I’ve been writing lately about the difference between belief “that” and belief “in,” following a recent radio interview with John Stonestreet for the BreakPoint Radio program. As I’ve described in previous posts, I came to belief that the gospels were a reliable record of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus on the basis of the most reasonable inference from the evidence. But at that early point in my investigation, I still didn’t understand the Gospel message of Salvation. As a result, I hadn’t yet placed my trust in Jesus as my Savior. I had belief that, but not belief in. There’s a big difference between rational assent and reasonable trust. Years later, I now appreciate the difference between these two states of mind and the important relationship they have to one another. In fact, I’ve come to realize belief in, without belief that, can be quite dangerous.
As a skeptical investigator, my journey toward reasonable trust in Jesus was inseparably linked to a rational examination of the evidence. As I was becoming interested in the claims of the New Testament, my Mormon sister introduced me to the Book of Mormon. I decided to work through this second text, even as I was investigating the New Testament gospels. I was equally skeptical of both books, and I examined them critically with the template I typically use to evaluate witnesses. While the Bible held up under this scrutiny, the Book of Mormon did not. Based on the evidence, there was no reason to believe that the Book of Mormon was true, and for this reason, I could never trust in it for anything it may say about God or salvation.
But this was not the case for my Mormon family. As I’ve talked with them over the years, I’ve discovered that none of them came to trust in the claims of Mormonism after first examining them evidentially to make sure that they were true. Instead, they came to trust the Book of Mormon after reading it, praying about it, and experiencing some form of “spiritual” confirmation. These personal experiences varied from one member of my family to another; each had a personal testimony they would have been happy to share. But if you asked them for some evidence to support their belief in the reliability of the Mormon scripture, none of them could have provided a response beyond their own subjective experience.
Mormons aren’t the only believers who embrace this subjective “epistemology” (approach to assessing and accepting a truth claim). As I’ve travelled across the country making the case for the reliability of the gospels, I’ve discovered this to be the approach of most committed Christians as well. Many of the people in my audiences have never previously considered the evidence I’m presenting. In fact, most tell me they’ve never even thought about the role evidence might play in their faith. Few have ever read an “apologetics” book. When I ask them about their own journey of faith, they sound much like my Mormon siblings. Some were raised in the Church, some have had personal experiences they’ve interpreted as confirmation, and some were convinced by the loving nature of the Christian community. Most have come to trust in Jesus without ever examining the evidence beyond their own personal experience.
Of course these brothers and sisters in the Lord are saved; their trust in Christ as Savior has secured their salvation. But if they had been exposed to Mormonism prior to being exposed to Christianity, it’s they may have been Mormons today (if they had approached and examined Mormonism as they eventually approached and examined Christianity). This is the danger of belief in without belief that. While rational assent is insufficient, an unreasonable trust is deficient and dangerous. An unexamined faith can be misplaced and, if nothing else, difficult to defend when challenged by others. I want people to eventually place their trust in Jesus as Lord, but I want them to arrive at this saving trust by first examining the evidence. As they move through belief that to belief in, they’ll have confidence they’ve placed their trust in the true God of the Universe.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.