Due to increased interest in a post from last year, “Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?,” I’ve decided to post this, an older reflection on various kinds of “doubt” and the value of what I call “faithful doubt.”
There has never been a time in my adult Christian life when I have not doubted.
That’s quite the confession coming from a pastor and former Bible college and Christian university professor. Nevertheless, it is true: doubt and uncertainty have been my constant, uncomfortable companions since God grabbed hold of me as a comfortably hypocritical university student. Alongside a growing desire to read and understand the Scriptures, there developed a growing body of questions about the Bible and the God of the Bible, paralleled by a gnawing suspicion that the answers I had always been taught were too naïve, too simplistic, and possibly not even true.
It is often thought that doubt and faith are mutually exclusive, or even that doubt is the “unsaving” nemesis of “saving” faith. It’s true that Scripture can sometimes describe “doubt” or “unbelief” in negative ways. However, this sort of doubt is often of the “antagonistic skepticism” variety, the atheistic or anti-Christian sort that turns its back on God completely (e.g. Hebrews 3:12). Or, it can be the “wavering hesitation” kind, the agnostic or fickle type of doubt that immobilizes the person in perpetual indecision (e.g. James 1:6-8).
But there is another kind of doubt that, while perhaps not a full-fledged virtue, is nonetheless free from vice. If the “antagonistic skepticism” has its back to God, and the “wavering hesitation” doubt stands sideways, shifting its weight one way then the next, there is a “faithful doubt” that kneels before God, facing God—yet with some nagging uncertainties about that which it perceives.
Let’s be honest: certainty is a myth. Or better, true certainty is the sole prerogative of God, the All-Seeing and All-Knowing One. Mere mortals must content themselves with a conviction coming from faith. While the fruits of human certainty and conviction can sometimes look the same, there is a subtle difference between the two, a subtle difference that makes a world of difference.
Certainty claims an unbroken connection with the divine perspective; it says, “I know because God knows.” Conviction acknowledges the fallibility and finiteness that mark our humanity; it says, “I know only in part, I see only through a dark glass.” Certainty says, “I have faith, which is as good as sight.” Conviction says, “I have faith, despite my lack of sight.” Certainty says, “There is no other way for anyone to explain the evidence.” Conviction says, “There is no other way for me to explain what I’ve experienced.” Certainty says, “I know and therefore everyone should act.” Conviction says, “I believe and therefore I act, and I act alongside others of similar conviction.” At its worst, certainty can lead to a knowledge that merely puffs itself up. At its best, conviction can lead to a love that builds others up.
It is this “conviction,” as I’ve called it, that characterizes authentic Christian faith—whether that of the “doubtless faithful” who seem to live free from difficult questions, or that of the “faithful doubters” haunted by these questions throughout their lives.
While the Church needs the “doubtless faithful,” it also needs its “faithful doubters.” They are the ones who are suspicious of well-worn human rituals and wary of the latest trends and fads; with guidance they can properly scrutinize these for adherence to genuinely Christian convictions. They are the ones who are unconvinced by simplistic answers to complex questions; with encouragement they may seek more nuanced solutions which are paradoxically both less and more satisfying. These “faithful doubters” may find themselves on the fringes of mainstream Christianity, at times even missing out on the full blessings of community life. But the Church needs people on the boundaries, engaging our culture with authentic questions and conversation while also calling the Church to an ever deeper and more authentic faith and life.
For those who tend toward the doubt of “antagonistic skepticism,” hear the word of the Lord through the author of Hebrews: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” For those who, like me, are characterized by “faithful doubt,” learn well the prayer of the desperate father: “Lord, I believe! Please help my unbelief!” And for those who have been blessed with an extra measure of faith, follow the command of Jude: “Be merciful to those who doubt.”
I, for one, need all the mercy I can get.
Originally published in Mosaic, the student newspaper at Prairie College, in February 2007. Modified slightly, mostly to reflect current circumstances. For more on doubt and faith, certainty and conviction, check out books like Daniel Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty, Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt, and Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty.