What would make a Christian doubt his or her faith? Many young people face a difficult time when their beliefs are challenged for the first time. Below, Dr. Craig hears the struggles of a college student who has encountered ideas and objections new to her. He then offers some sage advice: don’t allow your doubts to become overinflated, break each objection down into its premisses and determine if those are true, and draw distinctions between objections against optional facets of Christianity versus objections against an essential tenet.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I am a third-year philosophy major at the University of Kentucky, and I have been a Christian since I was four years old. A couple years ago, I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and I was very impressed; I think it is a great witnessing tool.
I write to you because I am beginning to waver in my faith. It started with my best friend, who was very on fire for God, but the more secular literature she read and the more she was exposed to the apparent problems within Christianity, the more skeptical she became. Especially hard for her is trying to believe that the selfless, upright, morally good person who doesn’t believe in Jesus will go to hell while the carnal Christian who serves Christ and others only halfheartedly will go to heaven. In my case, I am greatly distressed by a few of my agnostic friends; one in particular—he swears to me that if he knew what God wanted, he would do it, but why would God allow Christianity to not make any sense to him? He doesn’t think it’s fair for a God to create him knowing that he would have such a hard time believing in Him, and make it so that he would go to hell by default.
When my best friend told me she was struggling, I figured it was just a phase and started thinking about what books to recommend to her. But then something hit me that had never really been an option before—what if Christianity really isn’t true?
My intuition is still that it is, but I am in dire need of your help—someone whom I know has a strong faith as well as a strong philosophical background. What advice could you offer me, my best friend, and the non-believers we know to elucidate Christianity and rekindle our faith? My dad, a former pastor, suggests reading the Bible itself, as it is convicting, and telling nonbelievers to wait on a call from God. But I was wondering what you would say about all of this?
Any help/encouragement you could provide about why Christianity is the one true way would be immensely appreciated.
Your thoughtful letter raises a whole nest of profound issues which need to be disentangled if we’re to get clarity on your question.
First, your comment that you had never really entertained before the option that Christianity isn’t true suggests to me that you are moving from the merely inherited faith of your childhood to an adult faith that is truly your own. You should expect that by growing into a mature faith, even though you are a Christian, doubt will come into play at some point. The process can be very painful, but it is really an important part of spiritual maturation. So don’t be distressed; this is something you need to go through.
Second, keep things in proportion. I find that when folks are struggling with doubt, the doubts can balloon all out of proportion, so that their belief system comes to look rather like those maps of the world which show a country’s size according to its economic wealth rather than geographical area. The doubts assume a disproportionate place in one’s system of beliefs. Remember: what we’re looking for is a worldview with the least difficulties, not with no difficulties. You’re familiar with Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ. Is all the evidence he lays out in that book really cancelled out by the difficulties raised by your friends? Or are the difficulties that would be generated by rejecting that evidence greater than the difficulties your friends have raised? Be careful that the difficulties raised by your friends don’t take on a disproportionate weight in the whole scheme of things.
Christian doubt - Distinguishing between essential and nonessential doctrines
Third, think about the claim that Christianity isn’t true. Christianity is a multi-faceted worldview. So ask yourself, what facet of the belief system is challenged by the difficulties you are wrestling with? That God exists? Is that what you’d have to give up if your friends’ objections were sound? That Jesus rose from the dead? Is that belief challenged by their objections? It doesn’t seem like it. The problem you seem to be wrestling with is the doctrine of Christian particularism or exclusivism, which holds that salvation is available only through Christ. Even here, the Christian particularist has a range of options to choose from, all the way from universalism through various sorts of inclusivism to a narrow restrictivism. You’ll find extensive resources on this site dealing with this problem (see “Scholarly Articles: Christian Particularism” or “Popular Articles: How Can Christ Be the Only Way to God?”). If your girlfriend’s objection is correct, which of these options would you have to embrace? All of them are compatible with the existence of God, the incarnation, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, his resurrection from the dead, and so on. So in what sense is Christianity not true if your friends’ objections are correct?
It’s thus important in considering an objection to Christianity that we get clear on precisely which facet of the Christian worldview the objection challenges. Your friends’ worries are too vague for us to see what exactly they are challenging. You’re a philosophy major. Sit down and try to formulate your friends’ objections into logically valid arguments for some conclusion. Then go to them and ask, “Is this your argument?” If so, then ask yourself, “What evidence or proof is there that each of the premises is true? Have they been shown to be true? What reasons are there to doubt the premises? What alternatives are open to me?” My point is that even if your friends’ objections were good ones, you might need to make only relatively minor adjustments in your Christian belief system. Simply because one may as a Christian doubt particularism, it would not invalidate the doctrines essential to the Christian faith.
Christian doubt - Misunderstanding Christian doctrine can fuel doubt
But let’s think about those objections. All of us who have loved ones who are wonderful but non-believing people can sympathize with your girlfriend’s feelings. But when you think about what she says, it becomes clear that she doesn’t understand salvation by grace alone. No one deserves to go to heaven; if God judged us by our merit we’d all be condemned, no matter how selfless, upright, and morally good we are. None of us can earn his way to heaven. Therefore, salvation can only be the unmerited gift of God’s grace. To fail to grasp this is to fail to grasp the very essence of Christianity. So if one rejects God’s grace in Christ, one falls back on one’s merit, and no one is good enough to deserve heaven.
It is no surprise that doubt is prevalent in the life of the so-called carnal Christian. Let me say that someone who claims to know Christ but shows no fruit of regeneration has no basis at all for assurance of salvation. So let’s assume that we’re talking about a genuine believer who is trying to live a Christian life but finds himself sinning over and over again. What is God supposed to do with such a person on your girlfriend’s view? Send him to hell because he doesn’t measure up? Of course not; he’s saved by grace through faith, not by his own merit. Your girlfriend will doubtless say that if God will forgive him, then He should forgive the morally upright non-believer as well. But He has! The debt for all his sins has been paid; it’s just that the upright non-believer rejects the payment. God wants to save him; but the morally upright non-believer refuses to be saved. He rejects God’s gracious offer of forgiveness through Christ and so falls back on his own merit, which is unavailing. Despite his upright life, the unbeliever who remains an unbeliever until death shows that in fact he has a heart which is opposed to God and resistant to the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, I’m speaking here of unbelievers who have heard the Gospel; on the problem of those who have never heard, see the articles referenced above.
Christian doubt - Does confusion about Christianity make it untrue?
Now let’s think about the objection of your agnostic friend. His objection seems to be much more radical and far-reaching. He blames God for his own unbelief. His reasoning seems to be as follows:
(If this is not his argument, then I don’t know what he’s saying.)
Well, are the premises of this argument true? Since (2) is just a first-hand report about his psychological state, I think we should accept it at face value. But we’d certainly like him to tell us more. Why doesn’t Christianity make sense to you? What have you done about it? What books have you read? Have you prayed about it?
These sorts of questions become relevant when we come to assessing the truth of (1). Why think that (1) is true? Your friend’s answer seems to be that God would not allow Christianity not to make sense to him, presumably because God loves him and wants him to be saved. We who are not Calvinists will agree that God does love him and wills his salvation. But does it follow from that that God would not allow Christianity not to make sense to him? Not at all; for one thing, it may be the case that as he continues to study and seek the Lord, Christianity will make sense to him. There was a time when Christianity didn’t make sense to me; but eventually it did. For much of his life Christianity didn’t make sense to C. S. Lewis; but in time it did. Your friend is probably a young man. He shouldn’t give up on God too soon. Going through a period of searching can actually be good for him. Here, then, is the rub. Is your friend really seeking God? Is he studying to understand Christianity? Or is his unbelief the result of culpable indifference? Is he attached to some sin in his life that he knows he’d have to give up? If he really is seeking God, then he will come to faith in time, so that (2) will be false. If his unbelief is culpable, then it is the result of his own free will, and (1) may not be true, since God will not override his free will.
There are other reasons as well to think that (1) may be false. One gets into very deep issues here concerning divine middle knowledge. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, take a look at the DVD of my debate with Theodore Drange on the question “Does God Exist?” But I hope enough has been said to show that we have no good reason to think that (1) is true. So the argument is not a good one.
Your father’s advice serves to remind us that doubt is not a purely intellectual problem but has a spiritual dimension as well. When you read the testimonies of people who have apostasized, it is striking how moral and spiritual factors play a role. So as you work through your doubts, be mindful of your own spiritual life: corporate worship, prayer, Bible study, service, giving, etc. Claim the promise of II Peter 1.5-11. For more on working through doubt, take a look at my chapter on doubt in Hard Questions, Real Answers (Crossway, 2003) or Gary Habermas’s The Thomas Factor (Broadman & Holman, 1999). May the Lord strengthen and equip you!