“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Where did we come from and how did we get here? There aren’t many questions of greater worldview significance than these. While it may not seem like it at first glance, there is incredible philosophical weight to the answer we embrace. For instance, if everything was created merely by chance, then there is no objective purpose to our lives beyond what we construct for ourselves. On the other hand, if an intelligent being created it all, then this being acted with a specific purpose meaning that while we may debate and search for what exactly it is, our lives definitively have meaning. Here, as he starts to offer a series of examples of what faith is, the author of Hebrews begins at the beginning. Let’s think about what we think about when we think about where we came from and why that matters.
There is one fundamental problem when it comes to discussions about the origin of the universe, or even just the origin of life (which, if we’re being honest, is a more compelling question if for no other reason than its temporal proximity to our lives). It’s not something origin of life researchers talk about very often, if at all. But it’s always there, hanging out in the background, demanding a humility from us that we’re not comfortable with giving most of the time. The problem is this: We weren’t there.
I know that’s technically a problem for all historical inquiries outside of the last hundred years or so, but it’s especially problematic when it comes to the origin of life or the origin of the universe more generally. You see, when it comes to historical questions that fall sometime within the long arc of human history, at least someone was there. And for at least the most significant events, someone probably wrote down or otherwise created some sort of a reflection of the event we can find and analyze to better understand it.
Of course, any such historical inquiries are affected by the inherent worldview biases of the historian, meaning getting any kind of an accurate picture of the past depends greatly on a person’s historical method (postmodern and other reinterpretive-biased methods generally don’t result in good, factual history), but on the whole, if someone was there, we can feel fairly confident that we actually know at least something about the event in question.
But when it comes to things that predate human history, all of our inquiries immediately become more speculative. And while, yes, well-trained archaeologists and related scientists can put together remarkably detailed pictures of the distant past, the further back in history you go, the less real evidence we have to undergird our speculation. But when it comes to talk of origins, we’ve got basically nothing. This means whether we want to admit it or not, our position, whatever that happens to be, is more a matter of belief than knowledge. Or, to use a more familiar language for it, our position on the origin of things is a matter of faith.
And indeed, as we take the first step into the examples of faith the author of Hebrews offers in chapter 11, we find him starting with the first page of the Scriptures – or perhaps the top of the scroll – where he declares that it is “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.” And that sounds really good, but what does it mean? We need to think about it carefully here because we could easily slip over into thinking about faith as little more than wishful thinking as we talked about yesterday. After all, if as followers of Jesus we are predisposed to believe God created the world and everything in it, we are going to tend to lean in that direction whether or not we have any evidence for such a proposition. “You just have to believe,” we might tell ourselves and others. At the same time, and although they are loath to admit it, skeptics don’t really have any more evidence for a mechanism of creation that fits within the narrow parameters of methodological naturalism such that theirs is a position of faith as well. They are simply predisposed to believe in a God-less creation and so assume on that instead. Surely, then, this can’t be what the author of Hebrews means here.
I don’t think it is, and to understand why, let’s think back to yesterday’s definition of faith. What we said then – what the author of Hebrews said then – is that faith is the substance of hope. It takes what might otherwise be mere wishful thinking about the future and makes it into something meaningful. To put that in a way that might be a bit more memorable, faith is the present substance of a future hope that is rooted in the historical past. When it comes to a biblical faith, the historical past in question is God’s revealed character. His character has been revealed in the past and that revelation is what gives us reason to hope for the future and to act in the present.
How does this fit, though, with the author’s declaration that it is by faith we understand God created the world? The faith in question here is not what we believe about the origins of the universe. Rather, it is a question of whether or not we trust in God’s character. If God’s character is as He has revealed it to us to be, then it almost goes without saying that He created the world and everything in it. That sort of a thing wouldn’t even be hard for Him if He really is omniscient and omnipotent. I know this is a bit of an exercise in splitting hairs, but our position on the origin of the universe and of the life in it is not a matter of faith, but of belief. And, no, that doesn’t mean I’m contradicting the author.
While we don’t have any hard and fast evidence declaring without question how the first life was created and how other life forms on earth arose from there, let alone how the universe itself came into existence in the first place, there are a variety of lines of evidence we can follow. Modern physics has found pretty indisputably that the universe did in fact begin to exist at some finite point in the past. It started from a single point and has been expanding outward ever since. There was an explosion of light in that initial “big bang” as well. Furthermore, all explanations relying on either chance or necessity have failed on the point of not having sufficient explanatory power to justify their assumptions. Those failures extend to explanations of the origin of life relying on chance or necessity as well. Macroevolutionary speciation is simply not supported by the available evidence as well. In fact, the hurdles in place for the chance creation of a single protein are higher than could have been cleared in the whole history of earth. And that’s just for one protein of average length. To see the creation of a whole cell would require dozens of proteins, some of much greater than average length, all of which are entirely unique in their construction. The position we ultimately choose on how the universe came into existence as well as the diversity of life we find on earth does not need to be a matter of faith, but rather of making an inference to the best explanation. This is a method of scientific reasoning that was used by Darwin himself. He simply did not come to the best explanation because the evidence available to him was incomplete. Today, the available evidence is a great deal more comprehensive than he had, but it increasingly doesn’t support his conclusions or their ideological descendants. But again, this isn’t a matter of faith, but of a respectable form of scientific reasoning when dealing with matters of the distant past.
So then, where does faith enter the picture here? Faith comes not in what we conclude about the origins of the universe and life, but in how we live in light of those conclusions. To put that differently, the way we live our lives now reveals what we believe about the origins of the universe and of life. If someone believes the universe came from nothing and no one, that belief will be lived out in her life. Now, this does not at all mean she’ll be a terrible person. But the present substance of her vision for the future is eventually going to reflect the meaninglessness of her beliefs about the beginning of all things. She may borrow intellectual and spiritual capital from those who believe an intelligent, loving, creative God is the reason for the existence of all things – a belief whose outworking is very different from the last belief – but that borrowing will eventually be revealed to be just that: a borrowing. If there was no purpose in the universe’s creation, then there is no purpose to the universe’s future. Meaninglessness pervades from the past through the present and into the future. There’s no hope there. No hope in the future means making one choice over another now doesn’t actually matter. And again, this doesn’t mean everyone automatically becomes a terrible person. But this worldview doesn’t have any abiding reason to restrict our inherent selfishness that is not itself rooted in that very selfishness. We can only hold that at bay by external measures (i.e. laws) for so long before the dam bursts and we have a mess on our hands.
When we believe the universe and life were created by a purposeful God for a great and distinct purpose, however, everything looks different. That belief gives us a future hope to which we can give great substance by our commitment to living now in line with what that purpose has been revealed to be. That is, we can have faith. So, yes, by faith we do understand God created the world. That understanding of the past leads to present action. That’s faith. Do you have it?