Chapter 1.
Faith, Reason, and Doubt

Forbidden Questions

Vignette 1: My class in world religions was on its annual visit to a synagogue. We were listening spellbound as a young woman named Tina told of her spiritual pilgrimage and her decision to convert to Reform Judaism. She had grown up in a Christian church. As a child, she had made a profession of faith. When she became a teenager, she started to raise questions about what she believed. Is Christ really God? Does the Trinity make sense? What can we as modern people believe to be true? Her pastor had told her that she should not ask such questions. He said that it is wrong to doubt and she should simply believe what she had been taught to believe. Now she was abandoning Christianity for good.

The Only Doubter?

Vignette 2: I was sitting in my office grading papers. The student scheduled for my two o'clock appointment was already ten minutes late. Eventually Bill showed up. "I was hung up in my computer class." So we conversed about computers, schedules, course loads, anything but what we were supposed to talk about. I could tell that he did not feel very comfortable yet. Finally Bill got to the point: "I just can't believe any longer the way I did back in high school. Back then I could accept anything on faith. Now I'm not even sure all the time that God exists." After we had talked a little while he said, "You know what's the worst part for me. As far as I can tell, I'm the only person at this Christian college who's going through these doubts." My conversation with Bill was the third of this type I had had that week.

Doubting Thomas

Vignette 3: When I was a young school boy in Germany, one item on the weekly schedule was Wednesday morning worship service. Protestants and Catholics each went to their respective services. As a Baptist, I was assigned to attend the service in the Lutheran church. There we would sit, pinching each other, whispering, making faces, and trying to sing interminable hymns that were too high even for our screechy voices. Needless to say, I do not remember much of what I heard in those sermons, but one of them sticks in my mind. It was the senior pastor's turn to preach. He was a kind man with white hair and a red face that had obviously seen and conquered many a roast pork with potatoes. When he emphasized a point in his preaching, he would lean forward in the pulpit, rest himself on his forearms and hands, and push himself up and down, looking rather like a friendly seal doing push-ups. This Wednesday morning he spoke on Jesus' appearance to doubting Thomas. "Leave my Thomas alone!" The pastor admonished us, looking more than ever like a seal with a mission. "Thomas wanted to find out for himself what was true. He was not content with hear-say testimony."

But Is It True?

"But is it true?" This is the guiding question of this book. As paradoxical as it may sound, many people believe in the truth of Christianity without ever contemplating this question. They will assert all of the right statements and beliefs; they have all of the correct answers; and the truth of what they believe is self-evident to them. The only answer to the question of whether Christianity is true or not is that it obviously is. In fact, many people even claim that any other attitude constitutes doubt, which must be understood as an inherently rebellious act against God and treated as a sin. This book is not written for those people.

Many of us do struggle with questions of the truth of Christianity. We are not fighting God, the church, or our upbringing; we just want to know the truth. Is Christianity believable? Can one with a clear head accept that Christ is God or that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? There are issues here that demand an answer, and they are suppressed at a potentially great cost.

Unbelievers Need to Know

The issue of truth appears in two particular arenas. First, there is the context of evangelism. To invite a person to receive Jesus Christ as Savior, two things are imperative. A person has to understand the gospel. If people do not understand the need for salvation and Christ's provision for us, it makes no sense to ask them to commit themselves to Christ. A person also has to accept the message of the gospel as true. I have seen non-Christians state clear reasons why they cannot believe in the truth of Christianity, and Christians respond by challenging them to ignore their questions and accept Christ anyway. Surely we do not want people to commit their lives to what they honestly feel is not the truth. Rather we should be able to show people why Christianity is true.

Of course there is a difference between questioning that is based on a search for truth with integrity and the kind of questioning that unbelievers sometimes hide behind. All too frequently we encounter the person who asks, "So where did Cain get his wife?" and if we do not have a satisfactory answer handy, he preens himself triumphantly, thinking that he has disproven the Bible, the church, and all of Christian dogma. This attitude needs to be treated by elevating the conversation to the level of personal need and commitment. Yet sometimes we are also guilty of treating an honest questioner's concerns with the cold shoulder or even contempt. If we are to meet persons' needs in the name of Christ, surely that ministry includes responding honestly to their intellectual questions. By the way, an honest "I don't know" is always better than making up an answer we do not really believe ourselves or simply ignoring someone's question.

Of course we are also not saying that a person would become a Christian on the basis of rational arguments alone. Salvation depends on our faith; no one is going to be in heaven simply because he or she tried to disprove God's existence but could not. However, clearing away the rational issues can very well be what makes it possible for people to place their faith in Christ. I have also seen this happen.

When Believers Have Questions

Second, the question of truth appears in our personal growth as Christians. There comes a time when we need to ask ourselves whether we really can subscribe to the truth of what we have said we believe. Many of us spent most of our lives in fairly restricted Christian environments. Growing up in Christian homes, we have been nurtured in church and Sunday School, some even in Christian schools. If we went to public schools, Bible clubs and youth ministries were available to us. Thus we have grown up with many beliefs as part of our heritage without examining alternatives or reasons why they should be true.

There is nothing inherently pernicious about this fact. If no one were ever to believe anything unless he or she had a solid core of arguments accumulated, most of us would have to go through life as skeptics. An eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rationalist attitude proclaimed that, somehow, unless you were able to support all of your beliefs with airtight arguments (at the so-called bar of reason) you were not entitled to hold them. That attitude is obviously neither realistic nor tenable. However, that fact does not give us the luxury of escaping into unreason whenever our faith is challenged or we are coping with personal doubts. We need to be honest with ourselves and ask ourselves why we do claim truth for what we say we believe. At that point, not confronting the issues of evidence will not firm up our faith.

We even need to go one step farther. There should come a period in our lives, as we mature in our faith, when we need to confront our inherited belief system and ask ourselves whether it has really become ours. The developmental psychologist James W. Fowler sees a personal re-examination of beliefs as necessary for full maturity. Through most of our adolescent years we are very peer-oriented in all of our life's decisions. We respond to groups and easily pick up the group's beliefs as our own. This is why evangelism on the high school level needs to be socially oriented. Many times during this period we recommit ourselves to our family's values. However, in late adolescence or early young adulthood, we ought to escape from the peer-oriented mode; we need to decide whether we can really claim ownership in everything we have taken on as beliefs. In most cases, this process involves raising questions about the truth of these beliefs.

This re-examination does not mean tearing down everything so that it can be rebuilt. It may simply be a matter of making sure all of the nails are holding and applying a little more glue here and there. Unless a person is willing to go through such a process, his or her faith may always be suffering from a lack of conviction.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain an effective Christian life if we are nagged by doubts. The Bible demands that we dedicate our lives to the cause of Christ, but it hardly makes sense to have any kind of commitment if we are not sure that the cause of Christ is based on reality. It certainly is possible to ignore our questions and try to bury them in endless successions of activity. People will put pressure on us to do exactly that. Yet such an escape can also be a ticking time bomb (cf. vignette 1). In any event, we do not need to do that to ourselves. We are free to ask questions and search for answers.

Toward that end we need to become clearer on the relationship between faith and reason, and that clarification will have some implications on the nature of truth.

Faith and Reason

We use the term faith in three ways in the context of Christian theology: saving faith, growing faith, and knowing faith.

Saving Faith

In terms of the Christian gospel, saving faith may be the most crucial. In Acts 16:31 are Paul's instructions to the Philippian jailer: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (NKJV). In Galatians 2:16, we read that we are saved by faith, not by works of the law. Ephesians 2:8-9 reiterates that we are saved by grace through faith. What is this faith that saves us?

A good synonym for saving faith may be "trust" or "reliance." When people have this kind of faith, they are expressing to Christ that they are lost without Him, that they cannot possibly redeem themselves, and that they are relying on Christ and His work alone for His gift of salvation. This kind of faith is an act of abandonment to God; it is not some kind of work. Instead it is the renunciation of all works and reliance on His work alone.

Saving faith is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. As Paul points out to the Galatians, it is not possible to supplement this faith with works of the law without undercutting the work of Christ (Gal. 5:2-4). Reliance that also looks elsewhere for support really is not reliance at all; trust that is not willing to accept what someone says is not trust at all. In the same way, trust in Christ that also tries to look elsewhere for help for salvation really is not trust in Christ at all. Thus this kind of faith by its very nature excludes works.

A word of clarification needs to be added. This kind of faith, if it is genuine, will manifest itself in good works as evidence. Though the works are not a precondition for faith, they are a definite consequence of true faith. This is also the teaching of Paul, for example, in Galatians 5 or in Titus 2 and 3, just as it is found in James as he proclaims that faith without works is dead (2:26). See our further discussion of this issue in chapter 12.

Growing Faith

I am calling the second kind of faith "growing faith." Jesus encouraged us to have this kind of faith when He told us not to worry about tomorrow but to rely on the provisions of our heavenly Father. Growing faith is different in some ways from saving faith. First of all, it has no implications for our salvation. It comes under the heading of living the Christian life once we are born again. Thus it presupposes that we are already in a relationship with Christ. A second point of contrast to saving faith is that in growing faith we can speak of degrees of faith. I can indeed grow in faith in terms of my daily trust in God. Over a lifetime of living in Christ, hopefully I come to trust Him more and more.

But growing faith also has something important in common with saving faith—both rely on God. Once again, the point is to learn not to occupy ourselves with our concerns, worries, and efforts but to turn them all over to Christ.

Many people, in their zeal for these first two kinds of faith, draw a wrong conclusion. They say that, because faith in both of these senses means to abandon ourselves to God, this faith is blind. Such a statement implies that we ought not to use our minds in any questioning or reasoning way; trust in God implies lack of critical thinking about God.

A little reflection on this attitude shows it to be unacceptable. We cannot trust someone or something we know nothing about. We need to know that the object of our trust is trustworthy. This concern does not mean that we want to compromise the nature of faith, but faith needs to be real, and this involves basing it on a reality, not a fantasy. In the Book of Hebrews, we read that those who want to come to God, must first of all believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). In short, before we can come to have faith in Christ, we need to know that faith in Christ is meaningful.

Knowing Faith

Thus we come to the third type of faith, which I am calling "knowing faith," often called "belief," because it has to do with accepting certain statements as true. This faith refers to the way in which we may come to accept certain intellectual truths without which a trusting faith would be impossible. It is not possible to respond to the gospel without knowing the gospel; it is not possible to trust in Christ without knowing what Christ is all about. Thus even though we can only be redeemed through "saving faith," such saving faith presupposes some essential items of knowledge. James tells us that the devils believe that God is one, but tremble, for they cannot be saved by such knowledge (Jas. 2:19). Neither are we saved by knowledge, but genuine trusting faith presupposes some knowledge.

There are several different ways we may acquire the knowledge on which we can base a decision. Let us lump them together into two categories: faith and reason, where "faith" stands for the "knowing faith" under consideration. The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas has provided us with a helpful analysis of faith and reason in this context, and the following discussion will rely to a certain extent on his description.

People usually learn about the facts of their faith from some form of authority. These sources might include parents, clergy, teachers, or the Bible. Because we are taught to respect these authorities, we accept what they teach us about God. No one can be expected to examine all of his or her beliefs before committing to them as true. Many people do not have the capacity, time, or interest to undertake a thorough evaluation of a doctrine and its alternatives. For that matter, if the world had to wait for the "experts"—theologians and philosophers—to come to agreement on beliefs before accepting any of them, nobody could believe anything. So God has seen to it that some people are commissioned to represent His truth as He has revealed it in His Word, the Bible. Such is the obligation of all parents to their children and all others who occupy a teaching or preaching capacity in the church. We see then that it is both possible and proper for all articles of belief to be accepted on the basis of faith, that is, out of respect to the authority that teaches them.

However, the path of knowing faith does not preclude a second path based on reason. When I was a child, my father told me that water consisted of oxygen and hydrogen. I believed him, for I respected his authority. However, that faith in him did not prevent me from taking a course in chemistry in college in which I carried out an experiment of producing water by combining oxygen and hydrogen. I still accept the same belief as true, but on different grounds—I first knew it by faith, now I know it by reason. The same logic may apply to our knowledge about God.

Many truths are accessible to us only on the basis of faith in God's revelation, including the facts concerning the plan of salvation. Nevertheless, there are also truths that we can know on the basis of reason as well as by faith. These truths might include such items as the existence and unity of God. There is nothing in the nature of knowing faith to preclude our accepting some truths on the basis of reason.

When we talk about finding a grounding for our faith, we mean that we ground some beliefs on reason—beliefs we had earlier accepted on the basis of knowing faith. Does this sound insidious to you? If it does, it might be because you still are missing the distinctions on faith I made above. Reason can never replace saving faith or growing faith. It cannot simply supplant knowing faith, but it can provide a second avenue towards the same items of belief that are usually accepted on the basis of authority alone.

The Unity of Truth

We should never fear investigating truth. If we have to run from truth, maybe it is because we have something to hide. Could it be that we are afraid that, if we look too hard, we might discover that what we have accepted to be true by faith turns out to be false? I am convinced that faith and reason, if used properly, will arrive at the identical truth.This conviction is in turn premised on the fact—with which Aquinas also began his discussion on this subject—that all truth originates with God and points us to Him.

Consequently we do not need to be gingerly in our investigations of truth. If a belief cannot withstand hard questioning, it may not be worth holding. If Christianity is true, it should be able to withstand the hardest questions we can bring to it. If Christianity is not true, we should reject it.

That last statement sounds daring, but it is actually a fairly gratuitous thing to assert. Should we ever believe something that has been shown to be false? Of course not! I can make that kind of statement because I am convinced that Christianity is true and that it will hold up under the severest scrutiny. It must be kept in mind that it is not as easy to show Christianity to be false, even hypothetically, as some people think.

A key to this discussion lies in the integrity of the questioning. We are concerned with honest questioning. However, many religious arguments consist of someone's merely trying to score points. The critic tries one approach after another, hoping the Christian cannot answer his latest volley, while the Christian piles up a mountain of arguments in the expectation that sooner or later the critic will throw in the towel. Questioning with integrity does not mean finding defenses for or against a pre-established point of view but wrestling with those real doubts that never stop pricking us.

We can conclude this opening chapter with an invitation. You are invited to ask some hard questions. Let us see whether we can show Christianity to be true. You must learn to understand the questions as well as to master the answers. You must learn to question with integrity. In the final analysis, the answer will require a personal response of faith commitment from you. When you start asking for truth, the stakes are high. Now we can apply some of these insights to our opening vignettes:

Response to Vignette 1: We should not feel like we need to take all of the blame whenever someone who seemingly was a Christian departs from the faith. Many factors are at work, including the decision-making ability with which God has endowed us. However, from our finite perspective I cannot get away from the feeling that the pastor's judgmental attitude contributed to this tragedy. People who have genuine heartfelt questions are not helped by making them feel guilty for their "doubts." I do not know if the pastor could have answered Tina's questions or helped her find the answers. Not everyone is required to be able to answer everyone else's questions. However, I am quite sure that by telling Tina her questioning was illegitimate he did contribute to her searching for a different religion. After all, that is what she said herself.

Response to Vignette 2: Most people go through periods of serious questioning. As I stated above, it may even be beneficial for further maturing in the faith. There is nothing wrong with someone who is reevaluating his or her beliefs. The best thing to do in such a case is to find someone who can carefully and respectfully work through the issues with the questioner on an individual basis. Sharing pressing doubts in a group setting will most likely set off undesirable dynamics, such as superficial answers or a condemnatory atmosphere. If you are going through a period of questioning right now, be assured: you are normal; you are not alone; there are answers.

Response to Vignette 3: "Leave my Thomas alone!" I too want to echo that statement. Christianity is something that cannot be had secondhand; you must know for yourself. Jesus did not condemn Thomas; that prerogative was left to the church. Jesus gently invited Thomas to check out His scars. He praises Thomas for believing on the basis of what he has seen and then praises even more those who believe without having seen—and that is us! We can never see what the first disciples saw, but we can believe. There is nothing that mandates that this faith be an irrational leap into unknowing. Just as Thomas did not want to commit himself on the basis of secondhand testimony, we too may believe on the basis of firm personal knowledge.

For Growth and Study

Mastering the Material

When you have studied this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Tell why it can at times be a good and helpful thing to question some of your beliefs.
  2. Distinguish between three types of faith.
  3. Show in what way knowledge on the basis of reason does not undermine knowledge on the basis of faith.
  4. Make a case for the unity of all truth.
  5. Identify the following names with the contributions to which we alluded in this chapter: James W. Fowler, Thomas Aquinas.

Thinking About the Ideas

  1. In this chapter we have said that doubt can sometimes be a good thing. When can doubt be bad?
  2. Can you think of an experience in your life when questioning something brought you closer to the truth?
  3. To what extent are the three different types of faith interrelated? Why do people tend to confuse them with each other?
  4. What are some truths that can be known only on the basis of biblical authority? Are there any truths that can be known on the basis of reason alone?
  5. What are some areas in which faith and reason overlap? What are some areas in which reason seems to challenge faith?
  6. What are some attitudes that keep people from searching for truth with integrity? How can you make sure that you are not just playing games with the truth?

For Further Explorations

Gary R. Habermas, Dealing with Doubt (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990).

Paul Little, Know Why You Believe (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press, 1967).

Clark H. Pinnock, Set Forth Your Case (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1968).