Belief does not come easy for me. I have a little “unbeliever” who has set up camp in the back of my mind, and he has no idea when, or how, to shut up. He is always questioning everything, from the stories I hear to the beliefs which tie me down emotionally. (I borrowed this idea from Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Christian. Taylor is possibly the most profound and honest writer I have ever read.) This unbeliever’s goal is to make me less certain about my beliefs and, in doing so, render me spiritually impotent and sterile. I have found many ways to tame this unbelieving beast, but I have also come to the conclusion that he will never totally shut up.

There are not many things about which I have absolute certainty. What I mean by “certainty” is very important here. I do not mean that there are only a few things about which I am convicted as to their truthfulness. Nor do I mean that there are just a few things I am obligated to evangelize. What I actually mean is that there are very few things about which I have indubitable knowledge of. (Perhaps the use of that word did not help…I just like to say the word “indubitable.”) Indubitability implies that one cannot be wrong. It is akin to infallibility. It is perfect and incorrigible conviction. However, none of us really have access to this type of certainty.

In dealing with doubters over the years, I have found that this reality has been the fountainhead for much anxiety in people’s faith. It is not that a lack of perfect certainty is the cause; rather, the cause is the belief that they are supposed to have perfect certainty. Once people begin to have doubts about their faith (or some aspect thereof), especially those who have grown up in very conservative traditions, many begin to doubt their faith altogether, thinking, “How can I have faith, if I have doubts?” It is not that conservative doctrines themselves are at fault; it is the idea that has been preconditioned into their thinking, that belief always and completely casts away doubt. The solution is very often as simple as convincing individuals that faith and doubt will always exist together, which is okay.

Some people say that they have no doubt at all, and they never have. I have difficulty believing assertions such as this, though I suppose they might be true for a very small number of individuals. However, at this point, I think it would be valuable for us to distinguish between “certainty” and “certitude” (Daniel Taylor introduced me to this concept, but I don’t know if the distinctions he made are embedded in the specific definitions of the terms). “Certainty” is the more objective type of conviction. It is the idea that one cannot be wrong due to conclusion of objective facts and evidence. “Certitude” is an emotional conviction that people have, which does not necessarily require evidence. It is the feeling of certainty, but not certainty itself. Most people I come across, who believe that Christians must be certain about their faith, are really talking about certitude. Certitude is good, but one can have certitude that is wrong. Therefore, people can have a strong level of “certitude” without possessing absolute “certainty” about it.

Let me put it another way: No matter how certain you believe you are about some truth, (assuming that it is true) God is even more certain than you are. Most people are comfortable with this idea. For me to say that God has greater assurance about what is true than you do is without question. Similarly, to say that you and I don’t possess perfect faith is generally acceptable to most of us. This allows you and me the opportunity to grow in our faith, and by doing so, grow in our conviction concerning this faith. Assuming this is the case, our “certainty” is not really certainty, but certitude.

As you must know by now, I like charts. Let me try this (those of you who have been through The Theology Program will be familiar with what follows). It’s called “The Chart of Certainty:”


Notice that we have a positive and a negative scale on this chart. Anything in the positive means that you believe it. Anything in the negative means you disbelieve it. The “0” represents neutrality. It is being agnostic (without conviction one way or the other) about the issue. A +10 represents a perfect belief, meaning that you cannot possibly be more convicted as to the truth of a matter. It is perfect, absolute, incorrigible, indubitable certainty. Being at a 1 means that you have conviction about this issue, but it is at the lowest possible level. However, a 1 is still belief. Another way to put it may be that a 10 is certainty, while 1-9 on the scale represent various levels of certitude.

There are very few beliefs (if any at all) that I am a 10 on. For example, I believe that 1 plus 1 equals 2, but that is an analytical truth. That is to say, as an equation, 1 plus 1 has to be, by definition, equal to 2. Philosophically or theologically speaking, I don’t think I am a 10 about anything. (Waiting for people to stop gasping . . . Now waiting for people to quit cursing . . .) I think I have prepared you for what follows. Right?

“What about the existence of God? Aren’t you a 10 there?” No. But neither are you. If you think you are, then you have missed the point.

“What about the resurrection of Christ? You talk about it all the time, as if it has been proven beyond a doubt. Aren’t you a 10 there?” Again, no.

I do have strong conviction about these things (and, therefore, certitude), but I can believe in these things more today than I did yesterday. I will always be able to grow with respect to these tenets of the faith. I suppose the closest I get to a 10 is when it comes to such questions as my own existence.

Let me adjust my chart a bit and see if this helps:


This is essentially the same chart with a “God allowance.” Only God can have perfect certainty, represented here by the 11. At this point, it gets easier for us (especially us children of the West) to let go of perfection and admit our imperfection. The 10 is as certain as humans can be. So, now, maybe I am a 10 with regard to my own existence. Then I might be an 8 or 9 with respect to my certainty as to the existence of God. From here, we begin to place all of our beliefs along this scale. When I disbelieve something, I can put it on the other side of the chart.

This way of thinking becomes even more beneficial when we place all of our beliefs along the scale. For example, I believe in the resurrection of Christ with less certitude than I do the existence of God. So perhaps, we put the resurrection of Christ at a 7 or 8. This is still extremely high and therefore, demands a strong conviction, but the rating on the scale could be higher. That is why I continue to study, pray, and learn. Similarly, I believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but not to the degree that I believe in Christ’s resurrection, or in the existence of God. So let’s rate inspiration as a 6 and inerrancy as a 4. Again, relatively high and demanding great conviction, but not as high as they could be.

There are some things I believe, yet think the Bible could be clearer on these subjects. For example, as many of you know, I am a Calvinist who believes in unconditional election. However, there is some debate about this issue that causes me to have less certitude than I might otherwise have. Therefore, I would be a 3 with regard to this issue. I am also a pretribulational premillennialist. But I have more certitude about premillennialism than I do pretribulationalism (as an aside, I wish someone would add these words to spell-check!!). Therefore, with regard to premil (an abbreviation, so I don’t have to worry about the spelling), I am a 2. With regard to the rapture (another slight to spell-check), I am a 1.

I have received some rather ungracious banter from fellow pretribs due to my admission about being a 1 here. However, what they don’t understand is that I am a 1. It is not easy to get to a 1. It is not a casual leaning, but a definite conviction. That means I still believe it and I still have an obligation to preach it. I am not a 0 (undecided) and I am not in the negative column. However, there exists a greater possibility that I could be wrong here. The scale reflects my understanding of the issues involved. I would question anyone’s sincerity if they said they were anything above a 5 here. Of course, they could be a 10 in one sense, in that they are emotionally certain about it. However, emotional certainty means only that one has an emotional tie to a specific belief, and really wants it to be true. It’s somewhat like having an emotional tie to your college football team. When the ref calls a foul against your team, you are emotionally certain that your team is not at fault. But the reality is that you don’t know to the degree that your emotions do. The guy who cheers for the other team is as emotionally certain that your team is at fault. Both cannot be correct.

It is very important for the sake of our integrity before the Lord to allow our beliefs to exist in such a hierarchy. I often ask my students to take a test using this scale. They are to answer these questions, rating them according to the chart. You might try it.

How certain are you that . . .

  1. There is a God?
  2. Christ rose from the grave?
  3. God loves you?
  4. Christ is going to come and rapture the Church before the Great Tribulation?
  5. Christ is coming back to reign on the earth for a thousand years?
  6. Christ is coming back?
  7. God wants you to trust that He will protect you from all physical harm?
  8. God wants you to trust that He will protect you from all emotional harm?
  9. God wants you to trust in Him in every circumstance?
  10. the Bible does not have any historical errors?
  11. Adam and Eve were real people?
  12. there was really a snake in the garden?
  13. God created the earth in seven literal days?
  14. God created the earth?
  15. Christ paid for the sins of all mankind?
  16. Christ died for you?
  17. the Apocrypha (15 books in the Roman Catholic Bible) should not be included in Scripture?
  18. the book of 3 John should be included in Scripture?
  19. the book of Genesis should be included in Scripture?
  20. the gift of tongues ceased in the first century?

If you find yourself with too many 10s, 0s, or negative 10s, you are probably a victim of modernistic thought. If you are a 0 about everything, you are probably a victim of postmodernism. I believe that the most balanced, well-studied, and truthful believers are those who find a variety here.

But most importantly, knowledge of and permission to have such a scale in your beliefs is extremely important for the stability of your faith. Once you have permission not to believe everything to the same degree, those things that you do believe strongly carry with them a greater degree of honest conviction. We all have varying degrees of conviction about different aspects our faith; now let’s have the courage to admit it. Once we do, our faith will only get stronger.

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

    82 replies to "Why I Lack Certainty About Christianity"

    • Amen there “Cherylu”, it is here I would fly my own flag of the presupposition of the authority and certainly of Holy Scripture! Not Van Til’s full apologetic, but the HOLY Scripture itself!

      And btw, I am quite against the pomo, or Postmodernism/Postmodernity, of course there are real Christians in the so-called ranks here, but they have a bull by the horns with the pomo, or perhaps more than a “bull”? 😉

      Actually, “sarcasm” and satire IS often even the biblical way, when dealing with matters spiritual and even theological! Noting the OT Prophetic Books and “Prophets” themselves in dealing with reform.

      And again, I am myself going to fall back more on our top-tier Reformers, at least spiritually here, than our “theolog’s” today! Can ya imagine what a Luther and Calvin would say to the Church today? I can almost feel the heat! 😉 Indeed the philosophical Enlightenment of the 18th century has not really served the church well, with the areas of rationalism and skepticism. This was not the humanism per se of an Erasmus, nor that of which the Protestant Reformers were trained in as humanists. Indeed Back to the Sources (Ad Fontes), was both biblical and theological in discipline, for the Reformers!

    • Alex Jordan

      I’ve been mulling over the question of the place of doubt and/or lack of certainty in the Christian life your post raised. I think it’s important first to distinguish between lack of certainty and doubt— they overlap, but I don’t think they’re synonymous. “Lack of certainty” as you describe it is about measuring the level of certainty one has in various convictions. But the term “doubt” may have a more negative connotation– it’s questioning if the convictions one has are valid at all. As I said in my last comment, Jesus knows we’re sinful and weak in faith. Faith will always be marked by a measure of uncertainty, and worse still, doubt. We don’t know and believe as we should. But what’s critical is that we do believe, and to believe the right things on essential truths. For example, one who by the Spirit of God places their trust in Christ to save them from their sins is saved– the strength of that conviction should mature, but one’s certainty in believing Christ to save them doesn’t make one any more saved.

      So what of doubt– is it a sin or not? I think we should indeed look at it as sinful, not to condemn ourselves, but so that we may fall all the more upon God’s grace to remove it. We’re not supposed to doubt and we’re supposed to always rejoice — but we fail in both, maybe because we let feelings about circumstances overtake us rather than allowing faith and trust in God to help us rejoice/believe through all circumstances. Piper has written about “fighting for joy”–so too we must “fight for faith”. They’re related, because if God gives us faith to trust and obey Him, joy and peace flow from that. I guess my main point is we need to really fight hard for faith and joy via dwelling upon essential truths and asking God for grace in this, and to see our lack of faith and joy as serious defects in our walk. For as I’m sure you’ve witnessed, tragically doubt may take on a life of its own, gather momentum and overtake faith entirely.

    • C Michael Patton

      Yes, it is definitely the case that the writers of the Scripture lacked knowledge and certainty about many things. Even the very conservative Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy expresses such.

      We believe the authors of Scripture were correct in everything they said, but that does not mean they had a handle on the systematic whole. There was continual development in their thought. Even Peter admits to having trouble with Paul.

    • That was mean to be *certainty in my # 62!

    • @Michael: I don’t think Peter himself saw “trouble” with St. Paul’s writings, as it was the aspect to the depth…literally, “Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them, concerning these things in which is(are) some things hard to be understood, which the untaught (ignorant) and unstable distort/twist, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3: 16)

      Indeed there appears to be a basic Apostolic understanding, and quiet acceptance of God’s Word and Revelation, which we have quite lost today! And here most certainly is faith, hope and love! Perhaps we need to see and read St. Paul’s great chapter of 1 Cor. 13 once again! 🙂

    • cherylu


      I don’t think you are suggesting, are you, that when the Scripture writers wrote about things like the existence of God, Jesus’ virgin birth, life, death and resurrection that they were uncertain about them? Were they uncertain about the doctrines of justification, forgiveness, repentance, new birth, sanctification, eternal life, etc, that they wrote about? Were they proclaiming those things all the while wondering at some level if they were true or not?

      I can understand not being certain about the meanings of prophetic words like what we find in Daniel or Revelation particularly.

      But I can’t believe at all that they were uncertain about those other issues.

    • @cherlu: You have nailed one of the great problems with evidential apologetics, and that is seeking to deconstruct what the Biblical writers are saying! We can only perhaps look at the constructs of their statements and beliefs, but surely the very centre of their statements are themselves the place and essence of what God is saying in His revelation! We can never look behind their minds in their writings, which are themselves the place of the Word of God!

      Ant btw, we can even see this too somewhat in the prophetic and eschatological writings. But there we must be careful to get the proper genre! But even in the apocalyptic and especially the Apocalypse itself (the Book of Revelation), we are bound by spirit and truth, and spirituality to degree. Always the greatest evidence is in the Text itself!

    • C Michael Patton

      Doubt does indeed have a negative connotation. But it is what many people see their lack of faith as, especially when they don’t know how to place it. Jude 22 is what I am trying to fulfill here. “Have mercy on some who doubt.” As well, doubt can be see very positively, just like suffering. We just have to put it in perspective. But when we act surprised and look down on those who are doubting, it can lead to further doubt and eventually, from a human perspective, push people completely away from the faith.

      Doubt itself is a result of the fall and will be with us until death. It is best to see it like this. It is part of our sin nature and in this sense is sinful. It is not unlike depression. Is sadness and depression sin. Certainly not always, but it can be the result of sin. So to call doubt “sin” without some significant qualifications and getting to know the individual is very unwise.

    • C Michael Patton


      “Uncertain” needs always to be qualified. These guys saw Christ risen from the grave. They had as strong a conviction as is possible. As well, it depends on the author and when they wrote. When they wrote about these issues, I don’t always suppose to know their epistemic disposition. All I know is that what they wrote was true. I think that there were times when they wrote when they were not sure if they were right (even though we can be). Maybe 1 Cor 7:10 gives a good illustration.

      However, it always depends on the book, author, time of writing, and context. For example, I would not think that the author of Eccl was certain about too much when he wrote. The same is true for many of the Psalms. But that is the point of these writings. What they teach is correct, it is just sometimes difficult to understand what they teach.

      I don’t mean to be confusing, but interpreting the Scripture is a very dangerous task. We don’t want to give broad interpretive principles rashly.

      It is not unlike the age old question about whether or not the Gospel writers (other than John) knew with assurance who Christ was (the God-man who is the second person of the Trinity). Most conservatives have traditionally said that they did not. What they wrote was true and they had some understanding of Christ’s person, but they were uncertain as to how it all fit together. However, many have changed (including Bock and Wallace) and say that the synopics present an inclusio where Christ is presented from bottom up (man to God) where as John was presenting from top down (God to man). However, I still go with the more traditional understanding that the Synopic writers did not have it all figured out.

      So, allowing for a development of thought in no way takes away from their inspirtation, inerrancy, or truthfulness. It just means that they are one piece of the puzzle and they, like the OT prophets, were not omniscient with regard to the rest of the story.

      This is why I think that we are at an advantage to the NT writers. Not that we are inspired, but that we have the canonical whole which presents a more systematic understanding and conviction than they had.

      Long answer.

    • cherylu


      You seem to be using the word “uncertain” in two different ways here.

      In the OP, it seems that you are more equating uncertainty and doubt. At least as far as things that have been definitely revealed to us in the Bible goes. Particularly when it comes to issues that are central/essential to the faith.

      In your last comment in answer to my question, you seem to be using “uncertain” more as a lack of full revelation on a subject, a lack of development of thought.

      The idea of lack of full revelation I can totally agree with, at least in some areas. The idea that basic issues of the faith were passed on to us with doubt as to their truth and validity would not be something that I could ever accept. But, I am still not at all certain that you meant to be saying that either!

    • Alex Jordan

      Cherylu, a strong amen to your statement: “The idea that basic issues of the faith were passed on to us with doubt as to their truth and validity would not be something that I could ever accept. But, I am still not at all certain that you meant to be saying that either!” I agree and wonder what Michael is really saying here.

      Michael, you wrote, ” I think that there were times when they wrote when they were not sure if they were right (even though we can be). Maybe 1 Cor 7:10 gives a good illustration.”

      Probably you meant 1 Cor 7:12, because in 1 Cor 7:10 Paul states he is giving a command from the Lord Himself! In any case, just 2 verses later in 1 Cor 12 I don’t think the apostle Paul is suddenly not sure of the authority of what he’s writing. He’s simply conveying that what he is teaching in verse 12 isn’t something the Lord said or taught directly. Nevertheless, it’s a command from God, in that Paul is providing inspired interpretation of principles on marriage Jesus taught. If he wrote lacking confidence in the authority of his teaching, he would have no business teaching it, would he? If he is not sure about the full authority of what he writes, how could those receiving be sure it was right? Wouldn’t they lose their confidence in everything Paul wrote them, not knowing which parts fully authoritative and which not?

      Paul writes elsewhere about the inspired, authoritative nature of his writings:

      “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV)”

      Paul wrote with full confidence that what he was transmitting to those he was shepherding was the actual word of God. Even so, what’s most important in all of this discussion on faith and certainty is not the strength of one’s faith, but rather, in whom our faith is placed.

    • Yes, “Amen” Alex and Cherylu! St. Paul is “our” consummate Apostle & Pastor-Teacher: note in 1 Cor. 13:2, Paul seems to express his only weakness, the constant need to “love”! And of course here we are always beginners!

      “IF I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge: and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing!” Indeed this WHOLE chapter is PAUL!

    • One thing that all parachurch groups and even so-called church scholars must learn quickly, in my opinion, is that knowledge and information, itself, is never a substitute for the Pastoral! Indeed as Paul notes, the pastor is always a teacher, but always pastorally so! I learned this lesson the hard way, and it still often eludes me! 🙂

    • James-the-lesser

      Fr. Robert (Anglican) Regarding your comment that you are an “Infralapsarian: the theological position that God’s decree to save “follows” logically (not temporarily) the decision to create and permit the fall.” Outside of creation which is ontologically temporal what is left besides a logical sequence? Yet, in actuality a sequence, logical or otherwise, indicated an existent “priorness”; as does, I might add, a Father vis-a-vis Son relationship, eternal or otherwise. Any comments, bloggers?

    • When we look at the Trinity, which is quite obviously seen first in the relationship between the Father and the Son, (John 1: 14 ; 18 / Matt. 11: 27 / Eph. 2: 18), it took the church quite sometime to finally understand this great mystery and doctrine (into the 2’nd and finally Third Century), and even now the Trinitarian Creeds are themselves but a fence around the great transcendent triune God, Himself! “The essence of God being that which is beyond human comprehension and cannot be defined and or approached by human understanding.” (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, – 1944).

      In some sense, the whole nature of God’s Salvation History, must be seen foremost as GOD’s great plan and doing, which always comes from God’s great doctrine of Himself: Which we define from God’s Immutability, (1 Tim. 1: 17)… God, “transcendent” & “immanent”!

    • Again, if we look correctly back at and into God, i.e. HIS doctrine and being, we will find no problem with His sovereignty and will!

      As the great Dr. Luther said, “Let God be God”!

    • […] or Mormonism are wrong? C. Michael Patton of the Parchment & Pen Blog offers some insights: Why I Lack Certainty About Christianity. Patton is not advocating some sort of wishy-washy, agnostic, we-cannot-really-know-anything […]

    • […] “As Fred Sanders shows us in this accurate and edifying life and thought of Wesley, we all have much to learn from this godly evangelical founder. I pray that God will use this book to awaken his people again, filling us with his Spirit and renewing our hearts in love. Why I Lack Certainty About Christianity – C. Michael Patton […]

    • Bibliophile

      Michael, my good man!

      I see you have been delving into epistemology for a number of years. Admittedly, given what I have read so far, I am still convinced – perhpas a bit presumptuous of me? – that your approach to these issues has come under the spell of rationalism, and is to that extent dualistic.

      I think you got confused by assessment of your views, when I commented on your more recent post (“A radical method to interpret all reality”): when I said your synthesis was dualistic, I meant that you include in that synthesis the prior determination of methodological naturalism to separate reality into two orders: “natural” and “supernatural”. And in your modified version of naturalism, which you called “providential naturalism” you failed to elaborate on that distinction, and neither did you take opportunity to call it into question: all you did was to adapt methodological naturalism to your own, rationalist worldview; which leads me to believe that you accept the division of reality into “natural” and “supernatural” without question: and that, to me, is the nature and extent of the dualism which determines your (rationalist) thinking. I think if you knew the history of the term “supernatural”, you would probably abandon your synthesis…

      But apart from that: on this post, what does it even mean to say “God is more certain of his existence than we are?” Why would God even need to be certain of his own existence?

    • Bibliophile

      As a side note, I think I would agree with many of the comments here, which seem to imply that there is a crucial distinction to be made, not only between philosophy, science and faith (which do not contradict each other): but also between the certainty of faith, and the certainty of reason. In all your posts on these issues, you tend to give priority to reason – to privilege “method” above what has been revealed as true and certain, because God has disclosed it and “God cannot lie or be deceived”. This infatuation with methodology has definite rationalist roots.

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