Faith, Doubt, and Certainty

In this essay, I’d like to examine the relationship between faith, doubt and certainty. On the one hand, I’ve run across many people who struggle deeply with doubt and yet long for the faith of some religious believers. HouseOfCardsOn the other hand, there are those who claim that faith is the enemy of reason and that certainty always comes at the expense of rational thought. I’d like to challenge both groups to reassess their positions in light of a biblical understanding of faith. My claim is that biblical faith is a distinct category from either doubt or certainty, as they are normally understood. We often believe that intellectual certainty, or at least strong intellectual assurance, must precede faith. However, my claim is that assurance and certainty flow out of biblical faith, but are not a prerequisite for it.

Certainty and its origins

One of the great themes of the Neoatheist movement is that certainty is impossible and that skepticism is unavoidable for any rational person. Even Richard Dawkins, who has written an entire book attempting to dismantle the claims of theism, refuses to rate his disbelief in God as an absolutely certainty (see The God Delusion, p. 74). Similarly, Sam Harris derides the dogmatism of religion. In contrast to science, which only makes tentative assertions and constantly revises its claims, Harris says that religious beliefs are clung to tenaciously without any possibility of revision. The Neoatheists repeatedly insist that any claim to certainty is arrogant by definition. Since our knowledge is always finite and limited, certainty is laughable and is likely to conceal unjustified and unjustifiable beliefs.

However, this extreme skepticism is internally inconsistent. When a skeptic asserts that all claims to certainty are unjustified and false, we need only ask him whether he is certain of this statement itself. There are only two options. Either he can assert that he is absolutely certain that all claims to certainty are unjustified or he can recognize that he is not absolutely certain, but only highly persuaded, that certainty is unjustified. In the former case, where does his certainty come from? In fact, his claim is self-refuting. If all claims to certainty are unjustified, then so is this one. In the latter case, if he is not absolutely certain that all certainty is unjustified, then perhaps some certainty is justified after all!

Turning skepticism against itself is a common trick and although it raises valid questions, it also sidesteps the true weight of the skeptical argument. A thoughtful skeptic would rightly recognize that he cannot be certain that all claims to certainty are unfounded. However, he could assert that most claims to certainty are unfounded, at least in the sense that they are objectively false. If various groups claim certainty with regard to beliefs that are mutually exclusive, then these beliefs cannot all be correct. One or more of these groups must be wrong. Therefore, a skeptical attitude towards all truth claims, even our own, seems to be indicated.

This argument contains elements of truth that all of us should carefully consider. Every mutually exclusive belief cannot be correct. Therefore, since many of us certainly have false beliefs, we ought to be careful to live an examined life and be clear on why we believe what we do. It is also important for us to approach every subject with humility, recognizing our own limitations and fallibility. Although I disagree that humility necessitates an absence of confidence, I agree that an attitude of personal arrogance is wrong. But having said that, I would like to call attention to a major problem with the skeptical attitude towards certainty and towards belief in general. In my opinion, what appears to be skepticism on the surface can actually consist of adherence to a whole set of rigorously unjustified beliefs. Indeed, the real danger of the skeptical position is that it can be very unreflective about its own dependence on assumptions.

The first question we need to ask is: what is certainty? A skeptic may decry certainty without actually thinking about what he means by this word. Upon reflection, a skeptic might say that certainty refers to the rigorous assurance that something we believe is actually true. Barring the objection of self-inconsistency already made, I do believe that it is possible to deny that certainty is possible in any way. Unfortunately for the skeptic, this denial is a slippery slope. To see why, let us consider a few examples from everyday life.

First, we could consider simple mathematical proofs. Given some set of basic axioms and the rules of logic, we can prove a multitude of theorems with seemingly perfect assurance as to their truth. No one that I know would claim any kind of uncertainty regarding the proposition that one plus one equals two. Second, almost all skeptics, especially the scientists among the Neoatheists, would affirm and would even applaud the kind of assurance and certainty we obtain from using the scientific method. As a consequence, skeptics like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins claim that scientific explanations like the theory of gravity command a degree of certainty that is categorically different than any religious claim. Finally, we are all familiar with the kind of certainty that we have regarding everyday matters. When I start my car in the morning, I am absolutely certain that it will not turn into a pumpkin. In each of these examples, even skeptics feel justified in using the “language of certainty.”

The problem arises when we try to explain the grounds for our certainty. For instance, what grounds do I have for believing that my car will not turn into a pumpkin? I could enumerate all the evidence I have for the regularity of nature, the many times in the past when my car has not turned into a pumpkin, and so on. But if truly pressed, could I really claim that I had rigorous certainty? To be perfectly honest, I could not. Where would such certainty come from except from an assumption of the continued regularity of the laws of nature? But this belief would be an assumption, not a conclusion based on reason, logic, or evidence (see Bertrand Russell’s essay On Induction). Even regarding scientific theories, Dawkins and Harris recognize that there is always a remote, nagging possibility that any given theory might be wrong. For instance note how Harris states in The End of Faith that the chances that “we will one day discover that DNA has absolutely nothing to do with inheritance” are “effectively zero”, but not exactly zero (p. 76). The truth of any given scientific proposition may be extremely, extremely likely. But we can never be rigorously certain. We might expect that, of all places, the realm of mathematics can offer us relief from the specter of uncertainty. But even there, we find that all of our careful reasoning and logic depends on the assumption of certain axioms. Can I be certain that these axioms are true?’

There are really only two possibilities then. The first is to affirm that certainty of any kind is utterly impossible. But then not only is absolute certainty impossible; any kind of certainty is impossible. For instance, consider the following question: how certain am I that the objective universe is not some kind of persistent illusion or a computer simulation like the Matrix? Am I 50% certain that the objective universe exists? 25%? 90%? .01%? Upon reflection, not only is absolute certainty regarding the existence of the objective universe impossible, but any numerical estimate of my certainty is equally arbitrary. My belief that the objective universe actually exists is an assumption without any rigorous evidence or empirical justification. If even the existence of the objective universe is not certain, then any subsequent reasoning derived from scientific observation of the objective universe will be equally uncertain. If we demand rigorous certainty of even the most basic truths of mathematics or science, we are left completely empty-handed. All truth ultimately derives from the assumption of certain axioms, about which we can have no rigorous certainty.

The far more appealing and intuitive option is to recognize that there is an important distinction between what I have identified as “rigorous certainty” as discussed above and “experiential certainty.” We make this distinction whenever we use the language of certainty with regards to our daily experience. For instance, if my two-year-old son wants to put his hand on a hot stove, I tell him “If you put your hand on a hot stove, it will certainly be burned.” I would not preface this remark by saying “Well, we can’t rigorously be sure that the objective universe even exists and perhaps the hot stove is merely a figment of my imagination.” As we noted above, if I am using the “language of certainty” to imply rigorous certainty of the kind discussed in the previous paragraph, then I am wrong; in this sense, I believe that human beings cannot be “rigorously certain” about anything at all. However, my claim is that in everyday language, certainty refers not to “rigorous certainty” but to “experiential certainty”, that is, the subjective assurance that our beliefs and our assumptions are true.

In practice, experiential certainty shows itself in a myriad of ways, most notably in the consistency of our actions and responses. Although a truly skeptical philosopher may claim -rightly- to have no rigorous certainty that his car will not turn into a pumpkin, he still puts his keys in the ignition each morning. A skeptic might claim -rightly- to have no rigorous certainty that the entire universe is not a figment of his imagination, but if he is mugged, he still expresses rage and frustration. These illustrations show that even those who recognize the impossibility of rigorous certainty and even despair of the possibility of real knowledge still possess and act upon experiential certainty on a daily basis.

At this point skeptics ought to be deeply distressed. As I said in the introduction, skepticism often masks a worldview with a deep commitment to some particular set of presuppositions, all the more problematic for being unrecognized. For a skeptic who truly clings to the belief that the skeptical worldview offers rigorous certainty apart from any assumptions, it is worth considering the following questions:

  1. How do we know that the laws of nature are uniform in areas of the universe that have not been observed?
  2. How do we know that the laws of nature will continue to hold true in the future?
  3. How do we know that the laws of nature have always held true in the past?
  4. How do we know that the objective universe exists and is not merely some extremely persistent illusion?
  5. How do we know that other human beings have subjective experiences like our own?
  6. How do we know that inductive reasoning is valid?
  7. How do we know that empirical evidence is a valid means to truth?

All of these questions expose assumptions that almost all of us make about the nature of reality. These assumptions often go unquestioned because they are shared by such vast segments of our communities. And yet, if we were challenged to provide rigorous proof of one of these beliefs, we would have to recognize their axiomatic nature. Merely appealing to their widespread acceptance or innate appeal is a dangerous business. Presumably, a skeptic would not wish to assert that theism is a valid presupposition because of its widespread acceptance by all cultures throughout human history. If not, then we cannot appeal to widespread acceptance or innate appeal to rigorously justify any of our other beliefs.

However, it’s also worth pointing out that Christians often share the distress of skeptics when we recognize that all our beliefs are ultimately dependent on assumptions. I -just as much as any skeptic- view certain beliefs as false and utterly ludicrous. I would very much like to be able to dismiss these beliefs as unwarranted, unjustified, and rigorously indefensible. But I cannot do that. If someone truly recognizes their assumptions as assumptions, then all beliefs which follow from these assumptions are rational and logical, even if they are utterly false. Similarly, there is no guarantee that our experiential certainty is necessarily correlated with true belief. A man with false beliefs may have just as much if not more experiential certainty than a man with true beliefs. These epistemological truths may be hard to accept for both Christians and non-Christians raised with a post-Enlightenment confidence in human reason. But the reality is that human reason is simply unable to provide us with assurance that we are using the correct presuppositions or with rigorous certainty regarding our deeply held beliefs.

Certainty and faith

Having made the distinction between rigorous and experiential certainty, I would like to examine the connection between certainty and biblical faith. If -as I have said- rigorous certainty is impossible, then what does it mean to have faith? And how can faith be “the assurance of things hoped for” as the author of Hebrews puts it?

To begin with, we need to examine a common fallacy made by both Christians and non-Christians regarding the nature of biblical faith. Both Christians and non-Christians assume that biblical faith (translated from the Greek pistis) has to do primarily with intellectual belief. While I certainly believe that biblical faith contains some component of purely intellectual belief, biblical faith is better understood as “personal trust”. In fact, the early Reformers recognized that faith consists of three components: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia is a bare cognitive knowledge of the gospel; assensus is an intellectual belief that the gospel is objectively true; but fiducia is a personal trust in the gospel.

An illustration may be helpful. Let’s say I am asleep in my apartment and my apartment building catches on fire. I am awakened by a shout from the bedroom window where a fireman is calling to me “Wake up! Your apartment is on fire! I can rescue you!” This is notita; a bare awareness of a factual claim. I may then sniff the air and smell smoke. I may open my apartment door and see a fire raging in the hallway. I may decide -based on the fireman’s uniform, his height, his weight, and all of his firefighting equipment- that he is uniquely capable of rescuing me. This is assensus; an intellectual belief in the objective truth of a certain claim. And yet, do I have faith in the fireman? It all depends on my personal response to him. Do I entrust myself to him? Do I put the full weight of my life into his hands and trust in his ability to save me? If so, then I have faith in him. This is fiducia, personal trust.

Given the biblical definition of faith, how does it relate to certainty? First, we ought to recognize that rigorous certainty has little to do with biblical faith. Whether we can rigorously derive a belief in God from some minimal set of axioms has almost no bearing on whether we trust Him. Rigorous certainty is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for biblical faith. But second, even experiential certainty can be put in a wrong relationship to faith by viewing it as an antecedent rather than as a product of faith. Let me use myself as an illustration.

When I became a Christian, I had very little knowledge of Christian apologetics. I believed intellectually that God existed and that Jesus was a real human being who had died on a Roman cross. Since becoming a Christian, my experiential certainty regarding God’s existence and the truth of Christianity has grown immensely. But it would be a mistake to imagine that my faith was based -then or now- on my intellectual or experiential certainty of the truth of Christianity. I can honestly say that I believe the arguments in support of theism in general or Christianity in particular are very strong. If I then take into account my personal experiences, both objective and subjective, then my experiential certainty is extremely high. At times it is near absolute. At other times – usually when I haven’t gotten enough sleep- I am filled with doubts. But the clear implication is that faith is not – and should not be- tethered to our experiential certainty. Faith is a trust, a commitment, to Jesus Christ regardless of my present feelings in the same way that marriage is a commitment to my wife regardless of my present emotions. Does that mean that faith is completely divorced from certainty or that marriage is completely divorced from feelings of love for my wife? Of course not. But it is vital to keep them in the right order.

Let me finish by drawing a few conclusions.

First, I hope that a proper understanding of biblical faith will help to demystify faith for non-Christians. If we incorrectly equate faith with intellectual certainty, we may wonder or scoff at the ability of people to have strong faith in Jesus. “How can they be so intellectually certain?”, we might wonder. Or we might even try to work up in ourselves a particular psychological condition of assurance in an attempt to “have faith.” In reality, this scenario has very little to do with biblical faith which draws its assurance not from our own particular psychological state, but from the trustworthiness of the object of our faith. Rather than torturing ourselves with an attempt to achieve some kind of perfect, rigorous certainty which I believe is philosophically impossible, we need to recall that faith is primarily a question of personal trust. I am not claiming that intellectual belief plays no role at all in faith. Obviously, we cannot trust in Jesus if we have never heard of him or are quite certain that everything He said is objectively false. But if we make intellectual belief the core of faith rather than a necessary step which leads to personal trust, then we will wait forever for a perfect certainty that will never come.

Second, the Neoatheists in particular make the mistake of assuming that all decisions and commitments fall onto a continuum. In other words, they assume that our commitment to a particular idea should be directly proportional to our intellectual certainty of its truth. Although this proportionality is occasionally plausible in certain areas, it is simply not possible in many others. For instance, my certainty that a fireman is able to save me from my burning apartment might be extremely high but it will never be perfect. Yet, in the end, I must make a decision either to trust him or to reject him. As much as I might like to scale my commitment to him in proportion to my certainty, it is simply impossible. Even in science, while we might choose to believe some theory only with some high probability, we cannot write grants or build careers that way. Real life demands binary choices: yes or no, in or out.

This truth is both terrifying and comforting. On the one hand, it is terrifying because we are always desperate to keep our options open. We do not want a binding commitment. We always want to keep a toehold on dry land in case the water proves too dangerous. But as desirable as that idea may be in certain situations, it is fatal in any kind of relationship. As long as I keep some kind of escape route, some backup plan, I have not truly committed myself to someone. The God of the Bible demands and deserves precisely this kind of wholehearted commitment, both terrifying and necessary. However, the binary nature of biblical faith is also extremely comforting to those who doubt. Imagine two men trapped in a burning building. One has extreme certainty that the fireman is able to save him. But he decides to go back to sleep. The other has terrible uncertainty and is wracked with doubt. But he casts himself into the fireman’s arms, feeling himself as good as lost. Which one wakes up the next morning alive and well? The second. It is not the strength of our certainty, but the object of our faith, that saves us.

Third, to those of us who are still hesitant to put our trust in Jesus, it helps to consider the alternative. The choice we make is never between faith and no faith. The choice is between faith in Jesus and faith in something else. There will always be some object of ultimate good and adoration in our lives. This object may be as small and petty as our own personal comfort, our material prosperity, or our career success. Or it may be as large and noble as the welfare of our family or the welfare of our nation or our moral rectitude. But we are implicitly trusting in these objects to give us meaning, security, happiness and occasionally even salvation from sin and forgiveness. Even the man who says “I refuse to trust in anything; I will remain skeptical and uncommitted to any person, cause, or belief” is putting his ultimate trust in his own autonomy. His own ability to remain a free agent, unrestrained, uncommitted, and skeptical is the good that he ultimately desires. While we are considering putting our faith in Jesus, we need to recognize that at that very moment we are actively engaged in putting our faith elsewhere. The question is not whether to trust; the question is what we will trust.

Finally, the entire discussion up to this point has assumed that the Bible is true and that Jesus is our only hope for salvation. But how do we know this is true? After all, doesn’t our faith need to rest in our rigorous certainty of the gospel? Doesn’t our trust in Jesus need to come from a rigorous and perfect logical argument? I don’t think so. As I said, I believe that human reason will always be fettered to presuppositions. Reason and logic alone simply cannot tell us which presuppositions are objectively true. If that’s the case, then how is it possible for human beings to know truth? I would conclude that in ourselves, it is not possible. We cannot reach out and grasp the truth. But what if the truth could reach out and grasp us?

This is actually the joy and glory of the God of the Bible. According to the Bible, God is a God who saves. Like anyone else, I want my beliefs to rest on my own perfect intellectual certainty. I want my reason and my intellect to illuminate the truth in a way that is utterly inescapable. Why? Because then I don’t need to trust God at all. There is something deep inside of us that wants to remain -even in our religiosity- ultimately independent of God and autonomous. We want our trust to be in something other than Him. We don’t want him to be the very ground of our knowledge, the basis for all our understanding of truth, the reason for our assurance, and our only hope in the world. We don’t want to need God. But we do need Him.

The glory of God is that He can meet this need. He satisfies the hungry with good things, He enlightens the darkened, gives knowledge to the simple and rest to the weary. Even faith itself is not something we bring to God; it is a gift from God. Everything is had for the asking and nothing can be bought. Ask Him for it and then trust Him to give it. Beat ceaselessly on the door of grace. If you feel you are denied admittance, if you despair and struggle, then knock all the louder. For whoever asks receives and to him who knocks the door will be opened.

Better yet, trust him now. The call of the gospel is not “Ask and perhaps God will hear.” Rather it is, “Come whosoever will and drink freely from the water of life”. God is pleading with you, God is even commanding you, to trust in Jesus and be saved. Turn to Jesus. Believe on him. Whoever comes to him, he will by no means cast out.

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