LCN Article
Understanding Hebrews 11:1

September / October 2017

Gerald E. Weston

Dear Brethren,

What is the relationship between faith and evidence? Do you personally know? Are you sure?

Over the years, I have occasionally heard Hebrews 11:1 referred to incorrectly. Here is what this famous verse says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Because the word “evidence” is found in this verse, some think it means we have evidence for our faith, but this is not what it says. On the contrary, it says that faith is our evidence—and that is a huge difference.

So that no one misunderstands, we should not have blind faith, as so many in the world have. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 admonishes us: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (KJV). Yes, we must prove all things, and that is why we routinely instruct individuals seeking baptism not to believe something because that is what they always believed (or assumed). They need to prove to themselves the existence of God, that the Bible is His instruction book to mankind, and that this is the true Church. These things are provable! It is not good enough to have “always believed in God” or that “I grew up in the Church and know it to be the true Church.” Many atheists sincerely believe there is no God, Muslims sincerely believe truth is found in the Koran, Protestants sincerely believe their form of Protestantism is the religion of the Bible, and Catholics sincerely believe they are the “true Church.” Believing something and proving something are two different concepts.

Many times over the years, when events became difficult or confusing, I personally went back to review these three pillars of faith. I proved to myself then—and still can today—that God exists. I proved to myself, and still can, that the Bible is His word. And when it comes to the true Church, I know what the Bible says and cannot deny where God is working, based on what it says. It does not matter to me what others believe; I KNOW what I believe and why!

So I am not advocating blind faith, but Hebrews 11:1 is not talking about evidence-based faith. Notice again what it says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Yes, faith is the evidence! It is not based on evidence, but is the evidence.

Is “Evidence” Enough?

Consider this: The children of Israel came out of Egypt following some of the most amazing signs ever seen by human eyes. They saw water turned to blood, frogs by the billions, biting insects and flies in swarms too great to number. They saw locusts, hail, and fire destroy the Egyptians’ livestock and land, while their livestock and land were protected. The death of the firstborn was a miracle of massive proportions, when thousands of people and animals died in one night based on nothing more than birth order. And imagine seeing the Red Sea open up, and walking through it on dry ground! What greater evidence could God afford a people to prove His existence? They had the evidence, but they did not have faith! What about us?

We may have seen God’s hand in our own unmistakably miraculous healing, or that of another. Such amazing healings certainly do occur, but one surprising thing I have noticed over the years is this: Many individuals who have personally witnessed and experienced miraculous healings eventually fall away! This does not mean everyone does, so if you were healed miraculously, take heart—but do not trust that such a miracle will “save” you.

Paul speaks about another kind of evidence in Hebrews 11. He does not speak of past evidence, which has been seen and experienced, but of future evidence: that which is not yet seen with the eyes. Faith IS that evidence! Human minds are fickle when it comes to past evidence, and that is why the evidence of faith is essential. In setting the stage to begin the so-called faith chapter, Paul wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for….” Notice these other translations:

Now faith is assurance of things hoped for —ASV

Now faith means that we are confident of what we hope for —Moffatt

And what is Faith? Faith gives substance to our hopes —NEB

The object of our faith is what we hope for in the future. Is this not what Paul demonstrates in what follows? After giving several examples of faith, he concludes, “For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland [that for which they hope]. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:14–16). Faith is forward looking.

Faith Precedes Possession

Mr. Herbert Armstrong wrote: “You do not hope for that which you already have. So faith comes before possession. Once you have received the possession, you no longer hope for it. But even before you receive it, you have it in SUBSTANCE, and that substance—that ASSURANCE that you shall possess it—is FAITH (Heb. 11:1)” (What is Faith?, p. 4, 1952).

This is confirmed by the second half of the verse: “faith is… the evidence of things not seen.” Mr. Armstrong went on to say, “Because what we SEE—what we FEEL—is not the true EVIDENCE. Having the thing—SEEING it— is not Faith. Faith precedes possession because FAITH is confidence—ASSURANCE—you shall possess it” (p. 5).

The faith chapter gives example after example of men and women who obeyed God, not based on past evidence, but based on faith that God will do what He said He would do. But some would say, “Didn’t they do this based on past evidence?” Consider again the children of Israel. They had plenty of evidence that God existed. How could any people have more evidence? Yet, they lacked the evidence of faith and instead walked by sight. Why did ten spies who scouted out the Promised Land react one way while two acted differently? They all saw the same “giants.” And prior to scouting out the land, they all saw the same miracles along the way. They ate of the same manna day by day and saw that there was none on the seventh day. They had more evidence than you or I may ever see in our lifetimes, but they did not all react the same. Was it not that only two had the evidence that Paul calls faith?

Verse 6 of this faith chapter declares: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Abraham had that kind of faith. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). He walked by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, he had never seen anyone resurrected from the dead. All of his emotions would scream at him not to obey God’s command. He had no evidence that God would stop him at the last minute, yet he did not waver when told to do so. No wonder he is called the father of the faithful!

The three young Hebrew men who defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s command did not waver when confronted by the king with the threat of being thrown into a fiery furnace. Notice their response to the king. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king. ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up’” (Daniel 3:16–18). What an incredibly bold statement! What evidence did they have that assured them that God would deliver them? After all, unlike us, they never read the rest of the story! Their evidence was faith that what God said to do, they would do. They would not compromise by bowing down to an idol! They would obey God, because they had faith that He existed and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him!

What Will Carry Us Through Trials?

Faith is the kind of evidence that gives courage to go through the most excruciating trials without giving up. “Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented…” (Hebrews 11:36–37). Only faith gives us such assurance that we, too, will obey God in the face of adversity.

No one knows what trials may come upon us in the future, but the ultimate test of our faith is evident from the faith chapter. It is whether or not we obey God. Living faith requires obedience. It is easy to talk a good fight, but to walk the walk is another matter. God gives us a clue as to what we will do when future trials come upon us. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus explained: “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16:10–11).

Some envision themselves standing tall when the big trial comes. They imagine themselves standing firm, as did the three young men who stood before Nebuchadnezzar. But will they? God reminds us that what we do today indicates what we will do in the future. Little things matter. Notice the Parable of the Minas. “And he said to him [the one whose mina had earned ten minas] ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities’” (Luke 19:17). And we know what happened to the man who was fearful and failed to act on faith (Luke 19:20–26).

Evidence for what we believe is important, but without the evidence of faith, we will ultimately fail, just as the children of Israel failed. This is why Galatians 2:20 is so important. Human memory is fickle. What we saw yesterday may appear different today in the face of what is before us. Human faith is also fickle. What we ultimately need is the faith of Jesus Christ dwelling in us by the power of the Holy Spirit! Only then will we have faith as our evidence!