Definition of Doubt | John Ankerberg Show

Definition of Doubt

By: Dr. Gary Habermas
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Introduction: Some Crucial Groundwork

Doubt, manifested in many forms from the assurance of one’s salvation to factual questioning, is certainly one of the most frequent and painful problems which plague Christians. These studies propose to deal, successively, with the general topic of doubt as experienced by believers, and then, chiefly, with practical suggestions for the possible resolution of each of three prominent types of doubt. Afterwards, we will examine several pertinent issues which might potentially be of further assistance to persons experiencing such uncertainty.

Although we will discuss some theoretical issues, our chief purpose is, through the usage of practical language and suggestions, to concentrate on the healing of believers who struggle with doubts. This may refer both to those who read the book themselves and to those who use some of the ideas to help others with doubts. To this end, this book is written to Christians and so will not attempt to argue for the truth of Christianity, although endnotes will frequently list some relevant sources which do a commendable job of introducing the reader to the area of apologetics.

A. Definition and Nature of the Problem

Doubt of various sorts is portrayed somewhat regularly in the New Testament, both in narrative and doctrinal texts. No fewer than seven Greek terms speak of some aspect of the issue with diakrino being used most frequently, often indicating uncertainty or hesitation between believing and not doing so.[1] For our present purposes, I will define doubt more specifically as a lack of certainty concerning the teachings of Christianity or one’s personal relation to them.

Doubts concerning the ideas or persons most important to us might be called an almost universal fact of life. One could well question how many Christians have not doubted, at least at certain times in their lives.[2] Based on numerous analyses of human behavior, scholars have noted that doubt of various types is a constant companion throughout life and is common to human experience. Speaking specifi­cally of religious uncertainty, one researcher remarks: “We come into the world with question marks in our heads…. The question marks in our heads are never fully erased.” [3] And lest someone think that non-religious persons are different, C.S. Lewis’ personal comment is very instructive here:

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. [4]

Uncertainty is common to human existence, but dealing with it is complicated both by the fact that there are different species of doubt and because each of the types frequently involve more than just that one area. Thus, there is a tendency for doubt to “spill over” into other elements of human experience. Theoretically, the fact that persons are whole rather than fragmented argues that various doubts involve the entire person to some extent. Practically, one usually notes that such is often the case; doubts overlap and more than one type is frequently present. Yet, proper identification of the primary form is still a major step in the healing process.

Consequently, dealing with doubt is an interdisciplinary undertaking. While factual doubt may require the expertise of the apologist or philosopher, emotional and mood-related doubt will have more to do with the psychologist, psychiatrist or coun­selor. Questions pertaining to the will are perhaps best addressed by theologians. And the more that I deal with the subject, the more I recognize that sociological, anthropological and educational insights are examples of other areas which are also crucial at various points. So there are certainly elements of doubt which require a multidimensional effort.

Accordingly, two important disclaimers need to be offered at this point so the reader can be sure not to misjudge the present product. First, while I am more confident in dealing with areas having to do with apologetics, philosophy or philo­sophical theology, I am far from being an expert in psychiatry, psychology or coun­seling. Here I must rely on my own study and interaction with professionals in the other disciplines. And addressing an audience which involves persons who are trained in these areas, I can only admit my lack of expertise and open myself to the observations of others.

However, at the same time, if the subject is to be approached by a single indi­vidual at all, it will almost assuredly be a person who cannot deal in an expert way with all of these subjects and specializations. So I will go on record by saying that, while my own training is in the areas just identified above, I will at least endeavor to address the others for the sake of attempting to minister to hurting people. It is this need to be practical that motivates me to write on a subject which could possibly be the single most common problem among Christians. So if I err in my conclusions, I humbly ask your forgiveness and invite your comments.

Second and somewhat related, I am not qualified to offer any psychiatric or psychological counseling and my comments should not be construed as attempting to do this. My purpose is to deal with the phenomenon of doubt and while this fre­quently involves such conditions as depression, anxiety or medical factors, it must be understood that I am only qualified to offer advice concerning such healing of various forms of Christian uncertainty, not the psychological or medical conditions such as those just described. I would recommend that the latter be dealt with by a Christian professional in that area. But at any rate, the treating of these last issues is not within my expertise.

It is this last issue of healing that is the primary concern in this treatment. Theory will certainly be presented and is crucial at several important junctures. But it is my chief desire that Christians will be better informed and able to both deal with their own times of doubt and those of other believers.

B. Common Misconceptions Concerning Christian Doubt

Doubt is very frequently viewed by Christians in a negative light. One common attitude is that relatively few believers have this problem (and those who do usually keep quiet about it). It is often charged that true believers never doubt at all or that being uncertain of one’s beliefs is always bad and cannot produce any positive results. These and other misconceptions appear to be fairly widespread.

1. Christian Doubt is Uncommon

If one works very long with doubting Christians, one may get the strong impres­sion that many believers who have experienced uncertainty seem to think that they are a distinct minority. Similarly, one is frequently impressed that believers often do not wish to admit the presence of such doubt, a view which probably contributes much to the continuance of the mistaken notion that they are alone in this problem.

It was mentioned above that there is some reason to believe that doubt of various kinds is an almost universal fact of human existence. Os Guinness asserts, “It is not primarily a Christian problem, but a human problem…. The root of doubt is not in our faith but in our humanness.” [5]

So how common is Christian doubt? The “humanness” of the phenomenon would suggest that it still is a very regular problem. Several popular treatments make this point clearly. Mark Littleton answers the question by saying that, “Doubt hangs its hat on all Christians. None can honestly say they’ve escaped it.” [6] John Guest holds that all Christians were once agnostic in that they moved from unbelief to belief. Some Christians remain in a semi-agnostic condition even after salvation.[7] Stephen Board thinks that there may at least be some truth to the saying that unless a person has never doubted, he has never truly believed. In this sense, the Christian’s intellectual struggle can produce one’s deepest convictions.[8]

More technical writers also agree, such as Karl Barth’s statements that all Chris­tians struggle with doubt. Speaking of a character trait which causes such uncer­tainty, he states that “no Christian (and likewise no theologian) can altogether rid himself of this flaw.”[9] Later, he points out that “No theologian… should have any doubts that for some reason or other he is also a doubter.”[10] Interestingly, Barth also muses at how easy it is to question God’s existence on occasion, even when one knows better.[11] Clark Pinnock adds: “I know what it is to doubt and question. And I suspect that every Christian who takes the time to think seriously about his faith does so, too.”[12] Later he warns the new believer to expect to experience the same problem.[13]

In terms of popular statistics, Bill Bright writes that of the tens of thousands of persons who have attended Campus Crusade’s various training institutes, up to 25% regularly indicate their doubts concerning their own relationship to God.[14] Even if this was the only subject which Christians wondered about, it would still be a significant estimate. But when other matters of uncertainty are also counted, such as questions pertaining to unanswered prayer, or why Christians suffer, or theoretical questions about the faith, or mood-related issues, I think it is plain that few (if any) Christians completely escape the far-reaching claws of doubt. Although by no means constituting scientific surveys, when I question my large introduction to philosophy classes I regularly find that about 70-90% of all of these hundreds of students are even willing to publicly admit that they have experienced doubt in some form.

At any rate, it should be apparent that the attitude that doubt is uncommon among Christians misses the mark. Especially when the many faces of doubt are remem­bered, it would appear to be futile to deny the problem. In fact, there seem to be good reasons to hold that doubt may be one of the most widespread problems among Christians today. This provides all the more reason to attempt to solve the dilemma.

2. True Believers Never Experience Doubt

Some assert that real believers never doubt, since doubt is said to be the oppo­site of faith. It should help us at this point to remember our opening definition, for while it is true that uncertainty affects faith, they are not opposites. The counterpart of belief is unbelief, while we have seen that doubt might be described as hesitation between two positions. So initially it must be pointed out that, at least by definition, there is nothing which keeps true believers from struggling with uncertainty or noth­ing which causes doubt to contradict faith. It is true that doubt may progress to where it may challenge one’s very faith, but the failure to believe is unbelief or disbe­lief, not doubt. Guinness notes that the attempt to make doubt into unbelief is a contradiction in terms because it appears to make one’s questioning choose sides (in this case unbelief) when doubt in its very essence remains between two posi­tions.[15]

Barth is in agreement at this juncture, asserting that “doubt does not mean denial or negation. Doubt only means swaying and staggering between Yes and No. It is only an uncertainty…. ”[16] Littleton concurs:

But doubt is not the opposite of faith…. doubt suggests that there is a lack of faith somewhere, but a person can doubt and still have a perfectly sound trust in God. Doubt is rather a state of uncertainty, a spiritual fork in our road.[17]

But for many Christians who might raise this second objection, there is a more important consideration than the issue of definitions. The question of what Scripture teaches is crucial here and it also supports the view that true believers can experi­ence doubt. In both the Old and New Testaments, believers clearly express wide ranges of questioning, especially on such topics as pain and evil, God’s personal dealing with His people and the issue of evidence for one’s belief. On each of these subjects, doubt is clearly expressed by prominent believers.

For example, the story of Job is well known, but I think few realize how this righ­teous man actually charged God with misconduct on several occasions, and just how pointed some of his criticisms were in actuality.[18] Likewise, several psalmists also experienced serious quandaries and even, on occasion, cried out to God not just about certain problems, but actually blamed Him with what they considered to be mistreatment and His breaking of His covenant with Israel.[19]

While these Old Testament passages certainly evidence some of the facts of doubt enumerated earlier in this chapter, such expressions are not absent from the New Testament, either. In an apparently little known episode, John the Baptist was in prison awaiting what would later be his death (Matt. 11:1-11; Lk. 7:18-30). He sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask a twofold question. John wished to know if Jesus was the Messiah or if he should be looking for someone else. Such is simply an amazing incident and is very similar to some queries about which we hear in the last half of the Twentieth Century. It is difficult to know exactly what was on John the Baptist’s mind, but it is very likely that his doubt was prompted by emotional circum­stances surrounding his imprisonment.

Jesus’ response is just as remarkable. Instead of rebuking John for his doubt, Jesus told John’s disciples to return and relate to him the miracles which Jesus was performing (Matt. 11:4-5: Lk. 7:21-22). Jesus had basically answered John the Baptist’s question concerning His messiahship in the affirmative. And after an exhortation not to be offended because of Himself, Jesus called John the greatest man ever born (Matt. 11:6-11; Lk. 7:23-28). So far from chastising John, Jesus both answered his questions with evidence and then complimented him during the time of his doubt! This narrative should convincingly show us that believers sometimes do have times of uncertainty and questioning.

Another New Testament example is the passage which describes the outspoken challenge of “doubting Thomas” (Jn. 20:24-29), who declared that he would not even believe unless he first saw the resurrected Jesus himself. Although Jesus rebuked Thomas for his failure to believe the eyewitnesses who had seen him after His resurrection, the point here is that Thomas had expressed a rather serious doubt (if not unbelief[20]). Jesus, once again, provided some evidence but warned Thomas that such “special” treatment ought not be sought after. For whereas John the Baptist presumably believed after Jesus’ miracles were reported to him by those who had witnessed them, Thomas refused to believe the same kind of testimony, requiring a personal appearance of Jesus.

It would appear to this writer that the Old and New Testament examples are sufficient to show that true believers in Scripture have doubted, thereby buttressing the earlier definitional points. But in a strange turnabout, however, our discussion indicates that the objection that true believers never doubt could itself actually cause two major problems. First, this misconception can cause great harm to believers who do experience uncertainty. As Guinness states, “No misunderstanding causes more anxiety and brings such bondage to sensitive people in doubt.”[21] I recall a case where a young man came to see me in emotional turmoil because some friends had told him that his doubts of assurance obviously proved that he was not a Christian. Some simple techniques for dealing with emotional doubt (which are presented [in the material to follow]) were sufficient for him to deal with this situation. As is my usual practice, I checked with him several times afterwards, the last occa­sion more than a year later and he testified that he had not experienced any real doubt again. But this was potentially a long and painful situation for him if the un­truths had not been corrected.[22]

Second, this objection actually overlooks an important concern about doubt. That is, all doubt ought to be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly. Just because uncertainty plagues most believers at some time is no reason to take it lightly. And just because doubt is not the same as unbelief does not mean that it cannot affect one’s faith adversely, especially if it is allowed to grow and spread. By God’s grace, such questioning needs to be identified and dealt with accordingly.

3. Christian Doubt is Always Bad

Another frequent claim is that doubting is always a negative sign and that it cannot ever bring about positive results. But this is the exact opposite of the conclu­sion reached by Christian researchers who have both fought against doubt them­selves and have observed the healing process in others. Charles Hummel asserts that, “A stronger faith can emerge through a siege of doubt; both holiness and faith are forged in the fires of temptation.”[23] Virtually every observer agrees that not only faith, but Christian growth and greater certainty, conviction, and service can result (and often does) from successfully dealing with one’s uncertainty.[24]

In our answer to the last objection, it was pointed out that several believers in both the Old and New Testaments experienced doubt. In some instances the com­plaints against God appear out of the ordinary and amazingly strong. Is there any evidence from these cases, in addition to the scholarly testimonies above, which indicates that doubt can actually yield good results? In the case of Job, his encoun­ter with the Lord brought about the resolution of his doubts, repentance and trust in God, leading to his multiple blessings (Job 42). Even though there are numerous Psalms which express doubts, sometimes it is the very questioning and despair which is turned around to a positive attitude of praise (Ps. 42:5-6, 11; 43:5).

In the case of John the Baptist, it is presumed that he was triumphant over his doubt, for in spite of it (and even during it!) Jesus pronounced his great compliment about John (Matt. 11:11; Lk. 7:28). Thomas’ more radical doubt, in spite of Jesus’ rebuke, led to Thomas’ glorious recognition of Jesus’ deity (Jn. 20:28).

So even though doubt is a serious matter whenever it occurs, it can clearly lead to good results including the triumph of faith and worship of God. In the case of Thomas, if church tradition is to be believed at this point, it was doubt which led to this disciple’s later commitment of his life to ministry in the Middle East, where he was martyred. At any rate, it appears to be evident that doubt can lead to positive growth in the believer’s life.

C. Conclusion

Christian doubt, defined as a lack of certainty concerning the teachings of Chris­tianity or one’s relation to them, is a very common and painful problem affecting many believers. The subject is complicated by the misconceptions and caricatures concerning doubt, which tend to militate against the finding of solutions. The inter­disciplinary nature of the issue also makes it a difficult matter, for Christian doubt is very frequently not just a factual issue, as is widely believed. As a result, doubt needs to be identified as to its “species” and dealt with accordingly.

The chief purpose of this volume is both to help believers work through and conquer their own doubt and to provide them with means to help others who are dealing with it. The curing of this dilemma for many Christians would not only assist them in experiencing peace on a crucial topic, but would hopefully also free them to turn their energies to service for Christ.

Notes

  1. However, diakrino is also translated in other ways such as “contending” or “judging.” Other related words include meteorizomai, dialogismos, distazo, aporeomai, diaporeo and psuchen airo. They can all have similar meanings such as doubt, uncertainty, despair or unbelief. But there is some variation among the terms. Meteorizomai indicates an anxious state (but is used only once in the New Testament (Lk. 12:29), while dialogismos is used of the evil thoughts which emanate from the sin nature of man.
  2. If a personal illustration (for that is all that it is) is at all helpful, in my regular discussions on the subject over the years, I can only recall one person ever telling me that he had never doubted. Then just recently, as I reminded this individual of his statement made a few years ago, he hastened to point out that he had only been speaking of one very specific form but that, including all elements of uncertainty, he had experienced it frequently in his Christian life.
  3. Leon McKenzie, “The Purpose and Scope of Adult Religious Education” in Handbook of Adult Religious Education, edited by Nancy T. Foltz (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1986) p. 11.
  4. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), p. 123.
  5. Os Guinness, In Two Minds: The Dilemma of Doubt and How to Resolve It (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 39.
  6. Mark R. Littleton, “Doubt Can Be a Good Thing,” His (March, 1979), p. 1.
  7. John Guest, In Search of Certainty (Ventura: Regal Books, 1983) p. 36.
  8. Stephen Board, Doubt (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 3.
  9. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, translated by Grover Foley (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), p. 128; cf. p.122.
  10. Ibid., p. 131.
  11. Ibid., p. 123.
  12. Clark H. Pinnock, Reason Enough: A Case for the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), p. 107.
  13. Ibid., p. 117.
  14. Bill Bright, How to be Sure You are a Christian (U.S.: Campus Crusade for Christ, Inc., 1972), p. 10.
  15. Guinness, pp. 28-29.
  16. Barth, p. 124.
  17. Littleton, p. 1.
  18. See Job 7:11; 10:3-4, 13-14, 20-21; 12:6; 13:21; 14:6; 19:7; 27:2.
  19. For some of the “tougher” variety of complaints, see Ps. 44:9- 26; 60:1; 82:2; 89:38-39.
  20. I think that it is certainly possible that Thomas was not a believer before meeting the risen Jesus, especially in terms of his own statement about his refusal to believe (Jn. 20:25) and Jesus’ addressing him in terms of his (new?) belief (Jn. 20:29). But this is a very difficult question. If Thomas was not a Christian, this would affect the use of this example in this section.
  21. Guinness, p. 27.
  22. It should be noted that both here and in other places in this book where personal accounts are utilized, various factors have been purposely changed to protect the identity of the individual(s) involved. Particular details, such as gender, reactions and even some symptoms are frequently altered specifically so that persons may not be identified. As a result, descriptions which appear to correctly describe a particular person are accidental in that no case is left unchanged. How­ever, an effort has been made to keep those characteristics which are integral to the illustration so that a real correspondence between the problem and the answer is preserved.
  23. Charles E. Hummel, Doubters Welcome (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1964), p. 16.
  24. Barth, p. 122; Pinnock, p. 108; Guinness, p. 16; Board, p.3; Guest, p. 139; Littleton, pp. 1, 10-11.2PCHabermas0206 Dealing With Doubts – Part 1

Dr. Gary Habermas

Dr. Gary Habermas

Dr. Gary Habermas

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