The Benefit of the Doubt: Encouragement for the Questioning Christian. By Charles R. Swindoll. Plano, TX: Insight for Living Publishing House, 2011. 72 pp. Paper, Np.
Having recently read Grant Richison’s book, Certainty—A Place to Stand(see review in this issue), I was intrigued when I heard about this new book by Chuck Swindoll. What would he say about the relationship between doubt and belief?
Swindoll’s basic desire for this small book is to encourage the believer who struggles with doubts. I certainly commend him for that. In our postmodern age many young people struggle with believing anything. They are brainwashed into believing that truth is relative and that what is true for one person may not be true for another.
Swindoll seems to fear that if believers view doubt as unbelief, then they will depart from the faith. Thus the way he encourages church people who doubt is not by pointing to the proofs of our faith (evidential or philosophical apologetics), but by encouraging them to accept their doubts as normal and even healthy.
Four questions are posed on the back cover: “Is God real? Does God care? Does God hear my prayers? Can doubt and faith coexist?”
The first three of those questions are different than the fourth. Within the book Swindoll (and two authors who contributed short chapters) suggests that born-again people often doubt whether God cares, hears our prayers, and is even real.
The fourth question is not about God at all. It is about us. And it is not something we might doubt about God. It is a question as to whether when we doubt something, do we simultaneously believe it, or not?
Postmodern Evangelicals answer the fourth question affirmatively. Yes, they say, doubt and belief can and do coexist. They are not speaking about doubt about one proposition while believing a different one. They are speaking about doubting and believing the same proposition. For example, is it possible to doubt that God exists and yet believe that God exists?
Swindoll’s answer to the fourth question is yes as well. However, it should be noted that he never specifically says that doubt and faith in the same proposition can coexist. He merely implies that. Here is what he says: “Is it possible for faith and doubt to coexist? One desperate parent in the New Testament would answer that question with a resounding yes!” (p. 1, exclamation mark his). He is referring to the father who said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). What that means is not explained by Swindoll. He merely quotes Mark 9:20-24 and then moves on to a new section.
The father believed that Jesus could heal his son, which is the issue at hand in the context (see Mark 9:23). But there was something he did not believe. Probably he did not yet believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Thus he could be saying, “Lord, I believe you can heal my son, but help me since I do not yet believe that You are the Messiah.” However what he clearly is not saying is “Lord, I believe you can heal my son, but I also do not believe that you can heal my son.” Yet that is what Swindoll implies he was saying.
Whereas Richison criticizes the position taken by Taylor in his book The Myth of Certainty (see review of Taylor in JOTGES Spring 1995, pp. 78-79), Swindoll praises Taylor’s position and book several times within this short book (pp. 3-5, 19-20). Taylor refers to people within Christianity who doubt as “reflective Christians.” Swindoll likes this designation (pp. 4-6).
Citing Taylor, Swindoll says that “a non-reflective person asks, ‘What could be worse than unanswered questions?’” (p. 4). I struggled when I first read that. Isn’t that what a reflective, thoughtful person asks? The thoughtful person wants answers to his questions. But no, according to Taylor and Swindoll “the reflective person considers unquestioned answers his or her struggle” (p. 4, italics his).
Actually we should call the latter person a skeptic, not a reflective person. I’ve met theologians who question anything and everything in the faith, including the very existence of God (see below). That is not, in my estimation, being a reflective believer. That is being a skeptical unbeliever.
Now we certainly shouldn’t simply affirm that we believe the fundamentals because they are widely accepted within Christianity as orthodox. If we do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, for example, then we don’t believe it. We cannot choose to believe it. We are dishonest if we affirm something we do not believe. It is fine to look into the evidence and question whether the evidence proves that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. But during that time of questioning, one is an unbeliever in the resurrection of Jesus, not a believer. Isn’t that precisely what the Lord told Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27)?
Yet Swindoll and Taylor are suggesting that the skeptic is a believer, and more than that, he is doing what all believers should do, doubt what God has said.
Swindoll tells of flying home after having preached his father’s funeral and talking with his sister, Lucy. She asked, “Babe, do you believe every single thing you said today?” I was surprised to read the answer Chuck gave his sister, “‘No,’ I said almost under my breath. ‘There are things that the jury’s still out on in my mind’” (p. 10).
He did not explain precisely what things he preached at his father’s funeral that he did not believe. Whatever they were, I was surprised that he would say anything that he did not believe to be true.
In a chapter by Bryce Klabunde entitled, “Does Doubting Mean I’m Not Saved?” this highly postmodern statement appears: “Every believer wonders sometimes whether or not God is real” (p. 55). That is a bizarre statement. Klabunde goes on to assert that every Christian also wonders sometimes “whether or not…the Bible is true” (p. 55).
I strongly recommend this eye-opening book for every pastor, Bible teacher, and church leader. I suggest it be read in conjunction with Richison’s book, Certainty—A Place to Stand.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society