Doubt in the Bible
Reading a modern version of the Bible (such as the New International Version), it’s surprising to find a mere thirteen verses utilizing the English word “doubt” for their translation. In the scope of the New Testament, doubt simply doesn’t play a central theme. And even when doubt is mentioned, only ten of these references are roughly equivalent to the modern experience of what we refer to as “doubt”—a struggle of belief.
Despite the comparatively small group of references, doubt is an important biblical theme. The most common Greek word translated as “doubt” is diakrino (Gr. διακρίνω)—a word that is used eight times across the writings of the New Testament.
It’s the word Jesus uses when discussing the relationship of faith and prayer, “…If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them” (Mark 11:23). And the apostle Paul uses this word writing to believers in Rome, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14.23).
Broadly speaking diakrino refers to hesitation. It is hesitating in one’s belief, trust, or commitment to action. Interestingly, it is how Luke describes the Holy Spirit’s instruction to Peter to go downstairs and follow those at the door from Cornelius’s house: “Do not hesitate (Gr. diakrino) to go with them,” the Spirit declares, “for I have sent them” (Acts 10:20).
To doubt is to hesitate; it is the opposite of belief and trust. Those qualities are the very qualities of Abraham that Paul highlighted: “[Abraham] did not doubt God’s promise in disbelief, but grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20).
Abraham did not hesitate to believe God’s promise; and so, for many, the example of Abraham (to say nothing of the long list of faithful in passages such as Hebrews 11) closes the door to the possibility that doubt may not only have a place in the life of a follower of Jesus, but actually be helpful to spiritual growth. Some would say that all doubt is bad. But is it?
Can Doubt Really be Helpful?
Good doubt can invariably play a crucial role in Christian discipleship. Isn’t it important that we are hesitant to believe everything we hear on a podcast? Or that we’re hesitant to receive as gospel truth everything on social media or news media. Shouldn’t we be hesitant to believe all the things we feel about ourselves?
Indeed, doubt can be incredibly important for the follower of Jesus; doubt itself isn’t the problem—it is the object of our doubt that determines its value in our spiritual life. If we heard of an atheist beginning to doubt their materialistic worldview, we would label that as beneficial doubt, a step in the direction of faith.
The dangerous side of doubt comes when our skepticism is finds the wrong target; we doubt the true things and believe the false. We see this in the story of “Doubting Thomas” in John 20. There, when Jesus appeared to a gathered remnant of disciples, Thomas was missing in action. We don’t get all the details, but we do know that once Thomas heard of the resurrection, he struggles to believe.
To Be or Not To Be Like Thomas
Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it (John 20:27).
This nearly infamous statement of Thomas contains one deeply significant word, “unless.” Thomas is putting parameters around his acceptance of the reality of the resurrection; he is trying to define the boundaries of trust.
This is the perennial danger for any follower of Jesus. That we, in the words of Eugene Peterson, want a “God who serves them on their terms, not a God they can serve on his terms.”
Pastor and writer Mark Buchanan once commented on the two-sidedness of doubt. He writes, “Doubt has its limits. It can be faith’s tonic, a cleansing and invigorating force. But doubts can quickly turn corrosive or cancerous, burning or mutating healthy tissue. It can become a way of holding God for ransom. Our lives can degenerate into a fruitless and futile round of ‘unless I see, unless I touch, unless I have the experience, I will not believe….’”
That becomes the sin of Thomas—“we will believe if…” Rather than doubting his own sensibilities or eye-sight, Thomas doubts the testimony of the disciples that they had seen Jesus! He doubts—just the wrong thing. Doubt, in this way, can easily become putting God in the shackles of our ransom.
By God’s grace, this isn’t the end of Thomas’s story. Thomas eventually sees the resurrected Jesus and is confronted with the opportunity for his demanded validation. But it’s possible, even likely, that his experience of doubt pushed him deeper into his faith.
Letting Doubt Do Its Work
In Thomas’s story, it’s critical to notice that Jesus doesn’t show up for a week! Reminiscent of the Jesus’s approach to the news of Lazarus’s death, when he hears that a one of his disciples is struggling to believe, Jesus doesn’t drop everything he is doing to go and resolve the faith crisis. Jesus allows Thomas to struggle.
Like allowing ground to go fallow, good things can grow from our moments of doubt. First, it gives Thomas the opportunity to find out for himself whether he truly wants to believe or not. Thomas kept showing up in the community of the faithful; even when he wasn’t feeling faithful, he practiced being faithful.
Sometimes, in our moments of doubt, our motivations and intentions are revealed. Are we still seeking and longing for God in the midst of those doubts?
Secondly, Thomas’s doubt experience creates a new and important moment for belief. When Jesus does come to Thomas, it is noteworthy that Jesus says, “stop doubting and believe.” These are Jesus’s words; only he can say them.
The church too often says “stop doubting and believe.” Too often, the church ridicules, shames, or makes the doubter feel “othered.” When the exhortation to stop doubting and believe comes from the church, it can be wounding and hurtful. From Jesus, they are an invitation.
And, thirdly, Thomas had the opportunity to be welcomed into the believing community for that week. The other disciples roll out the red carpet of hospitality as they await Jesus to come back again. Indeed, before it was even written, they were practicing Jude 22: “Be merciful to those who doubt.”
Thomas’s doubt, and what we assume was the disciple’s response of making space for it, would play a clarifying role of the place of the church in Thomas’s life. It may even be the motivation for his journey (after this pivotal event in his faith) to India as the first Christian church planter where Thomas starts the first indigenous Indian church.
If you have ever met an Indian Christian with the last name Thomas, you have come face-to-face with the fruit of Thomas’s faithfulness following his doubt. I don’t think it is a stretch to believe that maybe Thomas spent the rest of his life planting churches because of the place the church had played in his own faith crisis.
Can there be a benefit to the doubt? Well, I certainly wouldn’t wish doubt on anyone. But, in the hands of the Maker, God can use it when it does happen.
 B. Bärtner, “Distinguish, Doubt,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, vol. Volume 1 (A-F), 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 503–5.
 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 143.
 Mark Buchanan, “The Benefit of the Doubt: The Disciple Thomas,” Christianity Today, April 2000, 64.