When the evangelist Graham Daniels wrote a little book about the gospel for non-Christians, he insightfully called it My Mate’s Gone Mad. For a new Christian, making changes to their life that their friends find mystifying, the book’s title makes it easy to give away. That’s what everyone’s thinking. You’re mad to start going to church. You’re mad to stop living like everyone else. And above all, you’re mad to believe all that made-up stuff about Jesus.
So, given that you and I are surrounded by an atmosphere of unbelief, what I want to explore is this: do you ever ask yourself, “What if I really have gone mad?”
It’s difficult to be in the minority. If trusting in Jesus Christ seems irrational to so many people who by and large in everyday life seem to have a fairly good sense of judgement, do you ever worry that you might have got it wrong?
Now there are lots of different, legitimate ways to help you deal with doubts of this kind. Many of them are external to the Bible. You may well be able to point to sound arguments, concrete evidence and personal experiences that you don’t find in the Bible but which reinforce your confidence that the Bible is true, that Jesus really is Christ and Lord. Those things are useful, invaluable even. But we’re going to explore something of what God actually tells us in the Bible itself about faith and doubt. It’s clear throughout Jesus’ teaching, and we get a good example in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
Let’s pick things up where Jesus explains the benefits of faith in him:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
These are wonderful promises. But what Jesus says next does not fit at all well with the way we tend to think about issues of faith. It’s very common to operate as though your views about the Jesus of history are simply your take on the evidence, and not something you could be blamed for. But Jesus says to Nicodemus:
Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:18-20)
What Jesus said to Nicodemus that night challenges our assumptions. Don’t we sometimes operate as though there’s a category of people who have genuinely weighed things up with an open mind, and who simply do not believe that Christianity is true? They seem so reasonable. They’re not saying they don’t like Jesus and his teaching, and want to keep living their own way. They say that they’ve looked into it and they just don’t think it’s the truth.
Jesus does not seem to leave room for that. He knows people inside out, and he says that they do not believe in him because they prefer to live in darkness. They do not want to believe the claims of Jesus Christ because of what it would mean for how they live; it would expose their works.
I don’t know what you think about that, but it might seem confusing. We’re not talking about stealing or lying or sexual immorality. We’re talking about people who, on the face of it, have looked into the evidence about Jesus Christ and decided that they don’t believe it’s historical fact. It doesn’t seem to be the same as knowingly doing something against God. How can atheists be blamed for their unbelief as a sin against God if they honestly don’t believe he’s there?
Yet God’s word gives us no other possible conclusion. Our conversations and arguments with non-Christians about our faith might leave us walking away feeling like we’re missing something. Surrounded by people who don’t believe, you might wonder if, somewhere along the way, you’ve lost the plot. But that’s not how Jesus sees it. We see a great crowd of well-educated people and we hear an overwhelming, thunderous bombardment of well-crafted, fine-sounding arguments, but in all of it Jesus sees and hears only one thing. Rebellion. Rebels steadfastly refusing to accept who he is. Rebels whom he will hold responsible for their response to him.
So if the unbelievers around us are adamant that they’re just weighing up the evidence, what is going on?
The myth of the neutral mind
The truth that helps us understand all of this can also make us feel very uncomfortable. We need to turn to Romans 1. Paul begins his explanation of the gospel message by clarifying the awful predicament that the world is in:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Rom 1:18-23)
The God of love and light, of grace and compassion, is revealing his wrath. Why? Despite what we’re told from other sources, God says that the truth about him is plain to everyone from looking at his creation. The world around us declares his glory. It’s as though everything in the universe, from the Orion Nebula to the Mississippi Delta, from the orang-utan to the water vole, from Victoria Falls to Palm Beach, everything is crying out to us, “We have been made by a glorious creator!”
And yet many people look at the world around us and do not see evidence for God’s existence. They see the same things Christians do, the “things that have been made” which Paul refers to, and they say, “There is no creator”.
We are accustomed to thinking that this is a legitimate neutral position—one arrived at by a careful weighing of the evidence. The Bible has other ideas. It tells us that people are suppressing the truth in their unrighteousness. They would rather reject God and pin their hopes for life on other things than accept that God is there.
Have you ever packed a car for a holiday, only to find that you’ve got too much stuff? You end up with the boot so full you push down on the door and it just keeps springing back up at you. If there are soft things inside, such as clothes and bedding, you can end up pushing down on the boot door with all of your weight to try and force everything inside.
Well, that image of a guy trying unsuccessfully to close his over-filled boot is a picture of what God tells us people are doing with the truth about him. It’s jumping out at us everywhere, from everything we see. But people are pushing it down, keeping their weight on it so that it won’t spring out at them.
That’s why God can blame people for not believing in him. It’s not that the evidence for God has been measured and found wanting. It’s that people refuse to accept what should be obvious to all of us, because they do not want to honour God.
Spinning the truth
If we are created, there is a being who is right to demand our worship and to call the shots on our lives. In our natural state, that’s something that none of us wants. We want to be the ones who call the shots. Desperately. And so, all over the world, people do what they can to suppress the truth about God, preferring instead to hold on to the hope that he simply isn’t there and that the cosmos came out of nothing.
It sounds offensive to accuse all of the otherwise very reasonable people around us who don’t believe in God of doing this, of putting a spin on the evidence that God is there so that they don’t have to answer to him. And yet the more you think about it, the more this does make sense.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever argued unsuccessfully with a non-Christian about the evidence that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Sometimes it can feel like you’re just talking past each other. Facts that you find completely convincing seem to have no effect.
For example, you might point out that Jesus was definitely dead—that the Romans, who knew how to kill people, crucified him and pierced his side. You might tell them that the tomb was definitely empty—that nobody ever produced a body. And you could go on to explain that Jesus was definitely seen alive again, by followers whose lives were completely transformed by their new-found belief in this extraordinary miracle.
But the facts that you find so persuasive can sometimes generate a completely different reaction in somebody else. They tell you they’re sure it’s not true. Perhaps some disciples stole the body and then others had a group hallucination, but whatever it was, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. People don’t rise from the dead, so something else must have happened.
In conversations like this, if we’re all just neutrally looking at the evidence, something very strange is going on. Why do two sensible people, who would generally come to the same conclusions when given the same evidence, disagree so profoundly when it comes to interpreting evidence about Jesus?
Have you ever watched a game of tennis, and seen players arguing over the umpire’s decisions? It’s something that any tennis spectator is pretty familiar with. During a rally, a ball can be called out, and be truly out, but one of the players is furious. They throw their racket, they glare at the linesman, they shout at the officials. Sometimes there’s been a mistake. But often, television replays and technology show that the right call was made. In fact, what you sometimes find is that the ball was miles out, within clear visibility of the tennis player who is now livid about the injustice he thinks he has suffered.
It’s not that the player is always a cheat, and his anger and frustration are all a piece of elaborate play-acting. Rather, he wanted the ball to be in so much that he actually saw it as though it was. His desire for that outcome was so great it affected his judgement of the flight of the ball. A neutral party watching the ball from where they were standing would have seen daylight between the line and the ball, but the player with so much riding on the rally doesn’t see things as they really are. We might say that his mind was playing tricks on him.
What we have to come to terms with is that this isn’t something unique, a phenomenon found only in the heat of a tennis match. Instead, this is going on all of the time. None of us is looking at the world in a clear, unbiased way. We don’t take in facts and analyse them clinically to reach the truth. We see facts and we interpret them. They go through a filter in our minds that tries to make sense of what we’re seeing based on what we believe about the world around us. It’s as though we’ve all got glasses on that we can’t take off. We can only see through our own personal pair of glasses, which take what is in front of us and interprets it for us.
The Bible tells us is that this is exactly what our problem is when it comes to the evidence about God. No matter how hard we try to weigh things up fairly, we can’t take our glasses off. They are unavoidable. This is true for everyone, for Christians and for non-Christians.
Our problem though is that naturally, as fallen people, we really don’t want there to be a God. We want to do what we want to do. We feel constrained by the idea that someone has made us and cares how we live. If he’s going to light everything up and expose us, we’d rather stay in darkness. So when we’re confronted with facts, we’ll do everything we can to interpret them in a different way.
This makes questions about God and ultimate reality enormously difficult for us. Deep down we all start with an in-built bias against the God of the Bible being there. Like the tennis player in the heat of a game, we are just too involved in the decision—it has too great an impact on our lives for us to weigh up the evidence in an even-handed way. And so our ‘glasses’, through which we look at the evidence, are naturally giving us a skewed view of reality. Our mind plays tricks on us.
God’s word makes sense of his world. He gives us the perfect explanation for why two people look at the same evidence about Christianity and come to diametrically opposed conclusions. So how should this change the way we deal with our doubts? I think there are a number of critically important applications, but let me briefly outline two of them here: we can handle our doubts better by taking courage, and by getting focused.
Will we allow the truth that the fall has affected our minds to encourage us when surrounded by unbelievers? It’s not easy to keep going when our faith in Jesus Christ is dismissed with mockery and abject scorn by advocates of atheism and adherents of other faiths.
God’s word can help us enormously in these situations, because it tells us that something spiritual is going on. This is not merely an intellectual battle. It’s not that people are neutral about whether to follow Jesus, and are weighing up the evidence and finding it wanting. We live in a society united in suppressing the truth about God, so standing up against that united opposition takes courage.
Just imagine that you are called up for jury duty. You arrive on the first day and you sit there with eleven other members of the public, all seeing the same things, all hearing the same evidence. Speeches are made, witnesses are called, exhibits are passed around, and right from the start you think it’s pretty clear. The defendant is guilty. The following days only confirm this.
Then comes decision time. As your fellow jurors discuss the case, you’re shocked: everybody else is convinced he didn’t do it. Every one of them. Not only that, but they’re just as convinced he is innocent as you had been that he was guilty.
You pluck up some courage and mention that you thought he was guilty, and the others gaze at you in astonishment. You begin to doubt your own judgement. The way they explain away all that evidence you found so persuasive, the way they lean so heavily on pieces of evidence that you had thought were just red herrings… were they right after all?
The ‘not guilty’ verdict is submitted, and you all go home.
A few weeks later you turn the news on and everything changes. A big story has broken. The police have discovered a scandal—every other member of the jury on your trial, every one except you, had an enormous incentive to find the defendant not guilty. It has emerged that a number of them knew the defendant personally. They didn’t admit it at the time, they tried to shut it out of their minds and weigh up the evidence, but looking back they realize that they simply hadn’t looked at things fairly. It had seemed so awful that their friend might have committed the crime that they looked for ways to clear his name. They couldn’t help themselves. Meanwhile, the other jurors have come clean and said that they were swayed by the spurious arguments of that group. They felt threatened by it all and were overcome by the occasion.
Something similar is going on when we weigh up the claims of Jesus Christ. We’re all being called to make up our minds about the facts as we see them, but things aren’t as simple as they might appear on the surface.
If you’re a Christian and you’re having doubts, then the chances are one of the chief causes of those doubts is the presence of so many people around you who do not share your beliefs. It makes you feel decidedly uneasy about your own faith.
But God says something very important about all of this that should be an enormous encouragement to us as we struggle with doubts. When we grasp God’s word about faith and doubt, it should be a moment when the mist clears and we suddenly understand things very differently.
It’s not that you’ve gone mad. We’ve got all of the evidence we need. Everything around us declares the glory of the God who made it. But rebellious, fallen humanity is doing whatever can be done to airbrush God out of the picture so that his rightful rule can be ignored. Remember this and take courage when you feel surrounded by opposition and unbelief.
We should also now apply the same truth to our own minds and hearts. Will we resolve that, when faced with doubts, we will get focused on Jesus Christ, instead of drawing back and shifting our focus on to intellectual arguments?
Sometimes, of course, we can have genuine intellectual objections to the Christian faith that nag away at us. This is very common. However, the fall reminds us that doubt is a spiritual matter. We have underlying reasons, consciously or subconsciously, for doubting. Our reason is fallen, and we look at the evidence with glasses on that can skew our understanding away from the truth.
When Jesus explains faith to Nicodemus, having described the people who love darkness instead of light, he turns things the other way:
But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:21)
This second group of people are, again, not those who have simply carried out a neutral weighing up of the evidence. It’s more that they are drawn to Jesus. They prefer to live God’s way, to live for his praise and glory, and this affects their decision. The desires we hold in our hearts affect the conclusions we draw in our minds. That’s true for Christians as well as non-Christians.
Once we see that our doubts can originate with problems in the heart, we can seek to address the heart issues alongside our intellectual concerns. By turning our hearts back to the Lord, we can correct our minds and enjoy the experience of having our doubts subside. We can do that by getting focused on Jesus Christ.
This is counterintuitive. We are in the habit of thinking that our minds are genuinely neutral, that we can weigh up the evidence about Jesus in an unbiased way. If that were the case, then it might be best to deal with doubts by spending less time learning about Jesus in the Bible and more time weighing up the evidence. Why waste your time thinking about Jesus when you’re not really sure if he’s real? Why not take a step back instead, until you’ve decided on the bigger question about whether his claims are actually true?
From what we’ve learnt, this approach is flawed. It can often be false worship that affects our minds, and the remedy is true worship. When struggling with doubts, we need to get focused on Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. As our affection for him grows, intellectual doubts that have actually been brought on in part by a wayward heart may well subside.
There’s immense value in going back to the gospel message again, back to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and asking God to help our picture of him fill our hearts. If we worship straight, we can think straight.
In my experience, it is all too common for Christians with doubts to retreat into what they think is an intellectually neutral position. They spend less time reading the Bible while they spend more time listening to the arguments of non-Christians and weighing up the evidence. My hope is that this article is an encouragement instead to listen to God’s word on issues of faith. In doing so, while praying that God would graciously help us with our doubts, we might get the help we need to keep the faith.
(This article draws on some of the material and conclusions from a forthcoming book from Matthias Media, Keep the Faith, by Martin Ayers.)