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When in Doubt

It is part of human nature to doubt. In a world in which the prominent worldviews are contrary to Christianity, it is no surprise that many followers of Christ have doubts about their faith. I know from personal experience that doubts can often seem overwhelming, and that it is extraordinarily easy to blow them out of proportion. What should simply prompt reflection and consideration instead causes one to become anxious and defensive both internally—emotionally and intellectually—as well as externally—in one’s interactions with others. In such cases, there are two missteps that believers should beware of. Firstly, we can mistakenly perceive an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief, when in fact that belief has little or nothing to do with the objection. Secondly, we can assign far more importance to a given belief than it truly has. As a result of these two missteps, doubts and objections can appear to have implications that they do not necessarily have.  

As an example of the first misstep, take the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites. Critics often argue that God’s command to the Israelites to kill the Canaanites[i] was immoral, and therefore the God of the Bible cannot be good. Obviously, this conclusion is troubling for all who believe that God is essentially good. Must we accept it, or is there an alternative? One option would be to repudiate the argument. This, in my opinion, has been successfully done by a number of apologists[ii]. Another alternative would be to grant the argument, but deny the conclusion. Let’s see what happens if we explore this route.

Suppose that God’s command to kill the Canaanites was immoral, and that an essentially good God could not have issued such a command. Rather than inferring that God is not good, the Christian could instead conclude that the Israelites were mistaken in thinking that God had issued such a command. If we draw this conclusion, then the objection does not undermine God’s goodness, but rather biblical inerrancy, since the command is recorded in scripture. Clearly this is still a troubling conclusion for most believers. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the first misstep that doubting Christians can fall into; namely, perceiving an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief (e.g. God’s goodness) when it actually does not necessarily do so.

This brings us to the second misstep: assigning more importance to a belief than it warrants. In the Christian worldview, some beliefs are more central—more important—than others. For example, the belief that God exists is vital, while beliefs regarding the rapture and tribulation are far less significant. Philosopher William Lane Craig offers a helpful analogy that emphasises this point. He states:

Our system of beliefs as Christians can be compared to a spider’s web which radiates out from a central point. These strands of the web represent different doctrines or affirmations that we as Christians believe. Some of these doctrines are more central to the web of belief. If one of these doctrines were plucked out, the reverberations would be felt throughout the entire web and the web might even collapse. But if one of these peripheral strands were to be removed, there would be little reverberation in one’s system of beliefs.[iii] 

If we picture Christian beliefs like a web, then the existence of God would be a core strand, along with the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection. If these claims turned out to be false, then so would Christianity.

Returning to our earlier example, then, which belief is more central to the Christian faith—belief in God’s goodness, or in scripture’s inerrancy? Although giving up either would send colossal tremors through one’s web of beliefs, I believe that abandoning the former would do more damage than the latter. That is to say, belief in God’s goodness is more central to Christianity than belief in biblical inerrancy. The danger is that, in constructing our web of beliefs, one might place more importance on a doctrine than it warrants. Then, when that doctrine is challenged, the accompanying doubts appear to strike far closer to the heart of the Christian faith than they should. The moral of the story is that, when in doubt, we should think carefully about what belief an objection undermines, and make sure that we place that belief in its appropriate place in our ‘web of beliefs’; neither attributing more significance to it than is warranted, nor underestimating its importance.


Endnotes:

[i] See Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-18.

[ii] For some responses to the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites, click here and here.

[iii] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-revelation/doctrine-of-revelation-part-7/

Doubt as Defense Mechanism

Paul Copan:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center” text_align=”left”] “Knowledge can be defined as warranted true belief, but one can have knowledge without having 100% certainty. For those who question that “knowledge” does not always equal “100% certainty,” we ask: “How can one know with 100% certainty that knowledge requires 100% certainty?” Indeed, we can know various true things that rise to the level of “very plausible” or “highly probable” in our minds. (Isn’t it logically possible that my typing right now is just an illusion? It doesn’t follow from being logically possible, however, that this illusion is therefore likely true—far from it.)

One doubter with whom I’ve recently engaged acknowledged that his “100% certainty requirement” was really a defense mechanism that enabled him to feel comfortable in a state of neutrality—to justify his insecurity and lack of persisting in the hard work of committed belief. He confessed to his own insecurity about relationships and his own inability to commit to anything. He pointed to something from my book How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? that helped him: “Skepticism—like relativism—tends to eliminate personal or moral responsibility since truth (which is crucial to knowledge) is systematically being ignored or evaded….We should consider the personal, motivational questions which, while not being an argument against skepticism, raise important issues that may be driving the skeptical enterprise. Blanket skepticism is an affliction of the mind that needs curing” (pp. 28-29). I rejoice that God has been very evidently at work in this young man’s life.” [/pk_box]

The Value of Doubt

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”” text_align=””]”One of the most interesting findings from that pilot project was the importance of doubt in a student’s faith maturity. The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity [they had in college].”[/pk_box]

Kara Powell, on a three-year study conducted by Fuller Theological Seminary’s Center for Youth and Family Ministry.

[Via: Jay L. Wile]

Faith and Doubt

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenceless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart sceptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts – not only their own but their friends’ and neighbours’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to sceptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.”

Tim Keller, The Reason for God (Hodder 2008), pages xvi-xvii.