William Lane Craig offers answers to questions commonly asked by Christians struggling with doubt or fear, showing that the only sure foundation for hope is God Himself.
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About the Author
William Lane Craig (PhD, University of Birmingham, England; DTheol, University of Munich) is research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas. He has authored or edited over thirty books and is the founder of ReasonableFaith.org, a web-based apologetics ministry.
Read an Excerpt
Any Christian who is intellectually engaged and reflecting about his faith will inevitably face the problem of doubt. This problem, I believe, must be very seriously addressed. Too often Christian leaders give lip service to the importance of the mind and the quest after truth, but have a sort of glib confidence that such a quest will invariably wind up at the truth of Christianity. But such a result is by no means guaranteed. During the 1960s, for example, when I was an undergraduate, many brilliant students passed through the doors of Wheaton College (Illinois), but those years were also characterized by widespread doubt, cynicism, and unbelief with regard to the faith. I came to Wheaton at the tail end of the sixties, and it troubled me deeply to see some of my classmates, whose intellectual abilities I admired, lose their faith and, to all appearances, reject Christ. This brought home to me in a powerful way how serious the problem of doubt can be.
And yet the church tends to shuffle this problem under the rug. How many sermons have you ever heard on how to deal with doubt in your Christian life? I know of only a couple of books on this subject. Perhaps because Christians aren't supposed to have any doubts, we smile and pretend that this problem doesn't exist. But it does, and nobody is exempt.
Some years ago, for example, while I was on sabbatical at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the pastor of the Baptist church my wife and I were attending stood up and announced to his congregation that he had experienced a great spiritual victory, which he wanted to share: for the past year he had doubted whether God exists, but now those doubts had been resolved and he felt a new confidence in the Lord! I was so surprised by this admission — who would have thought that this successful pastor of a burgeoning church had doubted that there even is a God? I greatly respected him for his honesty, for what his testimony communicated to his people was that they should not be ashamed of their doubts, when they had them, but could admit them and work through them and seek the help of their pastor, who had walked down that lonely road himself.
A Christian who is thinking for himself will confront doubts; and doubt, if not properly dealt with, can be tremendously destructive of one's spiritual life. You may confront objections to, or intellectual difficulties with, the Christian faith that you cannot answer, and these unanswered questions may lead you to doubt that Christianity is true. Those doubts then begin to gnaw away at the vitality of your spiritual experience: Maybe it's all an illusion, you think. Maybe I'm just kidding myself. Your devotional life begins to lag or grow dry, for how can you devote yourself to someone who maybe isn't there? Why go on deceiving yourself? That feeling then deadens you to speaking of Christ to others. As one seminary student who was struggling with doubt told me, "How could I tell someone else to receive Christ when I wasn't even sure myself that it was the truth?"
Pretty soon you're on a downward spiral that you can't seem to stop. But externally you continue to put on a good face and go to church. You can't admit your doubts to others — what would they think? And so a sort of secret battle rages within, destroying your spiritual life from the inside out, leaving you an empty shell. To make matters worse, you sense your own hypocrisy, and this only serves to add the burden of guilt to the load of doubt you already bear. What can be done? Is there any antidote to doubt?
Well, to begin with, we have to admit that there are no easy answers to the problem of doubt. There is no simple, quick recipe that if followed will make your doubts vanish like magic. You will probably have to work through your doubts in a slow and agonizing process. You may have to endure what saints have called "the dark night of the soul," or "the dark valley," before coming into the light again; but be assured that many, many great men and women of God have traveled that same path before you and have emerged victorious at the end. Your struggle is not unique, and there is hope of a happy ending.
But what can you do to speed your journey along that path, or better, to avoid it? Let me make four practical suggestions.
First, recognize that doubt is never a purely intellectual problem. There is a spiritual dimension to the problem that must be recognized. Never lose sight of the fact that you are involved in a spiritual warfare and that there is an enemy of your soul who hates you intensely, whose goal is your destruction, and who will stop at nothing to destroy you. Paul reminds us that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). Doubt is not just a matter of academic debate or disinterested intellectual discussion; it involves a battle for your very soul, and if Satan can use doubt to immobilize you or destroy you, then he will.
Unfortunately, the spiritual dimension inherent in the problem of doubt is often ignored by those involved in higher learning. When I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College, an attitude was prevalent among the students that doubt was actually a virtue and that a Christian who did not doubt his faith was somehow intellectually deficient or naive. But such an attitude is unbiblical and confused. It is unbiblical to think of doubt as a virtue; to the contrary, doubt is always portrayed in the Scriptures as something detrimental to spiritual life. Doubt never builds up; it always destroys. How could the students I knew at Wheaton College have got things so totally reversed? It is probably because they had confused thinking about their faith with doubting their faith. Thinking about your faith is, indeed, a virtue, for it helps you to better understand and defend your faith. But thinking about your faith is not equivalent to doubting your faith.
We need to keep the distinction clear. A student came up to me once after one of my lectures and said, "How come everything you say confirms what my pastor has always taught?" Somewhat amazed, I laughed and said, "Why shouldn't it?" He replied, "Well, all of the other men in the department challenge my faith." My response was, "Look, I don't want to challenge your faith; I want to challenge your thinking. But I want to build up your faith."
My experience as a young Christian of seeing some of my college classmates lose their faith left a deep impression on me, and when I began teaching I resolved to do all I could to help my students stay in the faith while still exploring the intellectual issues about the faith. In particular, I resolved never to present objections to Christianity without also presenting and defending various solutions to those objections. One of my colleagues who did not follow this method was causing some concern among certain Christian students in his classes. "I was only trying to get them to think," he explained to me. "I was just playing the devil's advocate."
Those words hit me like a dash of cold water. For him they were merely a manner of speaking, but it was their literal sense that struck me. Playing the devil's advocate. Think of it: to be Satan's advocate in the classroom! That is something we must never allow ourselves to become. As Christian teachers, students, and laymen, we must never lose sight of the wider spiritual battle in which we are all involved and so must be extremely wary of what we say or write, lest we become the instruments of Satan in destroying someone else's faith. We can challenge people to think more deeply and rigorously about their Christian faith without encouraging them to doubt their faith.
Of course, in thinking about your faith, you are going to confront difficulties or objections that may cause doubt. But the first point I am trying to emphasize is that when that happens, don't be deceived into thinking that this is merely an intellectual struggle; there is a deeper spiritual dimension to it as well. "Be self-controlled and alert," Peter warns, for "your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). Don't be so naive as to think that the devil isn't involved in the intellectual arena, too. We must be ever vigilant, as Paul says, "in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes" (2 Cor. 2:11). In particular, Paul warns us not to let anyone make a prey of us "through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Col. 2:8).
When doubts come, then, don't try to hide them or pretend they don't exist. Take them to God in prayer and ask Him to help you resolve them. Tell Him honestly that, say, you doubt His existence, or His being in Christ, or whatever doubt you may have. He cares for you and will help you. I love the prayer of the man who came to Jesus and cried, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). And what a comfort it is to know that Jesus accepted such a prayer and such faith and responded positively to it! When we have intellectual doubts, that is the time as never before to deepen our spiritual lives and seek the fullness of God's Spirit.
Second, when doubts arise, keep in mind the proper relationship between faith and reason. The question here is, How do I know that my faith is true? Do I know it on the basis of reason and evidence? Or do I know its truth by faith itself? Or is my faith founded on authority, or perhaps on mystical experience? How do I know that my Christian faith is true?
As I read the New Testament, the answer is that we know our faith is true by the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit within us. What do I mean by that? I mean that we do not infer that our faith is true based on any sort of evidence or proof, but that in the context of the Spirit of God's speaking to our hearts, we see immediately and unmistakably that our faith is true. God's Spirit makes it evident to us that our faith is true.
Look briefly with me at what the apostles Paul and John had to say about this matter. According to Paul, every Christian is indwelt with the Holy Spirit, and it is the witness of the Spirit that gives us assurance of being God's children: "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of son-ship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" (Rom. 8:15-16). Elsewhere, Paul speaks of this assurance as "the full riches of complete understanding" (Col. 2:2) and as "deep conviction" (1 Thess. 1:5). Sometimes we call this experience "assurance of salvation." Now, clearly, salvation entails that God exists, that Christ atoned for our sins, that He rose from the dead, and so forth, so that if you are assured of your salvation, then you must be assured of all these other truths as well. Hence, the witness of the Holy Spirit gives the believer an immediate assurance that his faith is true.
The apostle John teaches the same thing and explicitly contrasts this assurance with an assurance based on evidence and argument. He begins with a reminder to his Christian readers: "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. ... As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit — just as it has taught you, remain in him" (1 John 2:20, 27). Here the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which every Christian enjoys, is the source of our knowing the truth about our faith. John then goes on to contrast the confidence the Spirit of God brings with the assurance brought by human evidence: "For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man's testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart" (1 John 5:7-10a). The "water" here probably refers to Jesus' baptism, and the "blood" to His crucifixion, those two events being the ones that marked the beginning and the end of His earthly ministry. "Man's testimony" is the apostolic witness to the ministry of Jesus from His baptism to His crucifixion. Yet John declares that even though we quite rightly receive this testimony, still the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit is greater. Such a statement is remarkable because in his Gospel John had laid great weight precisely on the apostolic testimony: "these [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. ... This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true" (John 20:31; 21:24). But here in his first epistle he asserts that the knowledge inspired by the Holy Spirit is even more certain than the testimony of the apostles themselves.
The view of the New Testament, then, is that fundamentally we know our faith to be true by the self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit.
What role, then, is left for reason to play? Here I think a distinction made by the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther can be of help. Luther distinguished between what he called the magisterial and the ministerial uses of reason. In the magisterial use of reason, reason sits over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges whether it is true or false. In the ministerial use of reason, reason submits to and serves the gospel as a handmaiden. Luther maintained that only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate, and from what I have just said, we can see that he was right. It is a usurpation of the role properly belonging to the Holy Spirit Himself for reason to assume the magisterial role. For it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us directly the truth of the gospel, and reason has no right to contradict Him.
Instead, reason's role is that of a servant. Reason is a God-given instrument to help us better understand and defend our faith. Though the Holy Spirit gives us assurance of the basic truth of our faith, He does not impart knowledge of all its ramifications and ins and outs — for example, whether God is timeless or everlasting, how to reconcile providence and free will, or how to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Those are things we must decide by thinking about them.
As Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding. In a similar way, reason can be used to defend our faith by formulating arguments for the existence of God or by refuting objections. But though the arguments so developed serve to confirm the truth of our faith, they are not properly the basis of our faith, for that is supplied by the witness of the Holy Spirit Himself. Even if there were no arguments in defense of the faith, our faith would still have its firm foundation.
Now what is the implication of all this for the problem of doubt? Simply this: doubt is controllable so long as reason does not usurp the magisterial role. So long as reason operates in its ministerial role, the spiritual assurance of our faith cannot be undermined. It is only when we allow reason to usurp the magisterial role and take the place of the Holy Spirit that doubt becomes dangerous.
This is not to say that Christianity cannot stand up to reason. On the contrary, I believe that someone who had all the facts and never made a mistake would, if he followed the magisterial role of reason, conclude that Christianity is true. Of course, such a person would also be God and therefore hardly need any proof! But the point is that people in different times and places and with differing abilities and opportunities do not have all the facts and do make errors in reasoning. In certain historical circumstances, the evidence available may be against Christianity. If persons in those situations repressed and ignored the witness of the Holy Spirit and followed instead the magisterial role of reason, they would be led to unbelief.
On the other hand, if we attend to the witness of the Spirit and do not allow reason to transgress its proper function, then we shall not lose faith even when we are confronted with objections that we, with our limited abilities, cannot refute. Alvin Plantinga, a great Christian philosopher, provides a helpful illustration of what I mean. He invites us to imagine the following scenario:
I am applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a fellowship, I write a letter to a colleague, trying to bribe him to write the Endowment a glowing letter on my behalf; he indignantly refuses and sends the letter to my chairman. The letter disappears from the chairman's office under mysterious circumstances. I have a motive for stealing it; I have the opportunity to do so; and I have been known to do such things in the past. Furthermore, an extremely reliable member of the department claims to have seen me furtively entering the chairman's office at about the time when the letter must have been stolen. The evidence against me is very strong; my colleagues reproach me for such underhanded behavior and treat me with evident distaste. The facts of the matter, however, are that I didn't steal the letter and in fact spent the entire afternoon in question on a solitary walk in the woods; furthermore, I clearly remember spending that afternoon walking in the woods.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hard Questions, Real Answers"
Copyright © 2003 William Lane Craig.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: In Intellectual Neutral,
2 Unanswered Prayer,
4 Suffering and Evil (I),
5 Suffering and Evil (II),
8 Christ, the Only Way,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Here is a layman¿s guide to answer some of the hard questions in our culture. Hard Questions, Real Answers by William Lane Craig is a small paperback that belong¿s in every layman¿s library. Craig who is an american philosopher, theologian, and Christian apologist known for his contributions to the philosophy of time, philosophy of religion, and historical Jesus studies and here he brings a small book with plenty of answers packed in it. Dr. Craig is an amazing scholar who he has simplified his amazing knowledge and intellect and written a book easy to understand for beginning seekers, and those who are just getting started in apologetics. This is a good starting point to be able to help you to answer your friends¿ hard questions. Craig gives some excellent material and does not flinch on the most difficult of questions on suffering and evil, Abortion, unanswered prayer and homosexuality. The final chapter on `Christ, the Only Way¿ deals directly with the pluralistic mind set that defines our culture today. Craig begins his introduction by pointing out that much of the church and society has parked itself ¿in intellectual neutral.¿ In this particular section, his reasoning is in line with the text of scripture ¿Love the Lord with all your mind¿. He then moves into the section on doubt followed by failure. Craig does a nice job dismantling common misconceptions and proceeds to build a correct view on doubt and failure. There are two separate sections dedicated to suffering and evil. The following quote is found at the end of the chapter on ¿suffering and evil¿¿¿God could not have created a world that had so much good as the actual world but had less evil, both in terms of quantity and quality; and moreover, God has morally sufficient reasons for the evil that exists¿ (p.86). His argument regarding homosexuality is particularly interesting: against homosexual behavior rather than orientation. Moreover, he also considers the issue from a completely non-religious point of view, making his case from the standpoint of well-being. This is sure to raise some eyebrows, but if his statistics are correct, it shreds the happy, clean stereotype we¿re force-fed in the media, and should motivate rational beings to reconsider their choices. Lastly especially appreciated the powerful chapter on unanswered prayer, where Craig gives a number of solid reasons why a person¿s prayers often go unanswered (personal sin, lack of passion, lack of persistence, self-centered praying, and praying for something that isn¿t God¿s will (1 John 5:14). He also highlights some New Testament prayers as paradigms for how we should pray. All an all a great read as a primer for apologetics.