Several years ago I was part of a question and answer session with high school students concerning what we believe about the last things, e.g. heaven, hell, and purgatory. At one point one of the participants asked me how I knew that heaven and hell existed. Now, I’m not sure if they asked this question out of interest, or to see if they could trip me up. In either case, if their reaction was any barometer, I think they were genuinely surprised when I replied that I didn’t really know that heaven and hell existed; rather I believed they existed.
Pressed to clarify the difference between knowledge and belief, I explained that knowledge is based on personal experience, while belief is based on the witness or testimony of others. For example, I know that New York City exists because I have been there. I believe that Miami exists, not because I have been there, but because of the testimony of others who have been there.
Now in making the above distinction, I don’t mean to suggest that those things which we are cognizant of because of our belief are any less real than those things we know because we have experienced them personally. Belief and knowledge are often twin sources of inspiration, motivation, guidance, and hope for our lives. Belief is not a poor substitute for knowledge. It has its own unique place in our lives. It has importance and value for our lives, and because of this it cannot be ignored or denied.
Particularly with regard to matters of faith, I think belief is as important as knowledge. In fact, our beliefs can be as challenging and reassuring as the knowledge which comes from our experience. For example, my belief in heaven is a source of real assurance for me as I live my life, just as my belief in hell is likewise a real source of motivation for me as I live my life.
In terms of God, I know that God exists because I have experienced God’s presence and grace in my life. My knowledge of God is based on personal experience. I say this because in my life I have experienced God as loving Father, redeeming Son, and inspiring Spirit. In regard to heaven and hell, however, since, I have not yet died and experienced either of them, my belief in them is based on the testimony of others—very specifically, the testimony of Jesus Christ.
For it was Jesus who told us: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will have eternal life.”
As we celebrate the great Feast of Easter today, my prayer for all of us is that we might come to experience and know the presence of the risen Lord Jesus in our lives, so that our belief in Jesus’ promise of eternal life might give us courage and hope for our lives.