Is Doubt Compatible with Christian Faith?


In an article entitled Faith and Knowledge (2009), I defined faith (in the biblical sense) as trust in who God is and what he has done, based on the revelation he has provided; the New Testament builds on this theme by focusing on trust in Christ for one’s salvation. Later in the article, I argued that some uncertainty is essential to faith, and that uncertainty need not weaken one’s commitment to the claims of a religious life.

Is Doubt Compatible with Christian Faith?
Is Doubt Compatible with Christian Faith?

One corollary of this view of faith is that it makes doubt inevitable. Because uncertainty generates tension within a belief system, it follows that some degree of doubt will always accompany belief. Now, this corollary does not suggest that all forms of doubt are inevitable or even healthy for the Christian. Doubt may or may not be healthy depending on where it comes from and what it leads to. For example, doubts that arise from culpably acquired attitudes – such as laziness, foolishness, or arrogance – are unhealthy, or at least signal something amiss within the believer. But are doubts that arise from honest questions similarly defective?

Some would say yes. After posting my article, some critics responded that the New Testament prohibits all forms of doubt, regardless of its origin. These critics appealed to passages like Hebrews 11:1-2, James 1:5-8, and John 20:24-31 as counterexamples to my explanation of Christian faith. This week’s post, then, will address each of those passages in turn.

HEBREWS 11:1-2

This passage reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” When we go back to the original Greek, the word sure is better translated as “conviction” and the word certain is more like “confidence.” The kind of certainty being spoken of here is not what we get from Enlightenment epistemology, which takes it to be knowledge of a proposition on the basis of indubitable foundations. Neither is the author of Hebrews referring to a faith in invisible realities. He is speaking of a faith that presupposes the existence of God and preserves in the future hope that God will fulfill his promises.

Moreover, the author is not offering an abstract theological definition of faith. Rather, he is painting a picture of the kind of faith that perseveres with confidence and conviction, in spite of the unknowns, as modeled by the “ancients.” This kind of faith is compatible with doubts about the future because, in each example the author cites, the ancients remain faithful by taking action. These examples also fit nicely into the author’s purpose for writing, which was to encourage Jewish Christians who were under persecution and considering leaving their religion.

JAMES 1:5-8

Here we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” It is important when interpreting these verses to recognize that James has in mind a particular kind of faith and a specific kind of doubt. He is referring to a faith that endures trials and manifests itself in good works.

Regarding his commentary on doubt, James is probably drawing on familiar Jewish memories – the examples of double-mindedness in the Old Testament in which people were constantly changing their allegiances toward Yahweh. This double-mindedness (v8) leads to instability and inaction, which (to draw on James’ contrast) is the opposite of a faith that acts and perseveres in suffering. Thus, James is talking about the kind of doubt that issues from a double-minded person, one who is constantly wavering in his allegiances, not the doubt that struggles with honest questions about God. This latter form of doubt is not in view here.

JOHN 20:24-31

In this passage, Jesus appears to say that those who believe without any evidence are more blessed than those who demand it. There we read, “Because you (Thomas) have seen me, you have believed; blessed are these who have not seen and yet have believed.” What exactly does this mean?

The first thing to notice is that the blessing Jesus pronounces on those who do not see is followed immediately by John’s commentary on the matter: “Jesus did many other miraculous 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 Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Thus those who do not see aren’t a general category of persons who lack evidence. They are most likely those who accept the truth of the resurrection and believe that Jesus is the Christ on the basis of John’s testimony, without having been direct eyewitnesses.

The second thing to notice is that Thomas still didn’t believe even after the other disciples had given him clear testimony of the resurrection. So Jesus was rebuking Thomas for his doubt because he was disregarding testimony which ought to have been sufficient. John is telling his readers (through the words of Jesus) that even though they were not eyewitnesses of the risen Lord (as the disciples were) they too are blessed since they now have the opportunity to believe on the basis of John’s written testimony.

From this analysis we can conclude that Jesus isn’t downplaying the need for evidence. Rather, he rebukes Thomas for disregarding the testimony of the other disciples by demanding to see. This rebuke is not about doubts that arise from honest questions; it is about Thomas’ demand for more evidence than is necessary. By contrast, Jesus blesses those who do believe in him on the basis of the disciples’ testimony alone, without needing to see. This interpretation makes sense of John’s overall purpose for writing, which is to testify in written form concerning what he had seen (cf. 20:30-31, 21:24-25).

What do you, the reader, think of these interpretations? Do these passages leave room for doubt within Christian faith? What are your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Is Doubt Compatible with Christian Faith?”

  1. Reblogged this on LDS beliefs and commented:
    I agree “that uncertainty need not weaken one’s commitment to the claims of a religious life.” In the Book of Mormon, Alma 32, faith is compared to the growth of a tree from a seed. When the seed is nurtured properly, it grows. When our faith is nurtured properly, we can feel the growth of faith in our lives and the influence of the Spirit. This doesn’t mean doubt is gone. It simply serves as a confirmation that the faith is real and should be further nurtured. This is one of the most powerful sermons on the nurturing of faith.

  2. Thanks for your careful work in going through these passages one by one!

    Here are two additional thoughts to what you’ve already said.

    –1– What if some of us experience doubt as inevitable? What if doubt just *happens* to us and we *can’t* shake it off? What if we are something like unable to believe without wavering? (Or slightly milder: What if we could only suppress doubt at the expense of losing *all* honesty and by becoming completely and painfully inauthentic?)
    —-> If that should be the case, the question whether doubt is prohibited or not, becomes mostly *irrelevant*. If we cannot do anything about it, why worry about whether it’s prohibited or not? (And if it should be the milder form — i.e. being technically able to forego doubt but only at the expense of complete and painful inauthenticity — the question becomes easy to answer: if foregoing doubt should mean complete and painful inauthenticity, then that probably closes the case: in that case doubt is hardly prohibited).

    –2– Regarding John 20.
    I don’t know what the word “blessed” exactly means. But let’s assume for the moment that it means something like “happy”, i.e. someone is “blessed” if good things happen to that person. Then one could even understand the word that “who believes without evidence is blessed” more radically than you do:
    If someone *is able* to believe even without testimony — let alone seeing — that person could indeed count as happy! Maybe not as a responsible epistemic agent, but — at least in my view — as a lucky person. I find my own need to have some kind of evidence rather burdensome and I envy those don’t *need* it. I don’t find it that controversial to say that they are *happy*. (Indeed, not craving for evidence might also be a “blessed” state in the sense that if humanity hadn’t fallen we would all believe just naturally without needing evidence — as little as a newborn needs evidence that milk is healthy).

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