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What’s the first name that pops into your head when you hear the word doubt?  If you’re like the other seven billion of us, it’s Thomas. 

Doubting Thomas.

How would you like to go down in history as the one person whose name is most associated with doubt?  Not Thomas the valiant, Thomas the wise, Thomas the loyal disciple.  But Thomas the doubter.  What a loser!  For an apostle, a believer, it doesn’t get much worse.

But take a closer look.  The Gospel doesn’t present him as a loser at all.  Just the opposite.

Thomas isn’t present when Jesus first appears to the rest of the disciples after His resurrection.  When the others tell Thomas they’ve seen Him, he emphatically says that he won’t believe unless he can see Jesus for himself.  Unless he can put his hand in the nail-prints in Jesus’ wrists and the wound in His side.

Or at least that’s the polite translation.  

What Thomas actually says is much more graphic, even grotesque: unless I can thrust my fist up into His side I refuse to believe!  (John 20:25)  Why is he being so caustic?  Because he thinks that what the other disciples are telling him is ridiculous.  Thomas refuses to believe unless that same Jesus who was crucified appears before him alive in the flesh.

It’s a bold challenge: Jesus, if it’s really true, show me.  Prove it!

And remarkably, He does. 

Thomas’ challenge isn’t met with deafening silence.  Or a divine rebuke.  Or a lightening bolt to the head!

It’s met with Jesus revealing Himself and telling Thomas: “Go ahead.  Thrust your fist into my side!”

Which causes Thomas to say something just as remarkable: “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28) 

The most profound confession of faith any human being makes across all four Gospels.  He “gets” who Jesus truly is like no one else.

Whatever you make of the Resurrection—whether it happened or not—the story of Thomas is paradigmatic for Christian faith.  As a result of his doubting, Thomas is led to a far deeper level of faith. 

Christianity, therefore, isn’t afraid of being questioned because it’s confident that the evidence is solid enough that it will inevitably lead any “doubting Thomas’s” to faith.

As another Thomas, Thomas Merton, a monk who dedicated his life to Christ and who is considered by many to be the greatest Catholic spiritual writer of the Twentieth Century, said: “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2003, p. 107)

Doubt isn’t necessarily the opposite of faith.  If you “know how to doubt”, it can be the path to true faith.

But not all doubt does this.

In past generations, doubt was taboo, viewed as arrogantly irreverent (who are we to question God?) and often repressed.  But in our day and age, it’s become fashionable to question God.  Now all the cool kids do it.  Skepticism is viewed as intelligent and sophisticated.  Conversely, belief is seen as naively simplistic.  The pendulum has swung in the other direction, something I, as a skeptic, very much welcome.

However, not all doubt is honest and sincere. 

Not all doubt is genuinely intellectual, truly open to the best evidence.

I had a friend many years ago who didn’t believe.  One night, we happened to be at his house watching the TV news.  As is often the case, the lead story was some horrible tragedy, which prompted my friend to turn to me and say: “See Ed (he called me Ed), this is why I don’t believe.  How can there be a God when there’s so much senseless suffering in the world?” 

For years, I had been looking for an opportunity to share my faith with him, so I thought this is it.  And what an opportunity it is—his question is exactly the question that launched me on my “doubting” quest for the Truth and eventually led me to faith!  So I began my brilliant (if I do say so myself) explanation.

When I was finished, he just shrugged his shoulders, as if to say “meh”, and quickly changed the subject.

He was completely unconvinced.  But it wasn’t because there isn’t a good answer to his question.  It was because he didn’t really want the answer.  His doubt was just an excuse, a way to keep God at arm’s length.   

How do I know?  How can I be so sure? 

Because several years later, he came to faith.  But he didn’t have to resolve the question of suffering to do so.  It didn’t matter anymore.  It wasn’t the real issue for him to begin with.  The real issue was that he just didn’t want God to be part of his life—he didn’t want Him or the lifestyle changes belief in Him would require.

After famously converting from life-long atheism to Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote many books outlining the reasons he found Christianity the most intellectually compelling worldview.  However, as so many skeptics admit after converting, he also said that much of his resistance to the faith wasn’t intellectual doubt.  It stemmed from a “willful blindness”. 

For example, even though he was a classical scholar, an expert in ancient literature, as an atheist he avoided reading the Gospels, which are widely considered to be the most influential of ancient texts.  He didn’t want to know if they were true or not.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone who doesn’t believe is “willfully blind”.  Many unbelievers are genuinely seeking the Truth and have yet to find the evidence.

I’m just saying that the best evidence can’t convince someone who is not willing to believe.  It can’t supersede the will. (Next week’s blog will examine why the Christian God would need to make it this way.) 

And in our skeptical culture, it’s easy to deceive ourselves, to think that we are sincerely interested in the Truth when we really aren’t.  It’s easy to keep posing questions as a smokescreen that lets us off the hook so we don’t really have to deal with the question of God.  It’s easy to be willfully blind!  (I don’t pretend that this is a simple distinction.  We are complex creatures with complex motives.  But there is a way to be relatively certain you aren’t deceiving yourself in this regard—several future blogs will explore how.)

But if you “know how to doubt”, if you truly are an open-hearted seeker, Christianity promises that God will prove Himself to you.

Doubting Thomas is my hero, because he shows that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith.  

Faith—profound, compelling, genuine Christian faith—welcomes any honest question or challenge, because there is more than enough evidence for anyone who sincerely desires to know God to see for themselves and believe too.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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