What is most likely to cause doubt?

Hi friends,

For most of my life, I was taught and thought - and then taught myself - that the major source of doubting Christianity was intellectual objections.

However, a new Barna study shows that, at least in the United States, that’s toward the bottom of the list:

They write:

What reasons do U.S. adults give for doubting the Christian faith? Over one-quarter (27%) says their cause for doubt comes from past experiences with a religious institution. For those with some distance from Christianity or the Church (whether we analyze by people of no faith, the unchurched, those who could be described as deconstructing and so on), the “hypocrisy of religious people” is the top driver of doubt.

Elsewhere in this study, and throughout many years of Barna’s research, our data shows that those who are reluctant to affiliate with a church say Christians seem closed and judgmental, or that they often value being right in their beliefs over and above helping others make their own faith discoveries.

What especially stings is how Christians valuing “being right in their beliefs” is a barrier to finding faith. In other words, smug apologists who know it all are, by their attitude and behavior, pushing people away from God.

Heartbreaking. Instead of apologetics, I want to apologize.

We value truth that inspires love. As you consider what it means to love people who doubt, it seems that a posture of “helping others make their own faith discoveries” is far better than “showing other people why you’re right about Christianity.”

I’m curious about what you learn from this report.


I am curious what this look like. Is it asking guiding questions to help them arrive at truth themselves?


Hi @lakshmi, yea, I think that asking questions is part of it. However, sometimes I’ve seen “asking questions” positioned as a way to control a conversation and lead someone to the gospel.

I’m in favor of talking about the gospel! But I think loving people involves asking curious questions just because you care about the other person and are interested in their journey.

So, given a context of service and care, I think asking questions is a helpful approach.


A couple of things jumped out at me.

Interestingly, teens and adults of other faiths and especially those of no faith, have more comfort with doubt, less often seeing it as something to be overcome—and even seeing it as something to be praised.

I would be curious to know more about what “comfort with doubt” means to this demographic, i.e., doubt about what, evil, the unseen realm, the culture, the stock market, the future, you get the point.

The second thing is the questions the pastors and the general populace asked.

If you look at the “no faith” response and rank their responses in descending order as compared to the “Pastors,” you get a totally different view:

Hypocrisy outranks bad experience. I can’t help but wonder how someone who claims no faith can spot hypocrisy. It reminds me of someone who says that you are being unchristian, and when asked what Christian is, you get no response.

I can identify with the others reasons. One last thought, the resurrection was next to last in the survey. You would think it would cause more doubt in and out of the church.


Hi @Carson,

While I am not a big fan of these types of studies since I dont know the lean on the many questions they asked. I agree with it in regard to the main doubt factor involved.

Most people I have ministered to can spot an insincere individual since they had much to lose if they didnt.

This very thing happened today as I was talking to a Christian man who shared he had unfriended someone who owed him, instead of trying to correct things and win a soul he just chose to cut him off.

Doubts happen for many reasons even in long time believers but excuses to not interacting with Christ is a whole different ball of wax.

The Hypocrisy will keep them out of Church
yet other reasons keep them from Christ, since they know the truth to discern the lies of the hypocrite.



So many things to think about here! Here are bits of my broken thoughts…

First off, a question that immediately comes up is: Doubt what? Doubt always has an object, so just what is it that’s being doubted in each of these questions?

Insincerity (or hypocrisy) makes one first doubt the one who is delivering the message, and, consequently, can lead to further skepticism of the message itself and then, finally, the one whom the messenger is purportedly speaking for. The Gospel is mostly a mediated message. That is, one most often hears it from other people, and, then, we interpret it through our own selves or lenses.

If someone is doubting your/my message, perhaps it is, first, you/me as messenger they are really doubting? Experiencing the truth of the Gospel for ourselves is what transforms me and, consequently, how I convey the message.

I appreciate that Carson noted this common evangelistic/Bible study technique:

Most people can pick up on when you are trying to control something, and, in this case, the questioner is attempting to steer another to a decision that is a big deal. I would hope they would be skeptical of the questioner! Skepticism in this instance could be a healthy thing.

If we’re attempting to imitate Jesus, he went out and met people where they were. He demonstrated compassion; he did not try to drag them anywhere. After these meetings, some returned to him; others did not. He honored everyone’s agency, which, in some cases, allowed the trust to build and the relationship to grow.

I imagine “negative/hypocritical experiences” in/with church are most likely relational experiences. Intellectual experiences can be a big deal, but, ultimately, I believe it’s the relational that makes the most impact.

My other question is, why is there such a negative emphasis on doubt in the evangelical world? (What an interesting essay topic that would be!)

Like @jimmy, I also noticed this paragraph:

Overall, most in the general population, and Christians in particular, see doubt as a phase to move through , and arriving at certainty is the preferable end goal. Interestingly, teens and adults of other faiths and especially those of no faith have more comfort with doubt, less often seeing it as something to be overcome—and even seeing it as something to be praised.

“Don’t doubt; have faith!” is the mantra. After all, didn’t James exhort us to

…ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways… [Jas. 1:6-8 ESV]

But if we look at Jas. 1:5 ESV, we learn that James is talking specifically about asking for wisdom. Wisdom is something we possess and use. Wisdom, even though it is from God, it is of us. It is us learning how to be in our world. So if we doubt we have wisdom, we are ultimately doubting ourselves, not God. And self-doubt is intrinsic to most evangelicals!

Again, this is an essay topic, and right now I know I could run off on some rabbit trails. But all I want to wonder about at this juncture with you all is Is doubt always a bad thing…something to combat? Why is certainty the “preferred goal”? Certainty of what exactly? Why is it so valued? Is it even attainable??


To that, I might add who is doing the combating, outsiders or insiders?

I like this quote from de Silva, it has helped me understand that doubt is not a bad thing and has been with the church since before Christianity. In his book, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (InterVarsity Press) he has a chapter entitled, The Environment of Early Christianity. This particular quote is given to support 2nd Temple books and writers, such as 4 Maccabees, Philo, and the Letters of Aristea, and their aggressive claims of the superiority of the Jewish philosophy.

The purpose of apologetics is often assumed to be to convince outsiders of the value of the beliefs and practices of a religion or way of life. This may be an occasional side effect, but it cannot be the primary function. Rather, works of apologetics are really written for insiders. The arguments in such books may find their way into discussions between adherents and outsiders, but the primary audience is the believing audience. Apologetic writings sustain the insider’s commitment in the face of critique, ridicule or contradiction from outside (and from questions and doubts inside).
(p. 104).


Thanks for sharing that, @jimmy! It’s a good point you raise re. “insider” v. “outsider” doubt. Some of my deepest study was driven by complex questions brought by “outsiders”. My own doubt mingled with theirs and my curiosity was activated. :smile:


I agree but when that doubt occurs the dive for answers is for me as opposed to trying to dissuade the outside source.
In the example of 4 Maccabees, we see the attempt to Hellenize the Jewish people by Antiochus. The story focuses on a mother and her seven sons who all go one by one to a horrible death rather than defile themselves by eating just one mouth full of pork.
As I understand deSilva this would be an example of early apologetic writing whose focus group would have been those who adhered to Torah piety and not to convince the Hellenistic Jews.

Thoughts or comments?

1 Like