My Journey Through Doubt

My Journey Through Doubt

Dear Roger,

Have you ever struggled with doubts?

Sincerely, Jack 

I was sitting in my office with my friend, Jack, as his heart poured out the pain of the doubts and disappointments he was currently suffering. His faith was waning as he struggled to decide whether or not God even existed. “Have you ever had doubts about Christianity and the reality and existence of God?”

I know that many Christians struggle with doubt; therefore, I want share with you more than just a cursory, hit and miss, answer about my own personal doubts. What follows is a more complete account of my own journey through doubt—and the accompanying despair. I know what it is like to preach when I’m not ever sure that I believe in God—try that confession “on for size.” I also know how to work through the issues and rediscover faith by asking hard questions, carefully researching the facts, reasoning rationally, emotional heartache, sessions of intense prayer, and spiritual searching—all of which lead to a restored relationship with Jesus Christ Himself.

Those who have ever doubted all have a story to tell. It is hard to admit to doubts in the Christian community. Many will think that you have somehow lost your salvation or never with a Christian in the first place. You may have your own story. What follows is mine—as accurately as I can relate it.

The room full of ministers hushed when I asked, “Is there anyone here who’s never once doubted the reality and truth of Christianity?”  One minister raised his hand.  I was incredulous.

“Do you mean to tell me that you have never once, in all of your life, had at least one small doubt that Christianity might not be true?”

“That’s right,” he replied.  “I have never had a single doubt—not one.”

My initial reaction was that he was either an intellectual dullard or a bold-faced liar. Later, as I reflected on his remark, I considered that it was certainly possible for someone to have such simple, child-like faith that doubts never occurred.  I would not know.  I am not one of those persons.

My wife, Julie, might be one.  “Why do you ask so many questions?” she wanted to know.  Why can’t you just accept the Bible at face value and believe it?”

“Well, it is not that simple,” I reply.

Once upon a time, it was. I became a Christian with child-like faith at the age of seven.  Nary a doubt entered my mind.  However, questions regarding the validity of Christianity arose during my senior year in high school when I decided to read the Bible straight through before I was graduated in May.

My struggles commenced with the opening chapters of Genesis.  My quandary began that night when I realized that God did not create the sun until day four.  It bothered me that God made light and darkness on day one, and separated the sky from the waters on day two, and created dry land and vegetation on day three, but did not get around to the sun, moon and the stars until day four.  After all, how could the earth have light before it had a sun?  Further, it really bothered me that chlorophyll producing green plants thrived before a sun existed to power them.  However, my racing mind slowed when I reasoned that brand new plants could surely live for twenty-four hours until God got around to making the sun.  So, I read how God made the birds and the sea creatures on day five, and fashioned land animals and man on day six.  Then, I went on to sleep.

The next night I discovered what I considered a direct contradiction.  Moses declared in Genesis two that no shrub existed and no plant had sprung up when God formed man out of dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.[1]  Did Moses forget what he had just written?  In chapter one he said that plants were created three days before man.  In chapter two, he emphatically declared that no plants existed when God scooped up some dust to fashion a body for man.  What gives?

Since my childhood faith was strong, it did not take much to settle my high school musings.  A logical explanation had to exist.  Rehwinkel’s, The Flood,[2] brought comfort that brilliant men had figured out explanations for all sorts of complex interfaces between the Bible and science.  I could live off their faith.

My faith held strong through college and into my early pastoral career.  Then, while riding a bus on a high school mission tour from Arizona to Oregon, I read The Red Limit[3] by Timothy Ferris. This astronomical survey of the universe from the big bang to the present was mind-boggling.  During the first three minutes after creation hundreds of subatomic particles came into being including protons, neutrons, and electrons that coalesced into hydrogen, helium and a few lithium nuclei.  After three minutes not enough heat energy remained to fuse any heavier elements.

Ferris demonstrated how gravity coalesced into large clouds of hydrogen and helium gas over long periods of time for the makings of stars and galaxies.  Increasing pressure and heat in the small, dense compactions resulted in nuclear fusion and the first generation of stars were born.  Continued fusing of hydrogen and helium created increasingly heavier elements—up to lead in the periodic table.  Due to the physical constraints of mass, heat, and pressure, and the tight electrical binding of lead nuclei, no elements heavier than lead can be cooked up inside a star.

Fusion fires dim as heavier elements are produced and usable nuclear fuel is exhausted.  Stars ultimately implode with two significant results.  First, the elements created inside the stars scatter far out into space to be used in new star and planet formation.  Second, the heat of the explosion fuses into existence elements heavier than lead.  The idea that the “dust of the earth” used by God to create Adam was cooked up inside an exploded star somewhere out in the universe conflicted dramatically with my youthful understanding that one day about 6,000 years ago God created the heavens and the earth.

I was disillusioned to discover from Ferris that countless stars have burst into existence, lived a full life, and expired before our own sun was created about four and one-half billion years ago.  I was shocked to discover that our sun is so insignificant it is not even in a spiral arm in the galaxy.  We are four-fifths of the way out toward the edge of the Milky Way in a trough between the Sagittarius and Orion arms.  My faith shook as it dawned on me that the physics of star formation demanded the creation of a solar system of planets around every star (now increasingly verified by astronomical observation).  The very idea that life might exist on some planet elsewhere in the universe violently shook my secure Biblical foundations.  How would God relate to other life in the universe?  Could there be other fallen races of life?  Did Jesus die for people somewhere else, too?  Would “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos[4] take on more meaning than I ever imagined?  Much later, I discovered that C.S. Lewis had considered all these issues in his Space Trilogy long before I was born!

The barren desert landscape outside the bus window just south of Las Vegas looked much like the inside of my heart. The more I read, the less I believed in a God who was big enough to oversee the whole universe.  Maybe God really was a created figment of man’s hope-filled imagination? If He did exist, how could He be everywhere all the time in a universe so immense?  Earth was not the center of anything.  How could He have time for us?  How could man be made of stardust?  My original doubts flooded back—with a vengeance!

Doubts are dangerous, so when we returned home, I decided to squelch my uncertainties and follow Asaph’s model in Psalm 73 for handling doubts. The poet almost lost his faith when he contemplated the earthly success of the ungodly as compared to the godly.  He concluded, “If I had said, ‘I will speak [of all my doubts],’ I would have betrayed this generation of your children.” I vowed to pastor and preach and keep my reservations to myself.  A doubting preacher can bring mass confusion to the flock.  So, I kept my mouth shut while I worked through my struggles with doubt.

I trusted that God would honor the preaching of His Word despite my struggles with unbelief.  “God never promised to honor the preacher,” I reasoned. “He promised to honor His Word.”

Therefore, I vowed that God’s Word would be carefully and faithfully preached from my pulpit while I quietly fought through my confusions. I would depend on God to honor His Word.  I would not share my wonderings and bring harm and confusion to my flock.

Facing doubts is infinitely better than denying their existence and ignoring their effects.  As a result, I resolved to study astral physics and quantum mechanics until I could reconcile the Bible and science.  I started with Einstein’s theories and read books like Einstein’s Universe[5] by Nigel Calder, Relativity Visualized[6] by Lewis Epstein, and A Brief History of Time[7] by Stephen Hawking, until I could explain in simple terms how massive bodies warp space-time, how the universe works, and why time stops at the event horizon of a black hole.  The concept of eternity was easy to accept when observable places exist in the universe where time does actually stand still.

I studied quantum mechanics and read books like Taking the Quantum Leap[8] by Fred Wolf, and The First Three Minutes[9] by Steven Weinberg, and discovered that physics on the subatomic level determined the structure of everything on the macro level. I learned that the universe exists in multiple dimensions—most probably six small ones which rolled up at the moment of creation and the four that we discern easily in everyday life, length, width, and height, plus time.

Since math is the language of physics, I studied several books on mathematics, like One Two Three…Infinity[10] by George Gamow, and learned that the mathematical models of multidimensional space predict that everything in the universe becomes a single point when passing through eleven spatial dimensions.  This revelation, plus the implications of warped space-time, forever settled my mind as to how God could be omnipresent in an enormous, expanding universe.

I resolved to study enough anthropology to get a feel for the creation of man.  Lucy,[11] by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey, was one helpful resource which provided a broad, sweeping overview of the “emergence” of mankind on earth.  Lucy is a fossilized, three-foot tall, human like and unlike, female creature who walked the savannas of Africa three million years ago.  Lucy was not human; nor was she ape, chimpanzee, or monkey.  I began to understand how easily a prehistoric Lucy fits within the context of any of the Christian based theories of Adamic creation, like the insertion, emergence, God-conscious, or special creation viewpoints—to name just a few.

My faith was bolstered in the biological arena when The Search for Eve[12] by Michael Brown, was published.  This scholarly work, based on years of careful research on human mitochondria from people groups all over the world, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that every human being alive today had one common female ancestor.  Actual scientific proof for the existence of Eve further sustained my faith.

I studied geology in order to satisfy my mind that geologists had valid reasons for dating rocks back into the millions and billions of years old.  I soon understood with confidence how a walk down into the Grand Canyon unveils over 3.5 billion years of rock formation with a history of fossilized strata containing creatures that no longer inhabit the earth.

I began to see how the geological and biological revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries produced a great gulf between scientists and Christianity. Naturalistic evolution bumped strongly up against the many Christians who ascribed to a literal-Genesis interpretation that God created the earth and the universe in six, twenty-four hour days, approximately 6,000 years ago.

During this time I read the works of Christians who attempted to reconcile the division by postulating a “mature earth” theory that God created the universe with fossils and stars that just looked millions and billions of years old, when they really were created just 6,000 years prior.  The idea that God played tricks in the creation was untenable to me—but, I admired this honest attempt by searching Christians to solve the apparent disharmony.

Long periods of unresolved doubt stole my joy, sapped my spiritual strength, and affected the faith of those around me.  I am not pleased that I struggled.  I wish I had lived with more faith during those years—but I did not—and there was a price to pay.  Preaching a funeral while wondering if there was life after death was neither fun—nor inspiring.  Preaching with power about the miracles while pondering their validity was neither pleasant—nor possible.  I never dipped into the depths of unbelieving despair.  I never preached things I did not believe.  However, I just was not always as certain as I could—or should—have been.

Not surprisingly, relief for my searching uncertainties came from the Bible.  Whatever the creation accounts in Genesis mean, there is no confusion as to the meaning of Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible.”  How did the writer to the Hebrews know in the first century—and by faith at that!—what it took science over 1900 more years to discover!?  I concluded that God must have told him.

Both science[13] and the Bible agree that the universe exploded into existence at a single point out of absolutely nothing. As a result of my studies, I deciphered how God could create a universe out of nothing.  Einstein’s “E=MC2” means that matter and energy are equal.  According to his formula, a small quantity of matter can unleash a tremendous amount of energy, as in a nuclear explosion.  On the other hand, “slowing down” a tremendous amount of energy will produce a small quantity of matter.  In essence, matter is “frozen energy.”  It is easy to postulate that God as spirit entertains tremendous amounts of energy.  At the moment of creation God froze some energy to make a universe of matter that is “visible out of what is not visible.”  Hebrews 11:3 and Einstein’s equation were a powerful confirmation to me of the existence and reality of God—and the Bible.

Many of my questions remained unanswered—and that was all right.  I concluded that God did not reveal enough for us to solve all the riddles of science and the Bible. 

I made peace with my doubts when I decided that the main issue of faith is not deciphering the facts of creation, but settling the issue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I could not reconcile Genesis one and two just yet, but I could trust my life to the One who cheated death and promised that if I believed in Him, I, too, could cheat death and live forever.  I concluded that Paul had the right perspective.  In an attempt to convert the Athenians in Acts 17:16-31, Paul mentioned the God who created heaven and earth, but he planted his arguments firmly in the resurrection fact that Jesus Christ was not in the tomb on Easter morning. I decided likewise to anchor my faith in the resurrection.

The answer to unbelief resided in a personal choice of my will.  It was my choice to believe the scriptures—or not.  My faith could not rest on feelings or emotions.  Faith could not depend on my ability to figure everything out.  Faith must rest on the facts of the Word of God.  Mark Twain said, “It is not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me, but what I do understand.”  I understood enough to believe.  The rest would have to take care of itself.

God refused to punish me for having doubts; instead, He took steps gently to restore my faith.  He was kind to me.  I never once had the impression that He was angry with my unbelief—disappointed perhaps—but not irate.  I sensed all along that He lovingly supported my searching and stood unflinchingly by my side.  Never once did I feel betrayed or deserted.  He knew that I would work through my struggles.  Perhaps, He considered my life and ministry worth saving.  Most likely, I just benefited from His heart filled with mercy and grace.

I was living in faith when I encountered a little known, and I am convinced, totally unnoticed book in the Christian community, by Conrad Hyers entitled, The Meaning of Creation.[14]  Hyers’ premise for untangling the Genesis creation is based on understanding Hebrew poetry. While Moses wrote in prose, he structured the six days of Genesis creation in Hebrew poetical form.

English poets tend to rhyme words. Hebrew poets rhymed thoughts.

Genesis one was organized in Hebrew poetical form around three strophes.  The first strophe, verses 1-2, outlined the Problem. The earth was in chaos.  It was dark, watery and formless.  The second strophe, verses 3-13, demonstrated the Preparation when God brought form to the formless.  On day one He made light and darkness.  On day two He prepared the sky and the sea.  On day three He created land and vegetation.  Earth was now formed and ready to be filled. The third strophe, verses 14-31, described the Populating, or filling, of what had been formed. On day four God filled the light and darkness with the sun, moon, and stars. On day five God filled up the sky and sea with birds and fish.  On day six God filled the vegetation He had formed on day three with animals and man.  In correct Hebrew poetical style Moses rhymed day one with day four, day two with day five, and day three with day six.

According to Hyers, Moses never intended Genesis to be a scientific dissertation on creation.  In fact, Moses would be both startled and confused at the Biblical debates that swirl around science today—and vice versa.  The issue for Moses was not science and the Bible.  His issue was, Who is the real God? Elohim of the Israelis? Or, the myriad gods of the Egyptians?  With each day of the creation Moses systematically demonstrated that the Egyptian gods were not gods at all.  They were all creations of Elohim!

With that interpretation of Genesis One God brought peace to my slightly still struggling doubts and unbelief. I feel fortunate that God answered all the questions I had left when He brought Hyer’s book into my life. Not everyone will get such final confirmation; nevertheless, faith can still be had.

By the way, I have found many Christians who struggle in the same areas as I. When I share my journey, and especially with engineers and scientists, some are unbelievably threatened. Most, however, are unbelievably relieved. One engineer said to me, “Where were you in high school and college when I needed you?  This interpretation takes all the pressure off having to reconcile science and the Bible in order to confirm the validity of my Christianity! You would have spared me years of confusion, struggle and doubt. Thanks.”

Simple faith is preferable to raging doubts.  I wish I never doubted.  I wish I just believed and never entertained misgivings.  I wish I were more like my wife, Julie.  Unfortunately, I traveled a different path; but, fortunately with similar results.  My protracted, intense struggles produced a strong faith.  Simple, unwavering childlike faith is lovely to behold.  But, so is complex, hard-earned, mature faith that takes years to formulate and resolve.

[1] Genesis 2:4-7

[2] Rehwinkel, Alfred, The Flood, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Mo., 1966.

[3] Ferris, Timothy, The Red Limit, Bantam Books, 1979.

[4] Revelation 13:8

[5] Calder, Nigel, Einstein’s Universe, Viking Press, New York, 1979.

[6] Epstein, Lewis, Relativity Visualized, Insight Press, San Francisco, 1983.

[7] Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, New York, 1988.

[8] Wolf, Fred, Taking the Quantum Leap, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1981.

[9] Weinberg, Steven, The First Three Minutes, Bantam Books, New York, 1980.

[10] Gamow, George, One Two Three…Infinity, Bantam Books, New York, 1972.

[11] Johanson, Donald and Edey, Maitland, Lucy, Warner Books, New York, 1981.

[12] Brown, Michael, The Search for Eve, Harper and Row, New York, 1990.

[13] Jastrow, Robert, God and the Astronomers, W.W. Norton, New York, 1978.

[14] Hyers, Conrad, The Meaning of Creation, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1984.

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