What makes people doubt Christianity? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
A friend recently sent me an article by Peter Enns where Enns talks about the question of doubt and wants to know why Christians doubt. Doubt is a topic I’ve experienced a lot of familiarity with and take seriously. Most people know about my relationship with Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, both of whom have been very forward about their experiences in dealing with doubt. Both of them are also excellent scholars in their field.
This post is not going to deal with how to deal with doubt at this point. I’d just like to talk about what the problem is. This will also go to both sides of the spectrum. It can be why non-Christians doubt that Christianity is true, but it can also be about why believing Christians doubt that Christianity is true. This will be specified more in future posts.
Doubt is very common amongst Christians and in fact amongst anyone. If someone has a worldview and they never experience any doubt of their worldview or never have before, then that person is simply not taking their worldview seriously. Doubt is not a sign of a problem necessarily, but in fact can be a stepping stone to a greater understanding of one’s own worldview and if one has a wrong worldview, motivation to change it.
Generally, doubt falls into three categories. This does not just apply to Christianity. People can doubt any worldview for these three reasons.
The first is intellectual doubt. Intellectual doubt is usually seen as the most common, but in reality, it isn’t. Intellectual doubt can often be a smokescreen. A great way to find out of if intellectual doubt is the problem is to answer the question and see what kind of response you get. If you get a response that starts with “But what if?” then you are most likely dealing with emotional doubt.
Intellectual doubt is really the simplest of all to treat. The way to answer intellectual doubt is to just get more information. It means you go to the local library or bookstore and start getting out resources and doing the necessary study so you can learn. If one is never satisfied by such study, one needs to move on and see if there is another reason for doubt.
Emotional doubt is the next on the list. This is the one I’d say is the most common and is rooted not in reason, but in the emotions, although it often takes the guise of reason. Blaise Pascal spoke of taking the greatest champion of reason and suspending him on a platform of sufficient size over a huge chasm. Watch what happens as his imagination overtakes his reason.
This is the cause of phobias. For instance, if someone is afraid of flying, it will not matter if you quote to them all the statistics in the world on it being safer to fly than it is to drive. They will not be able to see it because of their emotions. This includes myself as well until I finally took my first flight and now I simply adore flying. One aspect I enjoy of going on a long trip sometimes is that I get to fly again.
Emotional doubt happens when what one feels overpowers what they think. For instance, one could say they don’t think atheism is true because life would be meaningless without God. I by and large agree with that, but that is not a reason that atheism is not true. It could be atheism is true and life is meaningless.
This is especially problematic since emotional responses are usually the reason we believe many claims. I think of the old hymn where it says “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!” Such a reason will not convince a world any more than the Mormons talking about the burning in the bosom convinces you. If a Muslim tells you he knows in his heart that Muhammad is a prophet, you are not going to be convinced.
Emotional doubt also goes with false expectations. When we expect God to provide certain feelings and that the Christian life should be a certain way, we will naturally have doubt if this does not happen. We can be guilty of wanting something that God never promised. There will be more on this later.
The problem of evil definitely falls into this. Evil in itself can never prove Jesus did not rise from the dead, nor does it disprove theistic arguments. These stand or fall on their own. Evil does give an experiential basis for doubt. It hits so close to home that it is a problem that needs to be addressed. The problem of evil is often addressed intellectually, which is really as an academic subject the way it must be addressed, but when dealing with someone affected by it deeply and presently hurting from it, one absolutely must touch the emotional side. I have often told people who I have taught that if you’re ever a pastor at a church and a woman comes to you from your congregation whose son just died in a car accident and she’s crying asking why God allowed this to happen, that if you turn into a philosopher and/or apologist at that moment, I will come over and smack you. Yes. She will need that, but at that present moment, she just needs to grieve. She needs a pastor and a counselor first. When the shock has worn off, then you can handle the intellectual difficulty. (Note that it is far better to deal with that intellectual difficulty prior. All Christians need to get an answer for evil in their mind beforehand.)
The final kind of doubt is volitional doubt. I have no doubt some Christians doubt atheism and some atheists doubt Christianity for these reasons, and they are the worst. It is not about a search for truth at all or seeking to not have emotions control reason. It is about not wanting to believe.
For instance, someone could not want to be a Christian because they have a sin in their life, such as rampant extra-marital or pre-marital sex, and they know becoming a Christian means giving that up and they don’t want to. Sin is a reason a number of people can refuse to become Christians. Some of you reading might say “That’s not me!” I contend only you and God know the answer to that one. If you are doubting Christianity, at least make sure this is not the reason why.
After all, suppose you think God is the most wicked being who ever has been. If Christianity is true, that won’t change the fact that He exists and that Christianity is true. It could mean you have a wrong view of Him and that false view of Him is blinding you from seeing Him as He is. There are some who have said they would prefer to go to Hell instead of being in the manifest loving presence of God. The sad reality is God is ready to grant them their wish. Instead, I recommend trying to see why God acts so different from what you expect. There is no doubt some emotional thinking in volitional doubt, but this kind of doubt deals more with the will. An emotional doubter can want to believe. A volitional doubter doesn’t want to, and it will require changing the will, a much harder process. Anyone who has overcome an addiction or tried to lose those few extra pounds on a diet should know this. You have to work to change what it is that you really want.
These ultimately are the broad categories of why doubt takes place. Over time, I hope to be able to look at these and give recommendations on dealing with them.