Does having questions make you a weak believer, or does it ultimately strengthen your faith? Steve Chalke explores the value of doubt
A young man tells his brother of a dream he’s experienced – a dream about Jesus returning. But rather than concerning Christ’s eventual ‘Second Coming’, this was a vision of a visit to 16th century Seville, when the Spanish Inquisition was at the height of its powers.
No fanfare greets Jesus’ return; instead he walks to Seville Cathedral, where he is arrested by the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. Later the Inquisitor visits him in prison, informing him that the Church no longer needs him and that he will be burnt at the stake the following day. Jesus, the Inquisitor explains, has to be executed because, just as before, he jeopardises people’s salvation. He gives them too much freedom for their own good.
The Inquisitor argues that Jesus has misjudged human nature. In giving humans freedom to choose, he has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed humanity to suffer. The vast majority of the human race just cannot handle choice. Few are strong enough to deal with the burden of freedom. Only the elite have the ability to face doubt and uncertainty and come through it with their beliefs intact.
“I tell you,” the Grand Inquisitor declares, “humans are pathetic creatures, with no more urgent need than to find someone to whom they can surrender the gift of freedom they were born with.” It was this point, he claims, that Jesus failed to grasp the first time. For instance, when Christ refused to demonstrate his power in the wilderness by casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels, he missed the chance of cementing, beyond all doubt, his identity and power in the minds of people forever. Instead, his short-sightedness saddled themwith the crippling burden of having to think for themselves.
“We’ve corrected your mighty achievement,” the old man boasts, defending the brutal way in which the Inquisition forced people to believe the church’s doctrines.
“People will accept whatever we tell them with joy, because they have been spared the anguish and torment of having to make their own, free and independent choices.”
The scandalous parable of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is part of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in which he explores the fact that though Christ invites, he never compels people to trust him. He always leaves room for our questions and doubts.
Christ gives each one of us freedom of choice. He doesn’t coerce or manoeuvre us into believing in him. Ironically, this means that those who choose the pathway of faith in him are likely to encounter deeper and more challenging dilemmas than those who never begin that journey. To choose to follow Jesus as his apprentice requires us to engage with our doubts, rather than to ignore them. Living ‘intentionally’ as his follower is a demanding route to take. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many prefer to drift through life, circumnavigating the deeper questions that tug at their souls.
The very nature of faith implies uncertainty. Indeed, without room for doubt, faith could not exist. Our only remaining option would be blind acceptance of incontrovertible fact. Therefore uncertainty isn’t something to avoid. Doubts, fears, struggles, probing, questioning and inquiring are all tools of living faith in Christ.
When one of his first apprentices had doubts about his resurrection from the dead, Jesus didn’t force the issue. Rather than reprimanding Thomas for his doubts, Christ invited him to acknowledge them and to take action by engaging with them. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27).
Today, it’s easy for us to misread the tone of this encounter. We view the story through a succession of cultural filters that impair our vision. We are tempted – even taught – to hear in Jesus’ words a tone of impatience and frustration; of demand rather than gentle invitation. However, it’s worth noticing that Jesus encourages Thomas to turn from his doubt only after the invitation and opportunity to explore those doubts. Indeed, Jesus invites Thomas to investigate his questions (literally putting his hands into the wounds of Jesus) with the kind of in-depth probing most of us would find shocking.
As far as we can ascertain from the story, Thomas never did take Jesus up on his offer. Christ was prepared to give him far more space than he needed to face his questions, and in the end he didn’t feel the need to explore his doubts any further. The simple invitation to do so freed him from them. A sharp rebuke might have pulled Thomas into line, but the invitation to explore his questions ultimately enabled him to deepen his faith.
Thomas might have been slower than his fellow apprentices to develop faith in the risen Christ, but when he did so, that faith was expressed in language which went beyond any that they had found: “My Lord and my God!”
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it sits at the heart of it. Faith and doubt, belief and questioning, clarity and mystery are inextricably linked. In fact, as we grow in faith we learn to expect the unexpected.
An apprentice left his brand new bicycle unattended in the crowded marketplace while he went about his shopping. Some hours later he remembered that he had forgotten to lock it. He rushed to the place where he had left it, expecting to find that it had been stolen.
To his surprise the bicycle was exactly where he had left it. Overwhelmed with joy, he rode it to the nearby church building and leaving it outside, went in to thank God for having kept it safe. It was only when the apprentice had finished praying he returned to find that the bicycle was gone.
The Bible never patronises us with the trite promise that if we believe, life will hold no mystery or that our doubts will evaporate. Rather, it constantly acknowledges that life is complicated, and that questions are an inescapable and essential part of what it means to be human. So, for the apprentice of Christ, belief is never the result of a rejection of reason, but rather the honest outcome of the ongoing debate in which we use our reason to examine, to probe and ultimately to strengthen our faith.