“Ninety-nine percent truth and one percent error amounts to one-hundred percent error.” This is what I was taught when I was nineteen-years-old. And I believed it. It sounded good. It sounded full of conviction and assurance and that is what I liked to hear. For many years I lived under the assumption of this powerful statement, believing that everyone who was in the slightest bit of error was completely deceived by the evil one. Oh, and one important note, my understanding and interpretation was the standard against which all others were judged.

I understand differently now, but I learned the hard way. Of course, I still recognize that this can be true when it comes to certain issues that are of cardinal value, but my studies have made me much less ridged than I was before. I guess the primary thing that did this to me was the realization that the “standard”, my own doctrine, was flawed and in need of change. The first time I realized this, I went through a period of intellectual doubt. Most specifically, I doubted my own ability to be correct.

In the last contribution to this series, I talked about doubt that is brought about for emotional/experiential reasons. Now I want to focus on doubt that is brought about for intellectual reasons.

The mind is a very powerful thing. As one writer put it (I think Jonathan Edwards), “The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” Of course this does not happen overnight for most. It comes with questions, concerns, and small doubts here and there. As children we have the tendency to believe what we are told. Whether it be Santa Clause, storks and babies, the tooth fairy, or God, children are very trusting. It is not until we become adults that we go through a time of critical analysis, but even then, our tendency is to root for the “home team.” In other words, we want mom and dad to be right, therefore, we attempt to see things through the lenses we were given. When something challenges our childhood assumptions, our emotions fight to keep us at the bays with which we are familiar. However, our emotions only have so much vitality and traditions become nuanced and redirected slowly. Sooner or later, adjustments begin to be made and we find ourselves in an intellectual crisis of faith. This is natural and this is good. However, many Christians are completely unprepared for this crisis and it eventually does great damage, even to the point of sinking their ship.

This series is primarily for those who struggle with doubt, so I am going to continue to talk directly to you. However, I think it is something that all Christians need to hear.

The category of intellectual doubt is large and varied. However, ninety-percent of the time I do notice one central theme that threads people’s intellectual problems with Christianity: the assumption of systematic indubability.

Systematic indubability:

I have never been much good at building houses out of cards, but I have seen many that are tremendous. Each card is interdependent. They are all connected in such a way that the house would not exist if one were to be removed. The weakest link will cause the whole house to crumble upon removal or even the slightest movement.

Many people have their understanding of the Christian faith built in such a way. For so many Christians, their theology is a house of cards. Doubt, in any area, is like tampering with one card. If something happens to this card, all is lost. Therefore, doubt, in any area, is an incredibly fearful thing.

However, when it comes to Christianity, intellectual doubt is nothing to fear. It is the other side of the coin to intellectual growth. As long as we don’t see our faith as a house of cards, we can begin to rearrange, question, doubt, wrestle with, and engage issues with much more confidence. I often tell people that I have less faith in the reality of one’s faith when they say they have never had any intellectual doubts at all. I will distinguish this from what I call “spiritual doubt” in the next chapter of this series, but what we must realize is that any type of true intellectual engagement—any time we seek to love God with our minds—this requires an assumption of some doubt. Think about it. If you approach your studies simply seeking to confirm what you already believe, you are not studying at all. Your mind is absent as your heart’s ambition is to take your prejudice and have it affirmed. However, when you are pursuing truth first, you begin to release yourself of obligations to serve what you already know. Otherwise, you are your own master, not truth, and certainly not God.

Systematic indubability is when we see things in such a way that any challenge to our certainty makes everything fall since they are systematically connected in a precise manner.

Is the Bible reliable? Why can’t I see God? Why doesn’t God act today like he did in biblical times? What about evolution and the big bang? Why are so many scientists atheists? Is there something I am missing? Did Christ really rise from the grave or was this made up by well-meaning followers of Christ? Is Christ God? Why is it taking so long for Christ to come back? How can we claim to have the truth when there are so many alternatives?

These are all questions that, while having emotional drives and implications, have a strong intellectual component to them. Many of you are experiencing doubt that is intellectual in its foundation. If you have your theology built as a house of cards, your faith is going to respond accordingly. To even entertain that you might be wrong about this or that doctrine, this or that interpretation, this or that belief, causes you to fall apart inside.

A few points here concerning intellectual doubt:

1. The Christian faith is not a house of cards. Most assuredly, there are foundational issues of the faith that, if taken away, will destroy Christianity. Issues like the existence of God (there is no such thing as a “Christian atheist”), the resurrection of Christ, the reality of God’s judgment and grace through Jesus Christ, and Christ’s atoning death on the cross. However, there are many details of the Christian faith that can suffer adjustments without destroying the entire faith. I have seen many people leave the faith and the catalyst of their departure was a rejection of inerrancy (the belief that the Bible does not have any errors, historic, theological, or scientific). I have seen others leave because they felt they had to adjust their view of the early chapters of Genesis, creation and the flood. I have seen others who thought that if there was any redacting (editing by the authors) of the Gospel narratives, their faith was destroyed. Still, I have seen some who come to believe that the flood was not global. These are issues to be sure. But they are not issues which can cause any harm to the essence of Christianity in any way.

It is normally those who are brought up in rigidity who are susceptible to letting this kind of doubt crash their faith. This is why you see so many who are “former fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism feeds on unnecessary rigidity and therefore, unfortunately, is quite a seedbed for graveyards of Christians.

While I believe strongly in many issues that are of non-cardinal value, I don’t hold on to these too tightly. This is a fundamental philosophical precursor to dealing with many intellectual doubts. The inability to identify, isolate, and distinguish between essentials and non-essentials often causes the entire house of cards to fall.

2. While there are people out there that are more educated than you who are not Christians, there are also many people out there who are more educated than you who are Christians. Don’t forget this. It will help you to realize that the cultural assumption that the more educated you are the more likely you will become an atheist is simply not true. While education is of immense value to the truth, as we will see in the next contribution to this series, in a Christian worldview, there is something far more powerful at work bending our wills.

3. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are the only one to ask these questions and entertain these doubts. Feeling alone in a time of doubt amplifies the power of the doubt unnecessarily. Christianity has two-thousand years of history and I guarantee that your questions have not escaped the notice of great people of the past. Christianity is littered with intellectual giants who have wrestled with the exact same questions you are and come to the conclusion that Christianity is true. That is why it is so important to become a good student of church history. While we live in an age of scientific discovery and technological breakthroughs, don’t assume that people are philosophically more enlightened than before. We are not. In fact, an argument could be made that we are falling into the greatest intellectual and philosophical slumbers since the dark ages due to our preoccupation with high speed technological and scientific breakthroughs. We don’t have time for wisdom anymore.

4. Answers are available. Simply put, I do not believe that there is any objection or even the accumulation of objections to which there are not reasonable and sufficient answers. This does not mean that anyone will be compelled to agree with the answers (as that is a different spiritual matter), but it is important to realize that there is simply no objection out there that is detrimental to Christianity. Of course, there will always be possible alternatives, but this does not make them probable alternatives. And this is an important thing to realize: possibility does not mean probability. Yes, there is the possibility that (as you might hear from an accredited scholar on one of these documentaries), that the followers of Christ went to the wrong tomb, but when considered in light of all the evidence, you will quickly realize that it is not a probability.

There are some incredible, balanced, and well-respected scholars in Christianity. There are thousands of books, lectures, and even full courses of study that are broadly available. Make sure that you are committed to studying these issues. Bring your doubts and concerns to the table and I am certain that you will be presented with answers that are intellectually satisfying concerning the central issues of the Christian faith.

I said before that I don’t give much credence to the faith of those who have never really wrestled with their beliefs, but I also don’t give much credence to those outside the faith who act as if the Christian answers to their objections are not intellectually possible and sustainable. This tells me that they have either not studied the issue well enough or are too biased to admit the sustainability of the Christian faith. Because of this, in my opinion, they are somewhat intellectually irrelevant in the market place of ideas.

Intellectually, when we come of age, Christians should intellectually challenge all their beliefs. God is certainly not afraid of questions and doubts. And it is not sin. In fact, this is the bullseye of obedience. “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes.” The diligent Christian searches all things to “find out whether these things are so.” The Christian faith is intellectually sustainable. There are answers to the questions and doubts we have. Whether or not we can accept these answers is another issue all together. We will take this up next time.

Questions to ask yourself to see if your doubt is intellectually initiated:

  • Do you believe that Christianity is a house of cards?
  • Do you think that there are questions and doubts that cannot be sufficiently answered which will destroy the essence of the Christian faith?
  • Are you convinced that really smart people are less likely to be Christian?
  • Do you believe that there are people out there that are smarter than you who are Christian?
  • Do you only believe what you can understand completely?
  • Have you studied any cardinal issue of Christianity, thoroughly examining both sides of the issue in a balanced manner with the best minds each option has to offer, and come to the conclusion that the Christian view is unsustainable?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    16 replies to "Dealing with Doubt: Part 4 – Intellectual Doubt"

    • Leslie Jebaraj

      Another helpful post on the issue of doubt, Michael. Thanks!

    • TDC

      If Christianity is true, I greatly believe Christ is using you to speak to me right now. Thanks for what you’re doing, Michael.

      My tailspin of doubt started around January. I realize now that it was largely due to the house of cards deal that you’re describing.

      As a Catholic, I realized that if one dogma of the Church is false, than Catholicism is false, and I was probably worshiping bread. Thus, when I started trying to listen to other view points, I started to doubt issues that would be unimportant for the most part, but were all part of the “system”. Of course, it is a sin in Catholicism, so far as I understand, to explore doubts with openness to the possibility that Catholicism is wrong. So once I needed to explore the doubts, I had to stop going to confession and the sacraments, because to confess while willingly sinning against the Church is useless according to Catholic theology.

      Thus, the doubts in side issues ravaged my system AND cut me off from Church practice. It devastated my faith and has left me very skeptical of Christianity as a whole.

      Being forced to analyze the differences between Catholics and Protestants with a critical and open eye has also forced me to do the same for Christians and non-Christians. This openness to the other side has further confused me. I’m not sure what to do anymore.

      That said, I listened to the podcast of the theology program. I finished the “Intro to theology” series. Your 1-10 certainty scale and emphasis on the essentials may be pivotal in helping me return to faith.

    • TDC

      Also, my intellectual doubts largely resolve around a few key issues: Inerrancy, the doctrine of hell, and divisions in Christendom (most specifically between Protestants and Catholics) are some of the biggest.

      I know that many people will say that inerrancy is not an essential doctrine for Christianity to be true. I have trouble seeing how Christianity could possibly work without it.
      Hell, as I mentioned before, is just so horrible to think about. I just don’t get it. The divisions confuse the heck out of me too.

      Hell + divisions is the worst, because you can see faith and sincerity on both sides, but logic seems to indicate that whichever side is wrong has a certain price to pay. It also reduces the number of saved even lower than if all Christians were the same, which makes hell seem even more dismal and unjust.

      Of course, I’m not totally closed to the idea that I just can’t understand true justice, goodness, and love without God’s guidance. But it is really hard to accept. There are indeed many people who believe in Christ despite all these obstacles. Many of them are way smarter than I am. That gives me some pause when I want to leave Christianity.

      Thanks again, Michael, you’re a real blessing for doing this, and for giving us a chance to share. I’ll make sure to continuously ponder the points you’re making.

    • Chris

      Thank you, Michael. Just want to let you know that your posts are helping me along in this faith (and doubt) journey of mine.

    • Lynn

      What is the Bible’s attitude toward questioning? Toward doubt? Toward unbelief?

    • Jason C

      Test everything, hold fast to that which is good.

      Mary, the Mosaic law prescribed death as a penalty for rape. Also, as judge God does not murder, he lawfully executes. If we all deserve death then he actually displays mercy in not dropping the axe earlier.

      TDC (top dead centre?) Inerrancy (at least as I use the term) means that the Bible is a truthful historical record. Sometimes we are ignorant of the Bible writer’s understanding leading to disagreement with what we think we know. Sometimes we are truly ignorant (the book of Daniel suffered from that for a lot of years). We shouldn’t assume that the Bible is wrong a priori, and we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt if necessary. That is the approach I take when reading any ancient work.

      Hell is terrible, Jesus regarded it as terrible, what of we know about it came from Jesus. Now if we accept Jesus as authoritative then we are faced with the conclusion that it is terrible, but there is a way out of it. Hell itself is probably more a place of shame, grief and anguish, than the Dante-esque seven levels of fire and ice, but even an eternal time-out where we are left alone with ourselves will be bad enough.

      What are the points that all Christians have in common? Allegiance to Jesus, and trust in his atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. The other points laid on top of that are the things we argue over and we ought not to… However we fight over them because we think they’re important and to be honest I like that. There’s a certain excitement in watching a good debate, even when I support one side. It’s far better than the amorphous greyness that the politicos are trying to force on us. That’s why politics and religion are about the only subjects left worth talking about… and I’m not sure about politics.

      If a person has allegiance to Christ, then it doesn’t matter if they believe in transubstantiation or not.

    • Jason C

      The blog ate my post.

      Test everything, hold fast to the good.

      That’s it in a nutshell.

    • DagoodS

      There is a bit of misunderstanding that can occur. While it may appear one issue, like inerrancy or scientific tension, is the precipitating fact, there is an underlying factor causing the sweeping questions resulting in deconversion.

      It is a change in methodology.

      What happens is we are faced with an issue, and upon wrestling with it come to the conclusion our previous Christian belief was incorrect. We begin to investigate other areas, using this methodology, with the thought, “If I was wrong there; where else could I be wrong?” We don’t stop at just the difficulty with a global flood, or creation—we delve into historicity utilizing archeology and other writings. We branch out to other claims like inerrancy or theology or philosophy or problem of evil or…well…you name it.

      Eventually, when asked why we deconvert, we may initially state, “It all started with inerrancy…” and the other person thinks, “A-ha! It was this one issue—this one card—that caused the whole thing to collapse” whereas it was not the issue itself; it was learning a method that once applied to one Christian claim, we eventually realized many other Christian claims fail.

      If I could spring off your “house of cards” analogy; we saw a strong house. Something caused us to inspect the Jack of Spades, and we realized from one angle that “brick” looked large and rectangular and strong. But from another angle, we learn the “brick” is actually as thin as paper, and the slightest force will cause it to fall. It is precariously standing on edge.

      Upon realizing this new angle existed, we started looking at other cards—the Queen of Hearts, the Two of Clubs—and realized they, too, were paper thin. That this strong looking “house” was actually teetering on many thin edges.

      It wasn’t that we questioned the Jack of Spades, and let the whole house crumble. We questioned the Jack of Spades, and realized how to question the other…

    • Ed Kratz


      Here is something that I have written about inerrancy in relation to the Christian faith. It might help: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/12/if-the-bible-is-not-inerrant-then-christianity-is-false-and-other-stupid-statements/

      God bless.

    • Paul Wright

      DagoodS’s words ring true for me, at least. Once you find one of the standard answers doesn’t work, it’s easier to question the others. I was reminded of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s article on staging a Crisis of Faith.

      On inerrancy, in the comments on that Crisis of Faith article I found a link to The Five Marks of a Holy Book, which you might enjoy.

    • Lee H

      A very good post, but I also think DagoodS is right. When you find that you were very wrong in one area (even if non-essential) it becomes easy to see how other areas which were believed with just as strong reason could also be false. Not-essential pillars may fall at first, but then if many non-essential pillars can fall it could be possible that essential ones could fall using the same method as the many non-essential.

      For me I have questioned God’s existance, but that central pillar isn’t falling. But I have got to the point of questioning inerrancy and an eternal painful hell and those pillars are starting to fall, which means moving away from evangelicalism.

      Above all this though is the psychology of religion. If the way I see the world is causing me to interpret things as God which are not God then the personal aspect of Christianity is lost.

    • Edward T. Babinski

      How can you be sure that “answers available?”


      The questions seem to me to outnumbers the answers.

    • Marci A

      Foundational Question : Did God perform the miracle of preserving his word?
       The Christian God of the bible has a message to convey to us- His creation.  This message is so unimaginatively important because it has to do with how to live life on this earth, and the afterlife. It has to do with whether or not we will spend eternity in heaven or hell. If we don’t follow the instructions properly or don’t obey it’s commands/demands we can end up tormented in hell for eternity. 
      God could have chosen to reveal this important message in a way that is irrefutable, like permanently supernaturally etched in a mountain side guarded by his mighty angels for all to see and understand. Or he could peel back the curtain of the heavens and reveal himself and speak to us so all would know him to be real and true. He could visit every individual so they would be clear-generation after generation would have no confusion.
       But he doesn’t do this. And yet we are supposed to stake our “whole lives” and bet  our “afterlives” on an unpreserved, highly debated, confusing, edited and re- edited bible written by men.
       Why didn’t he convey this important message to humanity in a more clearly evident, straight forward, unfading , and changeless way?
       Why did he chose to use unpreservable text, word of mouth accounts and thousands of years later this is all we have to rely on as evidence?–Copies of copies of translations of other languages. God has an important message for mankind and chooses to only reveal it to certain individuals who write it down and we have to rely on copies of copies by anonymous authors with no originals.
       If God is all- knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, all-good, perfect, eternal and unchanging–it seems as if He did a bad job of making His message reliable and believable. It seems as if He doesn’t really care enough to make this a SOLID truth. But, as Christians we are asked to base our spiritual lives on this. We have to have a lot of faith to…

    • Marci A

      believe this. It seems as if God requires faith instead of evidence. I care whether or not my beliefs are true AND justified ! Is faith the only pathway to truth ? Is it faith ? Or reason? If it’s faith- most religions use faith, then are they  all true? It seems our faith/ beliefs are based on feelings and emotion, not evidence. Is faith the excuse we give when we don’t have evidence ? This is all very confusing. If God wanted to achieve his goal of spreading his truth, why isn’t it presented in a more plain, obvious and permanent way? It would end the division and strife among the different churches and denominations !
      Why did the creator of the universe, designer of our complex bodies, the galaxies, our brains, decide to communicate this “all important” information in an unpreservable way ? And yet still asks us to believe it.
      Seems not very “supernatural” nor “miraculous”.

    • Marci A

      The above comments are mine. I would definitely say I’m in a crisis of faith. I’ve been a Christian for over 22 years I’m in my 40’s now. I’ve decided to only rebuild my faith built on the foundation of getting this question answered to my satisfaction. I would love to hear any input !

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