It has become increasingly fashionable for theologians, biblical scholars, and preachers to extol the virtues of doubt. We are told that doubt is a good thing, and that certainty is a bad thing. The line with many is that true, genuine faith is born out of doubt. Some of these scholars are even so bold as to tell us that certainty, or the need to be certain, is actually a form of idolatry. They talk about the “idolatry of certainty.”
Some of these scholars nuance things better than others. For instance, one Old Testament scholar, for whom I have a great deal of respect, wrote a book entitled, The Courage to Doubt. There is a great deal of valuable material in the book, though, in my opinion, the title is an unfortunate one (I’ll explain why later), and he defines “doubt” too broadly.
On the other hand, others are far less nuanced. Just a few days ago, another biblical scholar posted a quote from that authoritative, eighteenth-century friend and defender of Christianity and the church, Voltaire, which declares, “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”
As fashionable as all this may be, it is, however, quite antithetical to the biblical testimony. And when I say “quite,” what I really mean is, “completely.”
What do the Scriptures have to say about doubt? We’ll look at a few examples where the NIV translation uses the word “doubt”; but I can go ahead and give you a provisional answer. If you would prefer to wait till we actually look at these examples before seeing the answer, then here is a spoiler alert: don’t look at the last sentence of this paragraph. The answer is, “nothing good.”
In the account in Matthew 14 where Jesus walks on the water, Peter, from the boat in which all the disciples were located, calls out to Jesus to ask him, if it really is Jesus, to bid Peter to come to him on the water. Jesus tells him to come. Peter is initially able to walk on the water, but then, out of fear, begins to sink. He cries out for Jesus to save him, and Jesus reaches out his hand and rescues him from drowning. One might have expected an encouraging, comforting word from Jesus: “Good try,” “Nice effort,” “Awesome, you actually walked on water for a little bit.” But, no, Jesus rebukes him: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After the incident with the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” This mountain-moving experience will not take place if there is doubt.
In the passages in the gospels which narrate the events between the resurrection and the ascension, there are three different incidents that deal with the issue of doubt. In John 20, Jesus appears to the disciples at a time when Thomas is not present. When the disciples tell Thomas about the appearance, he says that he will not believe unless he can see the nail prints and thrust his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. A week later, Jesus appears again, this time when Thomas is present. Despite valiant and, in my opinion, misguided attempts to rehabilitate Thomas, the doubting disciple does not come off well in the passage. Jesus tells Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.” And despite Thomas’s subsequent confession of Jesus’ deity, Jesus unfavorably compares Thomas’s faith, which has to see in order to believe, with that of those who have not seen, and yet have believed.
In Luke 24, in a scene which may be the same as the first appearance to the disciples in John 20, we learn that the disciples, perhaps all of them, actually initially believed that they were seeing a ghost. At this reaction, Jesus says to the disciples, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your mind?”
And in Matthew 28, when the disciples go to meet Jesus in Galilee, we are told that “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Interestingly, in this passage, doubt is set in opposition to worship.
In Romans 14:23, Paul tells his readers that if they engage in an action about which they have their doubts, they are actually condemning themselves, because “everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
Finally, in James 1, the apostle tells his readers that, “when you ask, you must believe, and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” Doubt equals fragility, flightiness, double-mindedness, and instability. Doubters should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Now, aside from one particular passage, which we will come back to later, we have looked at every passage of any substance in which the NIV translation employs the word “doubt” to render any Greek word (the word “doubt” in the NIV only occurs in the New Testament). Of course, the concept can be present when the word is not. But the concept does not fare any better than the word. I do not have time in this article to look at all the places where the concept occurs. But the reader should be able to recall those places where Jesus rebukes various individuals for being of “little faith.” And besides these, there are a number of places where various individuals are castigated for not trusting in the Lord. Indeed, in the book of Hebrews, there is practically a whole diatribe in chs. 3-4 against doubt and lack of faith.
In short, doubt, unbelief, lack of faith—however you might want to phrase it—simply does not come in for any good press in the Scriptures.
Now, what about certainty? Without any comment, I simply cite here a number of passages from the New Testament, though I do highlight particularly important phrases in each passage that have to do with certainty, confidence, assurance, knowing the truth, etc.
With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:3-4)
For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. (John 17:8)
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. (Heb 11:1-2)
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:20)
But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. (1 Cor 1:18-20)
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36)
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. (Heb 6:17-20)
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. (1 John 2:20-21)
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings. (Heb 10:22)
. . . that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. (Col 4:12)
We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:19-20)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Pet 1:19)
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19:35)
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)
. . . God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Tim 3:15)
But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. (Heb 3:6)
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Heb 10:23)
“But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.” (Heb 10:38)
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Heb 11:6)
The point I am making so far is simply this. The New Testament has nothing good to say about doubt or lack of faith. And it has only good things to say about faith, certainty, assurance, and being fully persuaded of the truth of what God says, what the Scriptures say, and what the apostles say. It’s fairly easy to see here how completely contrary the biblical testimony is to the notion that doubt is good and that certainty is bad, how completely opposed it is to the idea that doubt is a virtue, and that certainty is evidence of idolatry.
Now, this has been a cursory survey of the biblical material, and the issues surrounding doubt and certainty are more complicated than I have laid them out so far. But what I would like to do now is to make a few statements based on this cursory survey, as well as on my understanding of other pertinent biblical texts.
(1) To reiterate, doubt, at least as far as the person of God, the Scriptures, and apostolic testimony are concerned, receives no good press in the biblical text. Rather, doubt is roundly condemned; and faith, certainty, and being persuaded of God’s and the Scriptures’ truthfulness is both encouraged and celebrated. There is no biblical justification whatsoever for proclaiming doubt to be a virtue and certainty to be same thing as idolatry. None.
(2) What we have seen in the New Testament is only a continuation of a motif begun in the early chapters of Genesis. The first temptation recorded in the Bible is that of the serpent’s attempting to cause the first human pair to doubt, not only the truth of what God had said, but also God’s motives for saying it. Only three chapters into the biblical narrative, and already the first temptation and the first sin has to do with doubting God’s veracity and motives.
(3) Coming in for equally bad press as doubting God is the action of encouraging others to doubt. To encourage doubt is not an act of kindness, but an act of treachery. Psalm 73 is one of a handful of wisdom psalms in which the psalmist wrestles with his doubts. In particular, the psalmist is both concerned and discouraged over the prosperity of the wicked and the corresponding lack of prosperity for the righteous. The very fact that there are psalms like this in the book of Psalms (see also Psalms 37,44, 49, 88) shows that this wrestling is not necessarily wrong (more about this below). What would have been wrong, however, is if the psalmist had given voice to those doubts and encouraged the people of God to doubt along with him: “If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children” (v. 15). Those who encourage others to doubt God or his self-revelation in Scripture are, indeed, as the psalmist tells us, walking on very slippery ground (v. 16). Those who argue that doubt is a virtue and that certainty is an idol, and who try to persuade others to join them in their doubt and lack of certainty, put themselves in a very precarious position.
(4) There are many things we should doubt, at least in measure. We should be doubtful about our own interpretive abilities. We should be doubtful about the interpretive abilities of others. We should be doubtful about our own and others’ abilities to always make accurate judgments in the areas of morality and ethics. With regard to the Bible, we may on a number of occasions have healthy doubts about how well a particular text has been transmitted. We may doubt how well commentators have accurately understood the texts on which they are commenting. We may doubt whether theologians have properly derived the correct conclusions from the biblical text in the formulation of their particular theologies. We may doubt (but charitably) whether our pastors and other preachers have drawn the correct homiletical points and implications from the texts on which they base their sermons.
(5) But amidst all the things we either may or should doubt, the person of God and what he has revealed about himself in the Scriptures are not among them. The Bible never condones doubting God or his self-revelation as great, good, all-powerful, and all-knowing.
(6) To doubt this good and great God is always due to a shortcoming on our part. This shortcoming is due to a combination of two factors. (A) We are human, not divine. We do not know everything; we are not omniscient. We are simply not humanly able to connect all the dots with regard to the ways of God. There is nothing blameworthy in this: it is the way God made us. And this lack of knowledge is not doubt; it is simply lack of knowledge. But we are not only humans. We are also (B) sinful humans. And it is this combination of factors that makes us doubting creatures. And the default position of those who are sinful humans is a lack of faith/faithfulness, and a propensity to doubt God—this is the lesson of Genesis 3.
(7) This is why we never have to teach anyone to doubt. And this is why we should not talk about the courage to doubt. Doubt is the default position of sinful humanity. Doubt is not a virtue. Doubt is sin.
(8) However, to be honest about our doubts, and having the courage to admit that we have them, is, indeed, a virtue. Confession of sin is a good thing. Having the courage to admit that we have doubts is commendable. But the doubt itself is not.
(9) This is why it is misleading to say that faith is born out of doubt. We may, indeed, come to a position of faith after a season of wrestling with doubt. But the doubt does not cause the faith. To say that faith is born out of doubt makes no more sense than it does to say that salvation is born out of sin. Salvation is not born out of sin; salvation is a rescue from sin. Faith is not born out of doubt; faith is rescue from doubt.
(10) Doubt is not to be equated with questioning, asking why, lamenting, crying out to God. Indeed, as paradoxical as it might sound, to cry out to God in prayer is the opposite of doubting. If, in prayer, I cry out to God, asking and saying things like: “Why have you forsaken me?”; “How long, O Lord?”; “Why do the wicked prosper?”; “I cry out, but you do not answer”; “You have made me see troubles, many and bitter”; “You have put me in the lowest pit”; “Darkness is my closest friend”—when I say these things to God, I am addressing the God in whom I have put my trust. I am not doubting; I am lamenting.
(11) Certainty with respect to the character of God is not idolatry. Certainty is the position that God expects those who put their in faith in him to take. It is in this faith in God in which they may take their bold, confident, believing, faithful, and certain stand. And when they take this stand, they do not need some supposedly more sophisticated and enlightened “progressive” Christian to come along and accuse them of idolatry.
(12) Having said all this, there is one last thing to note. Jude tells his readers to “be merciful to those who doubt” (v. 22). On the one hand, it is surprising how harshly Jesus can speak to those who are doubtful and of “little faith.” But, of course, we are not Jesus, and whenever we deal with those who doubt, we do so as fellow doubters. Therefore, we must be merciful and gentle. Even of Jesus, who could be so apparently harsh in his dealings with doubters, it is said that he is not “unable to empathize with us in our weakness” (Heb 4:15). In dealing with those who doubt, we must be like the Old Testament priest was supposed to be, “able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness” (Heb 5:2). We are all at different stages in our Christian journey, and it may be that at certain times our own faith must supply the lack of faith in our brothers and sisters; and perhaps at other times, their faith will supply our lack. But at no stage are we to encourage doubt. We are to encourage faith, not doubt. We are to encourage certainty, not the lack of it.
So what am I certain about? Without trying to cover all creedal possibilities, here is a hodgepodge list. I am certain that:
God is great and God is good.
He is there, and he has not been silent.
He has spoken authoritatively, reliably, and infallibly in his inspired and holy Scripture.
His Son, Jesus Christ, has been God from all eternity.
Jesus was born of a virgin. He lived a sinless life. He died a vicarious death. He rose from the dead. He ascended to heaven. He sat down at the right hand of the Father. He has poured out his Spirit on his church. He ever lives above to intercede. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
And, to say it as beautifully as it has ever been said, my “only comfort in life and death” is “that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” (Heidelberg Catechism)
Of all these things, I am certain.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Go ahead. Ask the question. “Are you always certain of this? Don’t you ever doubt these things?”
And my answer is, yes, I freely confess that there are times when I do doubt. However, I also freely confess that whenever I do doubt these things, I am not being virtuous, but sinful. And in that moment, I do not need some well-meaning but misguided brother or sister to come along and encourage me to doubt. I do not need someone to come along and make me feel good about my doubts. I need someone to tell me to have the courage to believe. I need Jesus to come along and say to me, “be not faithless, but believing.” And I need brothers and sisters who will come along at that moment and sympathize with me and help me to strengthen my “feeble arms and weak knees” (Heb 12:12), and “spur” me on “toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24). I need someone who will help me move from doubt to certainty.
Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
June 11, 2015
Great article Dr. Shepherd! I actually recently had a conversation with a Muslim friend who was shocked by my profession that I am sure that I have been saved. She replied “well no one can be absolutely sure though right?”. “No”, I said, “For sure for sure for sure. I’m sure that I will be in heaven one day”. She still doesn’t believe me. But for me, that conversation further affirmed my assurance in Christ.