On the Necessity of Doubt

Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.― Paul Tillich
Doubting Thomas Mosaic, Cathedral of Monreale, Italy

Doubt is a problem for many people of faith, and it’s a particular dilemma for Christians, especially those of us of the Protestant variety. Doubt is frequently cast as the opposite of faith, and the Protestant Reformation was driven by the principle that salvation was by accomplished by God’s grace through faith. As a result, it is often the case that any admission of doubt is seen as a lack of faith, and no one wants to admit that. Doubt is frequently shunned, and sometimes, outright condemned.

In what was probably one of the most unusual first dates I ever went on, I went to a Maundy Thursday service at a church of a different denomination from my own. As the pastor broke the bread for communion, he said — as is frequently done in many churches — that the communion table was “the Lord’s table,” not our own. “However,” he continued, “if you have any doubt as to your commitment to Christ, you should not partake of this meal because then you will be drinking the Cup of Judgment.” Any doubt? Any?

That seemed like a tall order. For anyone. How could anyone not have doubt? I doubt a lot. The pastor’s question seemed to me an absurdity. But it wasn’t absurd for the people in the pews around me, I guess. They were certain. Or at least weren’t about to admit otherwise. (That may explain why that first date never became a second date.) The rejection of doubt seems to be a core principle of faith for many.

But doubt and uncertainty are inescapable. People might try to double down on doctrinal purity, proper modes of worship, or pat answers to the difficult questions, but the reality is that the existential mystery still looms. Doubt and uncertainty remain. Not that we don’t do our best to deny that fact.

In the movie The Naked Gun 2–1/2, a car chase results in the villain crashing into a fuel truck, miraculously surviving that, and crashing into a mobile missile launcher. Surviving that collision and now riding on the missile itself, he crashes into a fireworks factory. As the factory goes up in flame and employees flee from the scene amid spectacular fireballs and fireworks, Lt. Frank Drebin makes his way to the front of the gathering crowd, turns to face them, and says, “All right, move on! Nothing to see here! Please disperse! Nothing to see here!”

Sometimes religion acts like a police officer standing in front of a crime scene, waving off would be spectators with a casual, “Nothing to see here!” Religion — bad religion, anyway — frequently places itself in front of the sea of doubt and insists to the faithful, “Nothing to see here!”

There are two problems with that approach — first, it’s clearly a lie. As with a crime scene, there is most definitely something to be seen there and we all know it. The lie may be comfortable and may give us a sense of security — that we’re not really in any danger — but we all know something is going on. Second, those insisting “there’s nothing to see here” are standing with their backs to what is going on. Faith cannot stand with its back toward the void. It has to turn around and embrace it. Given the unavoidability of doubt, to stand with your back to it and deny its existence is folly.

But even more to the point, doubt is not simply unavoidable. It’s necessary.

We often fall into the trap of equating faith with belief. But faith is not belief. Faith is trust. And there’s an interesting thing about trust — it is not rooted in certainty. This is a truth that even our popular culture sometimes understands. In one of the best lines ever uttered on television, one character in Battlestar Galactica asks another, “How do you know you can trust me?” to which the other responds, “I don’t; that’s what trust is.” [1]

How is it that the writers of a science fiction television series can articulate a truth that is seemingly so hard for religious folks to get? Faith is trust, and trust is not about certainty. Trust is about setting out in spite of uncertainty. Were we to have certainty, we could not trust. We would just simply know.

Understanding faith as trust in the midst of unknowing can be transformative, not only in our relationships with the Divine, but also with one another. By way of illustrating this, Peter Rollins invites us to reflect on two different kinds of marriage commitments: one involving a couple who firmly believe that they will be happily married as long as they live and another who understand that their relationship will face various hardships in an uncertain future with no guarantees. Rollins argues that the second couple is the one making a commitment of faith: [2]

Here we can see that doubt provides the context out of which real decision occurs and real love is tested, for love will say ‘yes’ regardless of uncertainty. A love that requires contracts and absolute assurance in order to act is no love at all.

Faith has never been about knowing. It has never been about certainty. It has never been about belief. It has been about stepping into the unknown, about taking that leap.

This is not a blind leap. It is not a leap of ignorance. It is not a leap where we cover our ears and eyes and ignore what the world has to say. It’s a leap in which we acknowledge what we don’t know — we acknowledge our own limitations, our own gaps in understanding, our own fears, our own doubts — and we go anyway. A person of faith can acknowledge and even celebrate the dark night of the soul — a time of profound doubt and alienation from God — seeing such a time not as a “darkness which conceals an enemy but rather the intimate darkness within which we embrace our faith.” [3]

I once encountered a religious tract entitled How to Know for Sure You Are Going to Heaven. Here is one of the statements from that tract: [4]

We’re learning more and more about everything and yet we seem to know less and less for sure. However, one of the characteristics of the first followers of Jesus was their certainty. They didn’t guess… or hope…or wish. They knew for certain. They were even willing to die for that certainty!

It’s a nice sentiment, I suppose, but it shows a lack of understanding about the concept of knowing in the Biblical tradition. In the Hebrew/Aramaic tradition of the disciples, the word that is translated as “know” (ידע yada) does not mean intellectual comprehension of an idea — it means “knowledge by experience.” [5] If the early disciples “knew” their salvation, it was because they had experienced it in Jesus and in the community he had created. They had not simply been handed a tract that they came to believe. They had had an experience of faith.

In addition, the disciples did not display certainty — they displayed faith. The biblical record makes it clear that even after Jesus’ resurrection, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). It was not their absolute certainty that propelled them from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other, it was their faith — their trust in God — in spite of their doubts.

I am always perplexed by statements such as the one found in this tract. What bible is this individual reading that he concludes the disciples were paragons of absolute certainty? Has he not read the story of Doubting Thomas?

It’s a story that has a lot to teach us about the role of doubt in faith:

When it was later on that day, the first day of the week, with the door where the disciples were locked out of fear of the Jewish leadership, Jesus came and stood in the middle of them and says to them, “Peace be with you.” And after saying that, he showed them his hands and his side. Then seeing the Master, the disciples rejoiced. Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you: as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” And saying this, he breathed [on them] and says to them, “Receive Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they’re forgiven them; if you retain them, they’re retained.”
But Thomas, one of the Twelve who was called “the Twin,” was not with them when Jesus came. Then the other disciples were telling him, “We’ve seen the Master!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the holes of the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the nail holes and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe it.” Eight days later, the disciples were again inside and [this time] Thomas was with them. With the door shut, Jesus comes and stands in the middle of them and said, “Peace be with you.” After that, he says to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see my hands and bring your hand and put it into my side; don’t be unfaithful, but faithful. Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus says to him, “Do you have faith because you’ve seen me? Happy are those who do not see me and yet are faithful.” (John 20:19–31)

On that first Easter Sunday, the disciples are all huddled together and afraid and Jesus appears among them. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them and tells everyone, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” Well, he tells everyone but Thomas (called “Didymus”) because Thomas, for some reason, isn’t there. [6] But when he does return and the other disciples all tell him that Jesus has appeared to them, he says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

It is hard to imagine our reaction being any different. Or the reaction of the other disciples, for that matter. These were the ones, after all, who’d scattered and fled when Jesus had been arrested, who’d betrayed or denied him, who’d been hiding out in an upper room for three days. It’s safe to say that had it been Peter, James, John, or anyone else, the response would have been the same.

But it was Thomas who wasn’t there and so he gets to go through history known as Doubting Thomas. Even when Thomas comes to believe, it’s only because he’s had proof. Without the proof, he’d still have his doubts, and, as we noted earlier, doubts are a source of embarrassment for “faithful” people.

But there’s something interesting to note about Thomas. Thomas isn’t even his real name; it’s his nickname. Thomas (תָּאוֹמָא Ta’oma) is just the Aramaic word for “twin.” (Which is what Didymus means in Greek, by the way — it’s less a surname than a translation.) As Simon Peter is “the Rock,” Thomas is “the Twin.”

So let’s consider this question: whose twin is he? It stands to reason that Thomas must be somebody’s twin. Even if twin is just meant to suggest that he really looks like someone else, who is the person that he looks like? It’s unusual to call someone twin or lookalike and not say who it is he is a twin to or who it is he looks like.

But then again, the group Thomas belongs to isn’t just any old grouping of friends. This group is a master and his disciples. If one of the members of that group is called the twin and his twin is unspoken, it’s likely that it’s got to be the master. That is, Thomas is Jesus’ twin or lookalike. Now, if true, this would explain why Judas needed to identify Jesus to the Temple Guard in the garden — because there was another man there who looked a lot like him. [7]

But let’s consider the implications of Thomas being Jesus’ twin. If Jesus is the model of perfect faith, and his twin is Thomas, who models doubt, then what we understand is that faith and doubt are not antitheses — they’re twins. As the poet Khalil Gibran said, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” [8] Faith and doubt are paired together. Bound up in relationship. Just as you cannot have just one twin, you cannot have faith without its twin, doubt. Like a yin and yang, the two go hand in hand.

Faith, doubt, and uncertainty are inextricably linked. In a paraphrase of the question and answer posed earlier, we might say: How do we really know that we can have faith in God? How do we really know that life has meaning and purpose? How do we really know that there is hope for us and for peace and justice in this world? How do we really know that there is more to this life than what we can see? — We don’t; that’s what faith is.

Some years ago, I was part of a staff retreat at which our facilitator asked us to come up with a motto or self-description in six words. Most were relatively prosaic. Mine was: I know not; still I believe. I’ll admit, I was pleased with that one. I’ve even thought of using the Latin translation — Nescio; adhuc fideo — as my family motto should I ever get a family crest.

It’d certainly be a bold motto; after all, what risk is there in putting your trust in certainties? What courage is required to commit oneself to a path that is easy and predictable? Setting out into the unknown is a much bolder statement of faith than traveling familiar and safe paths at home. Relying on certainties may be easier, but doing so cannot create a vibrant and robust faith or a meaningful life. It can only create a comforting illusion because as we have seen, uncertainty is unavoidable. We do not know. In some cases, we cannot know. Still we believe. Still we trust.

Faith is at its best when it embraces doubt, its twin. In embracing uncertainty, faith does not wind up depleted, but enriched. When we stand at the edge of the abyss of unknowing, we can turn our backs to it and pretend it does not exist, or we can stretch our arms wide and embrace it. When we embrace our unknowing, we find that faith is not lost in the profound depths, but becomes profound itself. In embracing the emptiness, both faith and life become filled.


[1] This line is my favorite line of the entire series. As soon as I heard it, I knew it would preach.

[2] Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, 36.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Kennedy, Dr. James D. “How to Know for Sure You Are Going to Heaven.” edited by Crossway/ATS. Garland, TX, 2001.

[5] This explains how Adam and Eve conceived a child after Adam “knew” his wife.

[6] Where on earth is Thomas by the way? This is one of the great unexplored mysteries of the scriptures.

[7] It also bears noting that Judas does not simply say to the Temple Guard, “Oh, he’s the tall, blond, blue-eyed, white guy; you can’t miss him.”

[8] Khalil Gibran, Xplore, Inc., http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/k/khalilgibr105073.html.

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