Some of you are living in a purgatory of doubt. You find yourself caught between two opinions. You have studied just about all you can study. You have read both sides to the issue. All Christian apologetics books do now is make you ill and create more anxiety. The confusion of the options is a constant ringing in your ears, from which you can find no peace. It is not as if you don’t want to make a decision for Christ; after all, you have been a Christian for quite some time (at least you thought you were . . .). Now you are not sure if you ever really believed at all. Now you are finding it intellectually (or so it seems) dishonest to believe anymore. Why? Because you have yet to be convinced enough.
How does one get convinced enough to trust Christ? You don’t really trust anyone, not even yourself.
I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to share some advice as one who has been there. Not only have I been there but, given the right circumstances (meds, not enough sleep, waking up on the wrong side of the bed, bad habits haunting me, a good fight with my wife, reading too many fundamentalists – Christian or non, a past which won’t let go, depression, having to call donors to get caught up on taxes, or listening to certain music which takes me to places I don’t need to go), I can still go there. However, for the most part, I have learned how to talk to this “inner skeptic” (Daniel Taylor calls him his “inner atheist“).
Here are his five characteristics:
1. He likes to make you doubt, but he never presents better options.
Initially, I must realize that the skeptic who sends me to “doubters’ Purgatory” is not holding as good a hand as he thinks. He bluffs a lot. In fact, just about every hand is a bluff. But it is enough to keep us folding, especially when we have not experienced him before. You see, this skeptic never presents any better options. His arguments are never positive. It is enough for him to introduce the pebble in your shoe. And as long as you focus on that pebble, eventually you will sit down and become immobile. This is Purgatory.
Inner Skeptic: “There are too many disagreements in Christianity. Which do you choose?”
(Notice, this is not a positive argument for anything better.)
2. He uses your emotions against you.
This skeptic loves those who have grown up in a Christian home and have a commitment that is based primarily on family and emotional bias. If you believe in Christianity just because you want it to be true, he will eventually stop by your house for a chat. And it is not that you have not read enough, studied enough, or been to enough apologetics conferences. It is just that you went to them only to have your faith confirmed. This makes you attractive to him.
Inner Skeptic: “You know you only believe this stuff because of your parents, don’t you?”
(Again, no intellectual arguments needed. Just a tug at your emotions that might be true, but fails to make any positive arguments against your faith. But this is often enough.)
3. He presents possibilities that are not probabilities.
The inner skeptic loves options. The more options he brings up, the smarter he thinks he is. He likes to read very broadly in order to keep from dropping anchor. But in all his studies he never has anything more probable to present. He is also fond of the great unknown. This is the trump card he carries. When all else has failed, he just says that one day the true answer to life may be known, but we don’t have it now.
Inner Atheist: “Maybe Jesus’ body was been stolen. Did you ever think of that?”
Inner Atheist: “You know, I heard a scholar the other day that thinks the Romans created Christianity. Maybe that is true.”
(He always has a lot of “maybes” and they are easy to understand. But these maybes only offer other possibilities, rarely any probabilities.)
4. He likes to focus on non-essentials.
If the skeptic can keep you going down non-essential rabbit trails, making you think they actually form the core of your faith and that without them it’s over, he has done his job. You will make Purgatory your home. Things like evolution, the age of the earth, the precise harmony of the Gospels, the writer of 2 Peter, the Documentary Hypothesis, or a thousand other things will suffice. While these things are very important when you are building your faith, they do not form the foundation of it. He likes to make you think that unresolved non-essentials should be sufficient to keep you from making a decision.
Inner Skeptic: “Was there one angel at the tomb or two?” We may never know!)
(Please notice: the skeptic does not mention that in both accounts the tomb was empty.)
Inner Skeptic: “Every thinking person knows that evolution is true.”
(Not only does he overstate his case – he likes to overstate – but he does not tell you that even if evolution is true, it does not affect the foundation of Christianity: Christ’s resurrection.)
5. He makes you believe you have to have indubitable, perfect certainty before you can believe with integrity.
It’s either black or while for the inner skeptic. (He is quite the fundamentalist.) Either you believe or you don’t. On a scale from zero to ten, you are one or the other. If you present yourself as a five he will convince you that you are really a zero by drawing attention to your lack of perfect faith. He is caught up in a modernistic ideal of perfection and thinks if God were real, he would make your faith perfect immediately. But the Bible never presents faith as such. In fact, while the Holy Spirit is said to do many things (empower, indwell, seal), it is never stated that he perfects our faith in this life.
Inner Skeptic: “You doubt your faith every day. You are not really a believer.”
(Since when do doubts mean that we are not believers? We all doubt from time to time. Our faith is not perfect.)
Inner Skeptic: “You are not certain without a doubt that Jesus rose from the grave. No one is. No one was there.”
(But he does not tell you to keep from going to bed at night because you are not certain that you will wake up. He does not tell you to keep from marrying because you are not certain your spouse will be faithful. More importantly, he does not tell you that while there are very few things in this life that we have infallibly perfect certainty about, that does not mean we don’t commit to things sincerely.)
The primary thing the skeptic does to keep you in Purgatory is make you think he has just enough. Just enough for what? Just enough to cause you to be hesitant, just enough to cause you to be indecisive, just enough to make you immobile in your faith. But again, what are his better options? He doesn’t have any. All he can do is criticize what you believe, belittling you to the point of submission. Ask him to show his hand and you will find he doesn’t have much. He just want to talk about yours.
I love the story in John 6 where Jesus is talking to people about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. People were getting grossed out and offended. They all started leaving. Jesus turned to Peter and the rest of the Apostles and said, “Are you going to leave me too?” Peter responded with a wonderful response for those of us who spend any time talking to our inner skeptic: “Where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life.” It was not as if the Apostles got what Jesus was trying to say about the flesh and the blood. In fact, they were confused as well. Jesus was acting kinda odd. But, they did not have any better options. Jesus was enough.
What I ask my inner skeptic is this: “Where else are you asking me to go? Atheism? Islam? Scientology? Perpetual indecisiveness? What are the positive arguments for such things? You cannot negatively argue me out of Christianity.” Yes, I have a lot of questions. Yes, I even have some doubts. But the inner skeptic has no goods. Ultimately, even on his best day, his case against Christ is not enough to keep me from following Jesus.
In the end, this is how you must live everyday. Those of you who are in the Purgatory of doubt, where else are you going to go? What is really better? If you have no answer for this (and some of my presuppositional friends are going to get angry here), it is enough. It is enough to begin praying again. It is enough to read your Bible again with enough confidence. It is enough for you to take Jesus’s hand again. It is enough for you to get up each day and commit your life over to him.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
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. He can be contacted at [email protected]