The Gospel of John records an important conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus:
John Chapter 3
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know THAT You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (emphasis mine)
Jesus then talks to Nicodemus about what it means to be “born again” and concludes the conversation by saying:
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes IN Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (emphasis again mine)
Jesus took the time here to make a distinction between belief THAT and trust IN. There’s clearly a difference between knowing THAT Jesus is a good teacher and believing IN Jesus as God and Savior.
In 1996 I did not believe that Jesus was anything more than a misunderstood legend from the first century. I had been a police officer and detective for several years, and I was a proud, independent, willful atheist. I was unmoved (and unconvinced) by the alleged evidence that Jesus actually lived or that the New Testament gospels could be trusted as eyewitness accounts. Well that’s not actually true. To be honest, I was simply unfamiliar with the depth of the evidence and unwilling to examine it fairly. I had been raised by an atheist and a cultural Catholic and thought the God of the Bible was an imaginary, unnecessary crutch.
When I walked into a Christian church in 1996, it was the first time I had ever been in a non-Catholic church building for anything other that a wedding. It’s still a mystery to me why I even decided to go in the first place. I was definitely there for my wife more than I was there for me. I still saw no need for such superstitions. I was, however, captivated by the way the pastor described Jesus. He offered Jesus as a wise sage with important wisdom that could speak to my life and inform my decision making in important areas like work, relationships and parenting. While I wasn’t interested in Christianity, I was interested in what this ancient sage had to say.
I bought my first Bible. It was an inexpensive pew Bible; I think it cost me less than five dollars. As I read through the gospels, I was surprised to find that they seemed to display characteristics of true eyewitness accounts. One of these is something I call “unintended eyewitness support.” It’s not unusual for an eyewitness to a crime to describe the events in such a way that more questions are raised than answered. It’s not until an additional eyewitness is interviewed that the questionable observation is reconciled in some way. The question raised by the first eyewitness is answered by the second. There were other attributes in the gospels that also seemed consistent with eyewitness accounts so I decided to test the gospels using a technique I was employing with homicide suspects at the time. I’ve written about my use of Forensic Statement Analysis on the gospel of Mark, so I won’t cover that material again, but suffice it to say, I eventually became convinced that the Gospels were a true eyewitness account from people who lived in the first century and saw something that changed their lives. I no longer believed that Jesus was a legend. I believed THAT Jesus was who he said he was. I considered myself a Christian.
But it was years before I truly understood the difference between “belief THAT” and “belief IN”. I was investigating an officer involved shooting and interviewing an officer who found himself looking down the barrel of a handgun held by a parolee who didn’t want to go back to prison. This particular parolee was first to draw his weapon, and the officer told me he had no choice but to tense his stomach muscles and prepare to be shot. He knew he was wearing his bulletproof vest and he also knew THAT the vest would likely prevent the suspect’s round from killing him. But his knowledge of the vest was about to be tested for the first time. The officer was about to transition from belief THAT the vest could stop the bullet to trust IN the vest to save his life. He lived to tell me the story.
I knew it was time for me to move from belief THAT to trust IN. My rather sterile investigation of the gospels lead me to believe THAT Jesus was God and THAT He died for my sins and I certainly accepted His offer of Salvation. But while I considered myself “saved,” I seemed to trust Jesus for little else. I knew it was time to stretch, to step out in faith, to dream much bigger than I had ever dreamed before and trust Jesus for the results. I began to serve in the local church, entered seminary, began to write and podcast and eventually found myself with the opportunity to write a book. The crazy journey began to take shape.
I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to know THAT Jesus lived and died for you without ever trusting IN Him. But I also want to remind you that it’s possible to trust IN Jesus without ever knowing with certainty THAT he lived, THAT we can trust the Gospel eyewitness accounts, THAT there is sufficient reason to place our trust in Christ (not on the basis of wishful thinking, but on the firm foundation of the evidence). In other words, it’s possible to believe the truth by accident! I do think God honors accidental faith. We sometimes call this “blind faith”: the faith we hold without ever investigating the evidence. It’s possible to have blind faith in something that just happens to be true. We can hold the truth accidentally. It would be great if we were all this lucky.
But while God may accredit this kind of blind trust as “saving faith,” this kind of faith is easily rocked and challenged by those in our world who either deny that Jesus ever lived, or deny that He is who He said He was. Evidential apologists like me hope that our work will help others to have a richer faith that is built on both a trust IN Jesus as Savior and a sure knowledge THAT this trust is not misplaced. The evidence is on our side and the time for an accidental faith is long behind us.