Faith: ‘wishful thinking’?

By Steve Wilkinson

I often hear people talk about faith as if it is ‘wishful thinking’. This is especially true in the ‘science vs. religion’ debates. “I have my reason…. you have your faith…” is the general sentiment. I have even heard Christians use a similar way of speaking. In some circles, there seems to be an attitude that you should ‘just believe’ and not question anything.

These views of ‘faith’ are a misunderstanding of epistemology (how we know what we know… what separates a justified belief from simple opinion) on one side, and what the Bible teaches on the other. The assumption from non-believers is that faith has no foundation. The assumption from some Christians is that the Bible teaches us to ‘just believe’ and that searching for reinforcement of our beliefs is some kind of sinful doubting.

Faith wishful thinking

Faith, though… whether in religion or secular… is a very similar thing. If I decide to fly to Chicago tomorrow, I’d go to an airport and travel in a jet. I don’t know for certain that gravity will work the same way tomorrow, and the jet will get to its destination (baring other things which could go wrong). However, I am reasonably confident in what science has discovered about the nature of gravity and its consistency. I am also reasonably confident in flight safety records. My chances of a safe flight are extremely good. If this were not the case, I wouldn’t have so much ‘faith’ in the whole process and would walk or drive.

In this use of ‘faith’, everyone can see what I mean. It is a trust or confidence in what I do know, even if I might have fears, doubts, and lets face it… in this case, some uncertainty. There is no full guarantee or promise that I will absolutely get there; nor can I prove it before I leave! It is, a leap of faith.

Christian faith is similar in many ways. I can’t put it all in a set of test-tubes and beakers in a lab and test it. I can’t, in some complete way, prove it to you. But what, when you think about it, can you ultimately do this with? The set of things is pretty limited. I can’t prove my senses are 100% accurate, though without them, life would be incredibly uncertain. I can’t prove my wife loves me in a ‘naturalistic scientific’ way. There is no lab test for that kind of thing…. any such tests would depend on things we already suppose we know about the way things work.

Christian faith is based on trust in what God has done for us, and will do for us. This is based on our relationship with God, God’s revelation to us, history, science (yes, I said science… more on this in another post), and experience. It may or may not be something I can ‘prove’ to you (depending on what prove means to you), but it is certainly NOT wishful thinking.

Faith is essentially trust. We trust things based on many criteria. Just like the factors involved in my jet flight, or my wife’s love for me, some of these criteria can be ‘proven’ to various degrees, and some are harder to measure. We do this all the time, every day of our lives. Christian faith is really no different. How faith differs from belief, is that we are confident enough in it to put it into action. I might reasonably believe the jet will get me to my destination safely, but until I climb aboard, it doesn’t really become faith. Christians believe in the promises of God in Christ, and then exercise faith by putting their lives (and souls) in Christ’s hands.

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5 replies
  1. Ed Vaessen says:

    “Faith is essentially trust.”

    Hindus trust the god Ganesha. I do not think Christians believe in Ganesha. They might call it ‘wishful thinking’.
    The difference between the God(s) of Christianity and Hindus on the one hand and jet planes on the other is that the existence of the latter can objectively be proved. We trust planes because they can be tested and have shown to be a very save means of transport.

    • Brian says:

      I wouldn’t say that “faith” is essentially trust. The word Pistos (the root word translated ‘faith’ in the New Testament) as used in ancient Greek has the understanding of being persuaded. It implies that evidence exists that can persuade. I think the analogy to airplanes is a good one in that there is objective (meaning true of the object itself) evidence regarding gravity, air pressure, and safety records that persuade many people to fly in airplanes. On the other hand, not everyone is persuaded, and many refuse to fly. In fact, the disciple John himself writes at the end of his biography of Jesus that he has written down this account as evidence for Jesus deity so that the readers may believe (be persuaded) that he is God. So even the disciples has an understanding of faith being belief based on evidence. If the evidence doesn’t persuade you, that does not mean there is no evidence.

  2. Cleora says:

    It’s funny how you seem to understand the difference in ‘secular’ faith and ‘biblical’ faith. Yet because you are using the word faith in both examples you want to say they are the same, which they are not. In your plane example you try to tell us we can’t ‘know’ that the plane will reach it’s destination due to a number of unforeseen factors, which is always true, we see airplane delays every now and then. Now to turn to your ‘faith’ in god, it is nothing like what you explained in the airplane example, it is one where you continue to believe, despite the outcome. If I were to use a particular airplane service and find out that lately it is always off track in it’s time or even destination,I would find myself distancing myself from this service and seek one that has a better reputation. You, on the other hand, would continue to use this plane service even if you had a plane ticket going to Chicago and end up in Egypt. That is the difference in our ‘faiths’. You will continue to believe no matter what.

    • Anthony M. Sowell says:

      I would agree with you in that the analogy is entirely to simplistic to achieve justice to such a complicated concept. I have worked in engineering fields the large majority of my military and civilian working career and there is far more involved in life than that which can be explained in both physical and natural laws. We’re innately aware of such senses as smell, touch, hearing, sight, and taste. There is a sixth sense of which the physical world cannot explain. It’s when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, a premonition, a feeling in your gut that defies a physical explanation. Faith asks us to believe without real physical evidence and is a seemingly impossible task until you introduce other aspects that make us what we are. We possess a physical body, emotions, intellect, and a soul/spirit. It is in the spirit realm that faith is most prominent and it is also the aspect that is least provable in a physical sense. The spirit realm is awesome and intriguing but equally paralyzing and absolutely frightening. Science and religion are as complimentary to each other as a healthy marriage however, when they are divorced from each other they become bitter enemies. Faith in the physical aspect can be proven but in the spiritual aspect becomes extremely abstract and can neither be proved or disproved from the physical perspective. Comparing the physical to the spiritual is like comparing apples to oranges and therefore a faulty comparison. I pray that this is useful.

  3. Ben says:

    Words mean different things in different contexts. For instance “faith” in in Matthew and Mark tends to mean “trust,” usually referring to trust in the healing power of Jesus. In other contexts, (e.g. Acts 13:8, 1Tim 5:8) it refers instead to Christian belief. Sometimes, especially in the Pauline epistles, the word functions as a sort of hybrid of these two meanings, referring to religious belief but with the underlying connotation of trust in God.

    But then in Hebrews 11:1, faith is specifically characterized as that which is “hoped for” and believed despite being “unseen,” i.e. wishful thinking without good evidence. And although the Gospel of John does not use the exact word “faith,” it is explained in the story of doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29) that we should not seek proof of the Resurrection of Jesus, and that belief in Jesus without evidence is a virtue rather than a shortcoming.


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