“You really believe that the universe came from nothing? How could you think that life arose from non-life? Well, I could never have as much faith as you do!”
This is a rhetoric that many apologists use when confronting atheists. The idea is that since the atheist lacks evidence for his position, he needs more faith to make up the difference. But I think this portrays faith in a confusing and unhelpful way for three reasons.
1. This rhetoric reinforces the false view that faith is believing something without evidence.
The true definition of faith has been so abused that now the larger culture sees faith as believing something without having any evidence for it. This means the more faith you have, the less evidence you have for your position. If this is what faith means, then as Christians we don’t need as much faith as the atheist because we have more evidence!
But I don’t think this is how the Bible defines faith.
The clearest definition comes from Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There are several Greek words used here:
Faith (pistis) = to be convicted that something is true
Assurance (hypostasis) = a firm trust or foundation
Hoped for (elpizō) = to confide in or expect
Conviction (elegchos) = proof or evidence
As you can see, none of these words indicate that faith is believing without evidence. According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is a confident trust, assurance and conviction that something is true.
When we say that we have faith in God, we are saying that we believe He exists, that we trust His character and that we are confident that what He says is true. We are not saying that God has provided little evidence to us and therefore we need a whole lot of faith to make up the difference.
2. This rhetoric makes the atheist seem more virtuous than the Christian.
The second problem with this rhetoric is the ethical quality of faith. Scripture says that faith is a virtue (Gal. 3:7-11; 1 Thess. 1:3; 5:8; 1 Tim. 4:12; 6:11). Great people of God like Stephen were described as “full of faith” (Acts 6:5). Scripture also says that “we are saved by faith (Eph. 2:8), that “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), and that faith comes from God (Rom. 12:3).
This is why I think it can be confusing to say that the atheist has more faith than the Christian. Jesus commands us to have faith in God (Mark 11:22). If the atheist has more faith, then is he more virtuous than the Christian? Surely this doesn’t make sense.
According to Scripture, the very problem is their lack of faith in God in the first place (John 3:18). This rhetoric may correctly represent the definition of faith in our culture, but it doesn’t represent the biblical definition.
3. This rhetoric stops conversations before they begin.
To me, this line of reasoning is equivalent to the skeptic telling us that we have zero evidence for our position. When we tell atheists that they need a lot of faith, we are really saying that they don’t have evidence for their position. Instead of making a blanket statement that can make them angry and unresponsive, why not ask open-ended questions to start off the conversation?
There are two things that can help us reclaim the true definition of faith. First, we can use the word “trust” as a synonym for “faith.” When we explain that faith is simply trusting in God, that can help clear up the confusion about the definition. Second, we should focus on the evidence for and against each position, not who has more faith. After all, that is the real point of the conversation, isn’t it?
So you might say something like “I don’t think there is good evidence for your position. Why do you think it is true?” Or you could say something like, “I think there is good evidence for Christianity. Here’s why.” This is more likely to lead to fruitful conversations, instead of starting them on the wrong foot.
It’s time to take back the meaning of “faith.”