Is there room in Christianity for doubt?

Of all the many reasons people lose their faith, the biggest by far is the question of injustice and suffering. … Continued

Of all the many reasons people lose their faith, the biggest by far is the question of injustice and suffering. This isn’t an intellectual problem, it’s a personal one—the experience of abandonment in the face of loss and grief. Whether in the headlines, or in our personal lives, we are confronted daily with the problem of pain, and so we ask “Where are you God?”

The second biggest reason people lose their faith is closely related to the first. It’s due to a deeply hurtful view of God rooted in fear. A great many of us have heard the “gospel” that God is angry with us and wants to punish us for our sin. So Jesus needed to die to appease a wrathful God’s demand for punishment.

This brings up a number of difficult questions: Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or entrust themselves to a God like that? How can that ever be called “Good News”?

This second reason for losing faith is directly related to the first because the real sting of the question of suffering is the fear that God could have prevented it, but wouldn’t. That’s were our feelings of abandonment and betrayal come from. This emotional insult is then confirmed by the hurtful image of an angry God. Instead of assuring me of God’s goodness and love, that preacher on TV instead tells me I’m suffering because I’m being punished. That’s the soil out of which modern atheism was born: not the absence of belief in God, but the moral refusal to believe in a God who is not good.

Countless people filling our pews have adopted this hurtful view of God leading them to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing, believing that this is what God wants to hear. Others have walked away from faith entirely, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster.

Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong? When did the good news become bad news?

Taking a deep look at the Bible, I believe that this fear-based view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament. The Gospel is not about an angry, far away God who needs to be appeased before he will love us. It’s about God revealed in Jesus who shocked the religious establishment by loving sinners and screw-ups like you and me—embracing us in the middle of our deepest failures, fears, and brokenness.

It is precisely into that place of woundedness that I think Jesus wants to come. Faith is not about certainty; it’s about vulnerability. It’s about having the courage to let Jesus into our screwed up lives, the courage to be loved for who we really are. It is the outrageous hope that we would still be loved if God knew about all the things we try to hide.

When we cry out because of injustice and suffering, those questions are not a sign of a weak faith, but of a healthy one. It’s good that we cry. It’s even good that we’re angry about suffering because deep down it means that we care, that we refuse to accept injustice and hurt as a “normal” part of life.

Jesus didn’t come giving people explanations, but giving his life—caring for those who were suffering, broken, and in need, standing in solidarity with the outcast and the oppressed. In him we meet a God who identifies with us in our pain, and calls us to participate with him in healing our hurting world.

So let’s have the courage to be honest together about our struggles and pain. Let’s make room for questions and doubt as a healthy part of our faith, and in so doing, work toward ending suffering, rather than merely offering explanations for it. Let’s learn to have a questioning faith.

Derek Flood is the author of “Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross.” Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.

Written by
  • WmarkW

    Why don’t you address the question, that if God is the greatest thing in the universe, why the latter functions exactly the same as it would if there were no such thing?

  • arensb

    I didn’t see anything in the article that addresses this passage:
    “the real sting of the question of suffering is the fear that God could have prevented it, but wouldn’t.”

    Do you agree, then, that God could prevent suffering, but doesn’t? Or that he is unable to prevent suffering?
    Or is the point of this column that one should just trust that this circle can be squared?

  • ThomasBaum

    The universe functions just as it does because that is how God created it but “if there were no such thing”, as you put it, we would most definitely not be having this chat.

  • Rongoklunk

    The reason I lost my faith was because it didn’t make sense. It probably made sense to the ancients who didn’t know any better, but since Darwin and Dawkins and Hawking we know gods don’t actually exist. The ancients thought the sky was full of invisible spirits and gods who were responsible for everything on earth. And over the eons they ‘imagined-up’ thousands of them. But they were wrong.
    Even 9/11 should tell us clearly how religions make people believe the craziest things. Blow up heretics and earn a dream vacation in the sky with Allah and truckloads of celestial virgins – which will last forever and ever. You gotta be religious to believe such an obvious scam. Really. Every religious person should learn from this. Were they any wackier than the average religious person? No. They were intelligent, college educated, and one had a PHD. But because they were religious – believing in a Paradise and everlasting life – they easily bought into it. Any atheist would have said “Stop. Maybe there is no Allah. Maybe there is no Paradise”. But they were religious, which means they were adults who were taught to believe absolute nonsense about reality; which is what all religions teach. Suckers!

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s very difficult to believe in a god when he never shows himself or when terrible things happen and he doesn’t get involved.
    On 9/11 he had a wonderful opportunity to actually do something.
    He could have magically steered the planes away from the WTC, and brought them down gently at the closest airport. He could have paralyzed the terrorists at the airport, or removed their pants for a giggle and turned their weapons into carrots.
    But what does he do? Nothing, as usual.
    But of course he didn’t even get involved in the Holocaust, the nastiest – cruelest- most terrible sin of all time. Six million Jewish people (who were religious), and god does nothing. Is that because he’s got better things to do, or he couldn’t be bothered, or that he’s too old and lost his powers, or that he thinks Jews deserve it? The simplest reason, the easiest, the most rational reason is that God lives only in the heads of those who believe in him. And that’s why he never even lifts a finger – because he’s imaginary, like the thousands of other gods.

  • Secular1

    Thomas have you really given your post a thought, at all?

  • Secular1

    This is usual nonsensical blather about loss of faith. It does not address the main issue lack of faith. The word “Faith” is an Oxymoron in that it speaks to believing in something that is not believable. So “Lack of faith” ought to be the natural order of things. That is, one must not believe in anything that cannot be proven to be true.

    Then the author makes this placid statement “Faith is not about certainty; it’s about vulnerability. ” At least here he concedes Faith is not that is believable. In any case why must I become vulnerable.

    Unless he can responfd to this Epicurean dilemma below:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

  • ThomasBaum

    Yes I have and as I said in it, if there was no God, as WmarkW seems to be saying with his “if there were no such thing”, then there would be no universe, therefore no chat.

    Also that the universe works, so to speak, by the laws of science created by God, that we have been able to figure out with our God-given mental capacities.

    Seemed pretty straight-forward to me.

  • ThomasBaum

    Rongoklunk

    You wrote, “The reason I lost my faith was because it didn’t make sense. It probably made sense to the ancients who didn’t know any better, but since Darwin and Dawkins and Hawking we know gods don’t actually exist.”

    You don’t “know” this, you believe this.

  • ThomasBaum

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.”

    There is a difference between preventing and allowing.

    “Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.”

    With the gift of free will, we have a choice and when we do evil (wrongdoing) we can blame God, blame others or take personal responsibility.

    “Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?”

    If there was no evil, only good, then there would be no choices to make therefore God could not give us the freedom to choose which we have with our gift of free will.

    “Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

    God created us not as puppets but as beings with free will to be active participants rather than passive observers of God’s creation and in God’s Plan, since God knew that not ALL would choose to take personal responsibility for their choices, God PAID THE PRICE, so to speak, IN FULL.

    Then God extended the invitation to COME FOLLOW ME, some seem to think that this is to pick up their “get out of hell and death card” and forget that to get to Easter Sunday, God-Incarnate went thru Good Friday.

    Not only is God able to get rid of evil, God asked, not forced, but asked our participation in this and not only is God willing, it is God’s Will that ALL, ultimately, be with God in the new heavens and the new earth, even those that will never take personal responsibility for their choices in this life.

    I suppose if one thinks that this life on earth is the whole smear, so to speak, than this Epicurean dilemma could be a dilemma to their being able to think.

  • question1

    Faith is not simply believing in something that can’t be proven. It’s believing in something you know to be true but can’t understand. I presume you believe in DNA – have you ever seen any or do you believe those strangers who tell you that they have seen it & mapped it?

    Yes, science is “reproducable”. Sometimes. Sometimes what scientists thought was true turns out to be untrue or not completely understood. But we believe them.

    So, faith requires that you examine the credibility of witnesses & review the evidence they offer. That’s all.

  • Secular1

    ” It’s believing in something you know to be true but can’t understand. I presume you believe in DNA – have you ever seen any or do you” You must be challenged in all sorts of way to posit that question. In 21st century when we talk of seeing is a bit metaphoric in scientific context. One sees stuff with aid of instrument, measuring the affects of the phenomenon.

    “Yes, science is “reproducable”. Sometimes. Sometimes what scientists thought was true turns out to be untrue or not completely understood. But we believe them. ” This is really hilarious. Yes in science when new information comes in scientists modify their yjeorie to absorb the new information.

    “So, faith requires that you examine the credibility of witnesses & review the evidence they offer.” And what credibility do afford to the people who claim some 2000 years ago there was a girl who gave birth to a child without the benefit of sexual intercourse. Not only that you are also told some 400 year later not only the child was born without the benefit of intercourse, but the mother was also born the same way. Come on man, where do you see credibility.

    Or what about the story about Moses freeing the hebrew slaves. In the same book Moses then makes rules on how to treat slaves. Do you find this credible, or at least what kind of sick monster this Moses fellow must be. When you are told that this scum bag is a role model what credulity do you muster to find that credible. Enough of this delusional nonsense.

  • Joel Hardman

    “Taking a deep look at the Bible, I believe that this fear-based view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament.”

    Uh, what about the Old Testament? Are you prepared to just chuck that in the rubbish bin?

    When you have to engage in these sorts of mental gymnastics to justify your belief, why not just give up the belief?

  • Joel Hardman

    Thomas,

    As human knowledge has advanced the role for gods has shrunk to be only that which is impossible to disprove. When gods are claimed to have traits like non-corporeal existence and omnipotence which are never observed in reality, when no physical evidence exists to even suggest that gods exist, and when the trend line for claims about gods interacting with the world is steadily down, the line between knowing gods don’t exist and believing gods don’t exist is think indeed.

  • Rongoklunk

    Nice one Thomas. It’s probably the smartest comment from you that I’ve read. Yes, we can’t actually know it. Just like we can’t know for certain that there is no Lochness Monster, or no fairies at the bottom of our gardens. We can’t even prove there’s no Boogieman, or no ghosts. So we have to use our heads and look for what seems the more feasible, and what seems most outrageous. To posit a God is outrageous because it’s against all the rules of nature that we see around us. And we know of nothing that is supernatural. Nothing. Plus, from everything we know death is death for us as for all lifeforms; and we see nothing that suggests otherwise except wishful thinking – otherwise known as Faith.
    Reason, logic and observations of the real, do nowhere suggest that anything supernatural exists.If you think that truth is more important than make believe (perhaps you do, maybe you don’t) – then check the irrationality of what you believe. I think you’ve fallen for the oldest scam of them all – belief in an invisible spirit no-one has ever seen. It is easy to be persuaded to believe something you wish was true. That’s why folks grab onto religion;
    ” it promises you’ll never die, but live forever in the sky”.
    It’s valium for people who can’t handle the truth that we are alone on planet earth and will die one of these days as all things die. We just have to get over it.

  • Joel Hardman

    Thomas,

    “…if there was no God … then there would be no universe, therefore no chat.”

    “Also that the universe works, so to speak, by the laws of science created by God….”

    On what evidence do you make these claims?

  • edbyronadams

    If faith of any stripe requires you to check your intellect at the door, it is a false faith. Faith and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

  • ThomasBaum

    I would say that I have about the same amount of evidence to make these claims as others do to make a claim that there is no God.

    As I have said before, I can not “prove” that God Is, only God can do that.

  • ThomasBaum

    As I have said before, I used to believe that God Is but now I know that God Is since I met God, it is that simple.

  • ThomasBaum

    question1

    You wrote, “Faith is not simply believing in something that can’t be proven. It’s believing in something you know to be true but can’t understand.”

    How do you “know” it to be true?

    Lots of people seem to interchange the words, believe and know, but they have different meanings, even someone that fervently believes, still does not know.

    I happen to believe that faith is a gift just as it is written and I also believe that if someone “knows” that God Is, the reason or reasons that they know is because God somehow revealed this to them.

    I used to believe in God and believe that God Is a Trinity, then I met God the Father and God the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit revealed to me that the Catholic Eucharist is Jesus, there’s the Trinity.

    So God, in God’s way, has revealed the Trinity to me, I know that God Is a Trinity but that doesn’t mean that I understand how God can be One and yet a Trinity, so one can know something and yet not understand, sometimes one can even learn that some things just happen to be beyond their capacity to understand and accept that.

  • ischoen

    Faith is not belief in a set of doctrines. Faith is trust. It is your right to trust in what you will. God. Jesus. Allah. Love.

    Trust.

  • Derek Flood

    The reality is that God does not prevent suffering. Whether or not God *can* is specualtion, but the fact is that suffering happens. Jesus never says that God will prevent suffering, and in fact expects suffering for his followers. Yet Jesus insists that God is loving, and that we should work to end suffering where we can.

    So from that, I would say that the idea that God is omnipotent just doesn’t seem to work. That’s simply not our experience here. What we can experience is love. Many have expereinced this from God directly. But we all need love. So for people of faith, we need to know that even if we suffer, we are still loved. That’s the tension we live in. That does not mean we should accept suffering, but it does mean we should cling to love.

    For those who do not believe in God, they would need to find other ways to cling to love, and to act in love. The article is not indended to be an argument to “prove” God to a nonbeliever. It is rather addressing people of faith, and how we can have a faith that allows for both compassion as well as making room for healthy doubt.

    Personally, I do not see any evidence of a being who stops bad things from happening. I do see evidece of a Someone who is benevolent and loving, and who can communicate that love in personal and intimate ways. So the reality I encounter is that God not ominpotent, but is loving. Sort of forces me to re-think my entire God concept. But I need to go on what I expereince, not on what I think “ought” to be.

  • billy1932

    Actually they are two sides of the same coin. You can not have one without the other. Why would you need faith if there where no doubt. Without doubt it is obviously an absolute.

    As an aside freedom of religion is a freedom from religion.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous