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How Can We Believe 

Do you need physical evidence to support your faith, particularly faith in Jesus Christ? If not what is the foundation of your faith? Coleman writes about why faith in Jesus Christ is a crucial part of a relationship with God, and why physical evidence isn't as important as it can feel. -Editor.

Jesus said, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and have believed.” (John 20:29)

The gospel of John records Jesus speaking those words to “doubting Thomas,” who only believed when he was able to see the risen Lord for himself. Today, almost 2,000 years from that event, we are the ones who, if we are to believe, must do so without seeing, at least not with our physical eyes. Can we do that? Some things may seem fairly easy to believe: for example, that we ought to treat one another with respect, and even that there is an unseen force guiding the universe. But can we believe the specific and the miraculous: that the Lord Jesus Christ is God, and that He literally rose from the grave? The belief that the risen Lord is the living God is a vital one; Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have believed,” and stated even more strongly, “unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24) – a teaching affirmed in the Doctrine of the New Church (e.g. in Arcana Coelestia 10083) 1. If we want to have eternal life, we have to believe in the Lord. But what if we find ourselves besieged by doubts? How can we do anything about that? Can we force ourselves to believe? It can seem to be a hopeless situation, but the Lord gives us hope that we can believe. In Scripture and in the Doctrine of the New Church, He shows us how.

The Affirmative Principle

The first thing to know, if we want to have faith, is that our starting assumptions matter. If we start with the position that we will not believe anything unless it can be proven to us by physical evidence, we will never believe. Arcana Coelestia calls this “the negative principle.” If we want to believe, we need to begin with the affirmative principle: that even if we do not understand something yet, it is true because the Lord says so in His Word. Here’s the description of these two principles from Arcana Coelestia 2568:

There are two principles; one of which leads to all folly and insanity, and the other to all intelligence and wisdom. The former principle is to deny all things, or to say in the heart that we cannot believe them until we are convinced by what we can apprehend, or perceive by the senses; this is the principle that leads to all folly and insanity, and is to be called the negative principle. The other principle is to affirm the things which are of doctrine from the Word, or to think and believe within ourselves that they are true because the Lord has said them: this is the principle that leads to all intelligence and wisdom, and is to be called the affirmative principle.

There are illustrations throughout the Lord’s Word that demonstrate the wisdom of that affirmative principle. The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that many of Jesus’s followers left Jesus after He said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” They called this a “hard saying,” and because it made no sense to them, they walked away. But the twelve disciples remained, and when Jesus asked them why, Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) Rather than rejecting the Lord because of sayings that they found difficult to understand, they continued to follow Him, knowing that His words brought eternal life, no matter how difficult they might be to comprehend – and it is only because they took that affirmative stance that later they were able to understand something of what He meant.

Obedience to the Word

Even when we have the affirmative principle, though, we will naturally have doubts. And the passage quoted above, Arcana Coelestia 2568, goes on to describe people who have doubts before they accept that affirmative principle:

There are some who are in doubt before they deny, and there are some who are in doubt before they affirm. Those who are in doubt before they deny are those who incline to a life of evil; and when this life carries them away, then to the extent that they think of the matters in question, they deny them. But those who are in doubt before they affirm are those who incline to a life of good; and when they allow themselves to be bent to this by the Lord, then to the extent that they think about those things, so far they affirm.

What this tells us is that although we might think of our doubts as a purely intellectual thing, the reality is they have much more to do with the way we live than we realize. We might say to ourselves, “How can I know if Jesus Christ really rose from the dead? How can I actually know that He is God, and that He has an influence on the world today?” And our first instinct might be to think that the way to deal with those doubts is simply to collect enough evidence, weigh it rationally, and come to a conclusion based on pure logic – an intellectual exercise.

The problem, though, is that people don’t actually work that way. Our desires and emotions have far more impact on our ability to assess data than we tend to think, and that’s as true for a committed atheist as it is for a committed Christian. We might not see the connection, but whether or not we want the Lord to be God will have a huge impact on whether we’ll accept or deny the evidence that He is.

What that means is that if we’re experiencing doubt, the way out of that doubt is not simply going to be trying to find more evidence. The way out is to start living as if what the Lord says is true. That means submitting our lives completely to Him and striving to obey His commandments. And once we have done this, once we start to notice the changes in our lives that this brings about, then we start to see the actual truth behind what we’ve been learning. We’ll still have some doubt, but we’ll also start to see the truth more clearly.

That seems backwards, but this really is the way it works. People over the years have noticed that when the Lord gave His commandments to the children of Israel, their response was not, “All that Jehovah has spoken, we will hear and do,” but,

“All that Jehovah has spoken, we will do and hear.” (Exodus 19:8)
The doing comes first, and only after that, because they have obeyed, are the people truly able to hear and comprehend.

We see something similar throughout the Gospel of John; a major theme of that gospel is that only those who are in obedience to God will be able to recognize Jesus as Lord. So, for example, John 3:20-21 says, “For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” It is doing the truth that allows us to come to the light.

And so, in addition to adopting the affirmative principle (“I will believe what the Word says because it is from God”), if we want to believe, we need to act in obedience to the Lord. This is summed up in the short book Doctrine of Faith:

If any one should think within himself, or say to someone else, "Who is able to have the internal acknowledgment of truth which is faith? not I"; let me tell him how he may have it: Shun evils as sins, and come to the Lord, and you will have as much of it as you desire (Faith 12).

Coming to the Lord Jesus Christ

That passage quoted above from the Doctrine of Faith speaks of the need to shun evils as sins if we want to come into a real sight of the truth. Our love of evil clouds our ability to see the truth. But the passage also speaks of one other vital thing: the need to “come to the Lord.” This is the other main thing that we need if we want to have a sight of truth: we need to directly approach the Lord Jesus Christ as God, in thought and in prayer.

We might not see immediately why this is the case; and as with many of the things we’ve been talking about, we can only completely understand it once we’ve actually done it. But the general reason is this: the Lord Jesus Christ is God in human form, and when we think of Him, talk to Him, pray to Him, follow Him, and obey Him, we are drawn into a conjunction with Him in a way that is impossible if we have a vague or distant idea of God as an impersonal force. In Jesus, we see the true, human face of God.

The book True Christian Religion describes the vital importance of approaching the Lord specifically:

A person can only acquire by his own efforts natural faith, which is a firm belief that a thing is so because an authoritative person so declared it. He can also acquire only natural charity, which is working in someone's favour for the sake of some reward. These two contain man's self, and there is no life as yet from the Lord. Still a person by either of these prepares himself to receive the Lord. In so far as he prepares himself, so far does the Lord come in and make his natural faith spiritual, and likewise his charity, and so make both living. These results follow when a person approaches the Lord as the God of heaven and earth. (True Christian Religion 359, emphasis added)

The Gospel of Mark records a poignant example of the way this can look for a person. A man brought his son to the Lord and told the Lord that the disciples had been unable to cast out the spirit that caused the son to foam at the mouth and become rigid. The father said to the Lord, “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” The Lord replied, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And “immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24). That can be our cry, our prayer: “Lord, part of me believes, but part of me doesn’t – help me to completely have faith in You!” If we make that prayer to the Lord, while seeking to obey Him, He will answer our prayer and give us faith. It may not be immediate, but the Lord hears and answers those prayers directed to Him.

Factual Evidence as Confirmation

As we’ve seen, there are several things necessary for us to do if we want to have faith: adopt the affirmative principle, seek to obey the Word, and approach the Lord alone in thought and in prayer. It is only then that we turn to the final part of coming to belief: looking at the facts and the evidence. Here is the conclusion to Arcana Coelestia 2568, which we quoted a few times above:

The more those who think from the negative principle consult rational things, knowledges, and philosophical things, the more do they cast and precipitate themselves into darkness, until at last they deny all things. …. On the other hand, those who think from an affirmative principle can confirm themselves by whatever rational things, by whatever knowledges, and whatever philosophical things they have at command; for all these are to them confirmatory, and give them a fuller idea of the matter.

What does this mean? It means then when we look for evidence from a place of skepticism, from a belief that only physical things are real, we will find a way to use that evidence to come up with physical explanations for things. But if we have that affirmative principle, we can see how that same evidence actually points to the truth of what the Lord says in His Word.

So to return to the specific case of the Lord’s resurrection: we will never find physical proof that satisfies someone with a negative frame of mind. There will always be a natural way to explain it away. But looking from an affirmative perspective, we can see that there is a whole host of evidence confirming that the Lord really did rise from the dead. (By the way, although some internet commenters argue that Jesus was purely mythological, the vast majority of professional Biblical scholars, even agnostics and atheists, assert that Jesus actually existed, so I’m assuming that to be true in presenting the further evidence for His resurrection.) There are hundreds of eyewitness accounts at the time of people independently seeing the risen Lord. There is the empty tomb. There is the assertion from Christians throughout the centuries that they have had a meaningful relationship with Him, and that they have experience His Spirit in them2. All of those things can be explained away, but they can also confirm the truth once we have experienced it ourselves in the reality of coming to know the Lord in our hearts and our minds. And we come to know Him by speaking to Him, by listening to Him, by obeying Him, by acting from Him to love others, and by loving Him. Once we have done this we turn to the worldly evidence, which only serves to confirm and expand what we already know to be true.


1The Doctrine of the New Church does state that those who have been ignorant of the Lord Jesus Christ and yet have lived lives of charity in accordance with whatever religion they have will be saved; but this is because they joyfully accept the Lord when they hear about Him. Those who already know about Him and reject Him cannot enter heaven because He is what makes heaven to be heaven; rejecting Him is rejecting heaven. See some of the passages collected here.

2If you’re interested in looking into this further there are several books that take a positive view of the historical evidence for the Lord’s resurrection, e.g. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona .

Coleman Glenn

Rev. Coleman Glenn is the pastor of the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC, where he lives with his wife Anne Grace and their six-month-old son, Samuel. He maintains a blog (when he manages to find time for it) at