Doubt And Uncertainty


More and more I’ve encountered people who elevate uncertainty and doubt to the level of virtue—at least when it comes to God. I suspect those same people don’t want any uncertainty or doubt when it comes to the planes they fly in. They want assurance that they have a fully trained pilot and crew, that the vehicle has been properly maintained and inspected. Doubt and uncertainty about the plane aren’t virtues. They are red flags.

The same is true about the money in their bank account. When they deposit funds, they want to know with certainty money will be available to them when they write checks or make withdrawals.

Or how about doctors? Not many people stand out on the street with a sign: “Doctor wanted, anyone willing to try will be hired.” Quite the opposite. When it comes to medical care, we want some assurance—doctors who have attended medical school, for instance–because we want doctors who oversee our treatment to know what they’re doing.

Few people are up to the task of building their own homes. They know they don’t have the expertise in electricity, plumbing, and basic architecture. When it comes to a house, they want something they have reasonable assurance will not collapse, or leak, or blow up—and that isn’t going to be a structure of their own concoction.

So why is it we are willing to accept the murky, the questionable, the uncertain, or the self-made when it comes to spiritual things? I can think of three possible reasons.

  • 1. People who embrace uncertainty don’t believe certainty exists.
  • 2. People who embrace uncertainty don’t believe certainty matters.
  • 3. People who embrace uncertainty believe there’s freedom in it.

Undoubtedly some people who find virtue in doubting and questioning when it comes to spiritual matters, do so with the idea that they are being intellectually honest, not uncertain. After all, are we really supposed to take the word of some musty book written thousands of years ago?

The thing is, true intellectual honesty will dive into that “musty book” and study it to see if there’s truth within its pages.

Once I read a comment online that gave this advice: question everything, “and I mean everything. Make a note of your question and Google each and every one. Read Richard Carrier and the early works by Bart Ehrman, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin.”

I find that pronouncement to be odd. Why would someone who wanted to know about democracy dig into Hitler’s writing or Stalin’s philosophy or look at China’s Cultural Revolution? I mean, I suppose a person could come to the idea of democracy by rejecting opposing systems, but wouldn’t it make more sense to study the thinkers and writers who played a part in establishing democratic societies, and beyond that, the actual tenets of democracy itself?

Intellectual honesty will also embrace the possibility of finding answers. Doubt and questioning won’t be virtues for someone who is honestly looking for answers. Why would you look for what you don’t believe you’ll find?

A second group embraces uncertainty because they don’t believe certainty matters. These people, I suspect, haven’t thought deeply. They don’t want to think about what happens to a person when they die or whether or not people have souls. They would rather feel good.

They want pleasure, not pain, and thinking about death and dying is painful, or scary, at least. Thinking about God is scary, too, especially the idea that He can be a judge who ensures people receive just consequences for their actions. So, frankly, it’s easier not to think about God, and one way to dismiss Him is to say He can’t possibly be known. So why try?

Which dovetails to the third position. Some think there’s freedom in uncertainty. If I don’t know for sure that God is and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him, then I can fashion a god who will reward me for my doubts instead of for my belief, for my pursuit of my own pleasures instead of his glory. I can sound spiritual without having to deal with any unpleasant repentance business, without any “denying self” stuff.

So, yes, for some, uncertainty sounds like the preferred path when it comes to spiritual things. In the same way, some people “invested” their life savings with Bernie Madoff and his fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Others “bought” homes they couldn’t afford when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were greasing their credit wheels.

We can look back and say, why didn’t those people pay attention to what Madoff was doing with their money? Or why did those people not pay attention to the details of their loans? They could have known. They should have known.

And so should each one of us know with certainty what God has made apparent about spiritual things. He is not hiding. Quite the opposite.

He announced ahead of time, what He was doing. He painted pictures with the lives of any number of people—Joseph as a savior of his family during a time of famine, Moses as a redeemer leading an enslaved people to freedom, David as a king freeing his people from oppression.

In addition, God sent spokesmen to prepare people for what He had in mind. Throughout generations He announced His plan, and when His Son fulfilled His work at the cross, He broadcast the fact that God completed what He’d foretold. And now He has a people who once were not a people, all commissioned to be His ambassadors, repeating the announcement—God is; His Son Jesus shows Him; and by His death and resurrection, believers can know Him.

Doubt and uncertainty? Those are not virtues when it comes to choosing someone to baby-sit your children. Why would they be virtues when it comes to thinking about God?

This post is a revised and updated version of one that appeared here in October, 2013.

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