The assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen

Barney Zwartz on the definition of 'faith' in the biblical book of Hebrews - and what help it might offer in these difficult days.

Faith, according to the unnamed writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

It’s as good a definition as any, although the object of the faith is essential. Some self-help gurus insist you can achieve anything if you just have enough faith. Not so. No matter how much conviction or hope I have I will never be world chess champion.

What the writer means is not faith for personal ambition, not positive thinking nor optimism, but faith in the promises of God as revealed in the Bible.

A little later, he spells out the most important promise of all: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you. … The Lord is my helper.” In the Greek text, each negative is emphasised by being doubled, “I will not, never, leave you.”

These are days, obviously, when faith is being tested – as, in fact, many times are in national and individual life; this is not unique. But the isolation requirements add, for large numbers, a new measure of distress and psychological challenge.

The letter to the Hebrews has a whole chapter of biblical examples of faith to encourage his persecuted readers to stay strong. They include Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph, Moses and Rahab, the prostitute who lived in Jericho.

It continues: “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”

The spiritual history of the world is a history of the victories of faith.

Faith is a central aspect of most religions, including non-theocentric religions such as humanism (belief in progress) and nationalism, and it is not unusual for faith to encounter trials. But, as the list in Hebrews demonstrates, the spiritual history of the world is a history of the victories of faith.

“The conviction of things unseen” is important because it requires an awareness beyond the arena of material facts. Those who believe the only things that exist are the things we can measure by our senses or scientific instruments will not be impressed, but it seems to me that such a world view takes a great leap of faith.

As author C. S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.

This article first appeared in The Age.