By H. Lynn Gardner
Doubt is a human problem common in the process of learning and knowing. Because beliefs in ultimate issues cannot be absolutely proved, both believers and unbelievers experience doubts. The more important the matter doubted, the greater the urgency to address the doubt. Doubts concerning God and his truth assume supreme importance.
Doubt is not unbelief—the decision of the will not to believe in God. Doubt is not skepticism—the decision to doubt everything. Doubt is a state of uncertainty wavering between faith and unbelief. Doubt, while not sin, is an
intellectual temptation to sinful unbelief.
Honest questions can help in distinguishing truth from falsehood. Genuine doubt can guard against credulity. Honest doubt can lead to a stronger faith; dishonest doubt can lead to unbelief. Doubt can be a smoke screen for a stubborn refusal to believe the truth. Charles Hummel said, “Doubt can be intellectual and spiritual thirst, while unbelief
is refusal to drink even when the water is offered.”
Kinds of Doubt
Classifying doubts into kinds or families helps us identify and understand doubt. Understanding doubt can protect us against the breakdown of faith and helps in ministering to doubters.
Factual doubts arise from ignorance or misinformation. This kind of doubt questions if the statement is true. Honest questioners will seek evidence and truth to answer this doubt.
Philosophical doubts arise from wrong assumptions and wrong thinking. Incorrect assumptions result in faulty views of God and reality. Some scientists question creation by God because they believe everything has a natural explanation, leaving no room for the supernatural. False philosophical assumptions must be refuted by demonstrating mistaken reasoning. We must distinguish between facts and the interpretation of facts.
Emotional doubts arise from feelings. Emotional doubts often come from hurts, anxieties, depression, disappointments, and hostile opposition. Beliefs are judged by feelings rather than facts. Identifying the painful feelings and experiences behind the doubt helps free the person to think more clearly about the issue. Our feelings may mislead us about God and our relationship with him. Failure to experience a sense of God’s reality does not mean he is not present.
Human beings are not controlled by reason alone. Imagination and feelings can “carry out a blitz” (C. S. Lewis) on our beliefs. Clear thinking will help the doubter realize that feelings do not establish truth. Fellowship with persons who genuinely care can help one see past the emotions causing the doubt.
Volitional doubt arises from the will. Doubts of the will come from a rebellious heart desiring to be independent from God. The problem here is not the absence of evidence for the truth, but an arrogant heart rejecting unwanted truth. Personal preference does not establish truth. Those who do not practice Christian truth will doubt its truthfulness. This kind of doubter must repent of self-will so he or she can honestly pursue the evidence and experience true belief.
Jesus and Doubters
Jesus did not humiliate doubters. He did not demand a blind faith. To those troubled with honest questions and sincere doubts he gave good, solid reasons for faith in him.
John the Baptist, while in prison, sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was “the one who is to come” (Matthew 11:3). Harmonizing his predictions about the Messiah and what he observed about Jesus’ ministry perhaps perplexed John. Jesus responded by pointing to his miracles and fulfilled prophecies. This objective evidence answered John’s question, strengthened his confidence, and settled his heart. Michael Wilkins comments, “John’s question reassures us that if this great prophet has questions, it’s all right for us to have questions as well.”
Because Thomas wanted evidence before he would believe in the risen Christ (John 20:25), people call him “doubting Thomas.” This designation may be unfair because all the apostles doubted the women’s report of the resurrection. Nevertheless, Jesus did not ignore, ridicule, or condemn Thomas. The risen Lord asked him to examine the evidence in his hand and side
(v. 27). He presented evidence to dispel the doubt.
Dealing with Doubt
An atheist college student recalled questioning his Sunday school teacher when he was 11 about the reliability of the Old Testament miracles. He reported, “She said rather curtly that they were to be accepted, not discussed. When I kept asking, she told me either to be quiet and believe them or leave. So I left.” She could have found someone who could answer his honest question. One’s inability to answer the doubter’s question does not mean Christianity has been refuted. Where our knowledge is limited we need to grow in our understanding to strengthen our faith.
These suggestions can help seekers struggling with doubt.
1. Examine your motives. Is the doubt a sincere desire to know the truth, or is it a smoke screen justifying one’s selfish lifestyle? A minister’s adultery made it convenient for him to doubt Hell.
2. Realize questions are normal. Godly persons throughout history have experienced doubt. Timothy Keller states that people “too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic.”
You have a right to question. Given the limitations of human knowledge, doubt can be a part of the process of growth in faith. When we struggle with doubt, those help most who listen to our concerns and respect our struggle.
3. Honestly seek answers. Christianity welcomes questions. Francis Schaeffer emphasized, “Every honest question deserves an honest answer.” Just because we do not know the answer to our question does not mean a satisfying answer does not exist. Skeptics who subject their own beliefs to the rigorous scrutiny they give Christian beliefs will find that their doubts about Christianity are not as solid as they thought.
4. Do not expect exhaustive answers. We do not have absolute certainty about ultimate issues or worldviews. We do not know everything about anything.
We live every day on a practical certainty—not absolute proof. We do not know everything about ourselves, but we know we are real. Our limited human minds cannot comprehend everything about the infinite God, but we can know enough to have a solid basis for belief in him and his revelation in Christ and Scripture.
5. Turn doubts into prayers. True seekers talk to God about their doubts. Ask him to help you understand and find answers to your questions.
6. While seeking answers, continue the study of God’s Word and fellowship with believers. Unbelieving teachers and skeptical friends can influence believers by what they value and believe. Don’t become isolated so you have to handle the pressures of society on your own. Doubters struggling to know God need to continue in fellowship and worship with a body of believers. They can be your life support. Keep searching Scripture for answers.
7. If necessary, go back to square one and rethink the basis of your faith. When you feel your faith is no longer authentic, you need to restudy the basic reasons why you believe in God, Christ, and the Bible. Reexamining one’s faith is to be preferred to skating through life on the thin ice of a superficial belief lacking solid conviction.
Today’s culture questions our faith and encourages doubt. Intellectual minded Christians can be tempted to think they have to be doubters to be intelligent believers. They may use their influence to encourage others to doubt. However, we need to build faith, not play devil’s advocate. Doubts and questions will surface on their own.
Doubt can be destructive or it can lead to growth in faith and understanding. Toying with and feeding doubt in a dishonest way often leads to unbelief. Alister McGrath cautions against preoccupation with doubt. “Doubt is like an attention-seeking child: when you pay attention to it, it demands that you pay even more attention . . . . If we feed our doubts, they’ll grow.” Starve your doubts by feeding your faith. Approach doubt as an invitation to spiritual growth, a deeper faith, and a personal relationship with God.
Many doubters do not end as causalities but become effective defenders of the faith. C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell are examples. Wrestling with the deep questions of life often associated with religious doubt prepares a person to understand the anguish other doubter’s experience. They can compassionately minister to those searching for truth (Jude 20).
Jesus taught us that those who seek will find and those who want to know and obey God will find him (Matthew 7:7; John 7:17). Knowing the faithfulness of God gives us the reassurance we need.
H. Lynn Gardner is a freelance writer in Carl Junction, Missouri.
Myths about Doubt
1. Doubt is insignificant.
2. Doubt is rare.
3. Doubt is sin.
4. Doubt is unbelief.
5. Biblical leaders never doubted.
6. Christians don’t have doubts.
7. Doubt can’t lead to spiritual growth.
8. Doubt is a virtue.
Read More about Conquering Doubt
“Understanding Doubt” and “Encountering Doubt” in Commending and Defending Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Apologetics
by H. Lynn Gardner
(College Press, 2010)
Good Questions On Belief & Doubt
by Standard Publishing
God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith beyond a Shadow of Doubt
by Os Guinness
(Crossway Books, 1996)
The Thomas Factor: Using Your Doubts to Draw Closer to God
by Gary R. Habermas
(Broadman & Holman, 1999)
Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith
by Alister McGrath
(IVP Books, 2006)