Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Beware of Those Who Make a Virtue of Doubt

Christianity Today has published an article about doubt that, if true, would make Jesus into a sinner. The article is a couple years old, but it just came to my attention a few days ago [but see update #2 below]. In the article, two biblical scholars, A. J. Swoboda and Nijay K. Gupta, argue that “Jesus Was the God-Man, Not the God-Superman.” As such, they argue, Jesus sometimes experienced doubt. By becoming the God-Man, Jesus took on our human nature, “warts and all.” The authors argue that “part of what he received from us in his humanness was our ability to doubt—and doubt he did.” They contend, “Doubt is a real part of human experience. And Jesus was so committed to entering humanity that he dared to enter human doubt as well.”

What evidence do they give to support this audacious claim? They point to three episodes from the earthly ministry of Jesus to prove their point: Jesus’ wilderness temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemene (Matt. 26:36-46), and Jesus’ cry of dereliction (Matt. 27:46). Because Satan says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God” (Matt. 4:3), Swoboda and Gupta conclude, “These words place seeds of doubt in Jesus’ head.” The text doesn’t give any indication at all that Jesus’ doubted. Nevertheless, the authors speculate that Jesus must have doubted as a result of Satan’s suggestion.

Likewise, the authors allege that Jesus “starts getting cold feet” in Gethsemane. They allege that when Jesus says, “Not as I will, but as you will,” this means that Jesus had faith working against his very real doubts. Jesus was behaving like the second character in the parable of the two sons, the one who told his father that he would not obey him but then changed his mind (Matt. 21:30). They make Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane to be the equivalent of a son who initially disobeys his father but then repents.

Finally, Swoboda and Gupta allege that Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross (Matt. 27:46) is a cry of a man “suffocating in doubt.” Then they make this extraordinary claim:

As a real human being—more than human but no less than human—Jesus steeped himself in all our doubts and questions so that he might lead us by the hand in the darkness. The Gospels point to a Jesus who saves us not by distancing himself from doubt but by teaching us how to trust God in faith and doubt…

Is doubt the enemy of faith? For so many followers of Jesus, there is a desperate need to see their own doubt not as the result of demonic influence but as a reflection of Jesus’ humanity. If Jesus doubted, can’t we follow him all the more in his doubt?

The main problem with the author’s interpretation of these New Testament texts is that none of these texts say anything about Jesus doubting. There are two main words in the New Testament that express the concept of doubt—diakrino and distazo—and neither of those terms appears anywhere in the three passages cited by Swoboda and Gupta. It is pure speculation and conjecture (old-fashioned eisegesis) for them to even bring the concept of doubt into these texts. Whatever we make of Jesus’ anguish and suffering, there is no biblical basis for labeling those experiences as doubt.

But what if Swoboda’s and Gupta’s conjecture were correct? What if Jesus really had doubts? It would mean that Jesus was a sinner, which means that it would entail an unorthodox Christology. How do we know that? Because when the New Testament deals with doubt, it casts it as sinful:

Rom. 14:23, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.”

James 1:6-8, “But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Swoboda and Gupta are aware of these verses, but they brush them aside as if they only describe doubt as leading to sin but not as being sin itself. Their reading forces these texts onto the procrustean bed of their thesis. Romans 14:23 says that the one who doubts is condemned. James 1:6 is a straightforward prohibition on doubt. How can the authors claim that doubt is anything but sinful according to these texts?

Keep in mind as well that these texts and other teachings from Jesus himself make doubt the enemy of faith.

Matt. 14:31, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matt. 21:21, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen” (cf. Mark 11:23).

Luke 24:38, 41, “And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’… they still could not believe.”

Jude 20-22, “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. And have mercy on some, who are doubting…”

Clearly faith and doubt are at odds in all of these texts. That is why it is no surprise that Romans 14:23 and James 1:6 forbid doubting. To say that Jesus experienced doubt puts him at odds with his own revelation which unambiguously forbids doubting. If Jesus doubted, then he would be a sinner, which would be a heresy and a denial of the impeccability of Christ.

I am not saying that the authors would accept or endorse these entailments. I’m sure that they wouldn’t. I am saying that the sinfulness of the Son of God is the necessary entailment of their argument whether they realize it or not. Jesus is the Holy Son of God, God in the flesh, who receives His divine essence from his Father. He partakes of the exact same substance of his Father. That means that he not only did not sin in his incarnation. He could not sin in his incarnation. We should agree with Augustine, “God forbid that we should ever say that He is able to sin!”

Faith and doubt are like oil and water. They may stand beside one another, but they do not mix. They stand side by side in the souls of sinners, and so many of us wrestle mightily not to let the darkness take over. We are like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). As sinners, we need the gracious words of Jude, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).

Nevertheless, even though faith and doubt stand side by side in us, they never stood side by side in Jesus. He was only virtuous in all his thinking and in all his doing. That is why we must beware of anyone who argues that we should make doubt into a virtue. It was no virtue in Jesus, and it shouldn’t be in us either.

UPDATE #1 — 4/4/23:

I’ve been reading some negative responses to this post online, and I wonder if it would bridge the divide to clarify what I have in mind when I say that doubting is sin.

The moral status of doubting depends entirely upon WHAT you are doubting. If you are doubting your own sinful motives in a matter, that seems morally harmless and maybe even morally right. If you are doubting the truthfulness of a story you just heard from someone you know to be a liar, that too could be morally harmless. In other words, if the object of your doubt is something untrustworthy, then doubt can be good.

But that is not the kind of doubt in view in texts like Romans 14:23 and James 1:6. In those texts, the alternative to doubt is trust in God. You either trust in God and his word, or you have varying degrees of uncertainty about God and his word. When God and his word are the object of doubt, then the doubt can never be right. God is always worthy of our absolute and unwavering trust. It is this kind of doubt—the kind that doubts God and his word—that Jesus never experienced. On the contrary, he constantly entrusted himself to him who judges rightly (1 Peter 2:23).

Bottom line: Doubting someone or something unworthy of your trust is okay. Doubting the only One who is ALWAYS worthy of your trust is never okay.

UPDATE #2 — 4/4/23:

One of the authors, Nijay Gupta, reached out and let me know that he and his co-author wrote and recorded a variety of follow-ups to their CT article on doubt. I pointed out above that I was certain they would reject any entailment that Jesus was sinful. In one essay, they make it abundantly clear that they reject any such entailment:

Let us be very, very clear:
Jesus is fully God.
Jesus is fully human.
Jesus never sinned.
Jesus did not for a moment abandon his hope, faith, or love in his Father in heaven.

This is all to the good. Even though I still disagree with much of what they write in this article, they have some helpful clarifications that deny any potential implication that Jesus sinned.

Gupta also points out that he and his co-author recorded about 30 podcasts clarifying their views. Also, his co-author wrote an entire book in 2021 titled After Doubt. I have not listened to these podcasts or read this book, but they are there for anyone who wishes to follow this up.

One last little twist. This CT article is from two years ago. When I came across it a few days ago, I had completely forgotten having written about it when it first came out! So here’s my initial response from two years ago. I think it’s consistent with my recent reflections, but you can read it and judge for yourself. FWIW.