scale that it made history. And Solomon’s wisdom was so widely recognized that it brought people from distant lands just to listen to him.
In brief, Jesus is saying that a message in itself won the hearts of the pagan, but those who claimed spiritual fervor were fleeing from the implications of what they already knew to be true. He demonstrated more authenticating signs and persuasions than Jonah, more beauty and wisdom in thought than Solomon. Jonah was not the author of the miraculous. Jesus was. Solomon was not the source of his wisdom. Jesus was. Yet that difference counted as nothing to them.
From then on, all the way to his death on the cross at their hands, Jesus proved that it was not evidence they were looking for but control of their enterprises, even at the cost of truth.
I would venture to suggest that the skepticism of some in our time may well come from the same motivation. A major difference for the average person of our day from the context of Jesus’s day is that he was trying to establish himself as Messiah to an audience that at least believed in the existence of God. In our day, we must first establish the existence of God. Only then can we present the evidence that Jesus is God incarnate.
To the religiously minded, the challenge is more complex. How do we establish that Jesus is the only way to God? Where do we find the common ground on which to begin?
Faith and Reason
Faith has not always been as suspect a category as it has now come to be. Both the Hebrews and the Greeks had an understanding of faith. True, there were some differences, but faith still had legitimacy. Today, if faith is admitted at all, it is seen as the faith to have faith. It is packaged as a private matter and banned from intellectual credence.
“Everyone has to have some faith,” we quip.
“If it were not for my faith, I would never have hung in there,” we may hear someone else say.
Faith in what, one might ask? In such a faith, the focus is often on anything but truth and on everything that signals pragmatism—“It worked for me, whether it’s true or not.” Such glib pronouncements have made us vulnerable to the faith marketers of our time. It is time to do some “temple cleansing” of the mind and face this reality head-on.
First, let us clearly understand what faith is not before establishing what it is. The faith that the Bible speaks of is not antithetical to reason. It is not just a will to believe, everything to the contrary notwithstanding. It is not a predisposition to force every piece of information to fit into the mold of one’s desires. Faith in the biblical sense is substantive, based on the knowledge that the One in whom that faith is placed has proven that He is worthy of that trust. In its essence, faith is a confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is. Faith for the Christian is the response of trust based on who Jesus Christ claimed to be, and it results in a life that brings both mind and heart in a commitment of love to him. Is this an irrational or unreasonable response based on all that Christ demonstrated himself to be?
Each individual who comes into this kind of faith in the one true God does so through a different struggle. In the Old Testament, Moses was the classic example of how faith was built into someone for whom the implications of trust were not easy. Repeatedly and protractedly, God pursued Moses until Moses understood that the God he served expected his trust and that He would prove Himself, both before and after the trust had been followed through. God gave him just enough, along his journey, to demonstrate who He was but saved the climactic proof for the end of Moses’ journey of faith.
On the other hand, Abraham is shown to us as one who so hungered after God that he was willing, with minimal outward proof, to leave his home and to build for posterity a community of faith in the living God. But even in his case, every step in his faith-building process was met with the affirmation of God. God deals with both kinds of us, those of us who long for more evidence and those of us for whom a little evidence will do. But He works always in concert with a revelation of his character.
But notice that there are twin angles here. The first is that of trust. Jesus claimed to be the consummate expression of God. The true believer trusts him to be speaking the truth. Everything he said and did sustains that claim, and contrarily, nothing he said or did challenges that claim. It has been said that human nature abhors a vacuum, and that must be true of our faith too. None of us lives comfortably with a vacuous faith. There ought to be both substance to our faith and an object of our faith.
But there is a second common misunderstanding about faith. We often assume that it is a crutch for those who are hurting or are in need of some kind of transcendent intervention in a situation from which they cannot rescue themselves. How often we hear testimonies of faith from the sick and the dying or the injured and bleeding. That, we assume, is the grandest expression of faith. Without doubt, a faith that stays strong in the storms of life is a faith that must be envied.
May I suggest, however, that in reality this kind of situation is more often the realizing or the testing of one’s faith. An equally viable faith is demonstrated when dependence upon God is shown in the midst of success, when everything is going right. That kind of faith knows that every moment and every success in life is a gift from God.
Is the faith of the one any less than the faith of the other? It may be true that perhaps one who has suffered has been tested more than the other. But certainly, to turn to God when all your earthly needs are already met is to express in no uncertain terms that faith in God is to trust Him even when other supports are within reach. Jesus said that for a rich man to make such a commitment was almost impossible. But thankfully he went on to say that with God it was possible.
You see, that is the way God has designed us. One of the most startling things about life is that it does not start with reason and end with faith. It starts in childhood with faith and is sustained either by reasoning through that faith or by blindly leaving the reason for faith unaddressed. The child’s mind has a very limited capacity to inform it of the reason for its trust. But whether she nestles on her mother’s shoulder, nurses at her mother’s breast, or runs into her father’s arms, she does so because of an implicit trust that those shoulders will bear her, that her food will sustain her, and that those arms will hold her. If over time that trust is tested, it will be the character of the parent that will either prove that trust wise or foolish. Faith is not bereft of reason.
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Faith and Unreason
There is another side. Jesus reminded his followers that the commitment of the will is a fickle thing when it comes up against the beckoning arms of God. The tendency of the human heart is so defiant that every generation will find ways to challenge that which God proclaims. This point is critical in order to understand that whatever proof is offered at any time in history, we will always demand something else. In Luke 7:31–35, Jesus said:
To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” But wisdom is proved right by all her children.
By this Jesus powerfully exposed the bent of the human will. When John warned them of the severity of the law, they called him demon-possessed because they wanted more liberty. When Jesus came and mingled with the outcasts of society, they called him a hedonist because they wanted a tighter reign over the law. But Jesus declared that wisdom reveals itself by what it produces. It does not take more than one look at our society to see the utter absence of wisdom, and it is because we understand neither law nor grace. To such a mindset, faith will always be caricatured as a symptom of credulity. Jesus was not hesitant to call their bluff, as he does ours.
But he turned the tables on them and reminded them that their faithlessness to what they knew to be true said more about their own character than it did about the evidence. This, I believe, is the essential component that is often missing from a discussion of faith. Yes, there is the component of content that speaks to the truth. Yes, there is the component of love that speaks to the blending of the emotion and commitment. But there is also the component of honesty that speaks to the truthfulness or the integrity of the individual. It is here that the battle lines are publicly drawn. It is here that the real truth about reason is revealed.
The Real Conflict
How tragic that so many are living in the darkness of unreason, clinging to their absolute skepticism. The prophecies, person, and work of Christ, his resurrection from the dead, and numerous other affirmations do have points of verification in history. What does the naturalist do with them? No, the Christian’s faith is not a leap into the dark; it is a well-placed trust in the light—the Light of the World, who is Jesus.
Some years ago, I was having dinner with a few scholars, most of whom were scientists. They were a fine group of people, and I was honored to be in their company. At one point, our discussion veered into the conflict between naturalism’s starting point—nature and nature alone—and supernaturalism’s starting point, which is that God is the only sufficient explanation for our origin.
I asked them a couple of questions. “If the Big Bang were indeed where it all began [which one can fairly well grant, at least to this point in science’s thinking], may I ask what preceded the Big Bang?” Their answer, which I had anticipated, was that the universe was shrunk down to a singularity.
I pursued, “But isn’t it correct that a singularity as defined by science is a point at which all the laws of physics break down?”
That is correct,” was the answer.
“Then, technically, your starting point is not scientific either.”
There was silence, and their expressions betrayed the scurrying mental searches for an escape hatch. But I had yet another question.
I asked if they agreed that when a mechanistic view of the universe had held sway, thinkers like Hume had chided philosophers for taking the principle of causality and applying it to a philosophical argument for the existence of God. Causality, he warned, could not be extrapolated from science to philosophy.
“Now,” I added, “when quantum theory holds sway, randomness in the subatomic world is made a basis for randomness in life. Are you not making the very same extrapolation that you warned us against?”
Again there was silence, and then one man said with a self-deprecating smile, “We scientists do seem to retain selective sovereignty over what we allow to be transferred to philosophy and what we don’t.”
There is the truth in cold, hard terms. The person who demands a sign and at the same time has already determined that anything that cannot be explained scientifically is meaningless is not merely stacking the deck; he is losing at his own game.
The plea for evidence force ones to wonder who has to have more faith. Is it the Christian who uses his mind to trust in God, or is it the one who, without any attempt to explain how his mind came to be, nevertheless uses that mind to demand a sign and disbelieves in God?
This is why Jesus challenged the notion that more evidence would have generated more faith. George MacDonald said years ago that to give truth to him who does not love the truth is to only to give more reasons for misinterpretation.
In summary, as I have often said, God has put enough into this world to make faith in Him most reasonable, but He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by reason alone. The skeptic often caricatures the Christian faith as credulity. That is not how the Bible sees it. Real faith is based on reason and what we know to be true. It helps carry us over the chasms of our doubt when not every question is answered. Our faith is in the One whom we know offers us eternal life. He demonstrated that with enough reason, we may we trust Him for what we don’t know.
Ravi Zacharias is Founder and Chairman of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia. This article originally appears in Just Thinking magazine’s 28.2 issue. Click here to download the PDF.
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