7 April 2021  |

Read this essay in preparation for this Sabbath’s class.


Doubt can be frightening to devout Christians. It seems to be a step too close to an abyss from which there may be no turning back. Yet even the New Testament introduces us to a small cluster of believing doubters. Nicodemus came by night to ask Jesus his questions, and Jesus’ own disciples included a “doubting Thomas.” Jesus himself could perhaps be included among the doubters as he cried from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)— though it wasn’t long before he returned to complete trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, NRSV).

For all that, however, the New Testament seems to ride high on a crest of certainty, with Peter and Saul/Paul leading the way. After his serious denial of the Lord, Peter came roaring back to an active faith. Doubt didn’t seem to have played any role at all in his experience.
A careless arrogance might be a better description.

As for Saul/Paul, he was the very picture of certainty, both before and after his conversion. I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s description of Francis of Assisi’s conversion: “As soon as ever he had been unhorsed by the glorious humiliation of his vision of dependence on the divine love, he flung himself furiously into battle. He had wheeled his charger clean round, but there was no halt or check in the thundering impetuosity of his charge…. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.”

In many ways, Paul and St. Francis would have made good soulmates.

Yet some modern believers have been brave enough to recognize the heuristic value of doubt. George MacDonald put it this way: “To deny the existence of God may … involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of His goodness. I say yielding; for a person may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…. Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed.”

But we must turn to the Old Testament for a biblical mandate for doubt— though permission is a better term than mandate, for nowhere does Scripture actually require a believer to doubt. (Indeed, some believers whose stories are told in Scripture seem to be immune to doubt.) The Old Testament, you see, has a whole genre of literature that is mostly missing from the New Testament: wisdom literature, which divides into so-called “higher” and “lower” wisdom. Ecclesiastes and Job are labeled “higher” wisdom; Proverbs is the best example of lower wisdom.

To be sure, a touch of modern conceit lurks in those labels, for doubt (Ecclesiastes and Job) seems to rank higher in the modern mind than certainty (Proverbs). And no matter how one might establish the relative value of doubt over certainty, the labels clearly rank doubt higher than certainty.

But before we become too eager to place one above the other, we must admit that a world in which no one asks any questions would be as dysfunctional as a world in which everyone was always asking questions. In a classroom, for example, every teacher prays that there will be a sprinkling of students with good questions. Too many of such students in one class would result, of course, in a cacophony that would certainly be the enemy of learning.

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Dr. Alden Thompson is a Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University. His classic book Inspiration is available on Amazon.


Phil Muthersbaugh is a retired pastor and mental-health worker from Walla Walla, Washington. He has a D.Min. in youth ministry, and occasionally teaches Bible classes at Walla Walla University.

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  • 4/17: Reinder Bruinsma, “God and Pandemics: The Eschatological Meaning of Pestilences”
  • 4/24: Dr. Jack Hoehn, “Adventist Tomorrow”: What does the future hold for the church?

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