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Know Doubt

Why don’t we hear more about doubt? Could it be that we don’t talk about our doubts because some well-meaning people we looked up to told us that doubt was the opposite of faith and should be avoided? Maybe we believe that if we have enough faith, we will no longer struggle with doubt.

I don’t see evidence for that in the Bible. Doubt seems to be a common occurrence, even among those closest to Jesus.

John the Baptist is the prophet who boldly proclaimed upon seeing Jesus “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  He is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me’”[i]. However, in the seventh chapter of Luke, while John the Baptist was in prison, he began to doubt. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah they had been waiting for. How does Jesus respond? Does he condemn him for doubting? He certainly could have.

No! Instead of condemning John, Jesus reminds him of the evidence: “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.[ii]” Jesus offers two lines of evidence. Firstly, that these demonstrations of power are proof that Jesus speaks with God’s authority, and secondly that they are consistent with what Isaiah the prophet said about the future Messiah. After John’s disciples left, he speaks of John to those around him, “I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.”[iii] Jesus affirms that John is even now a great man.

Doubting Thomas is another well-known instance of doubt in Jesus’s inner circle. Have you considered how Jesus responded when Thomas said he would not believe that Jesus was alive unless certain conditions were met? “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” [iv] Jesus shows us that the response to doubt is to examine the evidence and determine for yourself what it means. Thomas responds with one of the powerful statements recorded about  Jesus’s identity. 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” [v] Doubt is not a sign of weak faith. Doubt is part of the normal experience of being human.

As humans we experience two kinds of doubt: emotional doubt and intellectual doubt. We pride ourselves on being Enlightenment driven “rational thinkers” and believe that the majority of our doubt is intellectual, but the scientific literature paints a far different story. The reality is that about 80% of our doubts are emotionally driven.

Emotional doubt occurs when we experience painful feelings of loss, or confusion. Maybe we don’t feel close to God, or we don’t feel loved by Him. Maybe we feel like our prayers are unheard because they aren’t answered in the timing and the manner that we want. As people well aware of some of the arguments for our faith, we can often respond to someone who is experiencing emotional doubt with intellectual arguments. As Mary Jo Sharp shared with us two years ago, we would be better off asking “Do you need answers right now, or do you just need a hug?”. When we don’t feel comfortable expressing our inner emotions, it can present as an intellectual argument. Are we willing to take the time to discover what’s really going on beneath the surface?

I remember having many vigorous debates with an atheist friend of mine around the Problem of Evil and Suffering. It felt like we never got anywhere because we both returned to the same arguments and at times, we both grew frustrated. Then one evening, an infrequent attendee of our meetings asked him why he had left the Christian faith.

He shared how his grandfather had suffered with a terrible cancer before he finally died. He admitted that he couldn’t believe in a God who allowed that kind of suffering.  All of my arguments had missed the mark because I hadn’t taken the time to learn his story and find the root cause of his pain.

When you doubt, don’t be afraid to explore the doubt more deeply, and to be honest with yourself about the kind of doubt you are experiencing. Find trustworthy people to talk to. Ask thoughtful questions. Engage with the evidence and see where it leads. A warning: if you only seek support for what you are feeling, you will find it and it might lead you away from faith if you don’t hear both sides. However, I am confident that if we genuinely seek answers, if we listen humbly to those who have gone before, God will lead us to a stronger, more vibrant life of trust in Him and His goodness.

If I hadn’t doubted the existence of God or my reason for believing, I wouldn’t have discovered the vast world of historical, philosophical and scientific evidence for the Christian worldview. My faith would have remained superficial, if it survived at all. Instead, I have faith that withstands the staunchest skeptical arguments because I made many of the same questions and then looked for answers. This enables me to also walk alongside others who are working through their own doubt. This doesn’t mean I no longer struggle with these questions. Sometimes they come back in new forms. But I have learned that although I have doubts about my faith, I have greater doubts about all of the alternatives.

Sean McDowell in his recent trip to New Zealand with his father Josh told a story that when he began to experience doubt, he was concerned about his father’s reaction. When he finally told his father, Josh responded with “Great! Now you can discover for yourself what you believe and why you believe it”. (I’m paraphrasing). Josh demonstrated a great way to engage with the doubts of his children. If we follow his example, perhaps the next generation will grow up with a robust faith that can last a lifetime.

Bruce Fraser is a Software Architect, lay Pastor, husband, father. He spent several years learning apologetics from good friends Mike Licona, Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood and Mary Jo Sharp, while living in the U. S. There he learned much about the arguments and demeanour that best communicate the Great News of Jesus to those hostile to Christianity, presenting the truth of Jesus in a way that is gentle and respects their intellect.


[i] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 1:29–30). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[ii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:28). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iv] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[v] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Why don’t skeptics apply their standards of evidence to themselves?

We had a spirited debate on miracles in a previous thread. And during that debate, I noted how even in cases where all the evidence is against naturalistic explanations, skeptics simply cannot entertain a supernatural explanation instead. They just have to hold that there is a naturalistic one, despite the evidence.

The very definition of blind faith.

In reply, “Tom Joad” said:

To that, I would just say that you would expect there to be a natural explanation for unexpected events, or ‘miracles.’ In the absence of an obvious explanation, it would be a fantastically interesting process to find out what the actual cause was.

Since the comments in the previous thread have now closed automatically, let me pick up the conversation here.

Why is Tom applying such a different standard to himself as he’d apply to religious people? And why does this seem to happen so frequently with skeptics?

For example, skeptics often take issue with phenomena like “speaking in tongues” and “faith healings” and the like—which you’ll find in many happy-clappy churches, particularly in America.

They point out that these phenomena can be reproduced in non-religious settings, as well as in competing religious settings (Hinduism for example). Moreover, they can be thoroughly explained by neurology, and therefore a supernatural explanation is at best superfluous.

So they criticize Christians who believe that these events are “works of the Spirit” on two grounds: firstly, all the evidence points to a naturalistic explanation; secondly, the Christian’s supernaturalistic explanation is too exclusive to account for all the instances of this phenomenon.

Thus skeptics hold that it is irrational to favor a supernatural explanation over a natural one here.

But now compare this to Tom’s comments about miracles, and notice the double standard.

When it comes to a situation where the roles are reversed and all the evidence points to a supernatural explanation, while a naturalistic one is untenable, he seems to think that it is not only rational, but entirely reasonable to believe there still is a naturalistic explanation.

And he goes on to make some comments about the supposedly unreasonable nature of faith, inasmuch as if some particular miracle is discredited, “for 99% of Christians, this disproof of a supposed miracle would do nothing to dissuade their faith.” The implication, of course, being that a discredited miracle ought to give Christians occasion to reevaluate their faith.

But why? Notice again the double standard. Imagine if some element of evolution were discredited—indeed, this happens all the time as part of the scientific process. Does Tom think these occasions should cause him to reevaluate his belief in evolution? Are they likely to dissuade him from from that belief?

Of course not.

So why expect that of Christians? Since the faith of 99% of Christians doesn’t rest on some random miracle, but on a wide variety of evidences, it would be quite unreasonable to think that discrediting a random miracle would have any effect whatsoever on their faith.

Why do skeptics have such a hard time applying the same standards of evidence to themselves as they think are reasonable for Christians? I don’t know. Perhaps some skeptics could enlighten me in the comments.

Auckland Debate: Is God the Source of Morality?

This August, Raymond Bradley and Matthew Flannagan will debate the topic “Is God the Source of Morality?

Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?”

The debate will be held at the University of Auckland on Monday 2 August at 7pm, in “The Centennial” 260 – 098 OGGB (the bottom level of the Business School) on 12 Grafton Rd, Auckland.

Bradley is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy with areas of specialty in Philosophical Logic, Metaphysics, Logical Atomism; he has previously debated William Lane Craig, Edward Blaiklock and many other Christian scholars and describes himself as an older generation “new atheist”.

Flannagan is an Auckland based Philosopher and Theologian with areas of specialty in Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Theology; he has previously debated Bill Cooke, Zoe During and writes for the popular Christian blog MandM.

The format of the debate will be as follows:

Dr Bradley: Opening Comments [20 min]
Dr Flannagan: Opening Comments [20 min]
Dr Bradley: Reply to Dr Flannagan [10 min]
Dr Flannagan: Reply to Dr Bradley[10 min]
Dr Bradley: Closing Comments [7 min]
Dr Flannagan: Closing Comments [7 min]
Questions from the floor: [30 min]

The moderator for the debate will be Professor John Bishop.

Both Bradley and Flannagan are experienced and engaging public speakers who are practiced at pitching their topics to suit their audiences. So, invite all your friends, and block out the evening of Monday 2 August from 7-9 pm now and make sure you get to the debate early to locate parking and grab a good seat.

This debate is brought to you by the Evangelical Union and the Reason and Science Society as part of the University of Auckland’s Jesus week/Atheist week, with support from Thinking Matters.

The event will be videoed and will be published on this blog. Entry is free and any and all are welcome.

There is even a Facebook page you can rsvp on and use to invite your friends.

UPDATE: (7 August)

For the audio from the debate: Click here to stream the debate,  or click here to download the mp3.

Dallas Willard On the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

The Evangelical Philosophical Society blog has a posted video from a lecture by Dallas Willard at the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum at UC-Irvine. In the talk, entitled “On the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: How it Happened and What it Means”, Willard explores the possibility of moral knowledge in a world that elevates the intellect over the affective faculties and that is much more skeptical about non-empirical claims.

Dallas Willard is a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He has written in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of mind and of logic, and on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. This lecture is based on themes from Willard’s forthcoming book, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/11949401[/vimeo]

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/11922137[/vimeo]

Miracles in Apologetics Part 2

I have long thought that a miracle can be an apologetic. It was one of the chief ways that God authenticated His word and His revelation. Today, with the resurgence of our awareness of miracles, it is important we think about how the testimony of miracles sounds to unbelievers, particularly those who are sceptical and philosophically opposed to Christianity and belief in God.

In order to develop an apologetic for God’s existence that reduces the opportunity for scepticism, based upon the testimony of miracles, I suggest that a miracle X meets the following criteria.

(1) Does X have a natural explanation?
If the answer is “Yes,” then X is merely a case for either God’s providence or second-order causation. What we will be focusing on here is first-order causation where a miracle is any event such that the natural conditions for said event were not present. 

(2) Is the miracle radical enough to assume that there is no yet to be discovered natural explanation to defeat it.

For example, the Egyptian magicians of Pharaoh could duplicate the miracles performed by Moses, but a point was reached when the magicians ability to duplicate the miracle was surpassed due to the large scale and spectacular nature. An ache in the belly with the tendency to come and go, when prayed for may disappear, but such an occurrence, though it may be a genuine miracle, would hardly be convincing. On the other-hand a regenerative miracle, where a blind man sees, a lame man walks, or deaf man hears, or a limb suddenly re-grows is more difficult to wave away as having a natural explanation.

(3) Did X happen within the context answered prayer.

The objection this counters is the chance hypothesis. The skeptic will claim that with six billion people in the world it is not unexpected that some people will be particularly lucky or experience miraculous-like events. However the plausibility of this hypothesis is reduced when it occurs in the context of prayer.

(4) Is X an isolated occurrence, or is there a high frequency of similar occurrences in the same context?

For instances explaining Jesus’ miracles away with natural explanations become increasingly contrived the more miracles there are that have to be explained.

(5) Did X happen instantly, or did it take a while?

This is not to say that miracles that take some time are less miraculous, but to say that miracles that happen instantly are the better spectacle.

(6) Was X permanent?

(7) Is X verified by experts in the field, ie. medical doctors and supporting evidence (x-rays, test results).

It will take skill to weigh and balance the above criteria – though they are not really criteria as a genuine miracle may not necessarily conform to every point. This is only a suggested checklist for use in an argument for divine causation, specifically to refute both Deism and Atheism. It is only a guideline to assessing the convincing power of a testimony, and to reduce the opportunity for scepticism and rejection.