Down-to-the-bone honest Christians will always admit that doubt is something which never disappears. Doubts emerge with every new page turned in life and faith. However, doubt doesn’t have to get the best of us. In a recent interview with me, Lee Strobel, New York Times best-selling author of more than twenty books, unpacks the importance of the doubt – hope dynamic for our faith and how he wrestles with his own doubts in life.
CMS: You say that doubt is not a sinful offense, this might be a surprise to what most Christians have been taught, can you explain your reasoning?
LS: It’s really important how we regard doubt. If we believe it’s sinful or embarrassing, we tend to keep our questions to ourselves rather than bring them out into the light of day and seek answers. When we hold them in, our doubts can fester and begin to eat away at our soul. But when we express them and sincerely search for answers, we generally find that our doubts lose their grip on us.
Think about how Jesus reacted when John the Baptist expressed doubts about Jesus’ identity. If anyone should have been totally confident of Jesus being the unique Son of God, it was John. He once pointed to Jesus and said, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” But then he gets arrested — and it’s when tough times hit that doubt often creeps in. He’s in his cell and he begins to wonder whether Jesus is really who he claimed to be.
So John dispatches a couple of friends to track down Jesus and ask him point-blank if he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. And how does Jesus react? With anger? With disgust? By condemning John as an irredeemable sinner? No, he replies, “Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” In other words, go back to John and tell him about the evidence you’ve seen with your own eyes that I am the one I claim to be.
Does this incident poison John in the mind of Jesus? No. It’s later that Jesus gets up before a group and says, “Among those born of women, there’s no one greater than John.” John, the doubter!
I believe it’s okay to express questions, hesitations, and even doubts, as long as we do what John did: sincerely pursue answers.
CMS: How can hope and doubt coexist, aren’t they opposing forces that work against one another in our lives?
LS: We can have hope despite doubts that pester us, if we are sincerely working to get resolution of our questions. We tend to feel hopeless if we’re secretly harboring doubts and letting them eat away at our faith. When we’re honest about our questions and share them with fellow Christians, they tend to lose their power over us.
Remember — doubt is not the same as disbelief. Disbelief is the willful refusal to believe. To doubt means we’re hung up over an issue or concern, that we’re being indecisive or ambivalent about something. We haven’t come down squarely on the side of disbelief; we’re simply stuck over some question or concern.
You can have a strong faith and still struggle with doubt. You can be heaven-bound and nevertheless express uncertainty over certain theological issues. You can be a full-fledged Christian without absolutely settling every question of life once and for all. In fact, it has been said that struggling with God over the issues of life doesn’t show a LACK of faith; that struggling with God IS faith. If you don’t believe me, just peruse the Psalms.
CMS: After decades of being a world-class, leading defender of the Christian faith, do any aspects of the Christian faith still cause you to wrestle with doubt?
LS: The existence of evil and suffering has an emotional punch that can be difficult to deal with. However, I believe Christian theology does provide a reasonable answer for why they exist in our world. That doesn’t take away the entire emotional sting. But this issue doesn’t undermine my faith because there are perhaps twenty lines of evidence and argument that point toward the truth of Christianity — and the reality of suffering doesn’t negate all of that. Still, it’s a very personal issue — which is why God sent a very personal response in the person of Jesus and his own suffering, death, and resurrection.
CMS: How do you personally handle doubt that emerges in your own heart?
LS: Whenever I encounter an argument against Christianity that seems to carry some weight, I try to distill the issue down to its essentials in order to make it easy to investigate. Then I diligently pursue answers — first, of course, in the Bible, and then in the writings of respected philosophers, theologians, and apologists. When I do that, inevitably I find answers that satisfy my heart and mind. I never want to be afraid to check things out thoroughly.
CMS: How do we live in hope without pretending and putting on a happy face when circumstances are just plain difficult?
LS: When people talk about hope, they generally mean “wishful thinking,” where they hope something good will happen even though they have no real control over it. But Biblical hope is different — it’s the confident expectation that God can and will fulfill the promises he has made to those who follow him. Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”
Clinging to that kind of hope means that we can get through the difficult circumstances that life throws our way. We don’t have to just pretend things will get better; we know deep down that God — in some way, in this world or the next — will cause good to emerge from our difficult circumstances, if we love and follow him. That doesn’t mean we laugh at life’s problems. It just means we have quiet confidence that God will ultimately use our circumstances for good.
CMS: What is your hope for potential readers of your newest book The Case For Hope?
LS: I wrote The Case for Hope because we live in a world of turmoil, where some people are spiritually confused or have given up. I wanted to encourage Christians by helping them see how we can look ahead with confidence and courage. And I wanted to create a book that Christians can give their spiritually curious friends as a gift, to help them find the hope that resides uniquely in Jesus Christ. Through him, we can be absolved of our past and assured of our future — the two very things we need the most.