Dealing with Doubts Transcript/Program 1

By: Dr. Gary Habermas; ©2003
Are you plagued with doubts? Dr. Gary Habermas talks about the different kinds of doubts that he has seen.



Today on The John Ankerberg Show, are you a Christian who doubts? Why is it that after placing belief in Christ, you are plagued with questions about your faith? Why do you live each day wondering if you are truly a Christian and doubting whether God has really forgiven your sins? You fear going to hell, but aren’t sure you will go to Heaven. Why do you have these doubts? Is there a biblical way to conquer your depressing thoughts of unbelief? Can you really get rid of all your doubts? Today John’s guest is Dr. Gary Habermas, chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is the author of more than 21 books, including a book on doubt called The Thomas Factor. We invite you to join us.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. Are you a Christian who has doubts about your salvation? About your relationship with God? You wonder where God is in times of tragedy or disappointment? I know some of you have been struggling with doubt for years. Why? Because you’ve told us. You’ve almost given up hope that you’ll experience what other Christians seem to experience all the time. And the Bible does promise peace and assurance to God’s children, so why don’t you have it? You certainly want it.
Well, I think we also have to realize there are many kinds of doubts, but emotional doubt is probably the worst, the most destructive and debilitating of all the doubts you can have. Emotional doubt robs you of your joy with Christ. It burdens your worship, makes you feel guilty, keeps you from running to God with your problems. And when you do talk to God, all you seem to get is silence in return.
Well, Dr. Gary Habermas is my guest today. He’s going to help us with this topic. He knows well what he’s talking about. As a student, he was a skeptic himself. He attended Michigan State University, where he got his Ph.D. And in the process of his studies, he found out that the evidence for Christianity was persuasive, it was strong, and he became a believer. Therefore, he has the credentials to talk to some of you who have intellectual doubts that are keeping you from Christ. But then, after becoming a Christian, Dr. Habermas tragically lost his wonderful young wife to cancer and went through the full spectrum of feelings, emotions and all the turbulence that center around death and the tragedy. He asked, “Doesn’t God answer every prayer we make in Jesus’ name?” Well, in light of all these things, Gary has written two books on doubt to help people find assurance of their salvation, as well as faith in God’s power to conquer their doubts.
And, Gary, I am glad that you are here today. There are so many areas that we could start off with, but let’s start off with, when talking to people who have doubt, define the different kinds of doubts that you’ve seen as you’ve talked with them.
Dr. Gary Habermas: First, just a definition. I would define doubt as “uncertainty.” That’s probably the best synonym, in my opinion. Uncertainly regarding God or our relationship to Him. Questions about God or questions about us in light of Him.
Now, we see different kinds of questions. We see people asking questions about the truth of Christianity. We see people saying, “Hey, I don’t question the truth of Christianity at all; I just wonder if I can be counted among their number. Did I say the right words? Did I do the right thing? What if I’m wrong?” And we see the other kind of questions you asked, too: “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” And “How come it doesn’t seem that my prayers get past the ceiling?”
I think it’s convenient if we divide “doubt” into three family groupings. And I do it in this order because doubt often progresses this way. First of all, factual doubt. Factual doubt is fairly simple, not necessarily simple because there are no good questions, but simple the way a clean break is simple compared to a compound fracture. Because the answer to factual doubt is the facts, and in my opinion, no belief system is clearer with data than Christianity. So, you have factual questions, you have factual answers, and that’s the key.
Ankerberg: Yes. And I’ve got to say, though, from the guy that’s been raised basically in the streets, and we have so many broken down homes today in our society, and they’ve never seen God, never been to church, okay, and to start talking about God, this is the furthest thing from their mind – that there’s a reality, that God is a reality, that He’s actually there. Because for them, they don’t see evidence of that. Okay? So, that’s part of the intellectual doubt that comes, so we’ll talk to that. But keep going.
Habermas: Yes. And the second kind, as you said, emotional doubt, is by far the most common and by far the most painful. I’ve done some work with a psychologist buddy of mine and we’ve given people batteries of exams so we can kind of tell – or he does the work on this – personality types. And we kind of predict what kind of doubt certain personality types have and we’ve come up with a scale that you can take, questions, and see what kind of doubt you have. Well, it’s from that we learned, and this is just a guess, maybe 70 percent of doubters are primarily emotional doubters. It’s the most common and it’s very painful, but it’s the one concerning which there are the most twists and turns because it’s not as bad, generally, as the person tells himself.
Ankerberg: Define more about what emotional doubt is. What do you mean?
Habermas: Sure. Well, factual doubt comes from asking tough questions: Was Jesus really the Son of God? Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Emotional doubt is mood related; it’s personality related. And it often comes, we don’t stop and think about this, but it comes after a hard day in the office. It comes after flunking an exam. It comes after a child is having issues. It comes perhaps when you ask somebody out and they say, “No.” I mean, you get caught up with things emotionally and things don’t work out as you think they should, and it’s those moments. Often late at night in bed, and you say, “What if I’m going to hell?”
Now, I’ve taken informal surveys among thousands of people. How many of you, after salvation, have contemplated at some point that you could just be… maybe… what if… you’re going to hell? I’ve seen up to a hundred percent of hands raised.
Ankerberg: Sure.
Habermas: Typically, I just did this a few days ago with a group, 70 or 80 percent. Very common. That’s a “what if” kind of doubt. You say to the person, “Well, John, do you have any reason to think that you’re going to hell?” “Well, no. But, what if?”
Or I could ask the same factual question. See, doubt has more to do with why you’re saying what you’re saying, than it does with what you’re saying. So you could say, “Well, what if Christianity is false? Well, John, maybe you have a question you want to lay on the table here.”
“No. I just wondered, what if it is?”
“Nothing on your mind?”
“No, nothing. But what if….”
They’re asking factual questions, but “what if” questions are usually emotional. And so they are fact-related – first category; mood-related – second category. See, I may ask about the truth of Christianity, but I’m not asking about the data. I’m asking how I feel about the data, and I’m asking, “What’s going on in my life?” when I’m asking that question. That’s emotional.
Ankerberg: Yes. And the emotional does come into the theological because of what you do believe influences what you feel.
Habermas: Oh, absolutely. What you say to yourself influences what you do and how you feel. And so if you’re not clicking on all cylinders up here, I mean, we all know to say, “It’s a great day until someone cuts me off in traffic.” And the minute I say, “Bummer! This always happens. Bad day coming!” all of a sudden I feel doubt. It’s kind of a process that happens often with us. And what are we talking about? Again, “feelings.”
Ankerberg: Alright, let’s talk a little bit about the “intellectual” doubt, but I want to spend the most of the time on the “emotional” doubt. What are the big ones in terms of the intellectual problems? Give us a couple of hints on how to get through those.
Habermas: Well, by the way, the third one is volitional, which has to do with “will,” and that can be a lot more serious. The person has very few feelings, and it’s loss of motivation. The person who the zeal is gone; they’re on the fence, or they’re worse and they’re starting to drift.
Okay, what kind of things are you saying with factual doubt. The question might be this: “I’ve heard the Bible is the Word of God, but, come on! All religions of the world claim this sort of thing. What data do we have for this?” You might press on that. Or the deity of Christ.
But frequently, what I usually see, if the answer to factual doubt is the facts, there’s a right way and a wrong way to ask about facts. I think the closer to the center of Christianity you get, what believers call many times the “fundamental doctrines,” those are the ones that should make a difference. But that’s not what you see. Many Christians, while asking factual questions, ask them about secondary issues. I mean, you’ve done a lot of programs on things like this. What do Christians disagree over? Things like: What is the age of the earth? Am I eternally secure or am I not eternally secure? What about the ‘sign’ gifts?” Pre-mill, a-mill, pre-trib, post-trib. And some people feel very, very strongly about them. That’s fine; nothing wrong with having a view. But I think the great many of us would recognize that a Christian is not a Christian because of what view they hold on the millennium.
So two things you have to do with factual doubt. You have to know the data and recall it and bring it to bear on the problem. Secondly, you have to see what it is you’re asking questions about. You want to major in the major. Paul in Romans 14 and 15 tells us not to judge another person about certain issues, and he picks two pithy, very difficult issues, one moral, one theological: vegetarianism, meat offered to idols; and secondly, what day do you worship on. And Paul doesn’t step in there and say, “Here, you parse the verbs this way and this way and over here, this way.” He says, “The man who eats, eats to the Lord. The man who doesn’t eat, (well, he’s wrong? No.) “To the Lord, he doesn’t eat. The one who takes a day, takes that day to the Lord. And the one doesn’t,” the implications are, “doesn’t do it, but to the Lord.” [Rom. 14:6] We don’t have to solve every issue in the world. There’s nothing wrong with living with questions, and I think we need to tell ourselves this is a complicated world. The reason Christians disagree is not because the Bible is not this or the Bible is not that, but because we’re persons.
By the way, the root of doubt is, number one, we’re finite persons; number two, we’re sinners. That’s the root of doubt. Not because the Bible is not clear or whatever. But if we major in the major, minor the minor, and then concentrate on those major doctrines, Christianity is pretty clear. That’s why Christians who have trusted Christ, there is very little disagreement about those central doctrines. I think that’s very significant.
Ankerberg: Alright. Stick with one of them that keeps coming up with some people who have doubt and that is that, “Yeah, God is a God of love, but not for me.” You’ve got “election, not elect,” so they’re not going to make it. I mean, that’s a theological problem that affects whether or not they can accept the promises of God. Well, what’s your advice in terms of it being a very controversial question?
Habermas: It depends, as I said, not so much on what they’re asking, but the angle from which they’re asking it. If they say, “Well, what is your view on this position of sovereignty, free will, so on and so on,” one of the first things I’m going to say is, colloquially I’ll say, “Who died and left me boss of this kingdom?” I may teach theology or I may teach philosophy, but that doesn’t mean I’m the ‘be all, end all’ end of this.” But also, a person’s salvation does not depend on whether they emphasize God’s free will or man’s. There are different ways to slice this pie. See, I would not want to answer that question in the sense that by answering that question, I give the person the impression what they say about this is crucial. Then they get off in this quandary because Christians are just all over the map on it. To me, the issue is this: What are you telling yourself about it? If you’re saying, “Well, you know what, I can be elect, but, man, what if I’m not? Could I be going to hell? What if I didn’t say the right words?” Almost always, those are factual questions but emotional responses to them. I call that “emotional” doubt.
Let me give you an analogy. If you go to see a medical doctor, you may have several things wrong. “Doc, my ear hurts. I’ve got a really sore throat and a couple of other things are going on here.” The doctor might treat you for two things, or he or she may treat you for one thing. But they’ve got to make a choice at this point. They treat the worst or the most central or the toughest, most dangerous of the symptoms, the ones that cause pain.
And almost no doubt is only and always one kind. We’re whole people and we are integrated and our questions are all over the map. But the person who is listening – the friend, the counselor, the pastor – has to say, “Well, look, this is primarily emotional. Let’s not talk about your question right now. Let’s talk about why you’re asking it. There’s some hurt here.” And we’ve got to deal with the emotions.” And that’s what you deal with. They can see the question better when they’re thinking more clearly.
Ankerberg: Okay. I love the verse, “God so loved the world that He gave His Son” – for everybody. [John 3:16] In other words, so let’s assume that you have a God that loves everybody. Another problem that comes up: “Have I committed too much sin?” These are kind of intellectual problems that people say, “Well, you know, Habermas, you’ve been a pretty good guy most of your life. You don’t know my track record.” Okay? So, yes, God might be a God of love, but how do you get across to these people that God would love the fellow that’s really messed up his life?
Habermas: Well, several stages here. First of all, the Bible speaks of “all persons” as God’s children. In some sense, we are all His children by creation. Then, John 1:12 says, “To them who received Him, to them gave He power to become the children of God.” So the second level is this filial relationship, those who make a step. I don’t think the sin thing is that much of a factor for this reason: God doesn’t segregate on the grounds of how bad your sin is. Christianity is not about “doing.” “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” [Rom. 3:23] The view of the Bible, it seems to me is, sin is paid for when a person has a filial relationship, when they say “I do” to Jesus in light of what He’s done on the cross and the empty tomb; of who He is. So, little sin/more sin, it really is a moot point because sin is sin. Sin deserves judgment.
Someone says, “You don’t know what kind of a person I am.” Hey, look, Jesus died for that person, died for me. I don’t think the volume of sin is the issue here. It’s what Jesus did for it.
Ankerberg: I guess what I’m getting to is that the person, again, is in the feeling area. The facts have not reached his feeling area because the background is there that is so much sin that it’s just, “God will really accept me?” Okay, you’re telling me that intellectually. How do I get that from the intellectual thought to I actually hold on to it and believe it?
Habermas: I subscribe to what’s sometimes called cognitive theory: that your thoughts and then later your actions have to come into line with truth. And if a person is telling himself something, no matter how far it is from reality, they’re going to believe what they’re saying and their emotions are going to react according to what they’re saying. I mean, a real simple example I give: Sometimes Mondays are tough. We say, “Oh, we just got over the weekend. Mondays are bad days.” And sometimes I’m having a rough Monday and I remember halfway through that day, “Wait a minute. Nine o’clock. Monday Night Football. Yes!!” And what I mean by that is, I know the language I just told myself and here’s what I’m saying. I can handle anything up to 9 o’clock. At nine o’clock I’m crashing.
And many times we do that and here’s what we learn: “Whoa! What happened? I’m in a great mood.” Nothing happened. Nothing else happened. Here’s the only thing that happened: “Yes! I can take it!” Our thoughts determine how we feel. Proverbs 15:15 says that, “A cheerful heart hath a continual feast.” I think that’s a great word. Who doesn’t like a feast, especially when there’s fellowship and friends involved? A cheerful heart lives in that kind of surrounding. Why? Not because great things happened, and so I’m a good person. It has to do with what you say to yourself. You feed yourself bad thoughts, you’re going to feel badly. But when you get that “Yes!”, there’s a lot of “Yes!” thoughts that we can tell ourselves that instantly change how we feel, and I think that’s what we’re talking about with emotional doubt.
Ankerberg: Encourage the people by giving some examples. I loved in your book where you said there are some great examples of Christians, godly people, that had doubts in their life.
Habermas: Oh, well, absolutely. Just go back to the Bible. Job is the best case. We don’t read those 30-plus silent chapters in Job. Job says some very strong things. At one point, to paraphrase, he says to God, “Get out of my face so I can have a moment’s rest.” We expect Job to say that, but how about great heroes of the faith? If I said, “Who’s the man of faith?” You’d say, “Abraham.” But talk about struggles. He’s told not to take family and others with him, he takes Lot. He asks in chapter 15 of Genesis: “How do I know this is true?” Twice he lies about Sarah. Once we are told he lied because he was afraid his life was going to be taken. But wait a minute, Abraham. If God gave you this promise, you don’t have a son yet, nothing has happened yet, but he’s questioning. My favorite one is Genesis 17 where God says to him, “You are going to be the father of many nations,” so he falls down on the ground laughing. This is the man of faith.
How about David, the man after God’s own heart. But we don’t have to tell people; his foibles are well known. But we’ve got many things in David’s life that keep him from being on top of things. And he cries out, “Restore unto me the joy of my salvation.” [Psa. 51:12] But David is a man after God’s own heart.
You’ve got John in the New Testament, John the Baptist. He’s in prison. He sends his two disciples to Jesus and they say two questions, Luke 7:19ff, “Are you the Messiah or should we look for another?” Now, the first question was bad enough: “Are you really Him?” There’s this guy down the street. His name is Krishna. I mean, no offense. I’m just wondering.”
Jesus says to the disciples, He doesn’t say, “Hey, you go tell John to go jump in the lake.” He says, “Go tell John the things I’m doing.” [Luke 7:22] And right there on the spot He’s healing, He’s raising, He’s touching and people are getting healed. And as the disciples of John walk away, Jesus said to the people, “Hey, what did you expect when you went out there in the wilderness to see this guy, some kind of country bumpkin? No. I’m telling you, he’s the greatest man ever born.” [Luke 7:24-28] Now, that’s incredible. Doubting John – because the disciples haven’t gotten back to him yet – doubting John is the greatest man ever born.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh; over and over again. Jeremiah: we call him the weeping prophet. You know, today we’d call him the depressed prophet. I mean, this man suffered. Lamentations. Why are you doing all this stuff? The book of Psalms. The Bible is filled with passages like this. People say, “I haven’t heard this before.” It doesn’t preach. But I think it does preach. I think those passages say we’re humans, we’re finite. Number two: we’re sinful. That’s why we doubt. That’s the first thing.
Ankerberg: Okay, now hold it right there. We’re got to pick this up next week, but I want you to, first of all, tell the people that are listening they can beat this doubt.
Habermas: Oh, hey, absolutely. You know, to me, I went through it for ten years, and I think I ran the whole gamut: factual, emotional, volitional. But I have talked to several people – don’t hear me saying, “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me,” – but there are a lot of twists and turns here, and I have seen so many people, I could tell you story after story of people who say, “Well, I’ve gone to so many pastors, I’ve gone to so many professors, I sure hope you can do something because everybody else just haven’t been very smart.” And with that they sit down after this challenge and they walk away and a few weeks later, and they’re saying, “Hey, it was so simple. Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?” It’s complicated and it’s painful, but it’s not that hard to break in most cases.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’re going to pick this up again next week and we’re going to pick up with the myths, the common myths about doubts and we still want to hit this thing of the emotional doubts that people have and then get to the volitional. Stick with us.

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