“Dear Lord, Although I am sure of my positions, I am unable to sustain it without Thee. Help me, or I am lost.” -Martin Luther
“Now there was not far from the place where they lay, a Castle, called Doubting-Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair…Now in this place, Christian had double sorrow, because ’twas through his unadvised haste that they were brought into this distress.” -The Pilgrim’s Progress
Within the subculture called Christianity, there exists a perceived hierarchy of lifestyle up to which any person’s alleged level of spiritual maturity or depth of relationship with God should measure. Further yet, in the deeper subculture, of a Bible college, preconceptions are exponentially higher, as those pursuing a lifestyle of ministry are believed to have already reached a certain plane of righteousness prior to attending. However, a disconnect automatically follows when believers within this subculture of a subculture do not seem—even to themselves—to have attained the expected level. Unfortunately for us, there is no chance of being reincarnated into a higher caste within the Moody “bubble.” Thus, rather than striving to attain a deeper relationship with the only One who could genuinely bring change, acceptance, grace, or whatever respective desires provide adequate motivation for our often self-centered seeking, we begin to play an extravagant game of pretend. Though they are worthy topics, I am not merely examining hypocrisy, motivations, or even misplaced need for approval. Rather, I am addressing a deeper issue, out of which I believe these other issues flow: the tendency towards pursuing the ideal lifestyle, not the ideal God. I am addressing my own idolatry in attempting to be some unattainable version of a Christian. Ultimately, I am addressing why recently I decided to become an atheist.
The typical child gets asked on a regular basis what she wants to be when she grows up. Whether teacher, ballerina,1 cop, or preacher, it is easy for any boy or girl to spend hours envisioning what that will be like. They don their dress-up garb; recycled from thrift stores and parents closets, it hangs on their small frames. Suddenly, simply by sheer willpower, the backyard or school playground is magically transformed into the entire world as they become their biggest dream. When called in for supper, they struggle to slide back into reality, so convinced their fantasy was tangible. In that season of play, anything is attainable. But then the inevitable happens: years pass and, where once stood a small child at play, there is now an adult with the eyes of the world upon her, watching to see if she truly can attain all she said she would.
Ironically though, not much has changed; for, the child believes she has undergone metamorphosis. Every day she gets up and dresses in skinny jeans, Toms, and an H&M sweater, because she is dressing to fit the subculture of her school. However, most students find out, even before the end of their first semester at Moody-Spokane, that the thickest rimmed glasses in the world will not secure success in this society. So before anyone notices, they learn to play the part rather than just dress up.
Where once stood an average eighteen-year-old is now, for all practical purposes, John Piper on steroids. Forgive my digression into sarcasm; but, if we are honest, we have all heard something close to one of the following phrases about anyone at our esteemed school: “He just really has a heart for the homeless and drug addicts.” “She loves singing worship music, and has a beautiful voice, but is so humble about it.” “He used to struggle with pornography, but by the grace of God no longer does, and it is such a blessing because now he can use his past as a platform for God’s grace and bless other men with empathetic accountability and encouragement, can I get an ‘Amen’?!”
The thing is, these are all wonderful and desirable attributes. Thus, when I am comparing our greatest strengths and most sincere desires to dress-up, it is not in the sense of hypocrisy, but in the sense that we truly believe we are the person we have “dressed-up” to be. Just as when we were little, saw someone we admired, and became that person as far as we were capable, so now we see some attribute or characteristic we would like to have and, as much as we can given our sinful hearts, strive to become that. In doing so, we pursue wonderful ministries and become apparently virtuous people. To a certain extent, this is even done subconsciously as we strive to be either like or different from those surrounding us. We begin to practice a depth of faith which does not have a true foundation, projecting the image of the Christian we want to be so well that, for the most part, we even fool ourselves. Thus the myth becomes “reality.”
Now, to a certain point, one must ignore uncertainties and charge forward in life, learning from the teacher called Experience. In this sense, our pretenses can become our realities. However, there remains danger, I believe, in doing this in Christianity. When this happens, we miss out on the ability to be able to articulate the reason for our actions. Even if we can communicate the reason, it has never traversed the difficult journey from head to heart—from cognitive knowledge to grounding belief. So our faith becomes livable and even speakable, but remains fallible, for “a superficial faith is a vulnerable faith.”2 The problem, of course, is that games of pretend never last. But, the longer we go on pretending, the more awkward and unacceptable it is to bring up the fact that we never actually were John Piper anyway, or that John Piper isn’t the Christian “superman” either. The more evident it becomes that we may not be exactly what we said we were, the more determinedly the child in us stamps its foot and shouts: “But I am superman!”
This sort of thinking creates within a person an autonomous thought process; for no one wants to talk about how fake they sometimes feel, how attractive sin looks, and how tired they are of groundless religion. But detachment often leads to an isolated moral struggle, and, no matter how much relativity exists within that realm (cultural, individual conscience, etc.), it has nowhere to lead but to hypocrisy. This only serves to open one’s eyes to the similar state of those around, and sin becomes defining. So subtly that the shift in thinking seems abrupt, one begins to perceive much of the typical believer’s life as a lie. The pessimism of these thoughts enact the seeds of the one notion which must, if one wants to remain respected in a Bible collge, remain secret. It germinates doubt.
Doubt for the Christian, as defined by Alister McGrath in his book The Sunnier Side of Doubt, is not the same thing as skepticism or unbelief. These he defines as willful decisions to choose other than faith. Instead, doubt is “asking questions or voicing uncertainties from the standpoint of faith.”3 McGrath further states that doubt is “like some kind of spiritual growing pain.”4 It does not have to mean there is no spiritual growth happening; but our eyes, blurred by our humanly focus, cannot see it as such. What we often fail to see is that, rather than a cruel game or hopeless endeavor, doubt is evidence of the Lord’s work of love in a believer’s life, forever showing His glory. It is evidence of His caring enough to try one’s system of belief to prove that faith genuine;5 it shows that He is tearing down what is incorrect within His child, to rebuild her to better display Him.6 But in the midst of questioning faith, the Scriptures which state this are no longer comforting but ironic: how can one believe that which they are questioning? This outlines the path which I traversed. If God is real, I told myself, it can’t just be a cop-out delusion based on my childhood. It has to be all-consuming. For His glory. And right now, it’s not even close.
Beating the Bad Guys
As any game of pretend progresses, a paradigm beyond simply becoming the thing of which you have always dreamed enters the act. This is a factor which gives purpose to the dream. This purpose often appears as fighting against some arch-nemesis; it comes by winning battles. In the case of the Bible student endeavoring to attain the dream (becoming the next great theoogian, pastor, missionary, chuch layperson, etc.), when doubt appears—whatever its cause—the first instinct is that we too must must be capable of fighting and conquering doubt and the sins which so readily accompany it. Doubt receives its death through truth.
Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, together in their book, When Skeptics Ask, present several approaches to the concept of objective truth.7 The first category, in which Skepticism and Agnosticism fall, denies the ability to know anything. Though this argument is unwaveringly self-defeating,8 it can sometimes look appealing, as one realizes that proving God’s existence is actually impossible. However, it is the very idea of needing proof which leads to another view, Rationalism, which says “we can determine all truth by logic.” Now, one must understand that logic exists as a part of God’s nature.9 But, if God is purely basic, a first principle, He cannot be proved.10 & 11
Returning to my own struggle, as I began to grapple with these topics, I was studying philosophy and theology, and clearly saw the disunity of beliefs amidst the visible church, the lack of moral grounding among my believing peers, and the fact that other beliefs, on a purely rational level, appeared just as logical as Christianity. I sat in the hallway at Moody and watched as hundreds of students walked by, spouting theology like it was the latest pop-culture gossip. Truthfully, I was disgusted, frustrated, and tired. The only answer I could see, if I wanted to maintain these beliefs which had brought me here, avoid sacrificing relationships, and actually graduate without succumbing to agnosticism, was Fideism. And this was the approach to Christianity which I have always most derided. Fideism can be defined as the belief that truth and God are known only by blind faith.12 This belief brings truth to a purely subjective level, and fails to work out if followed to its logical ends. I had always been able to use my brain to conquer struggles such as these, but here I found myself in a state of hopelessness which none of these paradigms could answer.
Perhaps, dear reader, you have never felt this way; but as McGrath so truthfully points out, every believer deals with doubts (whether of the God’s existence, the gospel, yourself, or Jesus) at some point. In fact, often in believer’s lives there appears to be a cycle of habitual belief, followed closely by doubting the reality of those habits. Eventually, even the strongest must realize that doubt is an enemy which, though they have conquered in every way they could, continues to come back as if it were the mythological hydra. Here one begins to question if he is strong enough to conquer it.
When Pretend Becomes Real
On rare occasions, when playing as a child, something would go awry. Reality would jarringly inform that I was no longer the superhero. I vividly remember riding my bicycle around the block as a child (of course, in my mind, it was a horse); but on one such occasion, I was bitten by a neighbor’s dog. My game was ruined, because no matter what my imaginary character was, I could not fix this. This took something else altogether. It took a parent—a real, live adult—with more resources, with greater knowledge, with better understanding of the reason it happened. Acknowledging this, I rode home to my mother because from previous experience, I knew she could and would help. Similarly, in faith, humanity does not possess the intellect, emotion, or will required to conquer genuine crises.
Doubt, in its fullest strength, leads to a place where one realizes that they do not possess the capability of conquering. This is the spot which, when I reached, I believed that I needed to choose either Fideism or Agnosticism. I had witnessed that pure rationalism did not work, and that skepticism was self-defeating. But, on the spectrum of belief, here lies the last approach to truth which Geisler and Brooks present: Realism. This is the view that we can know some things about God.13 And this is the knowledge which interacts with faith in a symbiotic way. For, “faith seeks understanding.”14
On the front of Os Guinness’s book regarding doubt, is the phrase: “To understand doubt is to have a key to a quiet heart and a quiet mind.”15 As the Psalms say: “Be still and know that I am God.”16 But, from where does the faith and knowledge needed for such peacefulness come? Ronald Nash, in his philosophy textbook Life’s Ultimate Questions states that, though one cannot prove God’s existence, a reasonable case can be made from cumulative evidence.17 Building a case such as this involves acknowledging past faith experiences, the strength of the other belief options, and any presuppositions which factor into the decision. Ultimately, either atheism or Christianity requires faith; thus, one must choose belief or disbelief in God, based on what we can know. As Chesterton put it: “If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.’ I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence…it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.”18 To many, this may seem unreasonable;19 but, clarity ensues when it is understood that God alone grants faith. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”20
St. Augustine, in relating his own journey from doubt to faith states it like this: “O Lord, you laid your most gentle, most merciful finger on my heart and set my thoughts in order, for I began to realize that I believed countless things which I had never seen.”21 He addresses why he believed the Scripture, which is the base for our knowledge of God, can be trusted:
“[S]ince we are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone and for this reason need the authority of sacred books, I began to believe that you would never have invested the Bible with such conspicuous authority in every land unless you had intended it to be the means by which we should look for you and believe in you.”22
A brilliant balance exists between the role of God in faith and the role of humanity in accepting or rejecting it. Much of what the individual believes on this matter will stem from their beliefs about the sovereignty of God in election. Nevertheless, I must agree with Guinness when he says:
“[F]aith comes directly from knowing God and only indirectly from understanding doubt…More particularly, assurance of faith comes from knowledge of God, as objectively revealed in his Word and subjectively revealed by his Spirit…Without any hesitation we can say that God is the answer to all doubt and that the largest part of doubting simply comes from ignorance of what God had said and done.”23
This makes sense considering the attachment of morality to belief; for, as a professor of mine recently said: “As a creature, how you act reflects your idea of the Creator.”24 Given the lack of grounding for so much of our beliefs, how fitting that believers would continue to struggle with basic sins, including the sin of unbelief; faith should involve trust, understanding, and obedience.25 For ultimately, as alluded to before, doubt is a part of spiritual growth; it tears down what was built incorrectly, bringing us back down to the foundation of Christianity, that is, bringing us to the gospel. The wider our understanding of grace becomes, the more the firmness of this foundation is realized. Here one ascertains that perhaps the foundation underneath the pretense was real, but that never once in the entire game did it come from within.
However, I must also acknowledge, given my experience, along with the ethical and spiritual, the “psychological dimensions to doubt.”26 The well-practiced theological answers often seem far from beneficial to those in the midst of doubt. There is an unquestionable unity of heart and intellect which must occur to overcome doubt; both are vitally important, and this is where, as hard as it is for rational humanity to admit, supernatural interaction must occur. This is where we must fall on the lap of our heavenly Father, openly shed our tears over the hurts of reality, and trust that there is something even more real that this world of pretend in which we have been living. There is healing from the scrapes accomanying doubt in the faith He offers, and it does not come from our ability to conquer. It does not even come from our ability to hope in faith. It comes from God.
During this season of my life, I stood on the edge of hell and contemplated jumping in, because it seemed like the most logical thing to do. In this state of mind, I prayed to a God I was unconvinced was there, asking for faith. I questioned if in doing so I was simply deluding myself into believing. I wondered if it would matter if I threw all morality to the wind. But, even then, the foundation which still existed enacted enough sensibility to realize that if I did, I would still not be fulfilled. I saw how I was putting my hope in my ability to believe. I spoke to a few friends, who kindly legitimized, but did not encourage, my doubts. They allowed me to be genuine, and spoke the gospel to me. In the end, after a time of unbelief, weighing all these things together, I decided that, in spite of my doubts, I believed. Or rather, in spite of my doubts, God gave me faith. The reason I am sharing this with you is to urge you to honesty in examining your faith, convictions, and actions. Don’t be afraid to prove faith’s genuineness.27 For God truly does grant faith.28 Be willing to embrace genuine vulnerability about doubts within this community. We have been placed in the body not for autonomy but for encouragement. Given all these thoughts, I must fully acknowledge that this article only begins the discussion on doubt and the practical answers for it. In light of this, I urge you to wrestle with the topic. For until one is willing to chase down the things which intimidate—trusting a sovereign God—doubt will possess the ability to rule him.
At the end of Romans 11, when Paul has finished a heart-wrenching examination of election and faith, his conclusion is where I too must conclude my article. After a period of attempting to deny His existence, I must simply bow in humble worship to the God who has granted me faith, who looked on my sin of unbelief, died for it, and rose again, conquering it (and even when I do not believe that truth, He still died for my unbelief). Acknowledging all this, I say: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”29
“…about midnight they began to pray, and continued in Prayer till almost break of day. How a littl before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech, What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom called Promise, that will (I am persuaded) open any Lock in Doubting-Castle…the door flew open with east, and Christian and Hopeful both came out.”
–The Pilgrim’s Progress
*For a different look at the way the heart and intellect interact in a season of doubt, please see my poem submitted in conjunction to this article.
1. My two typical answers, if anyone was curious.
2. McGrath, Alister. The Sunnier Side of Doubt. Grand Rapids: Academie, 1990. Print. 22.
3. Ibid. 11-12.
4. Ibid. 12.
5. I Peter 1:7, ESV
6. Hosea 6:1, ESV
7. Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989. Print. 265-269.
8. Ibid. 265.
9. See Collin Duff’s October 2011 SOMA article “God, Aristotle, and Knowability” for further exploration of this topic.
10. Geisler and Brooks. When Skeptics Ask. 266-267.
11. A basic belief is one “not derived from or dependent on other beliefs…[B]asice beliefs can be said to make up the foundation of that particular set of beliefs.” “Belief in God belongs properly in the foundation of a person’s noetic structure…[it] does not need support from any other belief; it is basic!” (Nash, Ronald. Life’s Ultimate Questions. 276 &282)
12. Geisler and Brooks. When Skeptics Ask. 267.
13. Geisler and Brooks. When Skeptics Ask. 269.
14. St. Augustine “crede ut intelligas “ and St. Anselm “Fides quaerens intellectum”
15. Guinness, Os. Doubt. Great Britain: Lion Publishing, 1976. Print.
16. Psalm 46:10, ESV. emphasis added.
17. Nash, Ronald H. Life’s Ultimate Questions. An Introduction to Philosophy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1999. Print. 291.
18. Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1908. Print. 150.
19. 1 Corinthians 1:18, ESV.
21. St. Augustine. R.S. Pine-Coffin, Ed. Confessions. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1961. Print. 6.5.
23. Guinness, Os. Doubt. 25.
24. Churchwell, Daniel. Introduction to Philosophy. 21 Nov. 2012. Lecture.
25. McGrath, Alister. The Sunnier Side of Doubt. 22-23.
26. Guiness, Os. Doubt. 25.
27. 1 Peter 1:7, ESV.
28. Romans 12:3, ESV.
29. Romans 11:36, ESV