5 / 06
Image of birds flying. Image of birds flying.

#710 Is Commitment Proportional to Certainty?

December 08, 2020

Hi Dr. Craig. First of all, I just want to say that I love your work and continue to be inspired by it and use it to inspire others. But I've been struggling with a question lately and I'm hoping you can help. I tend to think that we should hold our beliefs more or less tightly in a way proportional to our certainty. For example, I believe in the molinist account of God's middle knowledge, but I would still be quite open to other ideas if new evidence came along. On the other hand, I am quite certain that Newton's Second Law is valid in the non relativistic (and non quantum) regime. It would take a lot of evidence to change my mind on that one.

But when I consider the great Christian truths, like the divinity of Christ, his resurrection, his kingship over all creation, I find myself with a lesser degree of certainty. Normally this wouldn't be an issue for me, but the problem I see is this: Jesus doesn't seem to accept half-hearted devotion to him (like my commitment to molinism). He wants complete submission to his authority, and he wants our top priority in life to be the love of God. How can we rationally commit ourselves completely to Christ if we are not certain about Christ? I could really use your help with this one! Thank you in advance for your response.


Flag of United States. United States

Photo of Dr. Craig.

Dr. craig’s response


I had to smile, Charles, when I read of your half-hearted commitment to Molinism! Alas! But seriously, I get the impression that many people wrestle with your question, so it’s worthy of addressing here.

First of all, let’s agree that our certainty of the great Christian truths you mention is a lot less than our certainty of many of the other truths we believe, most of which are pretty trivial, such as my belief that there are plants outside my office window. That difference is hardly surprising, given how far such Christian truths are from our everyday experience. Nor does that fact preclude some Christians’ having very high certainty of Christian truths based not on argument and evidence but on other factors, such as the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

Restricting ourselves, however, to the degree of certainty of great Christian truths available to us on the basis of argument and evidence alone, the question we face is whether such a diminished confidence in the truth of Christian doctrines is somehow unacceptable to the Lord. I say that the answer is, evidently not! I draw great encouragement from the words of the desperate father who came to Jesus for healing of his son. When Jesus told him that all things are possible to him who believes, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9.24). And that less-than-certain belief was acceptable to Jesus to miraculously heal his son. Why was the man’s belief, though uncertain, acceptable to the Lord? Because the man acted on what belief he did have, rather than being paralyzed by his doubts.

You’re right, Charles, that Christ “wants complete submission to his authority, and he wants our top priority in life to be the love of God.” But you err in assuming that whole-hearted devotion to Christ requires certainty about the truths involved. We can make a complete commitment to Christ without having certainty about Christ.

In studying for my projected systematic philosophical theology, I’ve recently been reading William Alston’s impressive book Perceiving God (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991). On p. 277 Alston explains that “it is an essential part of the religious package that we hold beliefs that go beyond what is conclusively established by such objective indications as are available to us (or alternatively holds [sic] beliefs more firmly than the available objective evidence warrants).” Indeed, he makes the startling statement that faith just is “a belief that is more firmly held than the objective evidence strictly indicates.” Now to be fair, Alston makes clear that he is talking about what he calls doxastic faith, which equates faith with a belief that a person holds. But he recognizes that “there is, of course, also need for trusting the supreme being in whom we believe” [my emphasis], which in my opinion is faith in the more proper sense.

Not only is such a commitment on the basis of uncertain beliefs an essential part of the religious package and so acceptable to the Lord, but such commitments are a part of everyday life and are perfectly rational for us. Every time you pull out into traffic, you make a total commitment on the basis of less than certain evidence. Indeed, as William James argued in his classic essay “The Will to Believe,”[1] there are occasions on which it is rational to make a commitment based on beliefs for which we have no evidence at all, such as arbitrarily choosing a path down the mountain to escape a looming Alpine storm. In such a case we are faced with a choice that, in James’ words, is living, momentous, and forced. A living choice is one which presents to us a belief to which we can give genuine assent. A choice is momentous if a great deal hangs on it, it presents to us a rare opportunity, and its consequences are irreversible.  Finally, a choice is forced if there is no option of remaining indifferent, if to not choose is, in effect, to choose to not act. James held that religious belief meets these criteria.

In the case of informed believers like yourself, Charles, you enjoy the additional advantage of having a good deal of evidence for the truth of your Christian beliefs. Your faith commitment is therefore perfectly rational.

[1] Reprinted in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1959), pp. 1-31.

- William Lane Craig