Two Myths About Doubt and the Reason for Apologetics

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A popular evangelical urban myth – popularised by theologians and preachers who should know better – is that “doubt” is a state half-way between belief and unbelief. This description of “doubt” comes close to agnosticism; many Christians, therefore, feel an unnecessary dread of doubt. It is as if questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ put a Christian on the path to unbelief. Of course, this is absolute nonsense, as a few minutes reflection demonstrates.

A simple example illustrates that doubt and belief are compatible. Consider a student sitting an important exam. She passionately wants a good grade, has studied hard, and gives what she believes to be the correct answer to every question. Once she has answered the paper it is sent away for marking; and, typically, this is when most students experience doubt. She has written what she believed to be correct; but what if her beliefs were not true?

The more that student wants to pass her exam, the greater her anxiety will be; a student who has little invested in the course will not lose much sleep over his result. So the student, who paid most attention to the questions, who read over each several times, and who gave what she earnestly believed to be true answers, is much more likely to experience doubt than, say, her boyfriend who took a casual approach to the exam. It doesn’t matter to him if his beliefs were true or false.

Similarly, the Christian’s doubt is not evidence of a lack of belief. Doubt is simply evidence that the Christian would like some assurance that her beliefs are true. In fact, the Christian with passionate faith is more likely to experience doubt than the tepid believer, who does not really grasp the monumental importance of Christianity. Doubt is nothing to be ashamed of; quite often it is the road to deeper understanding and maturity. As Christians discover answers to their  doubts, they learn why they  can trust the Gospel.

In answering her doubts the Christian gains a deeper appreciation of God. An acquaintance with the moral argument helps the Christian understand that God is the greatest good. She learns that atheism cannot give an adequate account of life, the universe and everything; she sees that a universe without God is meaningless and hopeless. An acquaintance with the design or cosmological arguments familiarises the believer with God’s majesty. She better understands God’s work and God’s world, aiding her worship of the God who is the foundation of the universe.

So doubt, like other growing pains, feels unpleasant but can be a sign of health. Yet there is a second myth about doubt. It has become fashionable to portray doubt as a heroic virtue; not a challenge that aids us in our quest but a sign that we have arrived at our spiritual destination. It is lauded as an evidence of humility; certainty is an effect of human frailty, doubt a sign of divine grace. Or so the story goes.

Like every good myth, there is an element of truth about this view of doubt. We ought to be humble seekers of the truth; we ought not to rely on our own will power and assertiveness to convince others (or even ourselves!) of our deepest beliefs. Some of life’s most important choices must be taken in fear and trembling. Think of Abraham’s duty to place Isaac on the altar; there would be something inhuman about a man who did not shudder at God’s command. Job would appear as a calculating machine if he had never asked one question about God’s goodness.

Yet there we can read too much into these stories and make an idol out of our doubts. God had kept faith with Abraham and his family, saving Ishmael when all hope seemed lost. God had promised that Isaac would live to be Abraham’s heir, and Abraham knew that God could bring new life to barren wombs. He could have no doubt about God’s miraculous power. Abraham might, justifiably, feel fear on Moriah, yet he had reason enough to have a justified belief in God’s promise. As Abraham walked up the slope of the mountain he promised his servants that both he and the boy would return. 

The acolytes of doubt preach that there is something violent and oppressive in every claim to  spiritual or moral truth. However, some evidence demands a verdict. Are we to say that the morality of the gulags is an open question? That the Holocaust might have been a reasonable reaction to the political situation in the 1940s? Is it a sign of humility to deny that there is something sublime and wonderful about the birth of a newborn child? Or would that be a sign of an immature and obdurate mind?

Each myth illustrates the spiritual importance of apologetics. Apologetics teaches us to grow up. Sometimes we have to make important decisions that other people will disagree with it. Deal with it. We cannot use the idolatry of doubt to justify indecision and intellectual cowardice. The apologist teaches that there is enough evidence to know that God exists and that there is sufficient reason to place our lives in God’s hands.

Furthermore, apologetics does not merely free Christians from the anxieties of intellectual doubt. It helps us to praise God when we see that God is at the centre of a satisfying world-view. Apologetics helps us to realise that “worldly wisdom” is built on a house of cards. It frees the Christian from the intellectual fashions of a secular world and the pop-morality of soap operas. Apologetics leads hearts and minds back to God and his Word.


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