What Doubt Is (And Is Not)

I thought we’d long moved past the doubt=bad equation in Christianity. The Desert Fathers wrote about doubt approvingly for God’s sake. At least since Tillich doubt as an essential element of faith, not an enemy of faith, has been a mainstay of any theology worth reading. But apparently doubt is still the enemy in some Christian circles.

Yesterday over at Patheos Derek Rishmawy wrote an article about an exchange he had with Timothy Keller at the Gospel Coalition’s 2013 National Conference. He describes an illustration Keller used where college students having taken a science or philosophy course begin having doubts and difficulties, asking questions about evolution or some such issue and he traces that doubt to what he judges to be immoral sexual behavior. Derek has since tried to nuance this point a bit, which is good because suggesting a causal relationship between sexual behavior and questions about evolution is ludicrous. Rachel Held Evans dealt with that subject very well over here.

What I want to talk about is how everyone in this conversation uses the word doubt so loosely that it is counterproductive. About all you can absorb from Keller and Rishmawy’s remarks is that doubt is scary bad – but what is it exactly? Is asking questions about evolution really doubt?

I would like to propose some clarification about what doubt is and is not. First what doubt is not:

Doubt is not asking questions, that is curiosity. It is good to be curious about things, to want to know the truth and to reject simple answers and even time-honored answers until you’ve investigated it yourself.

Doubt is not rejecting beliefs you have found to be untrue, that is disagreement. I do not “doubt” young-earth creationism I have found there to be no evidence that it is true and found abundant evidence that the Earth is billions of years old and that life on this planet evolved over time.

Doubt is not uncertainty or unknowing, that is agnosticism. There are a lot of things that it is perfectly appropriate to be agnostic about – like the existence of God. Gnostic forms of both theism and atheism can be pretty obnoxious actually.

Doubt is not experiencing a change in your beliefs, that is conversion. Whether it is a good or bad (or mixed) conversion you may not know until much later in life, but being open to having your beliefs changed is a decidedly noble thing.

In sum, doubt has nothing to do with knowledge. It has to do with trust. Doubt is not intellectual it is existential. If you are chronically late and you promise to pick me up at a certain time, I might doubt you will fulfill your promise, because I don’t trust you in this respect.

This explains why doubt is still thought of as a negative by Keller & friends. Intellectual disagreement is perceived as a lack of trust in their teaching. I taught you xyz doctrine – don’t you trust me? Or put to its usual use: the Bible says xyz don’t you trust it? Don’t you trust God?

The hard thing to hear and accept is that they’re right: a college student learning that they were taught falsehoods as a child when they are persuaded by evidence that the universe isn’t a couple thousand years-old, non-christians aren’t evil, sex isn’t dirty, the Torah wasn’t written by Moses etc… does lose some of their trust in their former teachers. They do doubt their preachers and families and their church. Of course they do – those people and institutions have been proven untrustworthy.

This isn’t bad news, though. I can doubt you will pick me up on time and still love you and be your friend. I can doubt your credibility as a science teacher and still admire your compassion and generosity. Kids can learn their parents were wrong about a lot of stuff and still love their parents, and we’d have to be incredibly prideful to think that we’re never wrong, always trustworthy.

In fact, I doubt whether anyone can get through this life without experiencing doubt. That sounds incredibly naive to me. Doubt is core to Christian life. Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He isn’t doubting the existence of God, (because doubt isn’t intellectual), he is experiencing the absence of God, doubting God’s love, doubting God’s will to save. It is Jesus’ trust in God that is wounded on the cross.

So it is okay not to trust your parents on everything. It’s okay, advisable even, not to trust your preacher on everything. It’s okay not to trust the Bible on everything. It’s okay not to trust God every minute of the day. There are a lot of crosses in this world, a lot of places where we see no evidence of God’s faithfulness. It would take a great fool not to doubt from time to time.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy


    Thanks for your comments. A couple quick points:

    1. You’re assuming a lot about Dr. Keller and my epistemology off of a brief post.

    2. This is not a blanket condemnation of doubt as bad or wicked. When doubt moves you to disobedience it is, or when it’s used as a rationalization of disobedience we have a problem.

    3.While doubt, especially of the existential sort you’re speaking of, is certainly normal and “okay” in that sense (something I’ve told my students a number of times), its certainly not ideal. The goal is for us to learn trust in the midst of doubt. We really need to get over the over-romanticizing of doubt in our culture. That’s less a feature of biblical faith, than a value of late modernity.

    • aricclark

      Thanks for replying Derek.

      1. Sorry if I assumed too much. I tried to keep my remarks pretty general, you’ll note I didn’t ascribe any particular position on creationism, evolution, biblical inspiration etc… to you or Dr. Keller, but I felt pretty safe using the very examples you used in your post, and these positions are common enough that it speaks to a lot more than your opinion.

      2. You keep referring to this idea that doubt is used as a rationalization for disobedience – I would love it if you would explain it more clearly, because the only examples you have given so far make no sense. How, specifically, do you see doubt being used as a rationalization for disobedience? The example in your article was what you consider sexual immorality (we probably disagree here) and then covering that up with doubts about science and philosophy – I fail to see any connection between these things at all. It seems like a phenomenal reach, logically.

      3. I disagree. Jesus calls us specifically to emulate his cruciform path and part of that path is his cry of dereliction. I would not lift it up in exclusion of the kind of trust shown in Luke and John’s versions of the gospel, but it’s a core part of the Christian life confronting the absolute fact of meaningless suffering, and the absence of God.

      • John Mc

        I believe that doubt is the first step in genuine engagement with God, with Scripture, and with faith, and a necessary first step. Without doubt, there is no questioning, and no attempt to find answers. Instead we just take it all in as it is taught to us, without examination, without depth. Then, when our unexaomined beliefs are challenged by others, or by crises, our faith becomes brittle, unadaptable, and unresponsive, or worse, it collapses like a use of cards.

        if instead we experience doubt, and we pursue the truth, we will be much more likely to strengthen our faith, and meet the real God, and to do so on God’s terms, and not an imagined god on the hypothetical and/or artificial terms imposed on us by our teachers. Doubt is honesty; doubt implies direct involvement with the question, and it says that one cares enough about this to spend time with it and worry it through to a truth which resonates with our soul, to a truth we can trust.