A Conversation on Faith and Doubt

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What follows is a unique kind of post I have not done before. My good friend Daniel whom I had the pleasure of meeting in my college fraternity (rah rah Delta) asked if he could write a response to my post, “Just Trust Jesus” Is Not Always the Response to Weak Faith which was, itself, a response to another post from the blog, Stand to Reason.

I have included my response to Daniel in parentheses colored blue. To make sure everything was fair and cordial, I sent him a copy showing my responses and he tweaked a few of his points and told me to go ahead and tweak my responses accordingly and publish it. I have immensely benefitted from the discourse in how his apt criticism has forced me to bring further clarity to my thought on the issue. I hope I do not come across as overly polemical in my responses. Daniel was nothing but gracious and fair and I aspired to be the same in my responses.

Without further ado, I present Daniel’s excellent and careful response to my article and my thoughts on it.

Last week, my friend Kyle wrote an article entitled “‘Just Trust in Jesus’ Is Not Always the Answer to Weak Faith.” In that article, Kyle raises the issue of how to talk to people who are struggling with weak faith. He tells a piece of his own story, explaining how he “doubted the very existence of God, the trustworthiness of the Bible, and the existence of Jesus,” he was told by well-meaning Christians to “just trust harder,” which ultimately discouraged him and let [sic] him to leave Christianity altogether for a time. Kyle distinguishes between two different kinds of weak faith: the first kind is when someone doubts that Christianity is true, and the second is when someone believes that Christianity is true, but struggles to fully trust in God’s goodness, love, or faithfulness. He suggests that the correct response to the second kind of doubt is to kindly and prayerfully guide the doubter through Biblical truth, and the response to the first kind of doubt should be rational persuasion—as Kyle puts it, “we must give sufficient reasons to justify the religious beliefs making up our faith in order to strengthen our confidence in it.” I appreciate Kyle’s desire to help those who are struggling with either kind of weak faith. He has started a very important conversation and raised an important warning about the dangers of telling a person with weak faith to “just trust harder.” However, I am a bit concerned by some aspects of his approach, and he was kind enough to let me write about my concerns. First, I’m not sure Kyle’s distinction between the doubt of someone who doubts that Christianity is true and the doubt of someone who doubts that God is trustworthy is the only important distinction to make, or even the most important. In fact, the two almost always go hand-in-hand.

(I acknowledged this point in my article when I stated that “The two kinds of weak faith are often closely intertwined with each-other.”)

For example, I know someone who lost faith in God’s trustworthiness after a tragedy in his family, and this led him to walk away from the faith. Eventually, he studied the Bible carefully with the explicit intent of disproving Christianity. He read it without believing a word of it was true. As he was confronted with the grace of God expressed in Scripture, he was eventually led back to faith. Why should personal experience of tragedy cause us to doubt that God is trustworthy? After all, we already knew that horrific tragedies in the world exist; our experience of tragedy didn’t give us any new information. And why should this anger at God lead us to believe (as it does for many) that God doesn’t exist? The reason is that we are not purely intellectual creatures, relying on naked, calculating reason and nothing else to shape what we believe. It is certainly true that we should use our reason well and should not believe what is unreasonable, but our choice to believe something (and it is a choice) involves our mind, our heart, and our soul.

(I’m very happy that Daniel’s friend came back to the faith, but it seems like a perfect example of the person I described experiencing the second kind of doubt. This person lost their ability to trust God through personal tragedy, they walked away from the faith because of it which is a danger I acknowledge twice in the original article in question, but they returned to the faith when confronted with the truth of Scripture, the authority of which they were evidently persuaded of since they took what it said to be true in regards to God’s grace. So it seems like this is really just an example of the second kind of person and the kind of reassurance I suggested they need.)

A more helpful distinction, I think, is between the kind of doubt that says, along with the distressed father in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” and the kind that simply says, “At this point, I do not believe.” The article that Kyle was originally responding to said that what matters is not the strength of our faith, but the object of our faith (Jesus). To me, this seems like a very good response to someone who is dealing with the “help my unbelief” kind of doubt, and perhaps struggling with guilt over his weak faith. I wonder if Kyle may have misunderstood the intention, and assumed it was addressed to someone who is struggling with the second kind of doubt. It would be a bad response indeed to this second sort of person.

(Telling somebody who lacks reason to believe Jesus even existed that they should just trust that Jesus is holding onto them hardly seems like “a very good response.” Just for the record I assumed the original article to which I responded was addressed to people experiencing both kinds of doubt since it did not make a distinction between the two. More on Daniel’s proposed distinction later.)

My main issue with Kyles’ [sic] article is that he seems to assume that if a person is struggling to believe in the truth of Christianity, then the main problem is that he has not been made aware of the right evidence and arguments, or has not sufficiently understood them. For example, he writes, “If we read Biblical accounts which address the reasons for our lack of trust (or active distrust) and still find ourselves doubting, then . . . due to personal tragedy or skeptical doubt, we lack reasons to believe the Bible is trustworthy. . .” He also writes about John the Baptist asking Jesus if he was the one to come, and Jesus responding by pointing to the miracles he has worked. Kyle writes that Jesus did this “so that John would have sufficient reason to justify his belief that Jesus was truly the Savior,” implying that John previously did not have sufficient reason. These, coupled with the fact that Kyle sees rational persuasion as the only solution for those struggling to believe the truth of Christianity, seem to indicate that Kyle equates lack of belief with lack of sufficient reason to believe.

(As I said in my previous article, if a person is struggling to believe because they are not rationally persuaded of things like the trustworthiness of the Bible, the existence of God, etc. then they do need rational persuasion. But if their disbelief is rooted in an emotional distrust then they need reasons by which their emotional distrust is addressed. There is another possibility for disbelief and this is that somebody simply refuses to accept the truth of Christianity whether it is rational or not. But this is not weak faith which was what my previous article addressed. It is a refusal to have faith. Such a person is outside the scope of the article of mine in question. If Daniel’s main point in his response is that somebody has to be rationally persuaded and willing to believe then I wholeheartedly agree. When Daniel says that I am equating lack of belief with lack of sufficient reason to believe, he is right in one sense which is that sometimes we need reason to pierce through our hardened emotional responses which would never be pierced otherwise. But Daniel’s statement is wrong if he thinks I am stating that all cases of disbelief must be addressed with cold hard logic which pays no regard to the emotional reasons a person may have walked away from the faith or the simple refusal to believe.)

The truth is that John the Baptist had more reason to believe that Jesus was the Savior than perhaps anyone else on the planet. John had personally seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove, and personally heard the voice of God from Heaven attesting that Jesus is his Son. Moreover, even before this, John had devoted his life to testifying to the fact that Jesus was the one who was to come. If he didn’t have a good reason to be sure he was telling the truth, then he was a fool! No, John’s doubt (if it should be called that) was not due to a lack of information. Rather, it was due to his weakness as a human being. John was in prison waiting to die, when he had expected something radically different. Despite all the best evidence one could want, he still found it hard to feel certain. John recognized his weakness, and reached out to the very person who could help him: Jesus. Jesus responded in mercy, encouraging him with stories about what he was currently doing and with the promise of great blessing if John did not fall away.

John’s reaching out to Jesus in weak faith seems to be the type of doubt that says, “I believe; help my unbelief.” It is an acknowledgement of one’s own human weakness and one’s need for help. Rather than running away from Jesus, it runs toward him. We might contrast this with the doubt of Thomas. After seeing Jesus perform miracles for years, even raising the dead, after hearing Jesus say that he would die and then be raised, and after hearing all of his friends swear that they had seen Jesus alive, Thomas flat-out refused to believe. Jesus responded to Thomas with mercy as well, giving him the evidence he had asked for. But we should never take this to mean that Thomas did not previously have sufficient reason for belief. After all, we have not personally seen Jesus in the flesh, and yet we believe the testimony of the apostles. How much more should Thomas have believed their testimony, given that he personally knew them, to say nothing of his having seen Jesus’s miracles with his own eyes!

(I disagree with Daniel in regards to his inferences from the accounts of John the Baptist and Thomas. John the Baptist pointedly asked if Jesus was the coming Messiah or if he was waiting for someone else. He didn’t ask a question out of concern for how Jesus would help him. His question was a purely factual one. Despite the prior strength of John the Baptist’s justification for believing Jesus was the Messiah, John evidently thought he may have been mistaken. In response, Jesus sent back evidence that He was indeed the Messiah. Jesus affirmed the fact and provided evidence for it. If John the Baptist still believed Jesus was the Messiah but simply needed to build the trust that Jesus was going to take care of him even though he was facing execution, then his question to Jesus and Jesus’ response to it would have indicated as much. Indeed, Jesus did offer the promise that he would bless those who remained faithful, but first and foremost He also addressed John’s waning belief that Jesus was the Messiah. As for the story of Thomas, I see this as less of a refusal to believe and more of a perfectly relatable desire to be persuaded that a man he had just seen brutally publicly executed was no-longer dead. And again, we see Jesus providing the evidence necessary to overcome Thomas’ doubt. I see no refusal to believe since Thomas seemed perfectly willing to believe once he had been reasonably persuaded.)

John’s doubt demonstrates the weakness of human beings. Despite our desire to believe, and despite having excellent reasons to believe, we are still susceptible to Satan’s temptation to put out of our memory all of our experience of God’s faithfulness and to wonder if he is really as good as he says he is, or even if he is real. We should not be ashamed of this temptation, but should respond to it by reaching out to God and to others in the Church for the reminders that we need. Satan wants us to feel guilt about our feelings of uncertainty and to fear that our weakness is a sign that we do not truly belong to Christ. This is exactly where it helps to be reminded that it is the object, not the strength of our faith that saves us. I am worried that if we really swallow the idea that doubt is always a sign of insufficient reason for belief, then whenever we feel the first twinge of doubt, we will be led to think we must not have enough reason to believe. Then, unless we are given more reasons than the many we already have, we will be strongly tempted to reject our belief in Christ altogether.

(Here I think Daniel is inferring something from the story of John the Baptist which I do not think can reasonably be inferred from that account. We have no record of Satan tempting John to doubt, nor should we assume that doubt is necessarily caused by Satan. There is no surer way to make a person feel incriminated simply for doubting the factuality of Christianity than by inferring Satan’s presence in the cases of those like John the Baptist. Rather, we can doubt for perfectly legitimate reasons. For example, if I proclaim the coming of the Messiah who is supposed to liberate us from our oppressors yet end up in the prison of those same oppressors about to be executed, then I think it is reasonable to question if the man I had proclaimed was truly the all-powerful Messiah. This is a pretty fair doubt. As for the issue of doubt being a sign of insufficient reasons, I don’t think this needs to be an issue. The reasons for belief in Christianity are abundant and will only help our faith. The only alternative to reasons for our faith is fideistic nonsense in which we just assume without reason that our faith is properly placed.)

Thomas’s doubt shows a stubborn heart bent on a human-centered mindset. Though he had every reason to believe Jesus had risen, he refused to do so until he personally saw and touched Jesus. Though he had been following Jesus for years, Thomas was committed to the idea that Jesus could not be alive. Perhaps he refused to believe that God would have allowed his Son to die. Jesus died, therefore he cannot be God’s Son, and therefore he cannot have been raised. This attitude assumes that we know better than God: that God must conform to our ideas of what God should or would do or allow to happen. By thinking this way, we put ourselves in the place of God, which is the same sin that Adam committed. Whatever the reason for his doubt, Thomas denied what he ought to have affirmed. When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he had what we might call a conversion experience, falling down in worship and crying, “My Lord and my God!”

(I see Daniel inferring things from the story of Thomas’ doubt which just can’t be reasonably inferred. Thomas was doubting that a man who had been publicly executed was alive again. That’s a pretty fair thing to doubt even when other people who might want to believe he is alive are telling us that he is. I see no reason to think Thomas had condemned God, and no reason to extrapolate ethical truths from such an assumption which has no evident grounding in the passage except for somewhat extensive speculation.)

If we assume that doubt must be the result of insufficient reason for belief, it gives skeptics a license to doubt. My friends who are agnostics or atheists tend to think that their lack of belief is in no way their fault; it simply means they haven’t encountered enough evidence to convince them. Even if they ought to be convinced by the evidence, their lack of belief is at worst a failure of reason, rather than a moral failure. Thus, it would be unfair for God to hold them responsible. An atheist friend of mine told me that he agreed Thomas ought to have believed before seeing Jesus—essentially that it was incredibly thick of him not to believe—but that we can never hold him morally responsible for this, as it was merely a sort of error in calculation. We are not morally culpable when we get a math problem wrong. We might get a bad grade, but we don’t go to jail. Similarly, God would not condemn us for an honest error. This mindset contradicts Roman 1:20, which states, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So [people who deny him] are without excuse.” And it leaves the skeptic satisfied to remain in his doubt, confident that he bears no moral responsibility for it.

(Assuming doubt should be addressed through reasons which address that doubt is hardly a license to doubt. It is an acknowledgment that doubt is a reasonable response to some things, and can only be addressed through things which reasonably address it. Whether or not Thomas should have believed after Jesus was executed is irrelevant to whether we are morally responsible for miscalculated reasoning behind our doubt. Of course we are accountable for miscalculated reasoning since we are the ones who miscalculated. When we miscalculate on a math test, it is we who are responsible and not our teacher. Thus, Romans 1:20 remains perfectly intact. John the Baptist and Thomas may have miscalculated in their doubt and they were responsible for that miscalculation. Nevertheless, Jesus gave them evidence to satisfy their doubt which should be a model for us. Daniel makes the distinction that we are accountable for but not morally culpable for miscalculations, but I fail to see why this makes a difference. If belief in God and Jesus is required for salvation and we honestly fail to come to that belief, then we have only ourselves to blame for it. It’s just that the stakes are very high.)

If the idea that doubt is a lack of reason to believe takes all responsibility off the shoulders of the skeptic, it puts it onto the shoulders of the evangelist. Just think: if it’s true that people would believe if they just understood all the evidence and all the right arguments, then we are under tremendous pressure. If I have a long conversation with an agnostic who still does not believe, then it means I failed. I didn’t present the right evidence, or I didn’t argue it in a way that was compelling enough, or understandable enough. The state of his eternal soul rests on my ability to use logic.

(If a person refuses to believe in the face of reason which addresses their doubt then they are evidently being obstinate and simply refusing to entertain the falsity of their dogmatic beliefs. That’s hardly the responsibility of the person trying to argue them out of their dogmatism.)

And then what happens if we have an answer to a question that we find satisfying, but our skeptic friend does not? Suppose I have decided I have the Problem of Evil all figured out. Then if a genuinely concerned friend asks me how a good God can allow evil to occur in the world, then I’ll trot out the answer that makes perfect sense to me. If the friend still isn’t satisfied, I’ll explain it again. After all, this is the final answer, and when I understood it, I was satisfied, so he just needs to understand it, and then he’ll be satisfied. This will result in an endlessly frustrating cycle that will surely drive my friend away.

(The concern raised in this paragraph is easily addressed by the fact that different people find different things persuasive. I can entertain cold, reasoned responses to the problem of evil. My girlfriend is a much more emotional person so she has needed more emotionally attuned responses to the problem of evil. The only reason Daniel should doubt his hypothetical solution to the problem of evil is if his friend points out a flaw in it. If Daniel’s friend simply remains unconvinced without explaining why, then this is simply a fallacy of incredulity.)

Finally, if belief is just a matter of finding and understanding the best evidence and arguments, then my salvation is entirely dependent on my intellect. I am a Christian because I believe; I believe because I understood the arguments for Christianity; I understood because I am smart and good at philosophy. The most brilliant mathematician or philosopher who is not a Christian must therefore in some way fall short of my intellectual capacity. One might say, “Yes, but I believe God gave me my intellect, and so it is all a gift from God, and he gets all the glory.” This is profoundly dissatisfying. Salvation is indeed a gift from God, but it is the gift, through the Holy Spirit, of a heart that responds to Christ as it ought, not the gift of a mega-charged brain that is preternaturally adept and able to reason its way to faith in God.

(This is a straw man. There’s a lot of reasons someone might not believe. Somebody simply might not want to believe, and this kind of person is outside the scope of my previous article. In such a scenario, this person doesn’t just have weak faith. They just don’t want to have faith.)

I want to clarify that rational persuasion is good. It is right to think through rational arguments for God’s existence, it is right to examine historical evidence of Christ’s Resurrection, and it is right to discuss these both with fellow believers who are struggling with weak faith and with atheists. God can use good arguments, good logicians, and eloquent persuaders to help turn people’s hearts toward him. Paul and Apollos were both excellent at making persuasive arguments demonstrating that Jesus was the Christ. It would be wonderful if we could all do that. But we cannot take away someone’s sinful human nature that will, like Thomas, deny Jesus despite the best evidence. We cannot, just with the power of words, give peace to a believer who is struggling through the temptation to doubt God’s goodness or existence. We must never forget that belief is a matter of both the mind and the heart. After we have done our best with reason, we must prayerfully trust in the One who alone can work in the heart.

(I do question the statement that it was Thomas’ sinful nature which led him to doubt. This doesn’t seem sufficiently established in the passages I have read. Many men had performed miracles throughout Jewish history, and none of them rose from the dead. Therefore, Thomas’ doubt doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. Regardless, I agree that our words alone cannot always address the reasons for a person’s unbelief. But we can indeed point them to Scripture where divine truth may address their unbelief. If someone simply refuses to follow reason, then that is entirely on them and will hopefully be softened by the Holy Spirit. But I made no reference to such a person in my original article, and such people were therefore outside the scope of it. Ultimately, I don’t see how Daniel’s response brings my original distinction into question, and I fail to see how it raises a new kind of distinction given that the only distinction raised is based in questionable speculation about various passages.)

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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