When Peter walked on the water toward Jesus, we can imagine that he launched out with great gusto (Matthew 14:28-33). And yet, as he glanced away from his Lord to look at the treacherous winds and waves he knew so well, it seems he lost certainty in the divine power that had borne him across the water thus far. When he returned to the boat, the Master admonished him with these words: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (14:31).
Throughout the New Testament, “doubt” is couched in negative terms. It is something we are to avoid in prayer, for example (1 Timothy 2:8). Jesus told His disciples that they could move mountains if only they would believe, and not doubt (Matthew 21:21-22; Mark 11:23-24). Paul advised the Roman Christians that they stood condemned if they doubted the propriety of eating food sacrificed to idols (14:23). The classic example, of course, is that of the apostle Thomas—doubting Thomas. “Be not faithless,” the risen Christ urged as He presented His wounds to the incredulous disciple, “but believing” (John 20:27).
Doubt, then, is in some way an impediment to belief or faith. However, it is not the opposite of belief; it is not a denial of faith. This would be disbelief, that is, believing a claim to be false. Rather, doubt is a matter of unbelief—an occasional inability to admit a particular claim. It is a human failing that, on occasion, we simply cannot decide whether something is true. The different words translated as “doubt” in the New Testament carry with them the sense of being unstable, wavering, being in two minds, or contending with oneself. In relation to faith, doubt is a “lack of certainty concerning the teachings of Christianity or one’s personal relationship to them” (Habermas, 1990, p. 10).
Doubt, left unresolved, can become a serious problem. God holds us responsible for addressing the cause of our doubt, and for seeking the remedy so that doubt does not prevent us from doing what faith demands. If we do not know whether God answers prayers, then how can we honestly go to God in prayer? If we eat meat sacrificed to idols (or the modern equivalent), and yet we are not sure that this is something we should do, then how can we have a good conscience before God?
These are the negative consequences of unresolved doubts, but doubt may also be resolved in favor of greater faith, or even faith itself. After all, converts will not be made of people who never doubt their rejection of Christ’s saving blood.
Let us look in more detail at the case of Thomas. Apparently, like most of the disciples, Thomas had missed or refused to accept Christ’s own warnings about His death. And in those somber days after Calvary, they certainly did not expect to see Him alive again. The disciples on the road to Emmaus, for example, had hoped that Jesus of Nazareth would be the One to restore the nation of Israel (Luke 24:21). Even after these two encountered the resurrected Christ and reported their experiences to the other disciples (among whom Christ then appeared and spoke), His followers could hardly believe this wonderful turn of events (24:41). Their doubt soon evaporated in joy, not merely because their beloved Lord had risen from the dead, but because through His resurrection came the hope of salvation for all the nations of the world.
Thomas, however, missed out on this momentous event (John 20:24). The others had seen and heard the resurrected Christ; He had even shown His wounds to them. Thomas responded by demanding no less, but such a demand was an expression of weakness. Yes, the renewed faith of the other disciples was based on direct, physical evidence, but why could Thomas not trust the testimony of his closest friends? Christ’s response was to appear again for Thomas’ sake, and for the sake of all in his position. Thomas had the opportunity to touch the wounds, but he withdrew his demands and made the supreme confession: “My Lord and my God” (20:28).
The story does not end there. Christ went on to teach this vital lesson: “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (20:29). If Christianity was to succeed, people would have to put their faith, not in a continuing manifestation of miracles such as the appearance of a resurrected body, but in a well-reasoned belief that Christ was raised from the dead. The testimony of the witnesses as recorded in Scripture would have to be a critical part of that belief. Immediately following the incident with Thomas, John wrote: “These things have been written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31; see also Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
What would have happened to Thomas, and perhaps to the future church, if he had continued to doubt? Jesus dealt with this doubt, and He dealt with Thomas’ particular brand of doubt, for all time.
Doubt is a human weakness, but it is a serious matter when it affects one’s faith. That Thomas and the other disciples could doubt serves as a warning to us. From our vantage point, they had every reason to be faithful, and yet still they struggled with unbelief. Christians must be able to recognize doubt in themselves so that they can, unreservedly, make the same good confession as the apostle Thomas.
Habermas, Gary R. (1990), Dealing With Doubt (Chicago, IL: Moody).