When Atheists Doubt

I have never experienced an earthquake firsthand, but my friends from California have described to me what it feels like. The ground beneath you rumbles, and dishes rattle and crash to the floor. You feel unstable, and you have no idea how long the tremors will last or what will happen next. During a quake, the earth can shake so hard you may wonder if you are going to live to see another day. The whole ordeal can leave you off-balance and disoriented.

Doubt can be like an emotional and psychological quake. The foundation of your life feels like it is lurching to the left, then to the right, and you wonder if you are going to make it through. You feel unstable, confused. The faith you took for granted is no longer within your grasp.

When I drifted into a season of doubt, I felt as though my safe and secure world was quaking and crumbling before my eyes. God had been the foundation of my life and the constant source of my security and comfort. But when doubt began to chip away at that foundation, I started to believe that I was no longer a true follower of Christ.

I tried everything to rid myself of the doubt. I prayed. I got up early in the morning and cried out to God in the closet of my apartment, not sure if He was listening or whether He was even there. It was excruciating. My entire world was rocked. My certainty had disappeared.

Doubt was not acceptable, especially in the Christian circles where I lived. Doubting God meant you were a failure and probably weren’t even saved. So I kept it all inside, stuffing it down in a secret, shameful place. I didn’t tell anyone about my inner thoughts. But as bad as I felt about my doubts, my biggest “failure” was a gross misunderstanding of the nature of doubt and the nature of faith. At the time, the doubt I experienced felt like an earthquake, but I realize now that perhaps it was more like an ice storm. Let me explain.

Os Guinness uses ice as a fitting illustration for the nature of doubt. Imagine a small river that’s been frozen over by a wintery storm. You have a grassy bank on one side and a rocky bank on the other, with an iced-over river separating the two. If you crawled out onto the slippery ice, you would find that, in stumbling for your footing, you could slide between the two sides of the river. You could slide closer to the grassy bank or you could slide closer to the rocky bank.

Doubt is like the ice between the two banks. The grassy bank represents belief, and the rocky bank symbolizes unbelief. Doubting is the place in between belief and unbelief. In a sense, doubt is neutral. It can slide you closer to belief or closer to unbelief. I made the mistake of assuming that doubt, especially living in doubt as I did, indicated unbelief. But that’s simply not the case. Doubt is like ice. Ice is neutral. It can slide you closer to God or it can slide you farther away from Him.

If you ask people the question, “What is the opposite of love?” most of them will respond, “Hate.” But hate is not the opposite of love. Indifference is. If you ask people, “What is the opposite of faith?” most of them will respond, “Doubt.” I would suggest that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it is unbelief. Whether you are on the grassy bank of belief in God or the rocky bank of unbelief, you are in a secure and certain place. Your feet are planted on the ground of belief or unbelief. There is no instability or sliding around. But to be in doubt is to be in the middle between the two banks on the slippery surface of uncertainty. When you are on the ice of doubt, you can slide either way.

It Goes Both Ways

Two examples of the unpredictably slippery quality of doubt are the conversion story of Lee Strobel and the de-conversion story of Bart Ehrman. Strobel, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of The Case for Christ, was an atheist at one time. What moved Strobel to believe in God, sliding him from atheism to theism, was doubt. He began to doubt his worldview. He began to doubt that naturalism and atheism were an adequate explanation of humanity’s source, existence, and future.

Conversely, the de-conversion story of Bart Ehrman, author of the book Misquoting Jesus, equally exemplifies the icy slipperiness of doubt. He was once an evangelical. He is now a skeptic. Ehrman was sold a bill of goods about the absolute perfection of the Bible. He attended a conservative school that made great claims about the objective truthfulness of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, when he began to discover variances in the text, he panicked and eventually left the faith completely. The doubt he experienced had an opposite effect as it did for Strobel, sliding Ehrman away from belief in God and into unbelief and agnosticism.

In both cases, doubt was at work. In one case, doubt slid Strobel toward belief in God. In the other case, doubt slid Ehrman away from God. Doubt similarly affected brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens. Christopher, an atheist, wrote the New York Times bestseller God Is Not Great. Peter wrote The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Doubt led Christopher to slide away from belief in God to a fiery brand of atheism. Doubt first led Peter away from God, but then it slid him back to belief in God.

Many times, we view doubt as something that is always to be avoided, but that is not necessarily the case. Making room for doubt can lead people to faith in Christ. For someone to move from atheism to theism, it takes doubt. But at the same time, for someone to move from theism to atheism, it also takes doubt. Like unpredictable ice, doubt can move people in both directions.

Excerpt from Room for Doubt: How Uncertainty Can Deepen Your Faith.

Ben Young