The Three Kinds of Doubt

Not all doubts are created equal. Dealing with doubts is part of the nature of Christian apologetics. Reasonably answering intellectual challenges to Christ’s teachings is a God-given responsibility (1 Peter 3:15). Fulfilling that responsibility well hinges on recognizing the different kinds of doubt and responding accordingly. There are probably many ways to categorize doubts, but what follows are the three categories I find most helpful.

The first kind of doubt is emotional doubt. This is when a person experiences feelings of uncertainty about his faith. These feelings may be momentary or may persist for months or even years. They may be triggered by any number of causes—sometimes intellectual and sometimes personal. For example, a father might lose his young child to disease and have no idea where God is in the face of such tragedy. He has no argument against Christianity per se—he is simply grappling with his anguish and wonders how a good God could allow such a thing to happen to him. Such circumstances call less for apologetics and more for general pastoral care—mourning with those who mourn and reminding them of God’s goodness which has been overshadowed by their evil circumstances. Philosophical answers to the problem of evil are not high on the list of needs in such a situation.

The second kind of doubt is reasonable doubt. This is the kind of doubt which occurs when a person encounters new information that gives him a reason to question his beliefs. This may be accompanied by emotional doubt, but remains distinct from it. For example, a college student might hear his professor mention that there are hundreds of thousands of manuscript discrepancies in old copies of the New Testament. If he was raised with a relatively shallow understanding of Biblical inerrancy, this new information might lead him to start questioning whether Christianity is really true.

Here, the task is primarily an apologetic one. Rather than telling him that his feelings of doubt will pass or reminding him of God’s goodness, we help him understand the new information he’s received. We tell him that though there are many variances in the ancient manuscripts, the majority of these are simple typos, transposed words, and so forth. We tell him that the number only seems high because we have orders of magnitude more ancient manuscripts for the New Testament compared to any other work of antiquity; if one manuscript says the Greek equivalent of “teh” instead of “the,” and the other 6000 do not, that’s 6000 discrepancies right there. In short, we help him understand textual criticism, the fact that this abundance of evidence gives us incredibly reliable modern copies of the Bible, and that the variances do not get in the way of understanding what God has told us.

There is a certain measure of intellectual responsibility to entertain reasonable doubts. There are limits to this, for intellects come in all different sizes. No matter what the subject matter, no human is capable of answering any and every question, and we have no cause to be troubled when we encounter some questions that are simply beyond our ability or expertise. At the same time, however, a person who simply closes his eyes to all new information that doesn’t fit into his beliefs is not considered intellectually honest. It is a lazy way out. When this mental sloth is applied to matters of faith, we often call this a blind faith. This is not the kind of faith required by the God who calls us to love Him with all our minds.

Treating reasonable doubt as though it were emotional doubt is irresponsible. One ought not tell a student who is confused by information given to him by his atheistic college professor that he ought to ignore him because he’s an unbeliever. One ought not command such an individual to simply have faith. That might make him feel better (though it probably will not), but it does not deal with the reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is best addressed by reasonable answers.

The third kind of doubt is volitional doubt, and it is characterized by choosing to doubt even when one does not have a reasonable cause. This is the kind of doubt on which most forms of modern and postmodern skepticism depend. Rather than new information, volitional doubt is built on an assortments of maybe’s, what-if’s, and unanswerable questions designed to confuse and undermine beliefs.

For Americans, the distinction between reasonable and volitional doubt can perhaps be seen best in the courtroom. The accused is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Say there’s a video that shows the accused shoplifting. A good lawyer might raise the reasonable doubt that the video never shows the accused’s face clearly. A bad lawyer might raise the volitional doubt that the figure in the video might be a shape-shifting alien or a hitherto unknown evil twin. This bad lawyer wants the jury to choose to doubt his client’s guilt, but has not given them a reason to. Is it possible that there’s a shape-shifting alien in the video? Sure. But we have absolutely no reason to believe that this is actually the case. How can you be sure shape-shifting aliens don’t exist? We have no real way of testing this, but we don’t need to test it because we have no reason to. Accordingly, such a doubt should never trouble the jury because it is unreasonable. Intellectual integrity does not require anyone to entertain volitional doubt.

The success of professional skeptics hinges on their ability to rhetorically conflate reasonable and volitional doubt. The Bart Ehrmans of the world, for example, will tell Christians that we have no idea what Jesus said because we cannot trust the New Testament to report his teachings accurately. Why not? Copyists make mistakes. Translators make mistakes. Any given word in your copy of the New Testament might be the result of human error rather than divine inspiration. Therefore, no intelligent person could possibly think that it is trustworthy. The doubt introduced by such an argument is volitional because its force is in the “maybe.” The core of the argument is not the fact of specific errors (though such facts are usually thrown into the mix as well for rhetorical effect) but rather the possibility of generic errors. No specific error bothers us, but anything could possibly be an error.

The rhetorical twist of the knife comes in with the “no intelligent person” bit which can be phrased in any number of ways. Though the doubt is volitional, the passive-aggressive insult is an attempt to tie it into the intellectual responsibility to entertain reasonable doubts—this is why unwarranted accusations of fundamentalism or close-mindedness are so common from skeptics. Both our desire to be thought well of and our desire to be intellectually responsible are tugged at, and many people end up concluding that they have an obligation to doubt. When they cannot answer all the questions or account for every potential variable, they then come to believe that their beliefs do not stand up to scrutiny.

The apologetic response to volitional doubt requires additional work. Because volitional doubt is often accompanied by pieces of new information, the apologist must still be able to properly understand, explain, and augment that information. However, he must also be able to expose volitional doubt for what it is and delineate it from the reasonable. This requires identifying the maybe’s and challenging the skeptic to either put up or shut up. If someone wants me to doubt the transmission of those parts of the Bible that talk about the Resurrection or the forgiveness of sins, or any other part of essential Christian theology, they need to actually point me to the manuscripts that say something different. Nine times out of ten, they’ve got nothing. It is reasonable to doubt the story of the woman caught in adultery because it doesn’t show up in every ancient manuscript, and when it does show up, it doesn’t always show up in the same place. It is not reasonable to doubt the accurate transmission of those Biblical narratives with abundant manuscript evidence. It just so happens that 99.5% of the New Testament falls into the latter category, and the details of the other .5% don’t affect any significant doctrine or history.

My examples have focused on textual criticism, but volitional doubt can show up in most intellectual challenges to Christianity. Did the Resurrection happen? Maybe Jesus just swooned. Maybe the disciples were hallucinating. Did God mean what he said about homosexuality? Maybe Paul was talking about something else. Maybe it was just a reflection of the culture of the time. Regardless of the topic, the task of the apologist is the same: expose it for what it is. You show me your evidence for your maybe, I’ll show you my evidence for my belief, and we’ll see whose prevails.

So when our brothers and sisters in Christ are beset by doubts, it couldn’t hurt to listen to them for awhile and figure out just what kind of doubt they’re suffering. Do we comfort? Do we teach? Do we call out? It’s all part of the practical wisdom necessary to give an answer with gentleness and respect.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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7 Responses to The Three Kinds of Doubt

  1. Pingback: Stop Wielding “Best Construction” Against Propriety and Ethics | The 96th Thesis

  2. Abigail says:

    Hello. My name is Abigail, and I’m having major issues with doubt. Is there anyway I could email you about this more in depth? I’m really struggling. Please let me know.



  3. Eric Glover says:

    Very interesting article. I struggle with doubt sometimes in the emotional or maybe volitional category. I intellectually with my head agree with Christianity but for some reason it feels there is a tug of war in my heart literally. It makes me depressed sometimes. How does one overcome?

    • Matt says:

      Thanks for commenting, Eric.

      Your question isn’t one I can answer specifically, but I can at least give you a few thoughts.

      First, Overcoming does not always mean that the feelings go away. Sometimes its more like holding onto what you have until Christ returns. Christ promised that the world would hate us on his account, but we live in it nonetheless. There’s always some element of struggle as the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature tug at us–they constantly want us to reject Christ, and we feel that. So while it’s different for each individual, there’s always a baseline of struggle that’s just business as usual.

      I couldn’t tell you whether what’s going on in your own case is more than that or not. But at the very least, I do want you to know that you don’t need to bear the burden of thinking you have to make sure your feelings are “correct” to be a real Christian or thinking that your struggle must mean defeat. Your victory is in Christ, not in your emotions.

      Past that… it really depends on where the doubts are coming from. In the case of emotional doubts, that means asking yourself what’s triggering those feelings. In the case of volitional doubts, that means deliberating on why you beleive you need to doubt. Answering those questions can reveal all sorts of things. Maybe it’s a teaching that you don’t really understand or an theological error at the root of your concern. Maybe you need a part of God’s word that your church never taught or never taught well. Maybe it’s a sin you need to repent of. Maybe it’s a matter as simple as diet and exercise (sounds trite, but that really is at the root of more kinds of emotional distress than one would think.) Maybe it’s something entirely different, or maybe it’s a cross that God has asked you to bear. I don’t have answers for you there, but prayerfully reflecting on the possibilities and judging your reflections in light of Scripture may be advantageous.

      I’ve prayed for you that God would guide you through those struggles. If you have any more specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer as best I can.

  4. Larry Pankow says:

    There is at least one more type of doubt: doubt associated with dysthmia and other types of depression or anxiety. As a practicing psychiatrist I have often seen remarkable recovery from doubt using appropriate psychopharmacology. This is usually the last cause that people consider; esp by christians. There are number of good meds that can be helpful after you r/o other causes.

    • Matt says:

      True, Larry, though I’d categorize those among the many causes of emotional doubt. Personal circumstances, psychological disorders, poor diet, lack of exercise… there are a *lot* of different causes of emotional doubt, even though personal tragedy was the only example I used. It’s extremely important for Christians to avoid hanging their salvation on how they feel, and it’s important for everyone to try to find solutions to those various causes when possible. I’m glad you’ve been able to help people in those kinds of cases.

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