Doubt in the New Testament
With all the previous talk about the value of doubt, you might be thinking, but isn’t doubt a negative thing that is criticized in the New Testament? Well, it does seem like that at first glance, but it turns out the words translated “Doubt” are quite vague. Sometimes the English language fails to communicate a concept and this is one of those instances. There are multiple senses of the word in the ancient Greek, so it is no wonder there is confusion.
The New Testament uses two words which are sometimes translated doubt or doubting, which are transliterated as Distazo and Diakrino. The first one, distazo, has a fairly clear meaning: to doubt or waver. The word is found in Matthew 14:31 and 28:17. In the context of the passages, the idea of “wavering” is a reconsidering of something which an individual has already understood to be true or right. We experience this when we know what we ought to do in a circumstance and come up with reasons not to or why it isn’t important. It amounts to going against a truth one has previously understood, or a lack of commitment or follow through in regard to a decision one previously made. This is much different from lacking confidence about something which one finds confusing or does not understand.
On the other hand, diakrino is much more complicated. There are 15 forms of the word used among its 19 occurrences in the New Testament (the different forms of the words refer to the different endings, which indicate different senses of the word). The most common form, diakrinomenos, occurs five times and is translated in the NASB version as: misgivings, disputed, doubting and the one who doubts. But then there are 14 other forms of the word, each which is used only once and the possible meanings, in addition to the four already mentioned, include: to separate, to withdraw (in opposition or by deserting), to hesitate, to discriminate, to make distinction, to oppose (in principle), or to judge (in the positive – to discern, OR in the negative – to view as superior). A sampling of the usage of diakrino is found in: Matthew 16:3; Acts 10:20, 11:2, 11:12; 1 Corinthians 4:7, 6:5; James 1:6, 2:4; Jude 1:9, 22 (NASB).
My intent is not to sort through each Greek word, but to demonstrate that this concept is complicated and there is a lot more to it than just applying the English word and meaning. The task of identifying the intended implication or sense of the word can be quite involved.
A key point of interest here is that there is another word available to the Biblical authors which means to be “at a loss” or “perplexed” about something. The word Aporeo is used a number of times in the New Testament, examples include: Mark 6:20, Luke 24:4, John 13:22, Acts 25:20, and Gal 4:20. The word doubt in English constitutes a lack of confidence which is most often related to confusion or a lack of understanding. This common meaning of doubt is most consistent with Aporeo, which is never translated as “doubt” or associated with a “do not.” Therefore, it would stand to reason that this is not what the authors are referring to when they use the words Distazo or Diakrino, otherwise they could have used the word Aporeo.
We also see a couple examples of individuals doubting within the New Testament text. First there is the example of Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, whose reaction to hearing that Jesus was alive was to immediately express his “doubt.” This is understandable since he had just seen Jesus put to death. However, we then see that Jesus is very gracious with him and rather than chastising him, provides an answer to his skepticism. Based on Thomas’ response, it is clear that his “doubts” were sincere, as he was willing to accept the truth once it was shown to him.
Another example is found with the Bereans in Acts 17:11, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Upon hearing Paul’s claims about Jesus, they didn’t just accept it blindly, but they wanted to know if it could be true. They responded wisely, as their sincere doubt prompted them to seek a better understanding, and we have no indication that Paul was displeased with this.
These examples reveal the significance of the question of why our doubts exist. Is it because we lack information or have unanswered questions? Is it because we don’t want to accept something in particular? Is it because the idea does not make sense or is confusing in itself? Is it because the ramifications are inconvenient for us? In the case of Thomas and the Bereans, we see that they sought out more information, because they desired to believe in the true God and they responded appropriately to what they found.
It is not uncommon for someone who desires to follow Jesus to feel like God must be disappointed in them because of doubts they continually have, or even due to an occasional doubt. It likely comes back to the misunderstanding of the word “doubt” in the English translation of the New Testament.
Perhaps it could make sense to say that God is disappointed in us if we don’t care about our questions or desire to understand the difficult aspects of faith that we find confusing. Perhaps God is disappointed when we don’t take our faith seriously, or we make excuses for not living accordingly. But He is not disappointed because we don’t understand something or experience a lack of confidence about a particular idea or claim. As we see with Thomas, Jesus responds with an answer, not with disappointment or criticism.
But where did we get the idea that everything within Christianity should be as clear as we want it to be? Where did we get the idea that it would be easy to understand? Of course some things are simple, thankfully, but if everything about the Christian Faith was perfectly clear because it was just simple, then how would Christianity remain interesting for a lifetime? What should we expect from a system of thought that reveals the nature of God and touches on important aspects of life at the same time?
If it was all easily understood, then we would be inclined to think that we had it all figured out. This would be understandable since there wouldn’t be any difficult ideas or confusing concepts to struggle with. However, there would also be little reason for study and few insights to be had about such simple ideas.
On the other hand, if God understands that some aspects of the Faith are difficult to understand and that people have misunderstandings for many different reasons, then why would He be disappointed when we experience doubts? Doesn’t God know that many of us are not aware of the archaeological evidence, or the Greek, or the historical and cultural context of first century Rome, etc.? Then it seems to me God would want us to look into the things we have questions about in order to reach a better understanding.
But maybe there is something else going on here as well. Could it be that God does not want us to have a sense of self–sufficiency even in our own understanding? I have come to understand many things over the years, but so often it is because of the insights of others that have shed light on something or helped me see more of the big picture.
Could there be something more to the quest for answers than simply getting an answer? Could it be like a team sport, where there is so much more to the journey than simply winning a game?
If our faith has no room for doubt, then it is likely that we will not grow much in our understanding of the Christian Faith – or the true God – because we will not be looking for answers. In order to be realistic, of course we don’t want to be questioning constantly and we need time to just be where we are in our faith, so it is important to have times without doubt. We also hope to feel close to God at times, however, we need times where we are prompted to wonder and seek out a better understanding. Therefore, as we encounter periods of doubt, these are times which are necessary for us to develop both our understanding and greater confidence in our faith.