Tension Between Faith and Unbelief

Shortly after our first parents decided to walk their own road not taken, their two sons struck out on divergent paths.  Both lived in the same household.  Both observed their parents.  One killed the other.  What happened?

The Scriptures give us very little about their motives and the forces that motivated them.  Most of what we receive came from oral tradition since those who wrote of them were not their contemporaries.  What we do know is telling about both of them.  One statement about Abel gives us great insight about his motivations.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews states,

By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).

Abel acted out of faith, and Cain behaved from unbelief.  If we follow the author’s argument carefully, we gain valuable information about both.  Before entering into observations of the events surrounding the two brothers, we must consider the context of the original circumstances.  Afterwards, we can review what other biblical authors write of them.  We can make several observations from the above text:

  1. Abel offered to God
  2. Abel’s offering arose out of faith
  3. The offering Abel made was superior to Cain’s
  4. Witness testified of the superiority of Abel’s sacrifice
  5. Abel’s offering showed his righteousness
  6. He left a legacy of faith as its first martyr

Some of these observations are puzzling.  First, we do not know what made Abel’s offering “a more excellent sacrifice.”  However, we have hints throughout this passage.  The first hint, which the author intentionally places, is faith.  If we consider the entire context of Hebrews 11, we understand that the author emphasizes faith.  The author also sets out to support the main point: faith has as its grounds substance and evidence (Hebrews 11:1).  The substance of faith is hope.  Its evidence is unseen realities.  The dominant unseen reality behind creation is God.  The chapter places stress on God as the Creator to emphasize that the visible did not create the visible.The author provides a number of examples to support this primary point.  The earliest example is creation itself, a time when no one lived.  It takes faith to understand that all that exists comes from God.

He then moves to the offspring of our first parents.  Abel was the very first man of whom God gave witness to his righteous standing before Him by faith.  Abel was also the first martyr for his faith.  Cain took out his fierce anger toward God by murdering his brother whom God accounted as righteous not so much because of the gift he offered God but because of his faith expressed through the gift.  Abel’s faith pleased God.  We know this truth by what the author subsequently informs us about faith,

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” (11:6).

God is more interested in faith than in material things offered to Him.  Cain failed to honor God, and God saw through his gifts to his heart.  Cain’s response to God’s rebuke showed that faith did not dwell with him.  Rather, Cain became furious toward God rather than showing faith from receiving God’s rebuke.  With the nature of the gift placed momentarily aside, we can come to terms with God’s rejection of Cain’s offering.  Although his response resulted from God’s rejection of his gift and subsequently confronting his wrath, that wrath toward God already existed.  It simply had opportunity to express itself upon God’s rejection of his gift.  We can see from his behavior that faith was not in Cain’s gift to God.  Because of his unbelief, Cain showed dishonor toward God.  God therefore rejected both the gift and the dishonor that arose from unbelief.

Sometimes unbelief and rebellion fester in the heart before it later presents itself.  An unbelieving heart is one of rebellion against God, and it fails to please Him (11:6).  The conclusion the Hebrews author draws about genuine faith follows immediately from the Cain and Abel episode.  Abel’s faith preceded his gift while Cain’s unbelief preceded his.  Cain receives no mention in Hebrews 11 because the author intended to give examples of those who pleased God through faith.  Cain failed to make the list.  Cain’s heart caused him to withhold a pleasing  sacrifice to God.  That was the first expression of his unbelief.  A viewing audience may not perceive anything negative in either gift these two men offered.  They both presented gifts from their respective occupations.  Consequently, the bystander may be surprised by God’s pronouncements.  However, as the story unfolds, the second expression of Cain’s unbelief rushes with violence from his heart.  He rages against God and sought an opportunity to murder his own flesh and blood.  God sees what individuals cannot.

We can quibble to the end of time about the sacrifices and their meanings each man brought to God.  Scholars have done so and will continue to do so.  However, one thing seems clear about the Genesis account of Cain and Abel and the Scriptural witness of each of them.  Cain voluntarily left God’s presence (Genesis 4:16).  He was unrighteous from the outset.  His leaving was the ultimate act of unrighteousness.  The Hebrews passage makes clear that faith played a dominant role with Abel for God to give witness to him as righteous.  Cain’s omission in Hebrews 11 speaks loudly about his unbelief and the results.  Jude compares false teachers to the “way of Cain,” warning about their participation in Cain’s sin and unbelief (Jude 11).

In the account of Cain and Abel, we observe the tension between faith and unbelief.  That tension continues to exist along with their respective fruits.  A life of biblical faith in Christ pleases God.  A life of unbelief calls for God’s wrath.  The way of Cain is the way of falsehood arising from unbelief.  Faith seeks after God and honors Him.

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  This article cannot be used for any purpose without expressed written permission of Action Faith Books Press.

Biblical Faith and False Faith

One of the major distinctions between the faith about which the Bible speaks and all other faiths is that biblical faith is rooted in historical reality.  Some may lay claim that history does not matter.  Rather, it is the “idea” on which faith focuses that makes it genuine.  From this perspective arises myth.  Myth, legend, and fable have the aura of the story, moral didactic, and speculation.  These elements are more important than actual history to those who embrace myth, legend, and fable.  They feed the imagination for carrying forth specific culture, ethnic claims, or national identity through time.

The 18th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher once stated,

Our faith in Christ and our living fellowship with him would be the same even if we had no knowledge of any such transcendent fact [as the Holy Trinity] and even if the fact itself were different.” (Schleiermacher, Friedrich in Toon, Peter, “Ways of Describing the Holy Trinity,” Reformation and Revival, Volume 10:3 (Summer 2001): 108.)

While he addresses the Trinity as possible myth, he points to the core of Christian faith – the triune God.  If we follow his logic to its conclusion, we could say the same thing about God, the coming of Jesus in the form of man, or any number of other biblical truths.  In other words, truth does not have to express truth to be the grounds for faith.  This assessment of the Christian faith goes counter to genuine biblical faith. It establishes faith in a god unknown to the biblical authors and denies the core distinctiveness of the God the Scriptures uphold. Schleiermacher undercuts the historical, source, word, and foundation of faith by dismissing God and history and making faith a leap into a vacuum – no object and no connection with reality (history).

Often, the myth or legend changes or evolves to capture the minds and hearts of the current generation for prolonging the myth within a cultural backdrop.  Most of the world religions have their basis in myth through both oral tradition and sacred writings.

For example, Buddhism had its source in Siddhartha Gautama.  According to myth, Siddhartha meditated under the Bodhi tree and received enlightenment.  Rather than perpetuating leaders in the way of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama designated the Dharma (or teachings and doctrine) as the “leader.”  His own words and sayings were part of the Dharma.  Therefore, his words in fact are the leadership for furthering disciples.  Additionally, they were means of enlightenment and not so much sources of historical reality.  Consequently, Buddhist faith found its roots in the sayings, teachings, and doctrines for communal living and social order.  It had its rules and disciplines for leading to enlightenment from self effort and personal insight.  Ideas and not history dominates Buddhist enlightenment through one’s own efforts and meditation (contemplation).  Concerns about what was (history) is a distraction to wise thinking.  Enlightenment takes the path beyond such concerns to Nirvana through a speculative philosophy, the place of no attachment or desire.  Such enlightenment differs according to the philosophical school.

Other Eastern and Western religions and philosophies take a similar approach – history is irrelevant.  As such, it can undergo revision or be replaced or modified as myth.  It becomes divorced from the here and now in terms of meaning and application.  Rather the myth of an event or person, regardless if it is true, take precedence over historical reality.

In the episode of Star Trek “Rightful Heir,” Worf travels to a Klingon planet to engage in religious ceremony ushering the second coming of Kahless.  He prays for several days until during his prayers, Kahless appears before him.  Doubt rises within him as he questions Kahless about past battles and Kahless fails to deliver the correct answers.  Later, Worf discovers that the religious leaders of the planet had cloned Kahless for Worf’s benefit, which causes a crisis of faith for him.  When he returned to the USS Enterprise, Worf has a conversation with Data who shares about a crises of faith he also had as a machine desiring to be human.  He informed Worf that he chose to believe that he was a person instead of a machine.  He informed Worf that he took a leap of faith.  It did not matter that Data believed a lie about himself.  A leap of faith helped him to dismiss the lie.  Worf concluded from the conversation that the actual existence of Kahless was unimportant for his faith.  Rather it was the idea (or the myth) that counted as the basis for faith.  This enabled Worf to resolve his crises of faith.  To him, the historical reality of Kahless and his leadership in returning the glory of the Klingon Empire was irrelevant to his faith.  For him, faith can have a lie for its foundation.  The idea or myth replaced historical reality according to the philosophy of Star Trek.

The problem with this philosophy is having faith depending on myth or a lie.  Faith in that which is fiction is faith in falsehood.  As Worf discovered, it required a leap of faith.  Such a leap is groundless, for it has no basis in reality.  Biblical faith teaches a very different kind.  It is faith grounded in the reality of history.  Accordingly, God created the heavens and earth, including humanity.  He gave us purpose and direction for living and communicated them to us through His word in the Bible.

Humanity’s rebellion alienated us from Him and that purpose and direction so that all of our searches lead us to meaninglessness, or according to postmodern philosophy nihilism.  As we attempt to ground ourselves in material existence, our grounding slips through our fingers like jello.  Human philosophy provides no meaning in itself for covering all humanity.   Rather, it is grounded in a million opinions about human existence, the past, and the future.  Experience fails, because, again, everyone has a unique experience and an interpretation of it.  Experience reduces truth to “my truth may not be the same as your truth,” cancelling any resemblance to a universal truth from which even people in a similar culture could receive direction.  Human philosophy has too many wrinkles and scars resulting from violence, mistrust, warfare, and interpretations and responses to these events.  Each generation has a different take on the importance of behavior, events, and priorities.  Each builds it own monuments and icons to venerate something meaningful or someone of importance for attempting to give life significance and purpose.  However, through the decades and centuries, those monuments crumble and return to dust as does every man and woman.

However, because God created us in time and history, we engage history as we pass and live through it.  Not only do we engage history, but God has revealed Himself to us in it.  He came to us in history to deliver us from our state of alienation and purposeless existence due to the rebellion we exhibit toward Him, others, and our environment.  The Bible calls this rebellion sin.  God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile us to Himself from the strained separation we have had with Him throughout the days, years, and decades of our lives.  Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin dealt a blow to the decay, disease, violence, and death we face regularly in our cultures, societies, governments, communities, and environments.

Jesus came in real time and history so that our faith rests on actual historical events and not on myth or legend.  He broke through space and time in the form of a baby and grew into adulthood as we do.  His coming, death, and resurrection were facts.  That makes our faith based on reality and not fiction, thereby making that faith genuine and with foundation.  In Jesus’ coming to us in the form of a man, He showed us God the Father and the richness of what it means to relate to Him.  He loves, gives, cares, and desires us.  These are not fictitious characteristics found in a novel but real actions toward us from a real God.  Unseen as He is, He revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus informed one of His disciples, Philip, when Philip asked to show them the Father,

“Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father'” (John 14:9)?

Jesus reveals God to us.

God Himself makes the distinction between true biblical faith and false faiths.  We do not define real and genuine faith.  God does.  He imparts to us what it means to trust  and love Him as well as how to trust and love other people.  He is the only one who can, because we are such a distance from the truth about real faith that we cannot know it or God without His disclosure.  In human terms, faith takes a different turn of meaning – lacking in substance and evidence and dependent on what one sees.

God gives faith substance.  It is not in something ethereal, mystical, or mythical.  Biblical faith is from above, from the one who created us and loves us.  He showed that love through His Son, Jesus Christ.  This act of God in sending His Son into the world in time and history turns faith away from being a leap, because God took the initiative to come to us.  We could not leap over the gap from the created world to the realm of God.  God did this through revelation of Himself and His initiative to cross the barrier between Himself and the material world.

Why, then, does faith seem or feel like a leap for us?  The Bible gives us a very clear answer.  We do not see God.  One of Jesus’ other disciples, John, informs us,

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:14).

We cannot even see our own spirit or soul, and for that reason many claim these do not exist.  However, they do exist, because God breathed spirit into us, and we became living beings (Genesis 2:7).  We are spiritual being clothed in material substance of skin, muscle, and bones.  Since this existence is true of us, it is difficult for us to think in terms of spirit, especially of God who is spirit.  We are more familiar with what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands.  Invisible realities leave us with doubt of their existence.

Therefore, when any thought of God enters our minds, we question whether any such being exists.  Yet, there He is in the thoughts we think as muddled as our thoughts make Him, so much so that we concoct other gods to replace Him in our thoughts.  We would not even conceive of God if He did not exist just like we cannot and do not conceive of the non-existent.  One might ask, “What about science fiction?  People have never seen all of those creatures people imagine.”  Yes they have – in the form of themselves or other creatures mixed together much like the Greek and Roman gods mingled human and animal and formed them out of sticks and stones.  All such elements for God rises from the seen things of creation as distortions of the unseen God.  Although the thought of God enters our minds, our alienation from God completely distorts Him as we attempt to make Him into something from the created order.

For us, coming to grips with the unseen God and unseen realities calls for what we define as a leap of faith.  We call it a leap because we cannot grasp it.  Therefore, like Data in Star Trek, we leap into belief to overcome the crisis of having a God consciousness and not “seeing” or “feeling” this God.

This is where God enters the picture.  He recognizes our limitations, finiteness, and alienated state from Him and how these characteristics place us in a situation of grasping for what seems to slips through our fingers like the wind.  God then must come to us and wake us up from our spiritual deadness.  He imparts faith in us for grasping His revelation of Himself in His word in the Bible and recognizing His Son Jesus Christ.

We do not have to be like Pontius Pilate whom Jesus faced at the end of His life who asked Jesus, “What is truth?”  We do not need to seek love or goodness in all the wrong places, because God showed us real love in real time – in history.  He also distinguished false love and goodness from real love and goodness through His activity in time in the person of Jesus.  He showed them to us in Jesus.  Real and genuine faith finds its grounds in the God of history.  Have you discovered that God?

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Not to be used without expressed written permission.