Have you ever had a dream so vivid that you believed it was real? If it was a bad dream, then waking up would have been a moment of tremendous relief. Whereas, if it was a good dream, then waking up would have been tinged with regret. But here’s a thought: How can you be certain that you’re not asleep right now? In fact, how can you be sure anything is real?
That’s the dilemma dramatised in the blockbuster film: The Matrix. It tells the story of a computer hacker, called Neo, who discovers that his entire world is an illusion. His whole life, everything he has ever known and experienced has been part of a computer generated simulation. The film left many people with the haunting question: what if we too are plugged into the Matrix? How can we be sure anything we experience is real?
This isn’t just a question in science fiction – in fact it has been wrestled with by thinkers for centuries, starting with Plato and later Rene Descartes. Descartes intensely struggled with uncertainty about his own version of the Matrix – he asked: what if a demon is deceiving me, causing me to hallucinate and experience things that aren’t actually there? He came up with a plan: he methodically doubted everything possible to doubt, until he was left with the only thing left that he could not doubt. That is what led him to declare: “I think, therefore, I am”. The one thing that he could be absolutely sure existed was his own mind which was doing the doubting!
However, Descartes’ lingering problem was the possibility that everything your mind thinks is being deceived – perhaps your brain really has been removed from your body by a mad scientist and plugged into the Matrix? (You cannot disprove that possibility!) If reality is defined and determined solely by what goes on inside our heads, then it is possible to radically doubt almost everything. And that’s not healthy! You cannot live life to full if you are paralysed with radical doubts and uncertainties.
That is also true for the Christian life. It is not uncommon for Christians to struggle at times with questions like: Does God really love me; Can I trust the Bible; are the promises of the gospel too good to be true? Unsettling doubts can steal your joy in the gospel of Jesus, and hinder your witness for Christ. Indeed, as a people of faith some find it hard to admit that they struggle with doubt – not only to other Christians (who they fear might judge them as being inferior believers) but also to non-Christians (who might raise them to the surface in conversation or in asking us questions).
In this article I want to take you on a journey that will help you get over the hurdle of doubt.
- You can believe in God confidently (even without certainty)
All of us live tolerating a level of uncertainty – none of us can claim to enjoy absolute certainty and be doubt-free. For example, if you’ve ever watched one of those courtroom dramas you’ll recall that the prosecutor never has to prove their case with 100% certainty – they only have to present evidence that proves the person is guilty “beyond a REASONABLE doubt” – there will always remain some POSSIBLE doubt and uncertainty (perhaps the accused really does have a secret evil twin!).
You see human beings are finite and there will never be a time when we possess total knowledge or absolute certainty. We always have to live by a measure of faith, which also means there will always be room for doubts to creep in. But those doubts need not paralyse us – in faith or in evangelism. Let’s think some more about that…
Ten years ago, two scientists Richard Dawkins and John Lennox were having a public debate entitled “The God Delusion?” Dawkins defined faith as believing in something (God) without any evidence for it. However, Lennox argued that it’s not quite so simple. He explained how the world is not divided into those who have live based on FAITH and those who live based on REASON. Everyone lives based on a combination of FAITH and REASON. For example Lennox asked Dawkins: “How do you know your wife loves you?” Dawkins replied indignantly: “You know why, you know your wife loves you because of all sorts of little signs, catches in the voice, little looks in the eye, and that’s the evidence. That’s perfectly good evidence, that’s not faith.” But here’s an uncomfortable thought: what if Richard was being deceived by his wife, who was in the midst of a secret affair? As unlikely as it seems, it remains remotely possible she was giving Richard all these little signs so he didn’t get suspicious. So Lennox is right in pushing Dawkins to admit that we all live our lives on the basis of a combination of faith and evidence. That means we can believe something confidently even without certainty! That’s not only necessary in our relationships with friends, spouses, business partners, but a necessary part of having a relationship with God through faith in Jesus.
That then is what the Bible means when it describes the Christian as “walking by faith and not by sight”. The Christian faith is not a blind leap into the dark. Instead, Christianity is a reasonable faith – because there are many good reasons to believe in God and many pieces of evidence that support the claims of Jesus. That’s why the Christian can believe confidently even without certainty.
(2) You can belong to God while still possessing doubts
If we’re honest, some of us fear that God is angry, disappointed or offended by our questions and doubts. The good news is that I think God is big enough to handle our biggest and hardest questions! If you don’t believe me, then we can read one eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus – in the Gospel of John. We’re going to meet a man, who lived, walked, talked with Jesus – who witnessed His death on the Cross for our sins – and who also to his great surprise witnessed Jesus’ victory over death. His name is Thomas – sometimes he is known as “Doubting Thomas”.
Thomas was grieving the brutal murder of Jesus, and disappointed that all his hopes for Jesus bringing God’s kingdom seemingly having been destroyed. Suddenly he hears this astonishing news. But in response Thomas refuses to engage in wishful thinking! He demands to see the evidence for himself that Jesus is truly alive again! “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now I think Doubting Thomas unfairly gets a bad reputation, when he’s actually a great example of someone who is seeking the truth! He’s sceptical about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead –because nothing like that had ever happened before! The Greeks and Romans didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, in fact they didn’t like the thought of it – far better for the soul to escape the body. The Jews did believe in the resurrection of the dead, but only at the end of history. Thomas didn’t have a box in his mind for the resurrection of one person in the middle of history. So it’s no wonder this didn’t make more sense to him.
But the story doesn’t end there, because a week later we read: “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas got to see with his own eyes, to touch with his own hands, to hear with his own ears the living, walking, talking proof that Jesus had been raised wonderfully from the dead! The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate proof of His claims that He is God come into this world to save us. Only then did Thomas believe in Jesus – because that’s what the evidence demanded.
As a Christian who sometimes experiences doubts and wrestles with many questions, I am really encouraged to watch how Jesus dealt with people like me – kindly, gently, lovingly. In the same way, Jesus is not disappointed or ashamed of you when you struggle with doubts.
But notice that while Jesus is gentle and accommodating of Thomas’ weak faith, he still challenges Thomas not to stay in that place, but to move away from it and make progress into a more reasoned and reasonable faith. That’s what all Christians should pursue too: faith that seeks greater understanding.
- You can develop a more confident faith in God
Here are three quick suggestions to help you make progress:
BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR DOUBTS: Don’t struggle with them on your own. Bring them out into the open, ask an older Christian pastor or parent or friend about them. You are not the first person to ask and wrestle with these things. I’m always so encouraged that there are far more experienced and intelligent people who have come before me, who have found answers that I could not find within the four walls of my mind.
BE DOUBTFUL ABOUT YOUR DOUBTS: Remember just because there remains some POSSIBLE DOUBT does not mean that it is a REASONABLE DOUBT. Every doubt is actually an alternative belief – so challenge your doubts: what reasons do I have to believe you are true? How does this doubt weigh up against all the evidence and reasons in Christianity? Challenge your specific lingering doubts – read books and blogs that give answers to your hardest questions. Study the good reasons drawn from science, history, philosophy, archaeology, and many more fields that support what the Bible claims.
BE DELIBERATE ABOUT DEVELOPING YOUR FAITH: Like if you go without food, you grow tired and weak – so also it is possible for our faith to get weaker if we’re not making use of the things that God has given us to help us grow: reading His Word, speaking with Him in prayer, gathering with His people, serving in His name.