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Questioning the Gospel

Christians do a lot of back slapping when it comes to belief in the gospel. It’s like we’re afraid to ask hard questions, struggle through difficult times, and doubt the faith. Jenny is a new Christian. She’s well educated, thoughtful, terribly excited about the gospel, and acquainted with suffering. As we talked about her newfound faith, she explained to me that she tried church in the past. She’d had a “bad experience.” I braced myself for some church trashing, but quickly realized Jenny had something to say to the church.

Jenny recounted story after story of her difficult questions being turned away by Christians and pastors. She was told, “All the answers are in the Bible. Just read it and have faith.” Her doubts were dismissed as undermining skepticism. Eventually, despite her admiration for the church, she left. Why? She wasn’t allowed to question the gospel.

The Bible Invites Doubt

Non-Christians aren’t the only ones that need to question the gospel. On the other side of faith, our discipleship should be suffused with doubt. Many of us run from it. We look down on doubt. In contrast, the whole Bible presupposes doubt. The Bible is largely written by believers to believers who doubt their beliefs. Many saints were adept at questioning God, asking questions like:

  • “Will you put to death the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:25)
  • “Oh, Lord, will you please send someone else?” (Ex 4:13)
  • “Why do the wicked prosper?” (Ps 73)
  • “How long Oh Lord?” (Ps 79)
  • “Have you not rejected us, O God?” (Ps 60)
  • “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34)
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)
  • “Why do I do what I do not want?” (Rom 7:20)

These men and women questioned God, to his face. Thomas was incredulous when told about the resurrection. Facing Jesus, he still doubted. Just prior to the ascension, with the risen Jesus standing in their midst, we’re told disciples “…worshiped but some doubted” (Matt 28:17).

Recovering the Practice of Doubt

Christians have lost the practice of doubt. Instead, we often reinforce blind faith. We gather like-minded people around us to reinforce our beliefs, while isolating ourselves from genuine questions about God, Scripture, and life. Non-Christians see this and are put off. Some assume that Christianity is pure indoctrination. Others believe that you have to check your brain at the door of church. So they remain, on the outside of the church, with important, authentic questions about the gospel, with no one to hear them out.

We need to learn from our skeptical friends and neighbors. We need to be more honest about how bizarre our faith sounds. Have you ever considered that Christianity sounds like a cult? We purport that our leader died and rose from the dead, but that he is now, conveniently, invisible. We believe that he will reappear one day to set all things right. Do you really believe this? Why? Can you account for it in a believable way? Many of the gospel teachings are slipped onto the shelf of our mental library, where they gather to collect dust. Sure we “believe” them, but don’t pull them down often enough to doubt them.

God has created a world filled with irony and incongruity. We are redeemed but we aren’t. We are perfect in God’s sight but not in real time. Jesus has defeated death and evil, but people die and suffer every day. Then, there’s the everyday struggle to believe. We possess the promises of God, but fail to believe them every single day. Instead, we believe in the fleeting promises of the world. We believe the approval of co-workers is better that the enduring approval of God the Father. We believe holding a grudge will bring more satisfaction than giving away Christ’s forgiveness. Suffering through a trial, we believe God in unjust or we are awful, instead of seeing God’s grace and goodness to purify misplaced faith in ourselves or in the comforts of this world. O, how we disbelieve.

Blind Faith is Blinding to the World

We disbelieve the gospel because we fail to doubt the gospel. We don’t interrogate it to find better promises. We don’t question God, asking him for greater joy than the fleeting satisfaction we have in comfort. We don’t query the gospel to make better sense of suffering. Instead, we place one hand over our eyes, and point upward: “Just have faith.” This is unbelievable. It is shallow.

Blind faith is blinding faith. It masks the light of the gospel, covering up the perceptive truths of Scripture that must be queried to be uncovered. People like Jenny need Christians who welcome, not stomp, doubt. An unbelieving world needs to see why the gospel is worth believing. They need to see what atonement has to do with pluralism, what regeneration has to do with environmental stewardship, what propitiation has to do with humility, what adoption has to do with sex trafficking, what justification has to do with self-esteem, what new creation has to do with the Arts, what union with Christ has to do with longings for significance. Our colleagues, coworkers, and neighbors also need to hear us doubt the gospel in face of: literature, homosexuality, racism, women, technology, pluralism, hypocrisy, evolution, and atheism, to name a few. The gospel must be questioned if we are to uncover its riches, not only for ourselves but also for the world.

Blind faith reroutes a detour around God’s design in suffering. Peter reminds us that trials are meant to make us question, reflect, and refine our faith. When we suffer the loss of a friend, job, or dream, we are meant to question the gospel. We are meant to discover, through trial, how Christ is better, not just affirm that he is better. Suffering can show us how God is sufficient and the Savior is sublime. But we must doubt. We must take our hands off our eyes to stare our troubles in the face. Only then can faith become precious and perceptive. We’ve failed to realize we are meant to doubt our way into faith every single day. When we doubt the gospel, in God’s presence, we find Jesus standing up in our circumstances, flooding them with hope.

Doubting for Joy

Standing in front of the risen Christ, “they worshipped but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). The disciples are skeptical. They possess the facts, the proofs to believe, but still don’t have faith. Or maybe they believed but lacked faith? Making a distinction between belief and faith Harvard Religion scholar, Harvey Cox writes: “We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.” If we don’t see the gospel as vital, then we will restrict it to the realm of belief. In other words, we can believe the gospel with it making very little difference to our lives. We can believe without faith.

The way forward from belief to faith is through the path of doubt, down the road of inquiry. We must question what we believe in order to increase in faith. For Christ to become vital, we must see how essential he is, in everything. We need the vital organ of faith. Belief cannot live without faith, the animating power of actual trust in a trustworthy gospel. This comes through testing our faith, asking how God is good in our pain, what Jesus has to do with Science, how the Holy Spirit changes on culture. We need to get in front of the face of God and ask the hard questions with humility. We need to pull the gospel off the shelf and doubt it for joy.

Seeing the resurrected Jesus, some disciples “disbelieved for joy” (Lk 24:41). Doubt arose in their hearts. Jesus patiently revealed his hands and feet, scarred from his crucifixion. This was no spirit. Touching his body, they tested their beliefs (that the resurrection wasn’t plausible), and considered the immense promise this belief held if it were true. They leaned forward into faith. The closer they got to the risen Lord, under scrutiny, the more belief gave way to faith. They even watched Jesus perform an experiment, eating to prove he wasn’t an apparition. The prospect of the gospel became more compelling as they questioned the gospel in the face of Christ. They disbelieved for joy. Like the wonder we feel when we hit a homerun, ace the test, or win someone’s affection, they disbelieved for joy. Stunned in awe, they couldn’t believe it, but they were jumping up and down for joy inside. Disbelieving for joy, they fell headlong into faith.

This month marks a new series of articles at GCD following the theme of: Questioning the Gospel. We hope you’ll come doubt the gospel with us and disbelieve for joy.

Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship andUnbelievable Gospel. He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others.