Like a hyper little dog that piddles on the carpet, apologists can become notoriously overexcited when putting newly learned knowledge into practice. The moment Jesus’ existence is even remotely questioned, we are there with 37 blogposts detailing every extra-biblical reference to Jesus known to academia. This kind of knowledge is important; I wouldn’t be an apologist if I thought it wasn’t! However, the danger we risk is in assuming that every doubt is a nail and the only solution is the proverbial hammer of apologetics.
We are rational beings created in the image of God, and a well-rounded discipleship should include training individuals to have a rational, defensible, intelligent Christian faith. However, we cannot ignore the fact that most of our thoughts, emotions, and actions are not rational if we were to pick them apart. When was the last time your kids did something completely ridiculous, and you asked, “Why did you do that?!?!” only to be met with blank stares and a shrug? For the singles out there, you may think that you have outgrown this stage. As married people, my husband and I discovered quickly that these irrational tendencies transcend pubescence and continue long into adulthood. We still believe things that aren’t true, we act in ways that are contrary to wisdom, and we feel things that are disconnected from reality. To begin to understand doubt, you have to start with the knowledge that we are all broken (and often irrational people)—not just information receptacles. Here are a few key principles:
1. We are created to act, think, and feel in harmony.
God created us with complexity and resiliency. We adapt with fluidity to new experiences—for good or for bad. Intellectually we prefer for our beliefs, emotions, and actions to be consistent. This consistency is good as long as you are feeding on a steady diet of truth. Once you introduce falsehoods of any kind into your mental machine, the once well-oiled device takes on new cogs and gears, working differently (even defectively) to accommodate falsehood. This is called cognitive dissonance. A person may have been taught that Jesus is love, but when their experience with Christ-followers testifies differently, their beliefs begin to change as well, and their actions follow suit. Individuals may think they can engage in flagrant sin unscathed, but given enough time, we will begin to emotional and rationally justify our actions. It’s just how we are wired.
Doubt invades our space in a number of ways, and outright lies are just one of those avenues away from truth. Our beliefs can be just as easily affected by emotional life experiences, spiritual forces, or the non-verbal messages spewing forth from our own actions, or the actions of others. You can try to clean a river downstream of pollution, but for lasting effects, you eventually have to address the source of pollution. Doubt is the same way.
2. Doubt is a master of disguise
We all have parts of ourselves that we unconsciously try to protect. That may be a broken heart, a violent injustice, trust issues, hidden sin, or a painful memory. Some people would rather give you a hundred different objections to the resurrection before admitting their traumatic childhood experience. Others have had their faith slowly eroded because of habitual sin. Intellectual doubts are sometimes a tool to hide an unrelated issue, but we can’t always assume that. Some questions do genuinely stem from an earnest desire to make sense of the faith. Jesus faithfully addressed the question behind the question. He addressed the heart of the questioner.
3. There is no one-size-fits-all solution
Scripture is clear about our beautiful diversity. To treat doubt as if there’s a one-size-fits-most solution is naïve. Often our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. A person who is naturally intellectual will probably struggle with the intellectual questions more than a person who is a feeler. A person who is incredibly empathetic is more prone to doubting God based on the “problem of evil.” An important key to understanding doubt is to know the doubter. The way they are wired as a thinker, feeler, or doer can become the key to addressing their particular source of doubt.
While this outline in no way covers the gamut of doubt, these are the preliminary themes that will be parsed out in my talk. The topics covered will be cognitive dissonance, the 4 main sources of doubt, how to identify each type of doubt, tips for addressing each type of doubt, and how to identify when the doubt presented is masking another doubt. Evidential apologetics is important. However, our goal should always be winning hearts and winning souls. If we aren’t careful, we might accidentally settle for winning arguments.
Hillary Morgan Ferrer, is a dual graduate student at Clemson University and Biola. She is set to graduate from Clemson this December with a M.S. in Biology and will be continuing on at Biola in the Science and Religion Master’s program. She is also the founder of Mama Bear Apologetics, a new ministry aimed at harnessing the maternal instinct in moms to show them how apologetics training can affect their children’s faith. She became passionate about reaching moms during my research with Ratio Christ’s Youth Exodus Project, a project dedicated to collecting research on why young people are leaving the church and what we can do to curb the trend. Her talk at the SES National Apologetics Conference is titled “Diagnosing Doubt: How to stop wasting time answering the wrong questions.”