Faith and Doubt

#29

November 05, 2007

Faith and Doubt

Many Christians fall into the trap of assuming that faith and doubt are mutually exclusive. They imagine that a real believer would never question the grounds for his faith and if one experiences doubt, his faith isn’t true. Others when confronted with arguments against Christianity are thrown into a sea of doubt, believing that every plausible objection must be answered before they can rest in their faith. But as Dr. Craig explains, both assumptions are incorrect. Here he offers some insight into his own coming to faith in Christ, his ensuing struggle with faith and doubt, and the importance of making the distinction between knowing Christianity to be ¬†true and showing it to be true.

Dr. Craig,

I would like to first start out by thanking you for all the work you do. Your articles, books, and talks have been a major benefit to my heart and mind. I’m 21 years old and attending my second and final year at film school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Upon entering my first year of film school the doubts I had lingering in my head for the summer prior hit me hard. For the next couple months I went through an intense, mind-numbing search for answers. It was probably the most difficult time of my life. I thought my world was caving in and taking me with it. I scoured the bookstores for anything on existence of God and the historicity of Christianity. I came across numerous titles by authors such as Norman Geisler, J.P. Moreland, Peter Kreeft and many others. I came across your works by searching the end notes of the books I bought. I have listened to many of your talks and debates and read many of your articles. I look forward to the release of the latest edition of Reasonable Faith. I have since come to take a great interest in Philosophy and Apologetics. I am currently considering studying Philosophy after I finish film school.

The main reason I am writing to you is because I have a question for you, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Over this past year of doubt and searching I have had high points and many low points. I can’t honestly say I’m feeling the security right now in my beliefs I wish I had. There are points when I just get so frustrated with all this thinking/arguing/debating. Sometimes I’ll feel like I’m starting to figure it out when I come across some stupid internet forum posing some argument against Christianity or the existence of God and I slump back down because I don’t have an answer to it. (It’s at those points when I really want to listen to your talks). It’s become this tiring high/low cycle. A friend of mine has been going through a similar situation as me. We finally found out about each other’s struggle after a couple months of going through it. He has since become my close companion on this journey. We talk about our doubts, thoughts, questions, and cynicism together and how we both love listening to your talks. (I introduced him to your works and website about half a year ago and he’s told me (in a comedic way) that when he’s really feeling weighed down by all the questions he’ll listen to your podcasts and talks from your site when he goes to bed and says to himself “Yes Dr. Craig...that does make sense...maybe God does exist...it all makes sense...” as he falls asleep). So both him and I are on similar journeys.

While we were talking the other night we were both wondering if the doubts and insecurity will ever fade away, or minimize to a bearable amount. My question to you is this, when does the doubt/non-belief go away if ever? Will there ever be a time where I will actually whole-heartedly believe in God? (I understand you can’t actually answer that, but I guess what I’m asking is whether or not there comes a point where it’s “BAM! I believe in God!”). Right now it feels like I believe in God on a good day but doubt His existence on another day. But even on those good days it only really feels like I take comfort in the prospect of God’s existence and it’s not that I actually believe in Him. I want to believe in God more than anything. I understand what happens if God doesn’t exist and I can’t live with thinking that. But the thing is I can’t force myself into belief. There will be days when I have to tell myself there’s meaning just so I can take joy in being with my family and friends, that it isn’t all pointless. It’s as if I’m in a balance of belief and non-belief, tipping back and forth as the days go by. It gets frustrating. I was telling my friend that one of the things that keeps me going through this struggle is looking at where I see myself in the future. In the future I see myself believing in God and raising my family with that belief and conviction, to guide me so I can guide my family. I see it down the road, but I don’t know how long it will take me to get there. I’ve decided that it’s something I won’t give up on. I won’t settle for non-belief. If it takes me until my deathbed I’ll fight the non-belief in hopes of being taken over by belief. But the thing is, I don’t want to be “pretending” I believe in God until then.

I don’t even know if this is making sense. I’m not expecting you to have an answer to all those questions. I guess maybe all you could really do is maybe relate your own journey from non-belief to belief. Was the transition overnight or did it take time from the moment you said you believed in God for you to actually feel the full conviction? I don’t know what I’m expecting or hoping to hear from you. I hope some of this is making sense to you. Thanks for any advice/wisdom/reading recommendations you can provide.

Steven

Faith and Doubt

Thanks for your very touching letter, Steven. I admire your courage and your honesty in discussing your struggle with faith and doubt. I suspect that there’s no simple, quick recipe that if followed will make your doubts vanish like magic. You’ll probably have to work through your doubts in a slow and agonizing process. But be assured that many great men and women of God have traveled that same path before you and have not lost faith.

To speak personally, I myself was not raised in an evangelical home, but I became a Christian my third year of high school, not through any careful consideration of the evidence, but because the Christian students who shared the Gospel with me seemed to be living on a different plane of reality than I was. Their faith in Christ imparted meaning to their lives along with a joyous peace, which I craved. Unlike yourself, I remember looking into the future and saying to my Christian friends, “I just can’t see Bill Craig as a Christian!” But after an agonizing six month search for God, I was marvelously born of the Spirit on September 11, 1965, at around 8:00 o’clock in the evening. It set my life on a whole new course.

Faith and Doubt – The conflict of theological rationalism

As a young believer full of enthusiasm and faith, I went off in 1967 to study at Wheaton College. During the sixties Wheaton had become a seedbed of skepticism and cynicism, and I was dismayed to see some of the students whose intellectual abilities I admired lose their faith and renounce Christianity in the name of reason. The prevailing atmosphere was one of theological rationalism (or, as it’s sometimes misleadingly called today, evidentialism), the view that faith, in order to be rational, must be based on argument and evidence. In my theology courses I learned that none of the classical arguments for the existence of God is sound, and my Bible professors never discussed evidences for the reliability of the Gospels. Among the students, doubt was touted as a virtue of the mature Christian life, and one was supposed to follow unflinchingly the demands of reason wherever it might lead. I remember well one of my theology professors commenting that if he were persuaded that Christianity were unreasonable, then he would renounce Christianity.

Now that frightened and troubled me. For me, Christ was so real and had invested my life with such significance that I could not make the confession of my professor. If somehow through my studies my reason were to turn against my faith, then so much the worse for my reason! It would only mean that I had made some mistake in my reasoning. Thus, I confided to one of my philosophy teachers, “I guess I’m not a true intellectual. If my reason turned against Christ, I’d still believe. My faith is too real.”

So I went through a temporary flirtation with Kierkegaardian fideism–though my mind couldn’t rest long in the position that I believe Christianity because it is absurd. As often happens in the lives of earnest students, the reading of certain books proved pivotal in my thinking and directed my life along a different route. The first was E. J. Carnell’s Introduction to Christian Apologetics, which convinced me that reason might be used to show the systematic consistency of Christian faith without thereby becoming the basis of that faith. The second was Stuart Hackett’s Resurrection of Theism, which stunned me by its demonstration that there were, after all, persuasive, cogent arguments for God’s existence. Hackett’s book was part of an incomplete project, however, and left one with a sort of deism rather than Christian theism. But then, third, I became acquainted on a popular level with Christian evidences, particularly for the resurrection of Jesus, compiled, for example, by Josh McDowell in Evidence that Demands a Verdict. It became evident to me that it was possible to present a sound, convincing, positive case for the truth of Christian theism.

Faith and Doubt – The difference between knowing and showing Christianity to be true

Still I couldn’t embrace the view that argument and evidence constitute the essential foundation for faith, for the fruits of that viewpoint had become forcefully clear to me at Wheaton. I put the issue on the back burner while I pursued other questions during my seminary and doctoral studies in philosophy, but it came to the fore again in 1977 when I was invited by Campus for Christ to deliver a series of lectures on apologetics to university students in Munich. My opening lecture was to be on faith and reason, and in meditating on this problem, I hit upon a scheme that has proved to be very helpful to me in illuminating the relationship between faith and reason–namely, the distinction between knowing Christianity to be true and showing Christianity to be true. It has been gratifying to me that what I grasped in a rough and superficial way has been confirmed by the recent work of religious epistemologists, notably Alvin Plantinga.

I hold that argument and evidence play an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, but a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true. The proper ground of our knowing Christianity to be true is the inner work of the Holy Spirit; and in our showing Christianity to be true, it is His role to open the hearts of unbelievers to assent and respond to the reasons we present. If you’re interested in seeing how I develop this, take a look at my contribution to Steve Cowan’s Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000). Better yet, read Plantinga’s inspiring book Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2003).

I have found this to be both an intellectually and experientially satisfying account of the matter. As I look back on my Wheaton days, I see now how infected with theological rationalism our community was and how perverse a concept I had of what it meant to be a “true intellectual.” It was the testimony of Christ’s Spirit within me that gave me the fundamental assurance that my faith was true; and my refusal to give this up in the face of potential defeaters was not a sacrificium intellectus but was wholly in accord with the deliverances of reason.

If this approach is correct, then it has tremendously important practical implications in the struggle between faith and doubt. One of the most pernicious problems with theological rationalism is that it is deleterious to one’s spiritual life. It leads precisely to the sort of agony you describe, where one’s faith hangs in the balance with every new issue of The Philosophical Review or turn of the archaeologist’s spade. God has provided a more secure foundation for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument. He has given us the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as the proper foundation for our knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel.

Faith and Doubt – The necessity of God as a living reality in your life

This implies that we have to be very mindful of our own spiritual formation. First and foremost, you need to be sure that you are a regenerate Christian. If you have not been born anew of the Holy Spirit, then you lack His witness within you and so find yourself cast solely upon such arguments and evidence as you in your limited time and knowledge come across. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder you feel doubt and uncertainty!

A couple of years ago, when I was out at Talbot School of Theology teaching a two-week course, a fellow from the Bay area who was visiting his family in San Diego dropped by to talk with me about doubts that were troubling him. As we chatted, I sensed that he had not yet come to have a personal relationship with the Lord. So I asked him, “Would you say that your faith in God is just an intellectual belief based on your assessment of the evidence or would you say that God is a living reality in your life?” When he said it was just the former, I asked, “Have you ever really committed your life to Christ and invited him to be your Savior and Lord?” When he replied that he really hadn’t, I asked him, “Well, would you like to right now?” He said that he would, and so we bowed our heads together in prayer and he prayed with me to ask Christ into his life. After we had prayed, he was so grateful; it was just the step he had needed to take.

If you’ve never been born anew, then I’d urge you to go to God in repentance for your sin, tell Him that you believe He sent his Son to die for your sin and to restore the relationship with Him that you were created to have, and invite the Holy Spirit to come and make you spiritually alive.

Faith and Doubt – The necessity of cultivating Christian virtues

But perhaps you’re already a regenerate Christian. Then you need to cultivate the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. You can grieve the Holy Spirit through sin and quench His leading and power by not allowing Him full reign in your life. Confess sin as soon as you’re aware of it, and allow the Holy Spirit to empower and direct you. Be sure to maintain a devotional life, with regular times alone of prayer and Bible study. Take your doubts to God and ask Him to give you grace to persevere. Cultivate the Christian virtues in your life, and then you can claim the promise of II Peter 1. 5-11: “if you do this you will never fall.” Make sure you participate in truly meaningful corporate worship in the setting of a local church. Lone Ranger Christians generally don’t make it, and even a small group setting is no substitute for the church, which is the body of Christ locally, replete with all His gifts. Be sure you’re exercising your own spiritual gift in the context of a local church, so that you are serving others. I assume that you’ve followed through on your conversion by being baptized and regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Be intentional about sharing your faith with unbelievers, despite your doubts (they’ll probably respect your transparency and vulnerability!). Nothing will so infuse your spiritual life with excitement as seeing God use you to lead another person to a saving knowledge of Himself. Be on guard for Satan’s deceptions. Never lose sight of the fact that you are involved in a spiritual warfare and that there is an enemy of your soul who hates you intensely, whose goal is your destruction, and who will stop at nothing to destroy you. Which leads me to ask: why are you reading those infidel websites anyway, when you know how destructive they are to your faith? These sites are literally pornographic (evil writing) and so ought in general to be shunned. Sure, somebody has to read them and refute them; but why does it have to be you? Let somebody else, who can handle it, do it. Remember: Doubt is not just a matter of academic debate or disinterested intellectual discussion; it involves a battle for your very soul, and if Satan can use doubt to immobilize you or destroy you, then he will.

I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures. I think that the key to victorious Christian living is not to have all your questions answered — which is probably impossible in a finite lifetime — but to learn to live successfully with unanswered questions. The key is to prevent unanswered questions from becoming destructive doubts. I believe that can be done by keeping in mind the proper ground of our knowledge of Christianity’s truth and by cultivating the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Faith and Doubt – Dealing with unanswered questions

The point is this: the secret to dealing with doubt in the Christian life is not to resolve all of one’s doubts. One will always have unanswered questions. Rather, the secret is learning to live victoriously with one’s unanswered questions. By understanding the true foundation of our faith and by assigning the proper role to argument and evidence, we can prevent unanswered questions from turning into destructive doubts. In such a case, we shall not have answers to all our questions, but in a deeper sense that won’t matter. For we shall know that our faith is true on the basis of the Spirit’s witness, and we can live confidently even while having questions we cannot answer. That’s why it is so important to keep in mind the proper relationship between faith and reason.

Finally, I’d encourage you to pursue your doubts into the ground. I said that the secret to handling doubt in our lives is to learn to live victoriously with unresolved questions. Any thinking Christian will have a “question bag” filled with unresolved difficulties he must learn to live with. But from time to time, as you have opportunity, it’s good to take the bag down from the shelf, select one of the questions, and go to work on answering it. Indeed, I can say that working hard on an unresolved question and pursuing it until you finally find an answer that satisfies you intellectually is one of the most exhilarating experiences of the Christian life. To resolve a doubt that has troubled you for some time brings a wonderful sense of intellectual peace and inspires confidence that there are solutions to the remaining difficulties in your question bag.

When you have a doubt or a question about a particular issue, set aside time to study that specific issue by reading books or articles on the subject. Libraries at Christian colleges and seminaries can be particularly helpful, if those are available where you live. Even public libraries can order what you need through their interlibrary loan service. Find out what Christian scholars have written in the area you are exploring and write to them — or, if possible, visit them to discuss your question. Seek out and talk with those members of the body of Christ who have studied the subject. In that way, the members of the body will be helping to build each other up. But don’t let your doubts just sit there: pursue them and keep after them until you drive them into the ground.

I don’t know the answer to your question of whether your doubts will suddenly come to an end. That’s probably very person-relative. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing. The really important thing is learning to live with unanswered questions without allowing them to become destructive doubts. That, I believe, is, by God’s grace, possible.