Mike Licona on Christian Doubt

I have asked a few respected Evangelical scholars and authors to contribute on the issue of Christians and doubt. I am grateful to each one of these men for not only contributing here, but being the type of scholar who deals with such issues with openness. I am posting them one at a time over the next couple of weeks.

Mike Licona is a New Testament historian and apologist. He has a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies (University of Pretoria), which he completed with distinction. He serves as external research collaborator at North-West University (Potchefstroom). More on Mike below.

Mike, if you were talking to someone who is having significant problems with their faith, doubting whether or not Christianity is true for whatever reason, what would you say to them if you only had one minute?

Each of us has idiosyncrasies. One of mine is I’m a second-guesser. It’s hard for me to purchase a bottle of cologne without wondering before I leave the store whether I should have bought a different one.

I seem to question just about everything. I don’t want to make a bad decision, even in some very insignificant matters. So, it just makes sense that I often have doubts pertaining to decisions in significant matters. It’s not an intentional exercise. In fact, it’s downright frustrating to me. But it’s the way I’m wired.

What about my Christian faith? Have I ever experienced doubts? Many times. Have I been brain-washed? Do I hold my beliefs because I was brought up to believe them? What if I’m wrong? And it doesn’t help that our culture is growing increasingly hostile toward the Christian worldview. Continue reading

Reclaiming my faith

(by anonymous)

In high school I liked a girl who didn’t like me back. During those hard times (which were harder than should have been), my faith became sort of a crutch. Now I realize this theology isn’t entirely wrong. After all, Christ has accomplished what we were powerless to do; he is our “crutch.” But my faith became narrowed to all those slow contemporary songs about God being my hiding place and refuge. The idea of having JOY in Christ must have completely passed over my head.

There was a point when I realized that I needed to build the foundation of my faith not on being despairingly driven to faith, but on Jesus Christ the person Himself. Now, it’s not like I think about this all the time, and I believe I have addressed this problem and I have learned to find joy in the person of Christ; however, there seems to me to be a clear shift of never having doubts about God to having doubts about God after I got over the girl. Just brainstorming, I could possibly attribute this to a few things: 1. My faith was longer a crutch and I had successfully gotten over a girl–why need God? 2. What was once a highly emotional faith had turned more intellectual, and the deeper I went the more questions I had.

I went through a period of a few months where I began to admit my doubts (about God’s existence). I can remember having conversations in the park with my friend. Much of my thought was spurred by discussion with an English teacher of mine, and essentially I was trading God (who was obviously just one made-up part of the vast history of literature) for a life of balance, beauty, and thought. My friend asked me why I would want to trade a world of meaning for one without meaning. To me, this world did have meaning. Oh, and less constraints of God’s commands, too. Always a bonus.

Shortly after this intense period of doubt, I went on a missions trip where everything was quickly rebuilt. Heck, the organizers of the trip even prayed for the weather. They trusted God for everything! That’s somewhat sarcastic, because the cynicism in me still doubts why God would care intervening with weather (weather is scientific, right?), but the other part is serious because it was a key experience in my rebuilding of faith in God.

Here I stand now. That missions trip was over two years ago. I’m now in my sophomore year of college. I work at my church as a youth intern. I give sermons. I plan on going to Biola. I teach others about Christ. I pray frequently and read my Bible daily. I listen to Christian music in the car. I try to experience Christ all the time. I look for opportunities to build friendships with people who I can introduce Christ to.

But you know what? I still doubt. It’s like I’m compelled to follow Christ, but I don’t even know what is compelling me. I can only hope it’s not just because I have a job secured. I can be in the middle of a prayer, and then out of nowhere think, “No one (No God) is listening. This is stupid.” But to lose faith, to lose Christ, would be to lose everything to me. It’s times like these I wish I was a tongues-speaking, prophecy-giving, lay-hands-on-the-people healer charismatic, because I want to know for sure I am following a TRUE, LIVING God, and not an idea.

TryIng to find my way

(by anonymous)

I’ve been a believer for almost 30 years. During that time, I’ve dealt with various doubts. Another believer has likely had any doubt I have. So, my first strategy in dealing with doubts is to read what has been written by others. Many times their response is a stretch but their argument is conceivable, so I accept it and move on. I began to deal with my most recent doubt (An old earth, for which I feel the evidence is very strong, implies God freely chose to create through suffering, contradicting His scripturally revealed nature) in the same way.

However, seeing the unsatisfying and poor explanations once again, I began to feel that though atheism has a number of things it explains poorly (e.g. early apostolic resurrection testimony and the conversion of Paul), they pale in comparison to the host of things that the Christian faith explains poorly. For example, the creation story vs. observed paleontology and paleogeography. The lack of destruction of freshwater or oceanic creatures due to the sudden salinity change in their environment. The survival of host-specific deadly parasitic fungi. The number of species needed to fit on the ark (all authors I’ve read on this seriously skew the data). The lack of confirmatory records of Joshua’s long day. The many instances where Old Testament prophecies need to be taken grossly out of context to get the New Testament interpretation. The strong resemblance of many Psalms to propaganda intended to strengthen a Davidic dynasty. The big change in the interpretation of the Law from the Old Testament to Paul (Paul said the law was intended to condemn not to be kept. Moses said (Deut 6) that God commanded him to teach them the law so that they would do it.) These are just a few that I list off of the top of my head. I am confident that I could write many more.

Note, I am not saying the Christian faith does not explain the things I listed. I am just saying that the explanations are poor quality. God COULD have caused the waters of different salinity to not mix. All species could have been originally salt-tolerant and God COULD have caused them to lose this tolerance in a few thousand years. God COULD have written His revelation in a way easily subject to misinterpretation. But all of these explanations seem strange, not the way one would expect. The combination of so many tenuous explanations makes me doubt the underlying theory.

I spoke to my wife. She says I think too much and just need to enjoy the Lord more. I spoke to my small group. They just encouraged me to go forward because God will eventually have a more useful vessel after I’ve dealt with my doubt. I spoke to an elder. He recommended that I not deal directly with the issue but rather groan before the Lord and then to confess my sins, offenses, disposition, upbringing, and pride, then to read the Bible, pray for others, and read Watchman Nee’s book, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

I decided to try the elder’s advice until October. However, I did not find my doubts dealt with. Additionally, in that time, I became more comfortable with the thought of myself as an atheist. I went from feeling ashamed of the possibility of becoming an atheist to seeing it as a result of pursuing the truth. I went from mourning the loss of many of my dreams (preaching the gospel with my sons, training them in the Bible, practicing hospitality along with my wife to shepherd visiting brothers and sisters, having an exemplary Christian home that others can admire and thus be drawn to the faith), to feeling that if Christianity is not true, I don’t want my sons wasting their time. I went from seeking to build an eternal kingdom to thinking that maybe the only part of me that will survive my death is my genes and the culture and knowledge I impart to others younger than myself.

Since the procedure the elder suggested hasn’t helped, after a week of getting the nerve up to do it, I went to the rest of the elders yesterday (the one I had originally spoken with is out of the country) and told them that I would no longer be coming to the church service coordination meeting. I told them that according to my subjective assessment, I was an atheist, but that I would not make a final decision at least until February. I told them that I would use the time I liberated in not coming to the meeting to investigate as thoroughly as I can so I could come to a conclusion more reliable than just my feeling that the evidence for one outweighs the other.

My current (embryonic) thoughts on how to carry out such an investigation are to:

1. Make a list of all the problems I see with Christianity and with atheism.

2. Quantify how important each is to the truth of the beliefs concerned. I’m not sure how I’ll do this. My current though is to use some sort of statistical model, maybe a Bayesian model (with which I am familiar) or maybe an Imprecise Probability model (which I will need to study before using).

3. Assign initial plausibilities and/or confidences to each part of the model that needs it/them. Possibly involving a rudimentary investigation.

4. Do a sensitivity analysis on the individual parts of the model to see which parameters would shift the conclusion the most.

5. Investigate more deeply those areas that could change the conclusions the most.

6. Repeat 4-5 (potentially refining the model as I uncover new details) until I am satisfied with the confidence.

7. Live according to the conclusion, adding new facts as they arise.

Until I come to a more certain conclusion, I have decided to continue living as a Christian with three exceptions. First, I will not preach the gospel – how can I try to convince others when I disbelieve to such an extent. Second, I will put my offering in a special bank account. If I decide for Christianity, it will be used for the Lord’s work. If I do not, it will become savings. Third, I will only pursue minimal church service: nursery duty, hospitality, distributing the announcements. No organizing VBS, making web-sites or traveling for this or that.

I choose to live as a Christian during this questioning time for a few reasons:

1. It is easy to stop, hard to start.

2. I already have been living this way almost my whole life.

3. Christianity has a track-record of being generally good for believers.

The consequences for my life and my family are quite severe if I decide on atheism (even if I decide for Christianity, there are costs, but I’ve already paid most of them). So, I want to make the right decision. On the other hand, I don’t want to sit on the fence for the rest of my life. Even the Lord said to the Laodiceans, “I wish that you were either boiling or cold.”

Today, looking for this site, I ran across the Habermas book, “Dealing with Doubt” and was somewhat encouraged by his chapter on factual doubt. However, I know from previous investigation that the evidentiary issues he touches there are more complex than he presents. I am a bit intimidated by the enormity of the task ahead of me. But I don’t see any other way to go. I can’t just ignore the problem – a wishy-washy life is not for me. Nor do I know of a simple way to quickly analyze everything in a way I will believe after I finish. Nor can I just delegate my responsibility to authority figures because there are brilliant and committed men on both sides of the issue. So the choice will come down to my evaluation of which authority I want to follow. I may as well analyze the issues themselves. Thus, the only way for me is forward: to do the best I can to come to a conclusion I can keep to in the future.

Mike Licona’s Struggle with His Faith

I really like Mike Licona. Although there are a lot of reasons to appreciate him, I think his openness to discuss the struggle he has been through is what I appreciate most. Here is a video where he expresses his journey with great transparency.

Question Everything from Recycle Your Faith on Vimeo.

See Mike’s website: http://www.risenJesus.com

Disobedience and Doubt: Is There a Connection?

I have written extensively on this blog on the issue of Christian doubt. I have avoided talking about it’s connection to personal sin in our lives not because I don’t believe that the root of doubt can be sometimes traced there, but because, in the minds of some, personal sin is the only reason for doubt. I have argued against this. However, I do think it is important for us to realize that doubt is very often rooted in our sinful choices. In fact, crossing the line of disobedience consistently will tear apart every aspect of our faith.

Let’s start at the beginning: Disobedience is a choice. Faith is not. Well . . . what I mean is that I cannot just decide to believe like flipping on and off a switch in my head. It is more complex. However, disobedience, from a biblical standpoint, can and does rob us of faith that we have. Habits in our lives form faith connections. Once that line is disobedience crossed, it gets easier and easier to cross it again. We have all been there. What we have to understand is that when God says to do something and we decide not to, it eventually becomes habit. These habits necessarily create connections of unbelief. And like with any habit, tt gets easier and easier to disobey. Once it is a habit, we begin to find excuses for our waywardness. We become very good at finding ways to justify our disobedience. How do I know? Because I am an expert. Don’t get smug; you are too.

“My anger outbursts may be bad, but at least they are not as bad as his.”

“I am entitled to spend all this money on myself. After all, look how hard I worked.”

“I made all the right decisions. I deserve to think more highly of myself than I do of that person, who can’t get it right.”

“Why should I share? This is a tough world. Either eat or get eaten.”

“You don’t buy a car before you test drive it. Why shouldn’t I live with my girlfriend before marrying her?”

“After all I have been through, I deserve to get drunk.”

“So many bad things have happened to me, I have the right to worry.”

These types of justifications for our sin are a reflection of our humanity. They are emblematic of the flesh. We will hear this type of rationale (from the devil on our shoulders) until the day we die. But knowing what is right and not doing it is destructive to every aspect of who we are. Justifying our sin leads to further disobedience and, ultimately, to a loss of faith. Some of you reading this are suffering significant doubt because you are disobeying regularly and justifying your disobedience in one way or another. It has become a habit. Continue reading

Embrasing Doubt

Oxymoron means “sharp dullness”. It describes a figure of speech when two words are put together which are self-contradictory. For example, “accurate rumors” is an oxymoron. Why? Because by definition, a rumor is not yet deemed to be accurate. Other examples could include: “insane logic”, “public secret”, “instant classic”, or my favorite, “government intelligence”. However, over the years I have come to believe that “Roman Catholic Scholarship” is an oxymoron. I don’t believe that one can be a Roman Catholic and be a scholar at the same time. Well, let me put it another way: I don’t believe that one can be a true Roman Catholic and be a scholar at the same time. Why, because being a Roman Catholic militates against what makes someone a scholar in my opinion.

I know, I know . . . I don’t ever write this this. Well, this polemical. It seems as if I am discrediting Roman Catholic scholarship with a heavy hand by an ad hom fiat. Please know that this is not what I mean to do. There are going to be plenty of people thrown under the bus with this one. In fact, let me start by saying this: there are many Roman Catholics I deeply respect. I am not anti-Catholic. As well, there are many Roman Catholic’s who I believe qualify as scholars. However, once they become a scholar (and I am talking about theology here), as I will explain, they have to depart to some degree from Rome. I am not saying that they actually depart from their core Catholic beliefs. I am simply saying that they must suspend their commitment to Rome in order to meet what I believe to be an essential characteristic of scholarship.

Most of you would not think of yourself as scholars. I understand that. I don’t think of myself as such either. However, I would assume that you attempt to be good students. Namely, you attempt to be students of truth.

Let me back up a bit.

Rene Descartes and Doubt

Rene Descartes is often thought of as the father of modernity. He gets a bad wrap these days, especially by our postmodern and emerging friends. I think some of the bad wrap is justified. Particularly his quest for indubitably. How is that for a word? Don’t try to say it out loud at home. Indubitably is the quest for absolute and perfect certainty. Rene Descartes (and many of his modernistic buddies) wanted their beliefs to be beyond the ability to be wrong. Like 1 plus 1 equals 2, Descartes wanted all matters of faith to share such comforting certainty (indubitably). I can’t get into all the fallacies here, but let’s just say that this quest was not only impossible, but unnecessary. Our beliefs do not have to be infallible before we are justified in possessing them. However, Descartes methodology had many redeeming elements that provide benchmarks of inquiry, learning, and knowledge. The first and most important thing that Descartes taught was that we are to doubt. Doubt everything!

Doubt gets a hard wrap in religious circles. In fact, we are often told that the opposite of faith is doubt. For many, doubt is only what unbelievers do. It is true that doubt can be a bad thing, but it largely depends on the context and how you understand it. Doubt can be, and very ofter is, healthy. In fact, I argue that doubt is a necessary first step to true conviction, understanding, and real faith. Let me explain. Continue reading

Doubting my Salvation but I will NOT Give Up!

Submitted by anon posted by C Michael Patton. Thanks for your honesty.

This blog couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I have been dealing with doubt over my salvation for the past two years.

I grew up in a Christian home and went to church and a christian school. I accepted christ at a very young age, but reaccepted him at the age of 12. This was around a time that I first started to experience depression. I firmly had faith that God had plans for me and loved me. I made it through those years with the hope he gave me.

In my late teens (I am now 26) I went through a period were I chose sin over God. Since that time I had a miscarriage, when I got pregnant the second time I started experiencing weird physical problems. During these trying times I had no where to turn, but I didn’t feel as if I could talk to God since I had knowingly sinned against him. I begged him for forgiveness but still didn’t feel comfortable talking to him. After giving birth to my son I developed autoimmune arthritis. This time I needed him more than ever, but there has been no reassurance of his love for me.

I still have problems talking to God. I love Jesus, I love that he endured the cross for our salvation, I know we are only saved by his grace and not by anything we can possibly do. I know a lot of things with my head but I still can’t seem to get past this struggle of feeling like I am not saved. I have prayed many times that he would help me in this area. I have prayed that he would show me his love. I have to come to an understanding with myself that I will NOT give up. I will not turn away from the one true God no matter how frustrated or confused I am. I have hope that someday he will bring me peace in this area.
I suppose I may be struggling because of my past sins and don’t feel worthy even though I know no one is technically worthy. Yet I still struggle. I struggle daily with my sinful thoughts and my problems, and than think “how can I be saved when I am still struggling. Aren’t you supposed to change for the better once saved?”

I try reading the Bible only to feel worse afterwards. Instead of finding hope I find fear. I fear that I am a Judas or a King Saul. Those who knew God but obviously weren’t saved. They had the head knowledge.
I have questions that make me upset. If faith is a gift from God given by his mercy than does that mean that God is keeping unbelievers from becoming believers. Why show mercy to some by giving them faith and not others? Does that mean people don’t really have a choice?

Also why would God give someone faith and than take it away (as in someone who walks away from the faith and never returns) Does this mean they have lost their salvation or were never saved to begin with?
It is hard to feel love, peace, and hope when you aren’t even certain that you are saved. It is hard to love him in return when you feel afraid of Him.

Thank you for starting this post. It is comforting to know I am not the only one with these problems.
As I read in a previous blog, sometimes I fear I am going insane, as if I don’t have control over my emotions or fears.