The Difference Between Skepticism and Doubt

Doubt is an uncomfortable word. It is an oft overlooked subject in Christian preaching and teaching, perhaps because it is somewhat unapproachable, or perhaps because it hits too close to home. Many times we buy into the notion that to have faith in Christ means that we ought no longer to doubt. So, when the inevitable doubt occurs, we bury it deep within and wear the façade of blind trust.

To be sure, there are people who rarely doubt. People who have the spiritual gift of faith[1] often find it difficult to engage the questions of those prone to doubt simply because they have scarcely experienced it. Praise God for those in our midst with the gift of faith! Their prayers are bold and their extraordinary faith is an inspiration to the rest of us.

But for those of us who are plagued with seasons of doubt, I think it is time to have the conversation. And interestingly enough, I think Scripture has it for us.

Over the past 15 weeks, the student ministry has studied the Gospel of John, the most unique of the New Testament Gospels. Written much later than the three synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this narrative of the life of Christ written by one of his closest disciples is uniquely structured around some of Jesus’ key sign miracles and his corresponding claims in light of those signs. For example, after Jesus feeds the multitude in John 6, he claims to be the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35), casting new light on both Jesus’ miracle and the familiar story of God providing manna for His people in the wilderness after the Exodus (see Exodus 16).

After John has laid out his “Book of the Signs,” he turns then to what some have called the “Book of Glory,” which tells of Jesus’ last meeting with his disciples, his suffering on the cross, and his ultimate sign, the resurrection. Interestingly, after all of that, John tips his hand with regard to the purpose for his writing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31).

And when you understand John’s purpose, you begin to see that so many of Jesus’ encounters throughout the Gospel help to highlight this central theme of belief.

The Most Unfortunate Nickname in History

One such encounter earned one of Jesus’ disciples the most unfortunate nickname in history: Doubting Thomas. Even more unfortunate is the label when you realize that one of the only other encounters we have with Thomas in John’s Gospel is of him swearing allegiance to Jesus unto death (see John 11:16).

But I want to argue that Thomas—before his confession of faith in Jesus—was not just a doubter. He was a downright skeptic.

Let’s look at his story.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:24-25 ESV)

When Thomas rejects the testimony of his best friends, he acts much more like a modern skeptic than a mere doubter. Modern skepticism basically says: “There’s no way we can know for sure.” Some philosophers have tried to answer the skeptical problem of knowing by basing all knowledge on human reason. This is called rationalism. Others, like Thomas, have tried to base our knowledge on what we can see, taste, or touch. This is generally called empiricism. But skepticism is the common thread that ties them together. Skepticism approaches knowledge with a “prove it” kind of attitude.

What’s so striking about modern skepticism is how radically different it is from doubt. Doubt says “I’m not sure. Can you help me understand?” Or, like the father of the boy Jesus healed, doubt says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Doubt proceeds from a posture of humility which recognizes God’s hand at work and God’s ultimate authority. Yet doubt is honest regarding questions and genuine struggles. The Bible is remarkably accommodating toward those who have genuine doubts.[2]

The story of the Queen of Sheba illustrates this. In 1 King 10, we are told that this Gentile queen travels great lengths to witness the wisdom of Solomon and ask him questions. She was on a genuine quest for truth, and she presented her questions before this wise king. After listening to his answer, she was compelled to bless the Lord! Interestingly, Jesus refers to this story when he rebukes the scribes and Pharisees for their radical skepticism. Commending her approach to doubt, he rebukes their disbelief of the one greater than Solomon. (see Matthew 12:42).

The Difference Between the Two

So, what’s the difference between the skepticism exemplified by Thomas and the doubt we all likely experience at times? I think there are many, but let me boil it down to this:

Doubt approaches the things we don’t understand with humility, seeking to first listen rather than to speak. Skepticism approaches them with arrogance, dictating belief on its own terms rather than hearing from God on His.

Doubt recognizes the limits of my own reason. It recognizes that there is a God out there who is much, much bigger than me and who can do things I don’t understand. Skepticism elevates human reason above all else, telling God that he must meet me on my terms before I submit to Him.

What is the outcome?

How then does a skeptic become a believer? Through an encounter with the risen Christ. Jesus graciously appeared to Thomas and engaged his disbelief.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27 ESV)

How did Thomas respond? He confessed Christ as Lord and God! (see v. 28).

The problem for us, however, is that the risen Christ is not currently walking through locked doors to engage our disbelief. Actually, the Bible teaches that this is not a problem at all:

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29 ESV)

Jesus is not so much rebuking Thomas as he is foretelling of a time in redemptive history— after his ascension— when faith would come apart from seeing him physically risen. He appeared to the disciples and the other eyewitnesses in order that they might believe and testify to his resurrection. That’s why we have the Scriptures. That’s why John wrote his Gospel (recall John 20:30-31). And Jesus calls this kind of faith “Blessed.”

In short, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17). The Word of God—neither my reason nor my experience--is the final authority for faith and practice. We must begin with the Word of God to acquire a true knowledge of who He is and what He’s done.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says is like this:

Q. 3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A. The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

A Final Word to Doubters

So, back to doubt. I hope you’ve seen that if you find yourself plagued with the kind of doubt described here, you are not alone. And I hope you’ve seen that perhaps you are in a better place than you thought!

Here are a few words of advice I would give to doubters.

1.       Always begin with God’s Word! Where else will you find the answers you seek? John Calvin used the illustration of the Scriptures acting as spectacles, making clear for us what has previously been radically distorted by sin.[3] Without the Word, we are walking blind!

2.       Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Talk to your Christian friends, your community group leader, or especially your pastors. We absolutely LOVE talking about the Bible (seriously…it’s what we do)!

3.       Pray and ask God for understanding. Calvin didn’t just stop with the spectacles. He taught—from Scripture—that the Holy Spirit illuminates the Word of God in the hearts of man. Have you prayed and asked God to help you understand His Word? That’s not a bad thing to pray for!

In the end, there will come a day when our faith shall be sight. When the clouds are rolled back as a scroll, we shall see our Savior, and we will finally know what it is like to be in His presence physically. On that day, our own bodies will be transformed. John puts it like this:

…but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 ESV).

Oh Lord, Haste that Day.

 

[1] I am not speaking here of the common faith of all believers, but that extraordinary gift of faith mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:9. For a discussion on spiritual gifts, see Pastor Bill’s sermon series entitled “U2U” in our podcast.

[2] Rick Phillips, John: Volume 2 in Reformed Expository Commentary, 677.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, 1.6.1.