If you want to be sure you are developing sound, thoughtful answers to the fundamental questions, you need at the very least to become acquainted with the teachings of Christianity. The best way to do that is to see how Jesus explained himself and his purposes to people he met – and how their lives were changed by his answers to their questions.
I would say there are two kinds of doubts: dishonest doubts and honest doubts. Dishonest doubts are both proud and cowardly; they show disdain and laziness. A dishonest doubt is to say, ‘What a crazy idea!’ and then just walk away. ‘That’s impossible’ (or its more contemporary version, ‘That’s stupid’) is an assertion, not an argument. It’s a way of getting out of the hard work of thinking. But by contrast, honest doubts are humble, because they lead you to ask questions, not just put up a wall. And when you ask a real question, it makes you somewhat vulnerable. Mary’s question to the angel actually asks for information and leaves her open to the possibility of a good answer that would cause her to shift her views. Honest doubts, then, are open to belief. If you are really asking for information and good arguments, you might get some.
And here’s what I find wonderful. If she had never expressed a doubt, the angel would never have spoken one of the great statements in the Bible: ‘Nothing will be impossible with God’ (Luke 1: 37 ESV). I’m so grateful for her doubt, because that statement has been comforting and guiding me for years. All kinds of people have been helped immensely by those words. And the only reason we get this extra revelation is because Mary doubted. The more you are willing to express doubt honestly and humbly, the more you bring up your honest questions, the further you, and the people around you, are going to get. I have seen plenty of people who refuse to ask questions and refuse to express their doubts. Some refuse out of hard-heartedness, while others refuse because they think somehow it is disrespectful. Please don’t dare not to raise your honest doubts and questions.
When the Bible speaks about the deity of Jesus, we have to remember that the Hebrew idea of God was not identical to those of other cultures and faiths. When Jesus is said to be divine, that does not mean he has the divine spark of life that is found in everyone. It doesn’t mean he has such high God-consciousness that he can be called an avatar, as in the case of Krishna. To the Hebrews, God was not an impersonal force that is part of all being but a unique, personal yet infinite, immanent yet transcendent, eternal Creator that existed before and above all other beings. To call Jesus divine while holding that understanding of the divine was stupendous. Yet it is the lynchpin of Jesus’ own self-understanding and underlies everything he teaches. So you either have to say that Jesus Christ is, as the Bible claims, the unique Creator God who has come in the flesh, which makes Christianity a better revelation of God than other religions – or you have to say that he was wrong or lying, which makes him and his followers a worse revelation of God. But Christianity can’t be a religion just like the rest.
The best way to get a grip on what Christianity is about is to look at Jesus – and even more at his accomplishments than his pronouncements. Other religions teach, in essence, that we can be saved if we follow their founders’ words. But Christians believe we are saved not primarily by following what Jesus said but by believing in what he did. We are saved not by what we do but by what Jesus has done. It is in his actions – his birth and incarnation as a human being; his miracles and healings; his response to trials, temptations, suffering, and death; and ultimately his resurrection and ascension – that we meet him, not just as another teacher but as a Savior accomplishing our salvation in our place. And so we must come to grips with each of these great actions and events to fully encounter Jesus as the life-changing Redeemer.
Jesus demands a radical response of some kind. You could denounce him for being evil, or you may flee from him because he’s a lunatic, or you can fall down and worship him for being God. All of those reactions make sense; they are consistent with the reality of his words.
But what you can’t do is respond moderately. You must not say to him, ‘Nice teaching. Very helpful. You are a fine thinker.’
Everybody knows that there are emotional and psychological reasons why you might want to believe in God. In fact many skeptics at some point make the argument that believing in God is simply an intense form of wish fulfillment. But seldom do people point out that we all have enormous emotional and psychological reasons to disbelieve in God. How so? In looking at a book like the Bible or at a message like the gospel, anyone sees fairly quickly that if it were true you would lose some control over how you can live your life. Who can say they’re objective and neutral about that proposition? Thomas Nagel is honestly acknowledging this. He knows he can’t say, ‘I am completely objective and indifferent in looking for the evidence for God, but I just don’t have enough evidence.’ I hope you see that no one can truly say such a thing with integrity. We all have deep layers of prejudice working against the idea of a holy God who can make ultimate demands on us. And if you won’t acknowledge that, you’re never going to get close to objectivity. Never.
Let’s say you’re a judge and suddenly a case comes before you concerning a company in which you own stock. And the decision will have a huge impact on the price of the stock. Would you be allowed, or would you allow yourself, to rule in the case? No, because you couldn’t possibly be objective when you know that if the decision goes a certain way you’re going to lose all of your money. So you recuse yourself. Here’s the problem: With Christianity, we’re all in that very position. When it comes time to decide whether its claims are right or wrong, you have at least some vested interest in them being wrong. But you don’t get to recuse yourself; you can only look at the evidence. Therefore, I’d like to suggest some ways to deal with this dilemma.
First of all, doubt your doubts. Be skeptical of your own skepticism. Why? Because you realize that you are not completely objective. Maybe you have a very religious parent whom you dislike. Or you may have had a bad experience with an inconsistent and insensitive group of Christians. On top of that, as we have observed, few people can entertain an invitation to give up their freedom without some prejudice against it. You’re afraid of the claims of Christianity being true – that’s fine. If we’re honest, we all are. You’ll never be fair-minded with the evidence if you don’t acknowledge that you can’t be perfectly fair-minded. So what should you do about this? You could simply slow down, so you don’t come so quickly to skeptical conclusions. Also, you should recognize that if Christianity is true, it is not just a set of rational, philosophical principles to adopt— it is a personal relationship to enter. So, to take seriously at least the possibility that it is true, why not consider praying? Why not say, ‘God, I don’t know if you’re there but I do know what prejudice is like, and I’m willing to be suspicious of it. Therefore, if you are there and if I am prejudiced, help me get through it.’ Break the ice with Jesus— talk to him. No one has to know you are doing it. If you’re not willing to do that, I suggest that you’re not willing to own the prejudice that we all start with.