By: Dr. Gary Habermas
The point has already been made that it is crucial to identify the type of doubt from which a person is suffering in order to attempt to deal with it. The primary reason for this statement is that there are different varieties of uncertainty and, like medicine, different remedies are applicable.
For the purposes of this study, we will divide doubt into three general families. We will begin by discussing factual doubt, which is concerned with the evidential foundation for belief. Here some chief interests might include the trustworthiness of Scripture, the facts in favor of a miracle or answering objections to God’s existence. The second category is emotional doubt, which is most concerned with one’s feelings and frequently involves more subjective responses. In this case the chief issues might include the feeling that one is not a believer or how Christianity is viewed when one is going through a mood. Third is volitional doubt, having to do chiefly with one’s will and choices. Major questions here may involve weak or immature faith or the seeming inability to apply known truths to one’s actions.
There is nothing necessarily “sacred” about these three categories. But they have the advantages of being few in number, they do not appear to duplicate one another, they correspond to different human faculties, and many different types of doubt can be accurately subdivided under them. Thus it will be my purpose in this chapter to propose numerous typical expressions of doubt, each identified under one of these three headings. This will serve both to reveal the purpose of these three groupings and to provide representative doubts to which readers can perhaps relate.
Now it should be noted at the outset that there will be some overlap or duplication in the various sub-examples of doubt. And in several cases it is perhaps possible to question the category in which the example is placed. So the exact configuration of these examples presented here is definitely not the point of the chapter. Rather, our purpose is to provide sample doubts, most of which are quite commonly expressed, and to relate these to the three major categories with which we will be concerned throughout this volume.
In categorizing the separate objections, we are not only interested in the origin of the doubt, but also how it frequently manifests itself. The latter query is perhaps even the determining one. Of course, personal factors are critically important but cannot be factored except in a very general way. An attempt will be made to define and categorize the doubt as it might be expressed.
Several authors have entertained the question of why persons doubt their beliefs and have arrived at numerous reasons. I have added a rather lengthy listing of additional responses from my own experience in speaking with persons who have struggled with doubts. Together, I think that the causes of uncertainty enumerated in this chapter include a fairly wide range of responses (without exhausting the subject). It should be remarked that the separate causes for doubt will usually be stated in a more general way (as opposed to specific issues). So it is not the specific objection (“Why is there pain and evil?” or “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”) which is listed in this chapter, but the general categories which might give rise to these issues.
A. The Root Cause
Just before attempting to delineate various kinds of typical expressions of doubt, the overriding cause should be discussed briefly. Doubt in its various forms exists, from a biblical perspective, because of sin. As Guinness states the issue, “Doubt is human and universal. But if we are speaking as Christians, we must quickly add that this situation is a problem only because of the Fall.” Whether uncertainty of various kinds would have been present had man not fallen is one of those issues concerning which it is rather fruitless to inquire. But one thing appears certain. The issues would have become much more complex afterwards whether they existed earlier or not. Human nature is certainly at the root of the problem and various human factors provide the impetus for additional complications.
Again, the fact that human beings are whole, rather than being fragmented into their component “parts” is a reminder that uncertainty generally affects the entire person. As a result, causes of doubt are seldom individual but are interrelated with each other. Attempting to unravel the moral, social, medical and psychological factors for purposes of identification can indeed be troublesome.
At any rate, the multiple affects of sin and human fallenness provide ample opportunities for doubt to originate and grow. This is graphically portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ celebrated volume on demonic temptations, The Screwtape Letters. Here Lewis attempted to show, in fictional terms, how the forces of evil schemed to ruin person’s lives and turn them away from God.
In one passage, Lewis describes how doubts can be caused in the area of answered prayer. Here Uncle Wormwood advises his apprentice demon Wormwood on an excellent technique for tempting Christians:
But you can worry him with the haunting suspicion that the practice is absurd and can have no objective result. Don’t forget to use the “Heads I win, tails you lose” argument. If the thing he prays for doesn’t happen, than that is one more proof that petitionary prayers don’t work; if it does happen, he will, of course, be able to see some of the physical causes which led up to it, and “therefore it would have happened anyway,” and thus a granted prayer becomes just as good a proof as a denied one that prayers are ineffective.
This scenario is typical of many types of uncertainty in that the doubter perceives a situation where negative results are likely to occur no matter what happens. Also instructive here is the importance of demonic influence. Lewis warns believers that two opposite errors frequently occur when this subject comes up: either demons are disbelieved or they are stressed too much, as if all evil proceeds from their activity. Lewis retorts that demons “are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
On this subject, the more balanced biblical position is to recognize the influence of demonic forces as a major factor (Eph. 6:10-18) and to deal with them accordingly. In his popular pastoral treatment, Erwin Lutzer recommends several steps in such a process:
- confess one’s sins and pursue fellowship with God. In fact, Lutzer states that “The most important defense against demonic attack is righteousness, along with an effective use of the Word of God.”
- Believers must exercise their delegated authority (from Jesus Christ Himself) to battle the temptations of Satan, for he must leave the Christian when confronted in the power of Christ (Js. 4:7; Col. 2:15). Lutzer points out that often Satan must be dealt with directly by the citation of scriptural truths.
- Christians must be patient and endure the conflict, realizing that results do not always come immediately. The testimony of many believers is that, ironically, it is in such times of trouble that God can really work in our lives.
So the original temptation, the corresponding human sin nature and the continuing openness to Satan’s promptings combine to form the root cause of mankind’s basic problems, including doubt. And if sin is the source, then, conversely, God and His teachings are the answer. It is not the purpose of this chapter to begin a discussion of cures for doubt, but suffice it to say that the testimony of the New Testament is that the healing of an individual’s problems is performed by God and not by the person. This will be a crucially important truth to remember when the subject of a person’s part is set forth in subsequent chapters.
B. Examples of Doubt
As pointed out above, it will be the chief purpose of this chapter to list numerous examples of uncertainty, divided under the three grouping briefly identified earlier (factual, emotional and volitional). Yet, the purpose is not so much to attempt to categorize each of these types per se, but rather to provide numerous different instances in an attempt to help in the process of identifying doubts as a preliminary step in the healing process. Once again, it is not specific questions which are entertained here, but the general categories which give rise to them.
1. Factual Doubts
- factual foundations: A common form of uncertainty is that which questions the underpinnings of Christianity. Such might frequently occur in the case of new believers who have not thought through many of the main issues yet or even with more mature believers who are not sure of the facts. A common scenario would be the inability to answer critical accusations against Christianity due to one’s lack of knowledge on those subjects. In particular, the major issues here might concern the nature of the gospel or other central beliefs.
- sidetracked by pseudoproblems: This variety of doubt occurs when believers allow themselves to be concerned about issues which not only are not central to the truthfulness of Christianity, but sometimes do not make any substantial difference whichever view is correct. Pinnock notes that such usually occurs when strong positions are taken where Scripture may be noncommittal and where it is therefore legitimate for believers to hold differing views. Examples here might include the date of the earth or specific problems in eschatology.
- questioning intellect: This form of factual doubt is frequently caused by the type of personality which enjoys problem solving. For some persons, to be constantly studying an issue provides the needed motivation to seek creative answers, thereby leading to intellectual growth. In other words, this type of uncertainty actually spurs some individuals to work out dilemmas which interest them, or to get to the root of practical applications with the intent of finding which solutions actually work.
- system confusion: Board utilizes this description to indicate doubts which arise due to a believer’s allowing his world view to be influenced by non-Christian systems or where the believer does not correctly “label” a teaching which would only be true if an entire rival view was also true. Many doctrines are only as accurate as the world-view in which they are held. Doubt may come from taking at face value statements such as those which proclaim that belief in God is for weak persons who need a “crutch” in life, instead of investigating the evidence behind the claim itself.
2. Emotional Doubts
- psychological causes: The most common cause of emotional doubts (and perhaps even all types of uncertainty) stems from psychological states such as anxiety or depression and, in particular, moods which persons frequently undergo. In fact, in a certain select sense, psychological doubt as a whole might be termed mood-related. At any rate, this brand of questioning often masquerades as factual doubt but must be dealt with in a different manner. I have spoken to many individuals who assumed that their problem had to with evidence for faith, only to discover that the true cause was their attitude towards the subject. Earmarks of this sort of quandary will be set forth in Chapter IV.
- medical causes: Doubt can also come from any number of medical factors, including internal conditions such as manic depressive states or diabetes on the one hand, or externally prompted conditions caused by the consumption of alcohol or other types of drugs. To be sure, it is frequently not an easy matter to decide which of such factors are internally or externally motivated. But while the central cause is medical in nature, doubts which originate in this manner manifest themselves in chiefly emotional patterns. In one particular instance, a young graduate student was constantly in need of counseling and tended to dominate my office hours. Although we were definitely experiencing some success, I noticed some symptoms which I thought should be checked. As a result, I finally referred him to our counseling center for treatment. There he was diagnosed as being manic depressive and was given appropriate medicine. The lesson here concerns the needed input of the medical community on various issues surrounding the treatment of doubts.
- faulty view of God: To have a wrong concept of God can be very instrumental in the formulation of doubt. And, of course, while it could be argued that no believer would have a perfect view of God, some specific patterns of thought are potentially more harmful than others. For instance, to believe that God does not answer prayers, especially during times of stress or that He is morally responsible for pain will frequently lead to constant personal crises. So if, as Guinness states, assurance depends on our view of God and His faithfulness, then this is certainly an area which needs constant cultivation and development in the believer’s life.
- childhood problems: Experiences which one undergoes in his younger years can have a profound affect on later doubt. For example, child abuse in various forms can make it very difficult for one to accept God’s love. Two cases of this nature stand out very vividly in my mind. Both involved very intelligent young women who had been abused as children, one sexually and the other physically; the latter still had at least one visible scar to witness the fact. Both were willing (and even eager) to discuss the problems involved but they had many sessions of discussion before beginning to get control of the situation. Both women struggled with how God could ever love them; it was very difficult to convince them otherwise. Eventually the former, a student, found great relief through the love of her husband, family and close friends. The latter experienced healing through principles shared later.
- old wounds: Somewhat related to the previous type of doubt derived from childhood problems, this variety is caused by painful situations throughout life. Breaking up with a lover, the death of a loved one or the betrayal of a friend are examples of wounds which could cause a person to wonder if he can fully trust God. In many respects the results of such questioning are similar to that in the former category.
- judging by feelings: A very common problem, especially with Christians who lack assurance of salvation, comes from reactions based on one’s feelings. “Sometimes I don’t feel saved” or “I don’t have the same feeling which I used to” are regular fare for the counselor. In fact, the feeling that Christianity might not be true after all may besiege all believers at some point. Here again, one is reminded of Uncle Screwtape who challenges young demon Wormwood:
- But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel . . . that all his religion has been a fantasy.
One vivid case of this type concerned a pastor of a prominent southern church who called to explain to me that his Christianity did not feel as vibrant as when he first became a Christian. Although trained well in seminary, he fell into some of the same pitfalls which he had probably helped others through over the years. After a few discussions he realized that his questionings were caused by his emotions, which allowed him to identify the area on which he most needed to work. Only then did he experience relief.
- 7. need for attention: In some cases, the expression of doubt is most obviously due to the need for friendship and love, often from one who feels that these are somehow lacking in his own life. Such is most often expressed by a person who apparently wishes to dominate the counselor’s time and grows to depend on the interaction. The doubt could certainly be real, but the need for companionship attention and love could be even greater, to the point where the problem never seems to get solved.
- 8. lack of sleep: A commonly overlooked cause of doubt can sometimes be remedied as simply as getting a normal amount of sleep. A biblical example here is Elijah, who, when he experienced depression, laid down to sleep. After Elijah had rested, an angel recommended food (I Kings 19:4-6).
One man who came to see me was experiencing some rather disconcerting doubt. He was a leader in the Christian community, the type of person whom one might think would be embarrassed if others were to know why he was visiting me. After a little discussion we pinpointed the type of doubt as emotional and afterwards probed for the variety. It became obvious that he was suffering from a lack of sleep. After making an effort to get more sleep on a regular basis (including going to bed one day and waking up two days later!), he began doing much better. Soon afterwards he left the area for a new ministry but kept contact with me over a long period of time. Virtually every phone call I asked how his doubts were coming and he reported that everything was “back to normal.” This just illustrates how cures for doubt are not always the typical ones!
- 9. peer pressure: I have long thought that one of the categories of doubt which is seldom mentioned but is extremely important is the pressure exerted on believers to be more moderate in their views. This assault is not a frontal attack, but is one which can continue to build up to quite a persuasive drone in its call to stop believing old “wives tales” in favor of “modern” approaches. To be more like our peers is often a desire which is difficult not to heed, at least in part. In fact the belief (whether true or false) that few other intelligent persons hold our position can produce devastating results, especially over a period of time. Our emotions are particularly vulnerable. But the doubt which is produced thereby generally professes no new facts, just the same old temptations to change.
- 10. identifying with fiction: To read fictional writings can sometimes cause us to beconfronted with different kinds of ideas and persons. Plays, television and moviesabout fictional persons, times and places are even more graphic in their representa‑tions. But there is a subtle temptation here to identify with these characters and viewissues through their eyes. I personally recall watching a popular fantasy movie whereI was so caught up in the evil being experienced by one of the heroes that it temporarily colored my own perception until I perceived what should have been quite obvious: I was witnessing someone else’s conception of the issues. But if such subtleties are allowed to go unchecked, one could experience corresponding emotional doubts.
- 11. Christian hypocrisy: Doubt can sometimes be caused by observing the beliefs and actions of fellow believers. Barth lists religious wars, persecutions, inquisitions and questionable stances on such issues as “slavery, race, war, women’s rights, and social justice” as examples of the potentially offensive beliefs and behaviors of Christians which can, in turn, cause doubts. However, while to view what is believed to be unbiblical positions is disheartening, it does not directly deal with the issue of the truthfulness of the Christian world view at all. Perhaps we need to be confronted even more frequently with man’s failures; such could be a reminder of both the sinfulness from which God has rescued us and provide some impetus for further action.
- 12. forgiven sin: The fear that one’s sins have not really been forgiven is a cause for doubt in many believers. More specifically, the idea that one has committed the unpardonable sin so that one cannot be forgiven strikes even more fear in the hearts of others. One young man who called me expressed just this latter sense of horrifying fear. He believed that the very fact that he had suffered doubt from time to time meant that he had committed the unpardonable sin! This person needed to learn that some of the popular conceptions about doubt are themselves mistaken. So while such quandaries can have factual ramifications, they perhaps more frequently are manifested in emotional terms. And while a good exegesis of relevant Scripture portions may certainly be called for as a crucially important part of the cure, the emotional elements will frequently have to be dealt with, as well.
- 13. anxiety about the future: It is not enough for Christians to be worried about the present. To be honest, anxiety concerning the unknown future has probably been a cause for fear in most believers at some time or another. For some, it is manifested in the query as to whether they can really “hold out” until the end. Again, a study of the Scripture and perhaps some treatment of the emotional portion is needed in order to show that this fear is misplaced.
- 14. judgment and Hell: Even in believers one frequently encounters the uncertainty that, after all, perhaps it is still the case that one could have done everything that the Bible requires for salvation (as far as one knows) but still be sent to Hell. If informal surveys can be trusted at all, this fear is very widely experienced by many Christians at least at some time. And, as in the cases of the previous two types of fear, both Scriptural exegesis and treatment of the emotional factors may be required.
3. Volitional Doubts
- weak faith: Oftentimes a Christian wishes to increase his faith or perhaps desires to conquer some problem (like doubt) but simply thinks that he is unable to do so because it is too difficult to believe any further. In biblical terms, this individual can perhaps be said to be wavering between two positions (Js. 1:6-8). During my own period of doubt, I would have said that one of my chief struggles was with the issue of how to increase my faith.
- immature faith: Sometimes faith suffers from a lack of development, often due to factors in operation when a person first committed his life to Christ and from the corresponding wrong ideas concerning that experience. For instance, perhaps the individual was very young at the time of his conversion, or later wondered if he was at all coerced during the process. Others are troubled that perhaps their hearts were not totally committed at that time. As Michael Griffiths describes the problem:
But becoming a Christian is not simply a matter of reciting a magic formula at the request of an evangelist, but the answer of the heart and will in believing response to the invitation of the Lord Himself.
While there are frequently emotional factors present, the key issue here is one of the will: did the individual truly commit himself to Christ? Thus, whether immaturity was present or not, that is not of chief importance. The issue is one of the surrender of the will. And when a person is truly uncertain as to whether he trusted Christ, I usually encourage him to pray and express his trust in the Lord once again, telling Him that if he is already a Christian, then this is simply a prayer of further commitment. Some may disagree with this practice, but I personally find nothing here that appears to be unbiblical.
- 3. lack of growth: Some uncertainty can be caused by the believer’s failure to grow in his Christian life. It is as if the person realizes that further commitment might require getting serious with the Lord. But for whatever reasons, the decision not to progress in one’s walk with the Lord can lead to uncertainty. One major reason for this dilemma is that when one does not grow he is not availing himself of much of the means by which doubt may be avoided. As in a human relationship, a lack of growth can even signal a drifting apart and can lead to various questions. But conversely, growing in our commitment is an excellent means of doubt prevention.
- 4. self-sufficiency: This kind of uncertainty arises from an attitude of arrogance towards God. Devoting an entire chapter to the topic, Guinness identifies this quandary as occurring when a Christian begins to decide that his will is to be preferred above God’s will. This desire for autonomy manifests itself in various signs that the individual is attempting to break his allegiance to the Lord. Guinness likens it to a man whose bickering with his wife and public criticisms of her is indicative of an internal decision which has been at work.
- 5. repentance: Not to be confused with the emotional anxiety which may come from wondering if one’s sins have been forgiven, this category refers to a lack of repentance from one’s sins. When one has unforgiven sin in his life, this can certainly contribute to a sense of separation from God, encouraging doubts. And it is the decision (either implicit or explicit) not to repent of these sins that can keep a person from having peace.
I recall an older man who came to discuss doubts. He was obviously depressed and did not even want to talk about his problem. After speaking to him several times and with a counselor who had also dealt with him, it was discovered that he was apparently involved in an entire lifestyle of sin at the time of his coming to see me.
Later the man admitted that this was very possibly the reason for his lack of assurance, but he did not appear to be very concerned about changing. As far as I know, neither did his uncertainty change.
In another case, a young woman who had an outstanding Christian testimony began experiencing rather severe doubts after she decided that her marriage relationship was too binding. And again, as long as she remained in her rebellious state, the doubts also remained.
- 6. difficulty of application: One of the most common causes for the continuance of volitional doubt is, strangely enough, that believers are reticent to apply the biblical steps for healing, even after they are known. Since adopting the proper principles when one is hurting (and often right during the doubt) takes concentration, some conclude that it is easier to apply the steps only sporadically. Just like it may hurt to pull weeds, sometimes it is also difficult to deal with these problems in one’s life. But one of the most frequent comments I hear is that, when biblical steps are applied the doubt is assuaged and, conversely, when they are not, the uncertainty returns.
I do not conclude that the various treatments will always work on each type of doubt, largely because the personal factors vary so much. But I cannot remember ever having anyone tell me, after applying them, that they do not either ease or heal the problem. And it should be mentioned again that we make no claims that these methods are the only correct remedies. In fact such a claim would be far from the truth. Other researchers have presented additional biblical remedies which can also lead to healing.
The purpose of this chapter was twofold. Initially, the overall cause for doubt was discussed: sin. Mankind’s sin and the continuing openness to Satan’s temptations are the chief background from which doubts (as well as many other problems) emerge. Dealing with this temptation is a major way to combat doubt. While some initial suggestions have been given here, the subject will again be approached in subsequent chapters.
The main portion of this chapter was devoted to the subject of identifying various types of doubts. Over twenty different examples were placed in the three general categories with which we are functioning (factual, emotional and volitional doubt to). The intention here was not so much to provide either absolute categories or an exhaustive list of examples. Rather, the purpose was to produce a variety of samples so that individuals can perceive both how widespread doubt is and get some idea about how to identify their type(s) of uncertainty.
We ended this chapter on the note that some persons continue to experience doubt because they decide, for whatever reasons, not to apply the biblical remedies. At the same time, many who have applied biblical maxims to doubt have often found healing. Now this is definitely not to assert or imply that every case will be solved. It must be said bluntly that some people are not healed. But when it is remembered that there are many individual factors, such as (but not limited to) the proper identification of doubt and the need for faithful (and correct) practice of biblical principles, such is not surprising. But I would not be fair if I did not also say that I have witnessed a high percentage of persons who have at least been helped, if not healed, by God’s grace and power.
It is by no means being pretended that the methods utilized here are unique. Other researchers in a variety of fields have come to quite similar conclusions and likewise report that positive results are attained. Additionally, other scholars have utilized different methods with success, thereby indicating that no one approach necessarily has a “corner on the market.” Certainly such exclusivity is not being claimed for the methods suggested in this book.
- Other authors have also analyzed doubt into specific categories. Board identifies four groupings (pp. 4-16), which basically include the three I just listed plus another which I think is a subcategory of one of them. Guinness prefers seven divisions (Chapters 5-11) which I, again, think can be included under three headings. (Compare Bright’s three categories of commitment, pp. 12-45.) But it is very important to note that the point here is not to arrive at an objective number of families of doubt or to attempt to prove that a certain figure is correct.
- See Barth, pp. 125-128; Guinness, pp. 67-184; Littleton, pp. 9- 10; Pinnock, pp. 109-111; Board, pp. 4-16; Wolfe, p.75.
- Guinness, pp. 44-45; cf. Barth, p. 125.
- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), pp. 126-127.
- Ibid, Preface, p.3.
- Irwin Lutzer, You’re Richer Than You Think (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1978), Chapter 9.
- Incidentally, the biblical responses to doubt in subsequent chapters will include suggestions which can be used with Satanic temptations, as well.
- Paul is particularly adamant about the inability of man to solve his own problems. See II Cor. 4:7; 10:3-6; 12:9-10; Eph. 6:10; Phil. 2:12-13; 4:13.
- Pinnock, p. 109.
- Of course, this does not mean that Christians could very well have strong convictions (and strong emotions!) on these (or other similar) subjects. Neither does it mean that a person is not justified in defending his own view, but, due to the very nature of the issues, somewhat less dogmatism might be warranted.
- Board, pp. 9-14.
- Guinness, p. 33.
- Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 142.
- It is precisely for this reason (and others) that counselors must take proper precautions while counseling members of the opposite sex. It is crucial that problems of this nature be handled before they even start to develop.
- Barth, pp. 70-72.
- Michael C. Griffiths, Christian Assurance (London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1962), p. 18.
- Guinness, pp. 70-72.
- Perhaps a note is needed concerning the use of the word “healed” since it has already been indicated that it is “human” to doubt. Thus, it is not being claimed that these persons never doubt again, but that the specific form which plagued them before had been resolved. In other words, their “problem” had been solved (even over long periods of time), although issues may still arise periodically. Follow-up shows this to be the case.
- Several of these sources will be documented in the endnotes of the following chapters.