Dealing with personal doubt is usually more of a pastoral issue left to the ministers and church workers, rather than lay people like me. However, this is an issue that often comes up in conversation and I’ve been asked quite a few times in recent months. The topic of doubt also appears to be seen as a bit of a taboo topic in churches and other Christian gatherings, and I know I have struggled with doubt more than I am brave enough to admit, for fear of being judged by other Christians. And so as a Christian who, like many others, has struggled with doubts, I’m going to try to lay out the things that have helped me conquer doubts about God.
The sociologist and apologist Dr. Os Guinness who wrote “Doubt: Faith in Two Minds”, described doubt as a “half-way stage between faith and disbelief”1. The breadth that diversity of doubt Christians experience is huge: from doubting God’s very existence, to His goodness, to the historical credibility of the gospels, to the divine inspiration of the bible, to God’s love and much more besides. And so it’s very difficult to know where to start with an article about dealing with doubt. However, in my reading of the bible, chats with wise Christians, and personal experiences, I believe that there are a number of generalised approaches one can take to help deal with doubt.
Doubt Is Not Unusual
I think the first thing I’d want to say to a Christian struggling with doubt is that doubt is common. I’ve had many Christian friends who I view as mature, wise, “on-fire” Christians, who have expressed their struggles with doubt as some point in their walks with God. And in this secularised Western world, it is hardly surprising that Christians sometimes find themselves questioning the existence and/or identity of an invisible God.
However, if we were to rewind the clock 2000 years, Jesus’ disciples seemed to face the same sorts of struggles, despite some very different circumstances. In the gospels, we read that time and time again, in many different situations and facing many different types of evidence, the disciples expressed their doubt in Jesus and His claims.
A repeated refrain in Mark’s gospel is that Jesus’ disciples repeatedly doubted Jesus’ claim that He was from God, despite witnessing Jesus’ miracles including Jesus calming the storm2, after which the disciples asked each other “Who is this? Even in the wind and the waves obey him”, and Jesus walking on water3 after which, the disciples still didn’t understand who Jesus was. And of course the most infamous post-miracle doubt can be found in John 20:24-29, which describes that the disciple Thomas doubted the testimony of all the other disciples that they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
Clearly, there are some major differences between our lives in the 21st Century, and 1st Century life as a disciple of Jesus. However the point is, doubt was and is a very common issue Christians struggle with; even the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ miracles, heard Jesus’ teaching first-hand, and could ask Jesus all their burning questions, at times, struggled with doubting Jesus’ identity.
Doubt Is Not Shameful
The reason why I think it is important to emphasise how common doubt is, is because many people view doubt as something to be ashamed of. I know I often feel ashamed and/or scared to admit that I have struggled with doubt, for fear of being judged.
Although Jesus repeatedly rebuked His disciples when they doubted His identity, mission or power, it is also clear that Jesus didn’t see “having questions” as a bad trait per se. In fact, Jesus appears to sometime actively encourage it; one great example is John the Baptist.
In the first account of John the Baptist’s teaching, we see him proclaiming that Jesus was God’s promised saviour and Messiah6, and upon baptising Jesus, he hears God’s voice from Heaven saying of Jesus “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”7. However, John the Baptist was subsequently imprisoned by King Herod8, and while in prison, doubts began to seep into John’s psyche. He asked two of his disciples to find Jesus and ask Him point-blank “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”. When they eventually found and asked Jesus, Jesus didn’t get offended or angry that John the Baptist has begun to have doubts. Instead, Jesus replied “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”9 In the words of acclaimed writer and apologist Dr. Lee Strobel:
In other words (Jesus says) “Go back to John and tell him about the miracles that you have personally witnessed with your own eyes that prove to you that I am the one I claim to be.” So they go off to tell John. Now, does the fact that John dared to raise a question about Jesus disqualify him from any role in the kingdom of God? Does it poison Jesus against him? No. It’s after this that Jesus gets up in front of a group and says “I tell you, among those born of women, no-one is greater than John”. John the doubter! John, the one who dared to raise a question. It’s ok to have questions. It is ok to have doubts. As long as we use those to propel us towards Jesus who embodies the answers.10
From the story of John the Baptist, we learn that doubt isn’t shameful, but also more importantly, doubt is conquerable. It was immediately after John’s expression of doubt over Jesus’ identity that Jesus publically endorsed and accredited John, showing that John’s faith could overcome his doubt. A similar pattern can be seen in Jesus’ disciples; after all the doubts surrounding Jesus’ identity, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrected appearances triggered a huge paradigm shift the faith of the disciples. From doubting followers who abandoned Jesus at the cross, the disciples became the revolutionary founders of the global church, who, history tells us, were all willing to suffer and die for their faith in Jesus (for details about the martyrdoms of the disciples, see Historical Evidence Part 2). Post-resurrection, the disciples doubt had been truly defeated!
So how can we in the 21st Century conquer doubt? In my opinion, there are two dimensions of doubt that need to be tackled: the intellectual and the spiritual.
The Intellectual Dimension of Doubt
In my experience, doubts often manifest themselves in difficult questions about the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, gnawing at people’s mind: questions such as “How can I know that God exists?”, “How do I know God’s not evil?”, “How can I be sure Jesus really existed?”, “Could this all be a delusion?” or “How do I know the disciples were not mistaken?”. If you are a reader my blog articles, you’ll know that I have attempted to tackle most of these questions in some form in my other writing. However, when talking about doubt, I very much agree with Dr. William Lane Craig when he said in an interview “I think, frankly, no human being in this lifetime will ever have all of his questions answered. There’s always going to be a ‘question-bag’ on the shelf of unanswered questions that we haven’t had time to deal with in this lifetime.”11
In essence, doubt can be seen as, in part, lack of intellectual satisfaction with the answers available to the questioner. This may be big festering apologetic questions, or small, seemingly insignificant questions that pop up despite lots of research and evidence to the contrary. On a personal level, I’ve written a book titled Evidence for the Existence of God, and since writing it, have still had to battle with doubt over God’s existence, as new and sometimes obscure arguments and questions come to mind. And so what to do with these unanswered questions? I think there are two things Christians can remind themselves of when doubts crop up.
Firstly, it is worth remembering that disbelieving in the God of the bible doesn’t rid you of the problem of unanswered questions- it just changes the type and magnitude of the questions. In Christ, we find answers to some of the biggest questions of life, including those of origin, meaning, morality and destiny. And thus disbelief opens a vast vacuum in your answers to life’s fundamental questions. Dr. Ravi Zacharias summarised better than I ever could:
“I think I could not be an atheist- I don’t have that much a faith. It takes too much to disbelieve… Because sometimes you think that it (unbelief) will relieve you from an awful lot. But it doesn’t. It brings a baggage all on its own that you cannot explain and understand… When you wander into the terrain of doubt, there are no answers in there either… For the Christian the fundamental questions are answered and the peripheral ones are not. For the unbelieving person the fundamental questions are unanswered and some peripheral questions are answered.”12
And secondly, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that we are able to present our intellectual needs and desires to the source of intellect and information- what the apostle John calls the “Logos”.
In John 1, we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning… The Word began flesh and made his dwelling among us.”13
John opens his gospel by calling Jesus “The Word”, which is translated from the Greek word “Logos” (from which we get English words such as “logic”, “logistics” and “logarithm”). The word “Logos” is a fascinating word for which there is no single equivalent in English or in the Romantic languages. It is widely known that the translators of the Vulgate (from Greek to Latin) struggled to find an adequate Latin equivalent14 for the Greek word “Logos”. The word “Logos” can be dated as early as 6 BC, with Greek philosopher Heracleitus, who described it as a cosmic reasoning power. Later, the Stoics defined the Logos as an active rational and spiritual principle that permeated all reality, and the source of the intelligence and the intelligibility of the universe.15 Therefore, our modern-day definition of “Logos” has within it the elements of an all-pervading, cosmic intelligence, power, rationality and communication, that is the source of all intelligence and our comprehension of the universe and everything within it. It is quite a name for John to give Jesus!
Therefore, when Christians have doubts stemming from intellectual dissatisfaction with the answers to hand, I believe that the best place that we can go is to Jesus, the cosmic source of all intelligence. Obviously, we can’t invite Jesus round for dinner like the disciples could have done 2000 years ago. However, we do have access to pretty detailed accounts of Jesus’ teaching in the four gospels. In fact, the gospel of John appears to have been written with the target audience being those with doubts or questions (or total unbelief); John 20:30-31 (NIV) reads “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” I genuinely believe that the best place one can go when facing doubts is to the gospel, where you won’t necessarily find specific answers to your questions, but you will meet the Logos and hear His message. And I have found that when I’ve been wrestling with doubts and turned to the gospels, the doubts almost always begin to lose their strangle-hold on my mind, as I refocus on the life and message of Jesus.
There is clearly another big way we can approach the Logos and present our doubts to Him, and that is by prayer. I’ll be coming onto prayer shortly.
But in summary, for me, the intellectual elements of doubts can be helped by reminding ourselves that disbelief throws up more questions than answers, and by reading the gospels and learning about the source of all intelligence.
The Spiritual Dimension of Doubt
It would be wrong however, to end there. Doubt is often seen as an intellectual issue that requires answers and thought. However, the reality is that there is a deep spiritual dimension to this issue of doubt. In 1 Peter 5:8, Peter writes “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” In His teaching, Jesus warned that the Devil is viciously working to hinder or destroy the faith of Christians. Jesus refers to the Devil as the “father of lies”16 who is capable of “snatching away” the faith sown in the hearts of people17. It seems that Jesus posits the Devil as sometimes partially responsible for sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of Christians, making doubts a spiritual battle as well as an intellectual one.
So how on Earth can we fight this spiritual battle of doubt? Well, Jesus gives us an incredibly simple answer; at the last supper, Jesus turns to Peter and says “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus’ answer to the spiritual dimension of doubt is simply prayer!
And so when we have doubts, it seems like the best thing we can do is turn in prayer to Jesus, both as the Logos- the source of intelligence, and also as the conqueror and King who can and has defeated Satan at the cross, and has guaranteed Satan’s inexorable destruction18. When doubts creep into our minds, we can pray the prayer that Jesus prayed for Peter- that in the doubts, God will protect our faith, and that we’ll make it through the doubts to continue God’s works on Earth.
Dealing with Christian Doubt
So as I wrap up this article, which I have found really quite challenging to write, and I’m aware that there is a lot more that could be said on the topic. But I just want to summarise by saying that doubts are common, and are not something we should be ashamed about. And when doubts arise, we can know that disbelief won’t leave us with no unanswered questions, and through God’s grace and love, we can approach Jesus, who is the source and home of intellectual satisfaction, and the King who can defeat doubts and the evil one who may be behind them, via prayer and reading God’s word. And we have a God who loves us, cares for our well-being, and is on our side when doubts creep in.
- Interview for “One Minute Apologist”. Video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY0DXkXhUE4
- Mark 4:35-41
- Mark 6:45-50
- Mark 8:31
- Mark 8:32, John 13:36, John 14:5-6, John 18:10
- Luke 3:1-6
- Matthew 3:17
- Luke 3:20
- Luke 7:22-23
- Talk for “Grafted Together Ministries”. Video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Shwz3dIjzzI
- Interview for Reasonable Faith. Video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYq-xNpokEs
- Q&A with Ravi Zacharias. Audio can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz6wWQvQ_D8
- John 1:1-2,14
- David L. Jeffrey (1992). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica (2015)
- John 8:44
- Matthew 13:18
- 1 John 3:8, Revelation 17:11