An Apologist Confronts His Doubt

Mike Licona was at a spiritual crossroads, and he couldn’t have reached it at a more inconvenient time.

As the apologetics coordinator for the Southern Baptist Convention’s mission board, Mike gained the reputation of a stalwart defender of Christianity. He’d written two books on the historicity of the Resurrection. He traveled the country, debating the philosophical merits of Christianity on college campuses and in churches. But as he continued his doctoral studies, Mike felt a familiar presence lurking near the edges of his consciousness. The unsettling specter he thought he had banished had returned.

His wife Debbie could sense it too. Mike describes the moment they acknowledged its unwelcome reappearance. “One night I’m lying in bed and I figured my wife was asleep. We probably hadn’t said anything for half an hour. And then I just heard her voice pierce into the darkness. ‘You’re doubting again, aren’t you?’”

He could avoid it no longer. Doubt had made a dramatic re-entry into the apologist’s life. But this time was different. This time he would face it head on.

Following the evidence, wherever it leads

That night, Mike shared his doubts with Debbie. Although he felt confident in the existence of God, he couldn’t seem to shake misgivings about other core Christian beliefs—even the Resurrection of Jesus, the very doctrine upon which he had based his academic career. In the midst of all this doubt, Mike says there was only one thing of which he was absolutely certain. He told his wife, “When I conclude my research, if I conclude Jesus did not rise from the dead, I’m going to have to resign my position and find another line of work.”

Mike is a perennial second guesser. Even the most mundane, every-day issues are not immune to his scrutiny. “It’s not just my faith, it’s everything. It’s one of my idiosyncrasies,” he says. This made him even more persistent in his pursuit of the truth. “I became really serious about it. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. I wanted to get to the truth.”

No stone left unturned
Mike would often take long walks at night, praying through these issues. “I was out one evening praying and said, ‘God I believe Christianity is true, I believe Jesus was raised from the dead. But you know I’m plagued by doubts. If Christianity is wrong, now is a really good time to show me because I am more open than ever. I’m open to looking at the data and following it . . . wherever it leads me.”

Mike knew that such brutal, intellectual honesty could come at a steep spiritual cost. He acknowledged as much to God. “Because I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible,” Mike prayed, “I realize that this may put a damper on my relationship with you, God. I don’t want to do that, but I feel like I need to.”

During the ensuing period, Mike’s spiritual life grew cold. Although he never became angry with God, he felt far away from him. Mike says that although it was important for him to take this approach, he doesn’t recommend it to others. “But for me, I felt like I had to do that to resolve the doubts in my own mind.”

Debating the faith

Even as he put the claims of Christianity to the test, Mike engaged in debates across the country with prominent skeptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels. But far from weakening his faith, those public interactions actually buttressed his confidence in the truth of Christian claims. “I wanted to put my historical case for the Resurrection in front of the brightest skeptical minds in North America, to see if these things would really hold up. When I found out their answers to the claims of Christianity, it actually strengthened my faith. Even though historical data cannot prove beyond all doubt that Jesus raised from the dead, I think that it does prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

This is a theme Mike repeatedly returns to as he explains his slow, winding journey toward confidence in Christianity, and specifically the Resurrection of Jesus. Christians sometimes feel as if they must banish every trace of doubt. But Mike says this is a futile effort. “When I got to the end of the study, I was genuinely surprised by how much evidence there was for the Christian faith. I thought that my doubts would vanish forever, but a month afterward they crept back in. But I asked myself, ‘What am I really second guessing?’ I wasn’t doubting the evidence I had uncovered, I was wondering if I had somehow missed something. It wasn’t based on evidence! That wasn’t an intellectual doubt, it was an emotional doubt.”

Mike is careful to make this distinction. Intellectual doubts are based upon philosophical and historical evidence. Mike had spent years studying the evidence and had honestly concluded that the Resurrection makes the best sense of all the data. His doubts were not intellectual. They were emotional. “Well, what if I’m wrong? What are the consequences? That’s emotional doubt. And that needs to be dealt with separately.”

Doubting is normal

To cope with emotional doubt, Mike says that first you must recognize that doubting is normal. “Even some of the great ‘heroes of the faith,’ people like Abraham and John the Baptist, doubted.” Mike describes the events in Matthew 11, wherein John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask if he truly is the Messiah. “Jesus responds by giving evidence–he points to his miracles and the preaching of the gospel to the poor. Then, he goes on to say that ‘among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist’ (Matt. 11:11, ESV).” Far from condemning John the Baptist for his doubts, Jesus provides evidence to answer them, and even gives John the highest possible praise. To Mike, this signals that Jesus does not condemn those who doubt, and that even the most committed Christians will find themselves asking tough questions from time to time. Doubting is normal.

Good evidence exists for the truth of Christianity

Mike also says we must remind ourselves of the many lines of evidence that point to the truths of Christianity. “There’s evidence from philosophy and science that God exists–from molecular biology to astrophysics. Even atheists often will admit that the evidence points to the possibility of a designer. But it’s the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus that gives you evidence for the existence of God, and the truth of the Christian view of God at the same time.”
Definition of faith
There are many things that can cause a Christian to doubt, even in the Bible. “For instance, there are passages where God seems to tell the Jewish people to wipe out entire races of people. There are answers to those questions, which vary in their effectiveness. I can question and wonder about that, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change whether Christianity is true. The Resurrection does. If Jesus rose, Christianity is true, and if he didn’t then Christianity is false. In order to work through my doubts, I remind myself that there are various possibilities proposed to address those other problems. But if Jesus rose from the dead, then it means that one of those plausible solutions must be the true one. I try to focus on the things that we can know.”

Absolute certainty is an unrealistic expectation

Ultimately, Mike says, we’re all capable of doubting even the most fundamental aspects of human life. “How do you know you aren’t a brain in a vat somewhere being stimulated with electricity so that you can have the external perceptions that you are experiencing? You can’t know that! Or, how do you know that everything in our universe wasn’t just created five minutes ago so that we have memories in our heads that never occurred, and food in our stomachs that we never ate? We simply cannot know. I don’t know that absolute, 100% certainty about anything can be justified.”

In fact, Mike says, one can be absolutely certain of something and still be wrong. The issue isn’t so much whether or not one has absolute certainty, but whether that certainty is justified.  We can, however, be reasonably certain of things. “We can look at the evidence, make logical conclusions, and have reasonable certainty. That’s all we can ask for.” One can doubt just about anything; the question is whether or not those doubts are reasonable.

“Some beliefs appear to be true and need no more rational justification, what philosophers call ‘properly basic beliefs.’ But we can’t prove those things are true. I am rationally justified in believing that I am physically in a certain place in space-time. I am justified in having reasonable certainty that this is the case.” When facing emotional doubts about the validity of the Christian faith, it’s important to ensure that you haven’t set up an impossible threshold of certainty.

Faith is ultimately about commitment

Mike says that many Christians have a fundamental misunderstanding of faith. “Faith is not necessarily the absence of doubt; it’s acting upon what you believe.” In fact, there are examples in the New Testament of individuals who expressed profound, genuine faith while simultaneously entertaining doubts.

This was Peter’s experience in Matthew 14 when Jesus beckoned him to walk on water. “He steps out of the boat and he starts walking. He’s walking because he has faith in Jesus. But then he sees the circumstances around him, the waves—it’s a stormy night out on the sea—and he begins to sink. He’s thinking to himself ‘Wait a minute! I’m walking on water! I can’t do this. These waves could sweep over me and I could drown!’”

Peter has faith in Jesus, but the other thought he has is ‘This isn’t possible!’”  The Greek word Matthew uses to describe Peter’s state of mind is distazo. “That means ‘to think two different ways, to think two things.’ Mike says that the same word appears in Matthew 28 when the risen Jesus appears. “Some worshipped him, but others doubted. They were having two thoughts—’Whoah! He’s right here before us!’ and ‘How can this be? We saw him crucified!’”

Understanding these examples from the New Testament can help Christians as they struggle with their own doubts. “When it comes to our own walk with God, we can have faith, and still have doubt. Faith is getting out of the boat and walking on the water even though you have doubts.” There will be times in the Christian life when one might have conflicting thoughts: God exists, God doesn’t exist. Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. In those moments, Mike says what’s important is what you act upon. “I choose and say, ‘I do believe Christianity is true, and I’m going to follow him.’ You live your life accordingly. You live a holy life.” When you believe something is reasonably certain, and you act on it—that’s faith.

***

For more from Mike Licona on the Resurrection, read The Resurrection: A New Historiographical Approach and Paul Meest Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection. Or, see a complete list of his books available on Logos.com.

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Tyler Smith
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Written by Tyler Smith