Apologetics Tip #21: Diagnose the Doubt


“The one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind”
James 1:6 (NASB)

Have you ever had a verbal fight with someone, a sibling or a spouse maybe, and after the shouting ceased you were left asking, “Did we really fight over THAT?” My worst fight with my (now) wife was over cumberbuns on the groomsmen for our wedding. We laugh about it now but we were really divided over whether to have cumberbuns or vests on their tuxedos. Other fights have ranged from the serious to the trivial, but through years of “bad” fighting and gradually leaning more respectful means of conflict resolution I’ve come to find out that most every fight, even verbal arguments with atheists, has a subtext.

There can be many layers of complexity underneath a surface disagreement. With family and loved ones these depths can get really messy. With skeptics and non-Christian there is usually a central subtext of doubt driving their dissent and disdain for the Christian faith.

Doubt is not always bad but it is often quite serious. Doubt is not just abstract disagreement. It can also be interpersonal distrust, emotional discontent, willful refusal, or even hypocrisy–claiming to believe one thing but acting in a way that proves you doubt it. For our purposes let’s note a few popular kinds and why they matter.

1) Intellectual Doubt–this is the questioning and unsettled mind which hasn’t yet found the reasons for Christianity convincing. This kind of doubt is answered with rational defenses for the faith. This level of doubt has driven many shallow believes away from their faith because their faith was never terribly well informed in the first place. Often the problem isn’t the lack of evidence and arguments but that he or she never knew such strong evidence existed until it was too late. Another reason this kind of doubt matters is that intellectual doubt can weigh unbearably heavy if we don’t have a good system in place for distinguishing valid evidence from nonevidence. For example, if the evidence our system allows for God is strictly natural science then the only things we allowed ourselves to see are natural events. Since God is supernatural our intellectual doubts may have methodologically forbidden the best evidence for God. That problem isn’t with the evidence but with the framework for evaluating evidence. Both of these are aspects of intellectual doubt.

2) Emotional doubt–this is emotionally driven distrust. This is probably the strongest and most common kind of doubt. It’s tough, if not impossible, to answer this doubt intellectually since the core problem involved is some emotional discontent. This kind of doubt must be taken seriously because it’s pervasive, it’s powerful, and it’s usually hidden dangerously behind intellectual doubt. If we apologists assume every question skeptics ask is motivated by intellectual doubt we can fly right by their real reasons for asking. Rarely do intellectual answers effectively dignify and dissolve emotional doubt. Emotional doubt needs to be addressed emotionally. That may mean a change of tone, or a lighthearted joke, or a more casual environment, or some other tweek that shows you care about the person enough to try to earn their trust. Usually the most effective responses to emotional doubt happen through earned trust relationships. By demonstrating trustworthiness, friendship, and love we can earn a hearing for the Gospel.

3) Volitional Doubt–this is willful disbelief. Underneath our emotions and intellect their is a choice, will he believe or won’t he? Volitonal doubt often lurks underneath the other doubts, out of sight, and can even result long-term sustained emotional or intellectual doubts. Many people no long get upset or angry about Christianity, they don’t care enough to spare that emotional energy any more. They just don’t believe and no amount of evidence and argument will persuade them otherwise. This sort of doubt isn’t generally addressed though intellectual answers (logos) or with emotional expressions and earned trust (pathos and ethos) but with prayer and the patient work of the Holy Spirit (pneuma). Pray hard. Stay faithful. Love on them. Honor their questions (with solid answers) when they ask them. But trust the Lord to do His work on them.

As you can see, it’s important to diagnose their doubts so that you speak with wisdom and rightly honor the person behind the question. You can’t always tell what kinds of doubt they may have, but if you listen to the person, addressing them (instead of addressing just the question) you can often identify what sort of doubt lies behind their question. Then you can aim your response specifically to them.

My wife fought with me because I didn’t trust her judgment regarding wedding preparations. I tried to save money with cummerbunds and she recognized that the few dollars difference weren’t worth the tradeoff in tackiness. Eventually I gave in because she reasoned with me in gentle enough terms till I came to trust her judgment. Sure we fought hard against each other at first, but I eventually saw that she was right, but only after we calmed down, and after she genuinely honored me through my gentleness towards my emotional doubts and reasoning toward my intellectual doubts.

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