The Blog of Jack Holloway

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Jesus Wants Us to Doubt

We all know that our knowledge of the truth is incomplete. We all have an understanding that, at the end of the day, humans trying to understand all there is to know about God is like ants trying to understand the universe. If we're humble, we'll acknowledge this.

Because our knowledge of truth is incomplete, we should never be certain. We don't know everything there is to know, so we cannot make absolute claims about truth.

Part of why our knowledge of truth is incomplete is because our own personal bias always accompanies our truth claims. To use Plato's analogy, we all have caves. No matter how much we try to escape our caves, we will always remain in them to a certain extent. We cannot stop our own humanness from interfering in our truth-seeking.

Jesus understood the human condition. He understood that human knowledge is incomplete and that we all have our own caves that get in the way of us seeing the full truth. Because he understood this, he taught us to doubt.

Let me give you a few examples.

Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, "You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you. . . ." (Matt. 5:38-39). Here, Jesus was taking something that his audience accepted as true, and calling it into question. "You think this, but I say..."  He does this a few more times in the sermon, teaching them to call into question what they accepted as an ontological given.

In the garden when Jesus was about to be arrested, Peter took out his sword to defend Jesus and cut off a soldier's ear, for which he was admonished by Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus does this to his disciples. They do something--and most of the time with good intentions, thinking that they are operating in truth--and Jesus corrects them. He causes them to subject their actions to criticism; he teaches them to doubt.

Now let me explain what I mean by 'doubt' here.

Because our knowledge is incomplete, Jesus taught us that we should be self-aware and self-critical. We should question our own motives and actions. We should subject our claims and our decisions to critical analysis. This is a form of doubt.

Paul said, "Test everything; hold fast to what is good, and reject every kind of evil" (1 Thess. 5:21). Testing something, subjecting it to criticism, is a form of doubt. He could have just as well said, "Doubt everything; hold fast to what is good, and reject every kind of evil."

Mainstream evangelical Christianity teaches us to know what we believe. We have to be confident and certain. We cannot compromise. We cannot question. We cannot doubt. What comes out of this is a bunch of yes-people who just drink the Kool-Aid, putting their faith in and embracing a fixed, systematized Christianity that looks human and not like Jesus.

Jesus doesn't want us to put blind faith in a dominant ideology. He doesn't want us to just accept what is given to us. He taught us to call into question content control and the fixed systems of humanity. Jesus isn't a control freak; he wants us to doubt control freaks.

And guess what! We are control freaks. We have our own caves that we adapt Jesus to all of the time. We so often make Jesus in our own image. As long as we practice doubtless certainty--as long as we "know what we believe"--we will be embracing a portrait of truth that is infected with our own selves. Because we never know truth completely, as long as we completely embrace one understanding of truth, we will be in a cave, hidden from Christ's truth.

Jesus wants to save us from our caves, and that requires calling our conclusions into question. That requires doubting our caves. We often claim that we hear from God. But what if what we heard from God wasn't actually God? Moses thought he was hearing from God when he advocated the teaching of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Deut. 19:21; cf. Lev. 24:20, Ex. 21:24), but Jesus revealed to us that that theology was more human than God-like.

We need to be self-aware. When we commit to a conclusion to the point of uncompromising confidence, we are basically saying, "I refuse to do anymore learning." We need to acknowledge our limits as humans. We need to acknowledge our bias when we make truth claims, especially when we make them about God. As long as we doubt, as long as we call into question our conclusions, and subject our truth claims to criticism, we can be sure that we are staying true to the search for truth, we can be sure that we are seeking Jesus and not just our version of Jesus.

That all being said, there is a balance. While we shouldn't embrace doubtless certainty, we should also reject doubtful uncertainty. Nihilism is a recipe for despair. But since we can be never be certain that what we believe to be true is actually true, we have only to do the best we can, seeking truth.

As Christians, we need to seek Jesus. We need him to determine for us what is true, and that means always leaving the questions open. That means never being certain, because Jesus will always show us the limits of our thinking. Never remain comfortable with the status quo, but always be growing and adapting in the journey to Jesus.

And while we can never know if what we think we hear from God is actually from God, we can find peace in the knowledge that we are seeking truth. We can find assurance and rest in knowing that, while we can't know if we are right, we can know that we are genuinely seeking Jesus, and that's all that matters to him.


  1. Great post John. You've articulated so well something I live by. I recently published a book and included a short section about doubt.
    "I doubt what I believe.
    I believe because I doubt."

    I really appreciate the way you've discussed the importance of doubt in faith.

    1. I'm glad you appreciated it!
      That's a catchy phrase there. I'll have to remember that.