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Value Confidence over Certainty

Belief systems have differing tolerance levels for doubt. Christianity has a long track record of adherents with less than absolute certainty. Many have honestly wondered whether they should cling to their faith in the face of difficult circumstances. Even John the Baptist—who boldly, publicly, and controversially proclaimed Jesus was the Messiah—had doubts. When he was arrested and thrown into prison for his public preaching of an unwelcome message, he wondered if he’d placed his faith in the right object. He sent word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another” (Matt. 11:3)?

Christians ever since have found ironic comfort here: If even John the Baptist could have some doubts, I too can live with doubts alongside faith. How do we hold faith and doubt together? Amid our doubts, Christians should seek confidence more than certainty.

Patron Saints of Doubt

If you’ve already heard John the Baptist’s story, don’t let its familiarity diminish its outrageousness. John was Jesus’s cousin. They grew up together. Both their births were considered miraculous. Both John’s mother and Jesus’s mother were convinced Jesus was the Messiah, the One the Jewish people had expected and longed for across generations. John made statements about Jesus that must have astonished the religious leaders who traveled from Jerusalem to the wilderness to hear this unusual preacher. John dared to call them a “brood of vipers” because of their religious hypocrisy (Matt. 3:7).

But then he faltered. Jesus responded to John with pointers to his messiahship: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them” (11:5). Did this evidence prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that John had no cause to waver? Did it satisfy him? We don’t know. He was brutally executed a short time later.

Another patron saint of doubt was the unnamed man whose son Jesus healed. With words countless people of faith have uttered ever since, the man said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Perhaps we all need to admit some level of doubt, and yet I want to suggest we all need to doubt our doubts. Believers and skeptics alike should examine their doubts. When we do, we may find they aren’t as substantive as we assumed.

Pointers, Not Proofs

Here’s what I mean. What if confidence is a more realistic expectation than certainty? What if we should look for pointers instead of proofs? Search the internet for debates between atheists and Christians and you’ll turn up exchanges about proofs for God’s existence. Introductory philosophy textbooks recount these so-called proofs by Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, and others (even some whose names don’t begin with A). The proofs have labels like the ontological, cosmological, moral, and teleological arguments.

If confidence is a more realistic expectation than certainty, perhaps we should look for pointers instead of proofs.

I’ve invited friends to events where these proofs have been expounded. I’ve even sponsored such events, and I’ve been embarrassed when these “proofs” failed to prove. Skeptics have found holes in the arguments, and I’ve doubted whether even Anselm, Aquinas, or Augustine could have turned the tide.

But what if we don’t need a proof? What if we only need pointers that suggest a belief in the supernatural makes more sense than a rejection of the supernatural? What if you can’t prove Jesus said the things the New Testament claims he said, but the archaeological, historical, and manuscript evidence points far more in the direction of acceptance than dismissal? What if you can’t prove God created the world with a sense of order or design, but all the complexity and beauty in the physical universe suggest this is more likely than the conclusion it happened through chaos and chance?

Coherence as a Confidence Booster

If we’re seeking confidence more than certainty, one factor can help toward our goal: coherence. If all belief systems contain things we know and things we can’t, we should look to see which systems hold together best or which beliefs resonate with the reality we see all around us.

Let’s say you’re walking in the woods and come upon a turtle sitting atop a tree stump three feet off the ground. Picture it. Knowing what you know about trees and turtles, a few conclusions seem more likely than others.

We know trees don’t stop growing with a flat surface on top. We know people often cut down trees with saws that make for a flat surface on a tree trunk. We also know that turtles crawl horizontally and can’t ascend three-foot vertical planes. We could conclude that (1) someone cut down this tree, and (2) someone lifted the turtle and put it on top of the stump. Or we could conclude that (1) the tree stopped growing and part of it fell off, leaving a flat surface on the stump, and (2) the turtle climbed up the vertical surface until it got to the horizontal plane and stopped for a rest. One conclusion coheres better with what we know about the reality of trees and turtles.

Now let’s consider some issues more important than how a turtle got on top of a tree stump. We live in a world with many competing perspectives—some religious and some naturalistic. A Christian perspective says we live in an ordered world created by a good God who made people in his image. The naturalistic perspective says we evolved by random chance in a universe without any purposeful cause. We also live in a world where people value equality and respect. Which belief system supports our commonly held values? How did we arrive at believing we should treat people with impartiality and kindness?

Will You Trust Without Absolute Certainty?

We may not know with absolute certainty how or when our world was created or grasp all the complexities of human existence. But I want to suggest we can have a high level of confidence that it makes more sense to believe we live in a created world with a personal God than to believe we’re nothing more than cosmic accidents.

It makes more sense to believe we live in a created world with a personal God than to believe we’re nothing more than cosmic accidents.

I say this because we treat people with dignity and fairness, or at least we believe we should. And values like equality and respect cohere better with the Christian view than the naturalistic one.

But what do you think? Do you agree all viewpoints contain some unprovable assumptions? If so, can you identify some of those assumptions in your own beliefs? Are you willing to doubt your doubts? Can you accept a level of confident belief without requiring absolute certainty?


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