Pastor Gregory Boyd (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) made a name for himself years ago when he penned the best-selling Gold Medallion Award-winner Letters from a Skeptic, a collection of letters with his agnostic father that address tough questions non-Christians people have about the faith. But Boyd quickly became a lightning rod of controversy when he became a proponent of “open theism”, a view claiming that the future is not pre-determined and therefore God knows the future as possibilities and not fact (for more, see his book God of the Possible).
In his newest book, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty, Boyd has returned to his roots in a way by urging people to wrestle with the big questions of faith. He claims that modern Christians have come to accept a false belief that faith is rooted in certainty. He says that faith is instead being willing to commit to living a certain way despite not being certain. Here, we discuss the benefit of embracing doubt and why he believes we need even to question God.
JM: Doubt is sort of a hot topic these days, perhaps because authenticity has become the currency of a the rising generation of Christians. What do you hope to add to the conversation?
I encourage people to accept that, at least for thinking people, doubt is a normal part of faith and life. Unfortunately, because many have bought into the unbiblical idea that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt, many Christians today feel pressure to suppress doubt and to act and speak as if they were certain. If you happen to belong to a community of people who act and speak this way, it’s easy to feel like an outsider and to even be treated like an outsider if you dare to admit your doubt. In reality, it is simply impossible to be certain about most important matters of life. Every significant decision we make in life is shrouded in uncertainty. It’s part of what it means to be a finite and fallen human being, and its arrogant, foolish, and idolatrous to pretend otherwise.
I encourage people to think of their faith in Christ the way we think about taking wedding vows. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, the truth is that a person can’t be certain things will work out as they hope when they make these vows. This is why it takes faith to get married. But so long as a person is confident enough to commit their life to another person, the degree to which they feel certain or uncertain doesn’t matter.
Of course, if I person is not yet confident enough to commit their life to Christ, I offer a different kind of advice. I encourage them to be honest with their doubt, but to thoroughly investigate the reasons people have for believing Jesus is Lord in the first place. I discuss some of these in the book, and I and many others have found that, while we of course can’t claim to be certain, there are many compelling grounds that lead us to be confident enough in the Lordship of Christ to commit to living our lives in a way that reflects this faith.
JM: You attempt to dismantle “certainty-seeking faith.” What does that mean and why is it a problem?
GB: “Certain-seeking faith” is what results when people assume that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that this kind of “strong” faith pleases God. Sadly, this is how most Christians today think about faith. I argue that this misguided model of faith is at the root of most of the negative things non-believers associate with conservative Christianity.
Among other things, when people accept this model of faith, faith gets reduced to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants. Related to this, this model presupposes a mental picture of God as One who leverages people’s eternal welfare on their ability to successfully engage in this psychological gimmickry. It’s an ugly, petty picture of God that is inconsistent with the picture of God we’re given in Christ, and this makes it difficult for people to genuinely love this God.
On top of this, since the certainty-seeking model of faith is inherently irrational, this model tends to drive away rationally minded people. It makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty while rewarding people who either lack the concern or the curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith. At the same time, those who have been afflicted with this widespread model of faith will tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith, and on the certainty-seeking model of faith, this means they could potentially jeopardize their salvation.
Along the same lines, this unbiblical and irrational model of faith can lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty, which, in this model, means you would be displeasing God. And, perhaps most importantly, this model of faith makes an idol out of certainty, for people now anchor their sense of wellbeing and security not from trusting in God’s character as revealed in Christ, but from whatever level of certainty they can talk themselves into.
JM: You have an entire chapter in Benefit of the Doubt on wrestling with God. Why is wrestling with God an important part of faith, in your opinion?
GB: After the Lord wrestled with Jacob, he changed his name to “Israel,” which, according to the Bible, means one who “strives” or “wrestles” with God. One of the things that this indicates is that God’s people – the “Israelites” – were to be a people who had a relationship with him in which it was okay to wrestle. This is why many of the heroes of the faith in Scripture are not people who piously suppressed whatever questions or objections they had. In heroes like Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, David and Habakkuk, we find people who rather demonstrated an “Israelite” faith by having the audacity to question God and to ask for answers.
The point is important for us today, I believe, since so many embrace a model of faith where they assume God is impressed when his people suppress doubt, shun questions, and put on a pious smile as they cling to false forms of certainty. This is the kind of false faith that Job’s accusing friends displayed, and it’s important for us to realize that God was actually angry with them for having it.
JM: Can you share a little bit of the story you share in Benefit of the Doubt that taught you the importance of being honest with God?
GB: I became a Christian at the age of 17 in a strict holiness Pentecostal Church. I was able to quit taking drugs and a host of other sinful behaviors, except for one – a f pornography addiction that I’d developed over the four years leading up to my conversion. Since this church taught that a person lost their salvation with every sin, I found I was getting “saved” and “unsaved” several times a week–if not each day–for the first two years of my Christian walk.
One night, I walked out of this holiness church in despair, believing I was never going to be able to kick my pornography habit. Believing at this point that I was destined to hell, I became “uncorked” in the church parking lot while sharing my despair with a friend. Like a volcano erupting, I unleashed anger and frustration toward God not just over my two years of unsuccessful struggling with porn, but going all the way back to abuse I had suffered for years as a child at the hands of an unloving, psychologically tormented, step-mother.
After I had spewed out my seething rage, I flopped my Bible on the hood of my friend’s truck and began reading it sarcastically. It “happened” to flop open to Romans 8:1, which read, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” This opened the door for me to begin to realize, for the first time in my life, that God loved me for free, despite my sin. It ultimately resulted in me finding a motivation of love I had never known before, and it was this motivation that eventually broke the stronghold of pornography in my life and completely revolutionized my life as a disciple.
One of the main lessons I glean from this night is that it is only when we are completely honest with God that we are able to receive a true revelation of what God is really like. Only when we are uncompromisingly “real” before God can we allow God to be uncompromisingly “real” with us.
JM: In Benefit of the Doubt, you advise people to believe in the Bible because they believe in Jesus, not the other way around. What do you mean by this, and why do you feel it is important?
GB: The number one reason young people today are abandoning the Christian faith and why other people can’t take the Christian faith seriously has to do with problems they have with the Bible. For example, as most freshmen taking a course in “The Bible as Literature” at a secular college learn, the historical accuracy of some biblical stories are questioned by many scholars, and it’s hard to deny that the Bible contains some apparent contradictions and some material that seems to fly in the face of modern science. In Benefit of the Doubt, I argue that if we structured our faith the way the earliest Christians did, these problems with the Bible would pose no threat to our confidence in Jesus being Lord and even to our confidence that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
The earliest disciples didn’t believe in Jesus because their scripture (Old Testament) proved to them that he was the Son of God. They were rather convinced by Jesus’ claims, his unique life of love, his distinctive authority, his unprecedented miracles, his self-sacrificial death, and especially his resurrection. Once they believed in Jesus, they looked for him and found him in their scripture. But they never would have been convinced that Jesus was Lord had they started with scripture alone.
Unfortunately, most evangelicals today are taught to do the opposite. They base their faith in Jesus’ Lordship (as well as everything else) on their belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. This is “unfortunate” because this way of structuring our faith leverages everything on the perfection of this book, forcing the Bible to carry more weight than it was ever meant to carry. Every single problem people find with scripture now threatens to undermine their faith.
As I flesh out in my book, I eventually came to the conclusion that the things about Jesus that convinced the earliest disciples that he was Lord continue to be compelling enough to convince open-minded people today that Jesus is Lord, and they do not presuppose the view that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Once I was persuaded on the basis of historical, philosophical and personal arguments that Jesus was Lord, I was motivated to also embrace the Bible as God’s Word, for (among other things) this was clearly Jesus’ own view and it’s very hard to confess Jesus to be one’s Lord while correcting his theology, especially on such a fundamental matter. But notice, my reasons for believing in Scripture are now based entirely on my faith in Jesus, which is why my faith need not be threatened any longer by any historical inaccuracies or contradictions or scientific inaccuracies I may find in it.
I’m convinced that if young people today would structure their faith this way, we’d see far fewer loosing their faith.
JM: You write, “The assumption that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative inclines people to read it along the lines of a cookbook…The truth, however, is that the Bible is not at all like a cookbook. It’s a story, along the lines of a novel.” Can you explain how this impacts the way one reads the Bible?
GB: When you read a cookbook, it doesn’t matter where you find the recipe you’re looking for. The location of the recipe is irrelevant to its meaning. Things are very different when you read a detective novel, for example. For in a detective novel, things that mean nothing early on may take on great significance by what transpires later on. The story gets reframed as riddles get solved and further clues are unveiled as the story unfolds. It’s important for us to realize that the Bible is an unfolding story, and not entirely unlike a detective novel. As the story of God’s interactions with his people unfolds, we learn more and more what kind of God we’re dealing with and what his plans are for humanity. And the story culminates, in an extremely surprising way, in Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, Jesus fulfills all the promises made in the Old Testament, which is why Paul says that all God’s promises are “Amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:19-20). Yet, he fulfills these promises in a way that hardly anyone saw coming. For example, no one expected the Messiah to come as a humble servant, to inaugurate a kingdom that transcended all national boundaries, to command people to love their enemies rather than to conquer them, to allow himself to get crucified at the hands of his enemies, and to then rise again on the third day. So the Bible is an unfolding story with a remarkably surprising twist in the last chapter! In fact, I submit that the story of God that we find in the Bible is a lot like the movie “The Sixth Sense” or “The Book of Eli,” in which the last minute of the movie reframes the entire movie. When Jesus shows up, everything that preceded him gets reframed and must be re-read in light of what he reveals about God and God’s expectations of his people.
What this means for us is that, to understand the Bible correctly, we must read it like the story book that it is, and we must read all of it in light of its surprise ending.