In the Bible “faith” rarely means “belief”—at least, not in the sense that “belief” has come to have in popular Christianity: what I will call “belief about.” We are not saved by belief. This is not what the Bible teaches. But if my experience is at all representative, this is what many in church think to be the gospel. And, after all, doesn’t the Bible say: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved”? Which it does, of course, in Acts 16:31 in the story of the Philippian jailor. The question, though, is not what is said in our translations but what the words mean. What do Paul and Silas mean when they say to their frightened and abject former jailor, “Believe.”
I bring this up because many people struggle with belief. They may have grown up in the faith, and when they were young, they believed everything they were told, as children do. But as they got older and encountered new ideas, they began to find what they were taught more and more difficult to believe. Eventually, they drifted away from the faith. I have spoken to many such, people who find themselves still thinking about the faith, perhaps longing for it in a way, but unable to bring themselves to believe. It’s for these people that I write. They are my sisters and brothers.
Belief, after all, is a tricky thing. Or, better, not all one thing. Take, first, what we might call “background beliefs,” our shared assumptions about the world—if these qualify as beliefs at all. Along with everyone around us, we make assumptions about the world in which we live, about what is real and what isn’t, what is true and what isn’t. Some of these background beliefs will eventually turn out to be false. Some have already turned out to be false. Not only beliefs about the physical world but beliefs about much else: about race, for example, or gender, or sexuality. Beliefs that seemed solid. Until they didn’t. The current debate in the church about human sexuality has much to do with assumptions we once made about how humans are constituted that seemed solidly true but do so no longer.
It’s when background assumptions are no longer background but begin to be questioned and debated that they become beliefs in the sense the word has taken in popular Christianity. When the church speaks about belief, it is mostly talking about contested beliefs: things Christians believe or should believe but others don’t. Like, to pick one example, certain views of human origins.
In times past people regarded the ancient stories about human origins as straightforwardly true—as much of the truth as could be known. But in the nineteenth century, a new idea about human origins emerged, the idea that humans developed out of the natural world by the same processes by which all the rest of the biological world came into existence. These new ideas forced people to understand the old stories differently, whether they wanted to or not. It was no longer possible to read them naively as they were once read, even if some continued to think they were historically true. After Darwin, if one is to read the stories as histories, it’s necessary to do so by contesting all or part of the story told by science. It requires a certain bravado: belief in the sense that “belief” has acquired in the modern era.
The contest between the Genesis stories and the evolutionary account of human origins is mostly over. There remain people who visit Noah’s ark in Kentucky and red state legislators who insist that the Genesis stories must be taught alongside the scientific account as alternative explanations of human origins, but for the most part, the scientific account has prevailed. The public truth is now evolutionary science. Go to a museum on natural history, and the explanatory information will be entirely written from the scientific point of view. Genesis will not be mentioned anywhere.
In part because these sorts of disputes between science and traditional religion have dominated the past few centuries, belief has come to take on an outsized role in the church. The faith has come to be what one believes about this or that, this theology or that view of reality. The church in which I grew up believed and taught that if there was no Adam, there could be no Christ.
I ran afoul of this principle when I first applied for ordination in 1981. The synod of the time thought that I was a bit too shaky on the historicity of Adam and the snake and the garden. They refused to certify me for ordination. A few years later, they changed their minds, and allowed me to be ordained. What one was required to believe about human origins was shifting and has since shifted more since.
This is not to say that beliefs are not important. Believing what is not true has results not only for the way people think but for what they do. Actions follow beliefs. And we live in a time of bad beliefs. The popular media is filled with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories—bad beliefs—led to the invasion of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. There was a time when the national press acted as arbiter of truth about what was happening in the world, admittedly an imperfect arbiter, but now with the fragmentation of the media into outlets for every taste, even that control is largely gone. It’s hard to see how democracy will survive with misinformation everywhere and believed by so many.
This is true not only for politics but for faith. The church has an interest in getting things right. There is not one truth for Christians and another for those who are outside the church. To go back to human origins one more time, the stories told by Genesis (two stories there) and by modern evolutionary science are profoundly different. They can’t be mashed together. We have to stop lying about the Bible. The Bible does not, indeed could not, present a history of human origins. This is not to say that the Bible is not true, but its truth is of a different kind than the truth of evolutionary science. The Bible must be read with eye to metaphor and literary art. I love the Bible, but I do not love what evangelical Christians have done with it.
Calvin once said that we should let science be science. He was speaking of the Copernican revolution: how to understand the relationships among sun and earth and the other planets. It remains good advice. The church should embrace what new things we have come to know about the universe in which we live. And, let me assure you, there will be even more challenging discoveries to come, discoveries, for example, in brain science and artificial intelligence and perhaps other, still unrecognized areas of study. Each of these will force us to reexamine our theology.
We need to do this work because belief is important, and the church has much work to do to take full account of what we know of God and the scriptures and the universe. But belief is not the heart of faith. We are not saved by belief. Getting things right is important, but it’s not the criterion on which we are to be judged according to the scriptures—on which we will be judged, come the last day.
So what does it mean when Paul and Silas (according to Acts) say to the Philippian jailor, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved”? (16:31). They go on to say, “You and your household,” which doesn’t fit quite so neatly into the saved-by-belief theology of the evangelical church, but I’ll leave that go for the moment. What is important to note is that it’s the jailor who asks the question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” He is quite taken with the faithfulness of Paul and Silas, who prayed and sang in their shackles and who, when the doors were opened by an earthquake and their shackles fell off, did not flee but stayed. He wanted this faith, faith that was not contingent on circumstances, faith that could look death in the face, and so he asked, “What must I do?” And they replied, “Trust Jesus.”
In this second time quoting Acts 16:31, I have substituted “trust” for “believe.” “Trust” works better because of what we have done with “believe.” We have taken “believe” out of the realm of relationship and placed it in the realm of claims about something or someone. It’s the difference between knowing someone as a friend and knowing about them. One might know many things about another person, where, for example, they were born, where they went to school, the facts of their career, and so forth. But none of this substitutes for knowing the person. Or one might know almost nothing about a friend. Perhaps this friend has been uncommonly reticent about the facts of her life. But having spent time with her, you know her and trust her implicitly. For the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, faith is less knowing about God than trust in God.
The difference may be better illustrated by taking another text—one often cited by the saved-by-belief crowd—Romans 10, especially verses 5-11. In this passage, in the middle of his long and passionate discussion about the faithfulness of God to his own people (Romans 9-11), Paul talks about faith. He says, quoting and extending Deuteronomy 30:14, that “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8) And then this: “This is the word of faith that we preach: namely, if you confess with your mouth, “Lord Jesus,” and you believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:8-9).
Paul is working on a passage from Deuteronomy in which Moses—the Moses of Deuteronomy speaking to the exilic community—is raising the question of how the people are to know God or, more precisely, to know the will of God. His answer is that they already know. They have the word of God in the teaching of Moses—the Moses of the Torah. They don’t have to become religious adepts and spiritually ascend to heaven to find it nor do they have to cross the ocean to find some new truth; they have what they need. It’s on their lips—they can recite it—and in their hearts.
Paul takes this Old Testament passage and gives it an exegetical twist. For Paul, the word of God is not first of all the Torah—although he has a large place for the Torah, citing it here and everywhere in his writings. For Paul the word of the Lord is first of all the living presence of Jesus, the messiah, the presence he encountered unbidden on the Damascus Road. For Paul the resurrection of Jesus is not just about Jesus, a theological dictum, but a testimony. Perhaps better, an encounter. And so Paul construes the Deuteronomy passage about the word on our lips and in our hearts by understanding “word” as a reference to the risen Lord. If, he is saying, you are alive to Jesus and Jesus is alive to you, then you belong to the company of the righteous.
By now you are saying to me, but doesn’t that require belief? How can Jesus be alive to you if Jesus is long dead? Ah, yes, true enough. But it’s not that kind of belief—the kind that I earlier called “belief about.” It’s the belief of encounter. It’s to this that Paul invites us in Romans 10 and that he and Silas invite the Philippian jailor in Acts 16: an encounter with the Other. And in the case of Christian proclamation, the Other bears the face of Jesus.
Let me speak a bit mystically. It’s the only way to talk about this. The encounter with the Other is an encounter with the truth that calls us to be what we are not. It comes from beyond. It’s what we mean when we say that Jesus is divine. As the New Testament itself has it, “for in Christ the divine fullness dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). In John, especially 14-16, this is presented as the relationship between the Father and Jesus spilling over into a relationship with us. Language here fails us.
For Paul, we encounter Christ in the word (see, for example, Galatians 3:2), the word preached. But it’s not belief about. It’s a spiritual encounter. How one comes to understand this encounter is the task of theological reflection, and here the resources are vast: the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, the long reflection on these things by the church, and whatever else we can bring to the task. But theological reflection is always secondary. The encounter is primary.
Which means for those of you who have trouble believing in the way you believed as a child or in the way others believe that you can leave much in the realm of mystery and metaphor. You are not saved by your theology. Theology, we can debate. But the encounter with the Other, for that there is no substitute. To say that Jesus is Lord or that Jesus is alive is to say this: he comes to us and calls us. It’s not so much that we believe as that we have met him. I hope you see the difference.
And in this encounter, we are saved. But that is much too much for this essay. It will have to wait. I might note, though, in anticipation of that future essay that Paul does not say in Romans 10 that we believe so that we can go to heaven. The New Testament does not speak of “going to heaven” much, if at all, in those terms. Instead, Paul speaks of righteousness: “For with the heart, [this word] is trusted for righteousness, and with the mouth, it is confessed for salvation.” To be saved is to belong to the company of the righteous.
That’s my hope and, I suspect, yours whether you count yourself a believer or not: to belong in the end to the company of the righteous. To which company you have already been invited. And that is the gospel.
7 responses to “A WORD FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT BELIEVE: FAITH AS ENCOUNTER”
Wow! Thank you for putting all this so clearly, and for filling it with hope.
Yes! The story told in Acts 16:16-40 is chock full of political and social issues – from the incident that gets Paul and Silas arrested (preventing the economic exploitation of a “possessed” slave-girl) to Paul’s power-play at the end (forcing the magistrates to apologize for arresting them). In that context, to think that the jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” meant “What propositions do I have to accept in order to go to heaven after I die” is, as you suggest, more than a little absurd. He is asking, How can I join the cause of the God you serve – a God of power (the earthquake) but also of mercy (“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”)? Belief, it turns out, is a deep, trusting commitment, to a person (Jesus the Kyrios) and to his cause in this world (the reign of God).
Thank you for this. You do a very good work in expressing this in an understandable context that I believe will work for many. I am currently working to understand the neuroscience that underlies the the distinctions you make. Belief and faith/experience are literally in different parts of our brains. One allows us to have a map and also boost our egos. The other allows us to encounter the divine.
The contrast between belief and encounter is found in John 5:39-40 where “come to me” can be understood as “encounter.”
Beautiful thoughts. It is so hard for we “reformed” and “evangelicals” to “believe” that for Paul, his trust in Jesus was purely because of his experience on the road to Damascus. We have learned to be afraid of experience, yet the NT is not filled with 5-point Calvinism nor the sinners prayer. It is filled with those who have been encountered by the living God and have been changed, let alone lived to speak about it. 🙂
Is this not the gospel? “I was blind, but now I see”. Right doctrine be damned, I have been captured by the Divine and changed forever.
When I read your thoughts, I breathe a deep sigh of gratitude. What was in my head finally is written out and thought out so well and explained so fully. Thank you!