One of the more common characterizations of Christians is that they live by “faith” not facts. Sometimes this is said in the context of a “faith versus science” debate. Scientists (we are told) hold to facts proven to be true, Christians believe in things that cannot be proven by facts. If a Christian is telling the story, then the scientist (probably an atheist Democrat) is too close-minded and too prejudiced to accept things he cannot explain rationally. If a scientist is telling the story, then the Christian is a soft-headed uneducated person (probably a Republican from Texas) who believes in childish things.
I am reminded of a rather funny passage in Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. All science fiction stories have to come up with some explanation for why everyone in the future distant reaches of space all speak English. Star Trek has a universal translator, for example. In his story, Adams describes the Babel Fish, a tiny fish which, when inserted in one’s ear, translates all languages into what every language the host person thinks. This fish is so complex it could not have possibly evolved naturally, so it is a clear proof of the existence of God. Adams goes on to say:
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly disappears in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
As funny as this is, it points out a misunderstanding about faith. Faith is not believing in things you know to be untrue, or impossible, or strange. Having faith in the Easter Bunny does not make him real.
The writer of Hebrews defines faith is being sure of what we believe in. When a Christian talks about having faith, they are certain what they believe is built on a proper foundation and is objectively true.
“Sure” here is an important word, used only two other times in Hebrews (1:3 and 3:14). The NIV renders this word in three different ways, although the difference between Hebrews 1:3 and Hebrews 11:1 should not be as great at the NIV translates (substance vs. sure). Literally, the word means that which stands under, or foundation. The word began as a medical or scientific term, although nothing of that meaning remains in the New Testament usage. The word then was used in philosophy to describe the reality of something, as opposed to the philosophical “being.”
BAGD identifies ὑπόστασις as “substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality…” The meaning here in Heb 11:1 is most often given as “realization” or “reality.” Or as Louw and Nida comment, faith is “that which provides the basis for trust and reliance – trust, confidence, assurance.” The NIV’s “sure” tries to combine these meanings, the substance of hope is the thing that gives one confidence that the hope for goal will occur, something that gives assurance of an abstract concept, something that is not necessarily provable, without substance.
The “substance/proof” is for things that are hoped for, not seen. Hope is “to look forward with confidence to that which is good and beneficial.” In the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ that provides the basis for that hope, first in his work on the cross, and secondly in his promise to return. In the other five occurrences of the word in Hebrews, hope is rooted in salvation, each verse is talking about the content of our salvation, and in each case that hope is certain.
Hope in modern use tends to be more “wishful thinking.” I hope this is over soon, I hope I get that for Christmas, I hope my kids grow up right, etc. Biblical hope is an expression of something that will happen at some point in the future and it is so certain that I can live my life on the foundation of my hope.