Jesus on Faith

What does the word “faith” mean?  According to my dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition), the word “faith” has several different meanings:

Definition 1:  A confident belief in the truth, value, trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.

Definition 2:  Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

Definition 3:  Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance…

Definition 4:  Belief and trust in God.

Definition 5:  Religious conviction.

Definition 6:  A system of religious beliefs.

Definition 7:  A set of principles or beliefs.

Many skeptics latch onto Definition 2, or some very similar definition, as John Loftus points out in The Outsider Test for Faith (p.212 & 213):

“Faith consists in believing, not what appears to be true, but what appears to our understanding to be false.” – Voltaire

 Faith is “believing what you know ain’t true.” – Mark Twain

“We may define ‘faith’ as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” – Bertrand Russell

 “The whole point of religious faith…is that it does not depend on rational justification.” – Richard Dawkins

 “Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence.” – A. C. Grayling

 “Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence.” – Victor Stenger

Such definitions of “faith” are used to show that faith and reason are necessarily and unavoidably incompatible, and thus that faith is necessarily and unavoidably unreasonable or irrational.

One thing to note here is that none of the six other definitions of “faith” have this implication.  Confident beliefs are sometimes rationally justified.  Loyalty is sometimes reasonable and rational.  Belief in God is rational for people who are aware of what seem (to them) to be good reasons to believe in God, and in any case, if the concept of ‘God’ is coherent, then we can imagine circumstances in which it would be rational to believe in God.  If belief in God could in some cases be reasonable, then so could trust in GodReligious convictions can in some cases be reasonable and rational.  A system of religious beliefs could at least in theory be reasonable and rational (even if all of the major world religions include false or unreasonable beliefs).  Certainly there are sets of principles or beliefs that are reasonable and rational to accept.  So, it is only on Definition 2 that reason and faith are necessarily and unavoidably incompatible.

I’m not happy with Definition 2.   For one thing, it has the feel of cheating.  It is one thing to view faith as being unreasonable or irrational, but it is another to define “faith” so that it is unreasonable or irrational BY DEFINITION.  If someone wants to argue that faith is usually or always unreasonable or irrational, that is fine with me, let the skeptic who makes this claim ARGUE for this view.  But to simply build irrationality into the concept of “faith” seems too slick and too easy.  This seems to be the kind of move that is worthy of a used-car salesperson, not the right approach for a philosopher.

 A second objection to skeptics who latch onto Definition 2 is that it does not seem to accurately reflect the actual use of the word “faith” by Christians.  Since Christians believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, sincere Christians (such as I once was as a teenager and young adult) take the words and teachings of Jesus seriously.  Sincere believers in Jesus read and study the Bible, and pay especially close attention to the Gospels and to the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels.

There are several Gospel passages in which Jesus uses the word “faith”.   Of course, Jesus did not speak English, so he did not literally use the word “faith”.  The Gospels were written in Greek, and Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.  But there are several Gospel passages in which a saying or comment by Jesus is translated with the word “faith”.  Does Jesus use the word “faith” in a way that implies believing “something for which there is no evidence.” (Bertrand Russell)?  Does Jesus use the word “faith” in a way that implies believing something “in the face of contrary evidence.” (A. C. Grayling)?

Here is a Gospel passage in which Jesus uses the word “faith”:

 25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 

27 And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 

28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 

29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!

31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 

32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 

33 Butseek firstHis kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will beadded to you.

Matthew 6:25-33 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Why does Jesus say that his followers are “of little faith”?  Because they are worried about having enough food and water, and enough clothing to wear.  How does such worry relate to “faith”?  If they had greater faith, they would TRUST that God loved them and cared about their well being, and would not let them starve to death, or die of thirst, or go naked and die of exposure.  Does Jesus think that such TRUST in God is unreasonable and irrational?  Does Jesus think that there is “no evidence” to support such trust in God?  Does Jesus think that such trust in God flies in the “face of contrary evidence”?  I don’t think so.

Jesus appears to think that there is REASON to TRUST in God, REASON to believe that God will watch out for our well being and our basic needs:

 25 “For this REASON I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 

Jesus provides an ARGUMENT in support of the belief that God should be trusted to watch out for the well being and basic needs of believers:

  1. God takes care of birds, making sure they have enough food to eat.
  2. Humans (who believe in God) are of greater value to God than birds.


  1. God will take care of humans (who believe in God), making sure they have enough food to eat.

Those of us who are atheists and skeptics can find problems with this argument, and can come up with strong objections and counter-arguments, but I think it is reasonable to say that Jesus (and/or the author of the Gospel of Matthew) believed this to be a good argument.

Jesus (and/or Matthew) believed that this bit of thinking provided a good reason to TRUST in God, and to believe that God would take care of the basic needs of believers.  In trying to determine what Jesus MEANT by the word “faith” this is all that matters.  The fact that his argument is a bad argument is irrelevant to the question at issue, which is: How did Jesus use the word “faith”?  What did Jesus take the word “faith” to imply?

If Jesus was interested in INCREASING the faith of his followers, and he was, and if Jesus understood the word “faith” to imply believing something when there was “no evidence” to believe it or when believing it would be flying in the “face of contrary evidence”, then Jesus would NOT have given what he took to be a GOOD ARGUMENT for the conclusion that his followers should TRUST in God, trust that God would provide for their basic needs.  Giving a GOOD ARGUMENT for this conclusion would make it difficult or impossible for his followers to trust in God without any evidence or contrary to evidence.

The definitions of “faith” given by Bertrand Russell and A.C. Grayling are cheap shots at Christian believers.  Their definitions allow them to conclude that faith is always contrary to reason without having to do any serious intellectual work to get to that conclusion.  Furthermore, their definitions of “faith” appear to FAIL as interpretations of what Jesus meant by the word “faith”.  And since the sayings and teachings of Jesus are authoritative for sincere Christian believers, it seems doubtful to me that such Christians would generally use the word “faith” in the sense that Russell and Grayling have outlined.