“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, NASB; ESV). Some translations say that faith is the “evidence” of things not seen (KJV, NKJV). What does this mean?
We often point out that faith is not blind. Because of the use of the term “evidence” in this passage, it has been wrongly asserted (and I have been guilty) that this passage teaches us that faith is based on evidence. However, a closer look reveals that this is not what this passage is saying. The writer is making another point, and it’s easy to overlook.
Before going further, let me affirm that biblical faith is indeed based on evidence. Other passages show us that this is the case (cf. John 20:30-31; Matt. 11:2-5). Faith is not gullible, and this ought to be kept in mind.
Yet Hebrews 11:1 tells us much about faith, and we ought to pay close attention. Rather than saying that faith is based on evidence, the passage is saying that faith is the evidence. What does that mean?
First, faith is the conviction that stands under hope. Because we have faith, we have hope; there can be no hope unless one first has faith. This hope we have is not grounded in what we can see, but in what we cannot see. This is a strong conviction about the truth of what is not seen. In this case, what we haven’t seen is the complete fulfillment of all that God promised. We, along with those of faith presented in this chapter, desire that heavenly country, a city prepared by God (vs. 16). Because of our faith, we believe that God is faithful and His promises are secure. Hope, then, serves as the anchor for the soul (Heb. 6:19).
Paul shows that process by which faith brings hope in Romans 5. We are justified by faith, and thus have peace with God through Jesus (vs. 1). It is through Jesus that we obtain “our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand” (vs. 2). Without faith, how can we hope to stand in God’s grace? As a result of faith, “we exult in hope of the glory of God.” Further, Paul indicates that being able to exult in hope also means we can exult in tribulation. Why? Because we know what the results will be: “tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (vv. 3-5).
Faith, then, assures us of what we hope for, and this means we are able to persevere as a result. Hopelessness comes from lack of faith, and where there is a lack of faith, there will be a lack of perseverance. Consider that the Hebrews epistle was encouraging the kind of perseverance Paul was also encouraging (cf. 12:1-3) The writer of Hebrews reminds us that faith is the basis of our hope, and the rest of the chapter provides numerous illustrations of this. Such hope is the reason for endurance.
Second, faith is the conviction of what we cannot see. Faith is the evidence. By looking at the rest of the chapter and seeing the examples, perhaps we can understand faith this way: faith is the demonstration of our conviction and trust in the reality that we cannot see. Biblical faith is not just mere mental assent; it is more than just a belief. It proves that one has conviction to the point of action; it is the show of trust in unseen reality. Again, the rest of the chapter provides several examples of such conviction and trust in action.
This also connects to the point Paul makes in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Consider the context. The apostles were willing to give up their lives for the sake of Christ. They were afflicted, crushed, perplexed, though not despairing (4:8). They were constantly in harm’s way, “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” and “delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake” (4:10-11). On what basis could they do this? Why would they act this way? It was their “spirit of faith,” and because of this faith they did not lose heart (i.e., they had hope). Paul continues,
“For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (vv. 17-18).
Here, then, Paul references what cannot be seen. Walking by faith is the demonstrated evidence of one’s conviction by acting accordingly. The evidence that Paul was convicted about the unseen was that he was willing to be oppressed and afflicted for the cause of Christ. This was true faith in action.
Faith, again, supports the hope for what is to come. This earthly tent (the body) will be torn down, but “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (5:1). We long for this eternal body, which cannot be seen while in the temporary flesh. Yet this faith, which stands under this hope, can cause one to be of good courage, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.”
This expression does not mean that faith is blind. It means that faith accepts the reality of what cannot be seen and responds to it. Life is lived by our conviction and trust. Faith demonstrates our conviction and trust that what cannot be seen is both real and eternal. “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (vv. 9-10). We cannot see it, but we are going walk according to this conviction.
Faith can be witnessed. Mark 2 provides another great example of such faith. Jesus, in a house in Capernaum, was speaking the word to many. A paralyzed man, carried by four men, was brought to the roof and let down through it. The text says, “And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (vs. 5). The evidence that Jesus could heal was already out there, but these men demonstrated their faith by coming to Jesus this way. Faith can be seen even through the unseen. It bears witness to conviction. Faith was evidence of their conviction in the power of Jesus. That power was inexplicable as a naturalistic phenomenon and was not by itself physically visible, yet these men had faith in supernatural reality and acted in a way that evidenced their faith.
The point of this is that faith doesn’t just stand for a belief; faith stands for conviction and trust. If we want to know whether or not we really have faith, consider our actions. Walking by faith is the demonstrated proof of conviction and will show forth the trust. Faith is indeed based on evidence, but the Hebrews writer’s point is that faith itself faith is the evidence, the proving (Revised Version) of things not seen. Through such faith, one may obtain the testimony of God’s approval (cf. Abel, Heb. 11:4). We don’t have to see it to trust the reality of it, but trusting that unseen reality will mean that our faith will prove itself.
Conversely, lack of faith will also be demonstrable. More than once did Jesus chastise disciples for their little faith (Matt. 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). After Thomas had declared that he would not believe in the resurrected Jesus unless he saw for himself and touched, Jesus appeared again. Thomas believed, but Jesus then said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). Then John points to the fact that the signs were recorded that we may believe Jesus is the Christ and thereby have life in His name.
The evidence for faith is there, but the question before us now is this: will our faith show our conviction as trusting God even though we cannot see Him? The strong conviction of faith will always act.
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:6-9).