May 4, 2015

Believe it or not: 5 types of doubters

by Clint Archer

Hamlet said it eloquently:doubting the truth

Doubt thou the stars are fire,

Doubt that the sun doth move,

Doubt truth to be a liar,

But never doubt I love.”


It’s not great theology, but makes a pretty rhyme. And the poem touches on a universal theme: what can we really believe for certain?

Doubt is a haunting reality in the lives of many churchgoers. Perhaps they are uncertain of  their salvation, or they question the veracity of Scripture, or maybe even at times doubt that there is a God. Are these doubters saved? Isn’t the definition of a Christian one who trusts in Jesus? Can a person be a believer while maintaining disbelief or unbelief?

I find it helpful to distinguish between the variegated species of doubt that lurk in our hearts. B. B. Warfield acknowledged that when discussing doubt there are…

…shades of meaning expressed by our words: perplexity, suspense, distractions, hesitation, questioning, skepticism, shading down into unbelief.”

Let’s meet five doubters.

1. The Cautious Believer: Thomas

Doubting Thomas is, in my opinion, an undeserved moniker for this poor chap. Thomas was no unbeliever. He was a doubting believer, cautious to swallow a spoon-fed report proffered by his buddies. All he did was insist on the same evidence to which the other apostles were privy before they had made their incredible conclusion.

In Luke 24:36-39 we see the others were not exempt from skepticism either: “… Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!”  But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why dodoubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

thomasThomas heard their report, but may well have concluded, “Maybe you thought you saw Jesus, but maybe it was a ghost, or some other a doppelgänger” (bear in mind Thomas was himself a twin who had no doubt experienced his fair share of mistaken identity scenarios).

Thomas should not have doubted. He had the OT Scriptures, the predictions of Jesus himself, and an eye-witness report. But his over-cautious hesitation to believe is a reaction many other true believers can confess.

How did you respond the first time you heard about the doctrine of election, or limited atonement, or women’s role in the church, or a myriad of other difficult-to-swallow medicines?

What should our response be to such doubters in the church?

Jude 22 “And have mercy on those who doubt…”

The church should be a safe place for cautious believers to investigate God’s word so as to grow their uncertainty into certainty.

2. The Confused Believer: John

Pop quiz: was John the Baptist an unbeliever? Um, no. He was filled with the Spirit, received direct revelation from God as a prophet, preached the Bible like he meant it, baptized countless multitudes (in fulfillment of prophecy), and identified Jesus as the Messiah only to be confirmed by the audible word of God and a visible manifestation of the Spirit, and then went on to be martyred for his preaching. Oh, and Jesus called him the greatest prophet in history.

But did John ever have doubts?

On one occasion John sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was indeed the Messiah or if the real Messiah was still en route. Wait, what? What kind of Baptist are you?!

John was just confused. The OT Scripture plainly teaches that the Messiah will rule the world in righteousness and justice from David’s throne in Jerusalem and judge sinners with a rod of iron. And John—like a good premillennialist—sat patiently in jail waiting for his inappropriately irenic cousin to dethrone the Romans and usher in the kingdom.

He wasn’t losing his faith in the Bible. He was confused.

Like father, like son, right? Zechariah heard from Gabriel that he would have a son, and he asked “How do I know for sure?” That response flummoxed the angel who really thought his very presence should be sufficient credentials. But Zechariah was perplexed as to how the word of God could be meshed with basic biology (barren octogenarians don’t have babies).

This isn’t unbelief or even disbelief, it’s perplexity. Many homeschooled Christian kids find it easy to believe in a six day creation account…until their first semester of any course at any secular college. Then they come home with good questions that don’t need to be met with reprimand for doubt, but rather patient reminders of the veracity of God’s word. Jesus simply did a series of rapid-fire, prophecy-fulfilling miracles to remind John of Isaiah’s predictions. That was enough for John.

The other three species of doubters are trickier to deal with, so we’ll address them next week. Tune in on Monday for…

3. The Curious Asker: Nicodemus

4. The Convinced Attacker: Saul

5. The Committed Apostate: Hymenaeus

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    I guess my question would be, what part then does the Holy Spirit play with respect to replacing doubts with assurance? Isn’t a believer someone who has been born again? I understand that Thomas doubted, as did others on the road to Emmaus, but that was before they had received the Holy Spirit which alone could give them that assurance and peace with God. Likewise, Nicodemus appears to have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, yet Jesus said he must be born again.

    And I don’t ask that to be judgmental because I know that we as Christians need to grow in our knowledge of God in order to deepen our faith, but the concept of doubt seems to run counter in my mind with what the Holy Spirit was sent to dispel. What am I missing?

    • This is a good question. We’ll get to Nicodemus and other unbelievers next week. But Jude clearly says to have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 22) and John Baptizer was one filled with the Spirit. Faulty understanding is one factor that leads to doubt. I’m sure there are others.

  • Pope of Geneva

    Jean Cauvin provides a hint to the boundaries for “doubt” in Book 1 – Chapter 2 of Institutes..
    “For, first of all, the pious mind does not devise for itself any kind of God, but looks alone to the one true God; nor does it feign for him any character it pleases, but is contented to have him in the character in which he manifests himself always guarding, with the utmost diligences against transgressing his will, and wandering, with daring presumptions from the right path. He by whom God is thus known perceiving how he governs all things, confides in him as his guardian and protector, and casts himself entirely upon his faithfulness,perceiving him to be the source of every blessing, if he is in any strait or feels any want, he instantly recurs to his protection and trusts to his aid, persuaded that he is good and merciful,
    he reclines upon him with sure confidence, and doubts not that, in the divine clemency, a remedy will be provided for his every time of need, acknowledging him as his Father and his Lord he considers himself bound to have respect to his authority in all things, to reverence his majesty, aim at the advancement of his glory, and obey his commands, regarding him as a just judge, armed with severity to punish crimes, he keeps the Judgment-seat always in his view. Standing in awe of it, he curbs himself, and fears to provoke his anger. Nevertheless,
    he is not so terrified by an apprehension of Judgment as to wish he could withdraw himself, even if the means of escape lay before him; nay, he embraces him not less as the avenger of wickedness than as the rewarder of the righteous; because he perceives that it equally appertains to his glory to store up punishment for the one, and eternal life for the other. Besides, it is not the mere fear of punishment that restrains him from sin. Loving and revering God as his father, honouring and obeying him as his master, although there were no hell, he would revolt at the very idea of offending him.”

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand


    • I’m glad Calvin still blogs. His insights remain relevant century after century.

  • tovlogos

    A crucial and rudimentary subject. A few thoughts…
    Mark 6:5; Matt. 13:58, of course have much written about them:
    “And He could do no miracle there except that He laid hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered/marveled at their unbelief.” This is about salvation and healing of the heart, as much as it is about healing the body, which can be denied by God at times.
    I see similarities between doubt and unbelief, whether a believer or unbeliever. A believer may believe that Jesus is the true Messiah, but continuously doubt during typical trials, which may an issue with an actual relationship with the Holy Spirit. The believer has much to comprehend along the way — the Spirit gives life and the flesh profits nothing (John 6:63). One can perform any ritual in complete doubt; but cannot receive the Spirit in doubt. More Spirit, in conformity to the Lord’s Image, less doubt. There is no way to have any doubt and truly receive the John 3:3 experience. Nicodemus doubted because he did not open his heart to the John 3:3 experience — even if he had an intellectual understanding of Ezekiel 36:24-27. No doubt you have more to say. Thanks, Clint

    • I guess Warfield’s point is that there are nuances to our English word ‘doubt’ that need to be considered before labelling someone as unbelieving.

      • tovlogos


  • Still Waters

    I think there is a seventh type of doubter. I’m not sure of the moniker to attach to this type but perhaps the Tormented Doubter might fit. This doubter does not want to doubt, longs for the comfort of God, is in all probability a committed Christian – but at times it is as if all faith is sucked away, almost as if from an outside source. John Bunyan seems to have suffered from this form of doubt, in his autobiography ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners’: “First, all my comfort was taken from me; then darkness seized upon me; after which, whole floods of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the scriptures, were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. These blasphemous thoughts were such as stirred up questions in me against the very being of God, and of His only beloved Son: As, whether there were in truth, a God or Christ? And whether the holy scriptures were not rather a fable, and cunning story, than the holy and pure word of God?”

    There is a Biblical character for the Tormented Doubter, though he is unnamed. From Mark 9:23-24: ‘Jesus said unto him, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” And straightway, the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”‘

    • Good point. Thanks.

  • I still don’t see “move” and “love” as a pretty rhyme…

    • Yoo’re naught yooosing yoor Scots akzent!

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  • Amanda Simwaka

    Thanks Clint (and Kim!) for having mercy on me! And being SO helpful when I had many doubts in college. I’m so thankful for you both!

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