The Best Christians Are Doubting Christians (Part 1)

Doubt is necessary. Unbelief is dangerous.

Socrates doubted the state religion of multiple, degraded, finite gods, and urged people to seek "the God." Copernicus doubted that the hugely nuanced Ptolemaic astronomy correctly represented how our all-wise Creator designed his world. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others doubted that Jim Crow laws, inequality and segregation were the best America could do – and we all abundantly benefit from his doubts. Leaders in science must doubt the reigning theories of their time. Voters must doubt most of the claims of competing politicians. And in ethics, the most elementary form of integrity is honesty with oneself – the willingness to doubt and reexamine one's own beliefs and behaviors.

In the Bible, Abraham doubted that the finite gods of his Mesopotamian cultural upbringing were all he needed – and then met the living Lord. Job persistently, faithfully doubted the false karma-based religion of his "friends" – and he was honored with an encounter with the living Lord. At Jesus' ascension, some of the Apostles continued to doubt, but the Lord soon fully answered their doubts and prayers with his Spirit's powerful presence. And even the Apostle Paul, at the end of his "Hymn of Love," openly doubts our best knowledge. Those very doubts make the enduring, divine empowerments of faith, hope and love all the more eternally precious.

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In contrast to doubt, unbelief is dangerous. Jesus honors Thomas' doubts, without judgment (John 20). Nevertheless, Jesus himself considers the failure to believe in Him as the primary sin (John 3 and John 16). The author of the letter to the Hebrews strongly warns against unbelief so that we will not fall away from the living God (Hebrews 3). John calls unbelief an affront to God because it makes God a liar (I John 5). And the Apostle Paul concludes his discussion of Christian conscience with a warning that whatever is done as an expression of unbelief is sin (Romans 14). Clearly, unbelief is hazardous to your health and wholeness!

So much for unbelief!

By contrast, I know of no Biblical passage where we are even warned against doubt! Perhaps this is because doubt and belief are fully compatible and because there is no slippery slope from doubt to unbelief. Actually, as odd as this may sound, doubt is never a hazard to vibrant Christian faith. Rather, some sincere doubt is necessary to sustain the vitality of the Christian walk.

Here is the difference: Doubt is the act of questioning, the expression of uncertainty, the dissatisfaction with incomplete knowledge. Doubt is the humility of a mind or heart asking real questions and seeking truthful solutions. Surely, one can believe and question at the same time. In fact, if we did not believe, we would not bother to question.  

In contrast to doubt, unbelief is the "uncola" of faith. In its biblical usage, "unbelief" always connotes stubborn resistance, disobedience, rebellion and rejection of the Gospel. In short, doubt is the sincere question, but unbelief is the unwillingness to remain aware and to hear the answer.

To be more precise about this essential difference, we will now examine four specific kinds of unbelief, all of which masquerade as faith. We will see how all of these four forms of unbelief are dramatically different from doubt – healthy, faithful, attentive doubt. Here I will draw from some personal examples, because doubt has been a faithful companion and pesky gadfly throughout my own difficult spiritual pilgrimage.

1. Formaldehyde Faith

Formaldehyde Faith is named for the professional chemical substance that museums use to help keep dead, stuffed, taxidermied animals at the Natural History Museum looking as if they are still alive. On Sunday morning and on various other occasions, it is so easy for us to scamper into our comfortable positions within the glass museum cases of customary "church-ianity" that passionate faith seems to be unnecessary. With an overemphasis on being display items to the world, contemporary Christians constantly run the risk of becoming and reproducing "plastic-perfect" people.

The pastor of a large church invited me to preach the Sunday morning sermon. The only people who knew me were out of town that weekend, including the pastor, so I was on my own. I came early enough for Sunday school, and some very pleasant people introduced me to an adult class as a "visitor" – without anyone recognizing my name as the preacher for the morning service. The dear brothers and sisters in the class were certainly cordial; their expressions of welcome to this unknown visitor seemed well rehearsed. I was glad to be there.

However, something went terribly wrong. During the lesson, everything the teacher taught and all the answers to his contrived questions seemed too comfortably canned. Both the teacher and the students seemed to be playing a part in a poor quality movie, in which all the actors were accurately verbalizing well-rehearsed lines, but without feeling and with precious little evidence of real understanding. Perhaps I, too, may sometimes have played the role of a low-grade "church performer," but here I had the benefit of not belonging to the set! These beloved believers were sincere, certainly. Still I had to do something: this class was just too awful to let pass!

Attempting to encourage these sincere brothers and sisters to think and speak from real conviction, I began to ask a few questions – gently, politely, simply, and as unobtrusively as I could:

Really, why is that point important?
Why do you believe this?
What difference does that idea make?

The effect was dramatic. My goal of stimulating these lovely Christians to express themselves with genuine feeling was a sudden success, far beyond my greatest hope! In fact, the emotional thermostat moved up from cool to well past lukewarm… then to hot… as these Christians immediately became critical of me. They even questioned whether I was a Christian and objected to me as an outsider trying to disrupt their tranquil class. A few minutes later, when I walked out on the sanctuary platform at the beginning of the worship service, I could immediately recognize members of that class in the congregation: they were the ones with their mouths locked in a quick dumb-struck pose!

In two important senses, these sincere Christian brothers and sisters were suffering from serious unbelief. First of all, they showed such little confidence in their own faith that they were easily threatened by an unknown brother who asked simple questions that they should have been asking. Second, and just as importantly, these dear church people lacked passion. They were so comfortable with mouthing a set of faith formulas that they were completely thrown off track when a stranger interrupted their rote repetition. They had let their faith slip deeply into the dangerous unbelief of minimal commitment and zero passion.

How can we free ourselves from the unbelief of Formaldehyde Faith? For one thing, by doubting – developing an active, questioning mind. We all agree that "Jesus is the answer." But that profession becomes absurdly false when we fail to entertain serious questions. And by those, I mean questions that require more than intellectual rigor, that require personal openness and discovery. An important symptom of the Pharisees' unbelief was the dearth of serious questioning and doubting. Most of their beliefs were absolutely correct, but the Pharisees nevertheless remained in the posture of unbelief because they would not seriously question their own interpretations nor openly seek what God was doing right before their eyes. As a splendid exception to the other Pharisees, Nicodemus' own doubts helped lead him to an honest encounter with the Lord Jesus.

Unbelief is a state of being. It is neither a single question nor even a dogged doubt. Unbelief is the condition of being closed, out of touch with the living God – even when that very "closed" condition is a plastic-perfect profession of Christian "belief."

Formaldehyde Faith may be the most dangerous form of unbelief, because it gives the appearance of faithfulness, but the heart and guts have been removed.


The second form of unbelief I call Intellectual Disdain; it is generated by a type of "unbelievability criterion." Presently this often takes the form of an unbelieving attitude toward miracles, for example, whether miracles in our own time or in some previous age, simply because miracles violate our own conceptions of natural law. This unbelief is not merely a doubt about the historicity of some event, but a blanket assertion that the event would be impossible at any time. (For recent examples of the dangerous unbelief of Intellectual Distain impacting Bible study, please click here.)

Certainly, to circumscribe God's work on the basis of our own constantly revised –and always limited – descriptions of the "laws of nature" is perhaps the very height of sinful pride and arrogance. The splendid history of natural science and a knowledge of the limited focus of any of the sciences have helped me to doubt whether our own understanding of natural events could ever be complete and absolute. This doubt helps protect us from the unbelief of Intellectual Disdain. (Learn more on this topic by clicking here.)

Nevertheless, probably everyone has – at one time or another – doubted the historic reality of even the resurrection of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most important miracle since creation. This incredible event powerfully shatters our deeply entrenched expectations of the sovereignty of natural process, our fear of death, and our despair of enduring hope. If the resurrection took the disciples totally by surprise, surely we ourselves, so additionally saturated by scientific values, can react honestly with shock and doubt. Otherwise, without such doubt, we would not understand the very point of the empty tomb; otherwise, without doubt, we would not comprehend that the Gospel is still news – good news!

Unbelief leaves no room for the tremendous resurrection surprise. It refuses the possibility that dead bodies rise to new life. In contrast, doubt is the hopeful symptom that the renewing of our stubborn finite minds is not only necessary, but is also possible.

Tomorrow I will talk about two more forms of unbelief, the first I call "dashed hope," specifically the pitfalls that form up when one suffers from extreme disappointment in the Lord. And the last is "comfortable numbness," that dangerous, and ultimately deadly, feeling that doing the things of God is just as good as actually experiencing Jesus Himself.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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