Doubt is a common feature in the Bible. Several key figures in Christianity experience doubts about God and his promises, and also about Jesus Christ. These included Abraham, Moses and one of Jesus’ closest followers, Thomas. He is even remembered as ‘Doubting Thomas’. Many Christians experience doubt about aspects of their faith at some point. But doubt is not the same as unbelief. It is not the opposite of faith. It is like being in two minds – the word doubt comes from the Latin word ‘dubitare’ and has it roots in the word for ‘two’. Someone who has doubts about their faith is not betraying it but raising questions about it. This can be a positive experience. The 4th century Christian theologian Augustine said a Christian ‘thinks in believing and believes in thinking’. The important issue for a Christian is that doubts don’t become a way of life. Instead they should be addressed and tackled head on. Doubt should not become a permanent state – it should push the doubter towards finding answers.
Doubt is about truth and trust. Can God be trusted? Can we trust the Bible? How can we be sure? Thomas spent three years on the road with Jesus Christ listening to his teaching and seeing his miracles. Towards the end of his life, Jesus told his followers (disciples) that he would be executed but would rise from the dead. After he rose, Jesus appeared to all of his disciples, except Thomas who was absent. Later, when the disciples told Thomas they’d seen Jesus, he was sceptical – after all they had been through he was still unsure he could really trust Jesus or his friends. The Bible book, John, tell us his response – he would not believe unless he saw Jesus’ hands and side that were wounded during his execution. When Jesus then appeared to Thomas, Jesus was not angry and did not criticise Thomas for his lack of faith. Instead he said ‘put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe’. He then continued with an encouragement for future Christians, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.
‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.
Another disciple who experienced a moment of doubt was Peter, who went on to become one of the most significant figures in Christianity. The Bible book, Matthew, tells how Jesus walked across the surface of a lake and invited Peter to get out of his boat and join him. At first Peter also walked on the water but then became frightened and started to sink. Jesus caught him saying, ‘you of little faith, why did you doubt?’
In the Old Testament – the part of the Bible before Jesus Christ is born – there are occasions when very significant figures doubt the promises that God has made to them. In the Bible book, Genesis, Abraham and Sarah cannot believe they will have a child as God has promised, because they are elderly. But then Isaac is born. Later, in the book of Exodus, Moses doubts he is the man to lead the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. But he is – and he does. A Christian who experiences doubt is in good company!
Doubt is not the end of faith. Christians are encouraged to simply believe – but not to believe simply. Wrestling with doubts and resolving them strengthens a Christian’s faith. It is like refining a metal by burning off the impurities. The result of a strengthened and deepened faith can benefit others who are experiencing doubt. The Bible book, 1 Peter, encourages Christians to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you’ (about what you believe). Note that the author is the same Peter whose doubt once left him sinking into a lake beside Jesus.
‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’.
Doubt can arise from various causes: misunderstanding the Bible or Christian teaching; confusion because of incorrect Christian teaching or relying on feelings rather than facts. Christians facing doubt can seek answers from a vast range of teaching resources in print and online. They can also speak to other Christians who are more experienced in the faith. It is important that a Christian experiencing doubt is taken seriously and listened to with care and compassion so that the root of the doubt can be discovered.
One story in the Bible book, Mark, neatly illustrates how doubt can be seen as being in two minds. A man with a desperately ill son approaches Jesus to ask him to heal the boy…if he can. Jesus tells him, ‘everything is possible for him who believes’. In response the man says, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’.
Mat Miles talks about struggling with what feels like God's absence.