Why Most Doubts About God are Emotional, Not Intellectual

If we’re being honest, we would all admit that we have doubts about God to some degree or another. But doubts aren’t bad, and they aren’t a sin. They can actually be beneficial if we address them properly. The only way to do that is to understand where our doubts come from in the first place – and it isn’t typically what you think.


[The following has been adapted from Mike Taylor’s book Grounded Faith for Practical People and was first published at crossexamined.org.]

If we’re being honest, we would all admit that we have doubts about God to some degree or another. I mean, on some level, it almost feels like human nature to resist fully trusting anything. We doubt ourselves, we doubt other people, and more than anything, we doubt God.

Doubt is normal. No matter who you are, you’re going to have doubts. Even biblical heroes such as Job, Abraham, David, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Thomas, and Paul had doubts about God. But for some reason, too many of us think that doubts should be avoided.

I think we get the idea that doubt is bad from a misapplication of Scripture. In Matthew 21:21, Jesus said that when we pray, we should pray without doubt, and incredible things will happen. So doubt must be bad, right? But the point Jesus is making is that faith is all or nothing. We either trust God or we don’t; there is no in-between. We can’t half-trust someone. We can choose to only trust them with certain things and not others, but we’re still trusting them. We’re just trusting them with smaller things until our trust in them grows. 

For example, I can trust a complete stranger to make me food at a restaurant, but I won’t leave my children with them. It’s not that I don’t trust them at all, I just don’t trust them with the things I consider really big and important. I doubt them in the big things, but I can trust them with the small things. That’s what Jesus was saying.

That’s why Jesus said we must have faith like that of a mustard seed. He said, “it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree…” (Matthew 13:32) To choose to follow Christ is an act of complete faith, however small it may feel at the moment. Then you follow Jesus in the small things until your faith grows to where you can follow Him in the big things, but at the end of the day, you’re either following Him or you’re not. There is no in-between. You can doubt Him along your walk, but as long as you keep walking with Him, that is the point.

It’s only by exploring and pressing into doubts that you can reach a place of faith. After all, if you only explored the things that made you feel comfortable, you would never need to trust God.

So doubts aren’t bad, and they aren’t a sin. They can actually be beneficial if we address them properly. But how do we know how to deal with doubts when they come? If you don’t know what to do with doubts, you’ll end up floating back and forth and being tossed around by the latest trends and ideas. 

In order to healthily and effectively deal with doubts, we must start by knowing where our doubts are coming from. Otherwise we’ll try addressing them the wrong way without ever knowing the source.

3 Types of Doubt

In his book The Thomas Factor, Dr. Gary Habermas says there are 3 types of doubt: factual doubt, emotional doubt, and volitional doubt.

These categories are largely self-explanatory: Factual doubt is doubt caused by a lack of information or evidence, emotional doubt is doubt rooted in some sort of emotional pain and resulting distrust, and volitional doubt is basically an unwillingness to believe or to apply known truths. The first is a matter of the mind, the second is a matter of the heart, and the third is a matter of the will.

According to Dr. Habermas, most people doubt for emotional reasons, and only about 15% of doubts are factual. Because of this, doubts are almost never remedied by information alone. Sure, dealing with factual doubts is important, but there’s more than enough evidence to get you past those doubts. In other words, good answers are necessary, but not sufficient. They simply serve as the foundation for faith.

According to Habermas, emotional doubt is the most painful, but it’s the least serious. In fact, emotional doubt is the only doubt that comes with pain. Factual doubt and volitional doubt don’t hurt, but emotional doubt does. Emotional doubters know the facts; they just have a hard time believing them due to an emotional view of the facts. They might think it’s too good to be true, or they might obsess over all the “what if’s” that they ultimately can’t answer anyway.

When you have the facts of a situation, but you still struggle with doubt, there’s probably an emotional, anxious, or obsessive cause to those doubts.

Emotional doubters usually ask similar questions to factual doubters, but they ask for different reasons. 

For example, they might both ask for evidence of the resurrection, but one is genuinely looking for facts they don’t have, and the other is asking because they’re really wondering if it could be possible to be wrong.

Habermas says that one common characteristic of emotional doubt is when a question starts with “What if…”. The person asking a question like that probably knows the evidence, but they often wonder things like, “What if we’re wrong?”

But you could turn that around and say, “Do you have any reason to think we’re wrong?” People with emotional doubt tend to have general “what if” questions without evidence behind it. Their doubt is painful. 

They might say things like, “It would be horrible to be wrong.” They might have fears about Jesus saying He never knew them or that they might still go to hell even though they’re saved. They might also obsess over questions like, “How do I know if I love God?” and other questions that can’t be backed by evidence.

Dr. Habermas says emotional doubters might include people who keep getting saved because they doubt their salvation. They just “know” they’re not saved even though they believe the gospel. It’s an emotional response to the data.

Another example of emotional doubt might be someone who has no problem believing that God exists, but emotionally they can’t come to grips with why God would allow evil to come into their lives. They’ve seen the facts, and the facts make sense, but they let their emotions dictate what they’re willing to believe.

The emotional doubter might say, “But what about hell? What is it, and who goes there? And how can it exist with a loving God?” These are questions that go beyond available human knowledge and therefore require faith.

This type of person has moved past the intellectual stage of doubting and into emotional doubting. They see the world the way it is, they’ve heard the explanation of why it is that way, yet they don’t want to believe it because of their emotions and past pain. Let’s look at a couple of ways to overcome this type of doubt.

How to Deal with Emotional Doubt

Most of the time in our lives, it’s not the facts of the situations around us that are important; it’s how we process those facts. Similarly, the worst kind of pain in our lives is not from what happens to us but how we download it or process it.

For people dealing with emotional doubt, when something bad happens, they give themselves permission to let those events determine why they have problems. However, beliefs (i.e., the way we download information) are the things that stand between those events that happen to us and the consequences that come from them.

Events alone rarely cause all the consequences we experience. Events plus negative or detrimental beliefs about those events often cause excessive consequences. So, when we say negative things to ourselves about things that matter to us – things like “What if God doesn’t really love me?” – it’s important to refute those thoughts with “That’s not true because…” It’s all about how you talk to yourself about the events in your life because most of us lie to ourselves without even realizing it. 

Here are a couple of simple steps to dealing with this type of emotionally-driven thought pattern:

1. Locate the misbelief

Usually, there’s a primary and secondary misbelief. You might tell yourself something that’s untrue, but there’s usually a deeper lie about life beneath that. As yourself, “Why do I have a hard time believing this?” or, “Why does this seem so unlikely to me?” Don’t just shut down the idea of trusting God because it’s difficult to believe. Be willing to explore your reasons for not believing.

For example, for many people, distrust is bred over time as a result of painful situations such as abandonment, neglect, abuse, or some other type of emotional damage we experience. When those negative memories and thought patterns are left unchecked, they can create in us a mindset that people are not to be trusted. As subtle as it may be in us, when we approach evidence for God with this distrusting mindset as our basis, no amount of factual evidence is going to break through our barrier. It’s only by moving to step two that we can take a truly unbiased look at evidence for God.

2. Remove and replace

Once you’ve identified the root of the emotional doubt, it’s important to confront those doubts with empirical truth – truth that can be verified through observation and experiences (i.e. the resurrection of Jesus, the goodness of God as evident in creation, etc.).

The best way to do this is to simply remind yourself, “That’s not true because…” Replace the misbelief with an evidence-based truth. Change your perspective and choose to see things from an neutral perspective instead of from the negative, misleading perspective. After all, most emotional doubters are anxious doubters. They’re being anxious or obsessive-compulsive by doubting. It’s not a rational issue they’re dealing with.

It’s important to address emotional doubts because if you allow yourself to be dominated by your emotions rather than what’s true, eventually you’re at risk of simply giving up and completely turning off to God. That’s what Dr. Habermas calls volitional doubt.

Volitional doubt describes people who know Christianity is true, but they’re mad at God, and they’ve turned away from God completely. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but it’s a matter of the will. It’s an unwillingness to believe despite known truth. God loves you enough to give you freedom, and using that freedom to walk away from Him is the one thing He can’t save you from – not because He isn’t able, but because He loves you too much to force you to be with Him if you don’t want to.

The good news is, you’re in control of your doubts. You get to decide what to do with them and how to manage them. Remember that the most damage that occurs in our lives is not from what happens to us but how we process it. That’s why saying or thinking negative things to ourselves is a very poisonous thing to do.

So, understanding the necessary facts is key, but then reminding yourself of those facts in negative situations is also vital. After all, the facts about God don’t change just because your circumstances change.

But where does faith come into all of this?

In Scripture, the word for “hope” refers to a grounded hope, not a hope in something you don’t know about. That hope comes from faith that is grounded in facts.

Faith is not a weak sister that you add to the heavy stuff – science, history, philosophy, etc. Faith does what reason can’t do. Faith says, “This can be trusted.”

Faith says, “Quit asking ‘what if’ about stupid questions when you already have good answers. Otherwise, you’re going to be hurting.”

Reason says, “Here are good responses.” Faith says, “Those are good enough. You can trust those. Walk in it.” Faith comes along and says that belief is warranted.

Faith is trusting the evidence. It’s okay to keep studying to build on good answers, but not because you have to keep answering the same question every day.

You have to train the habit of faith. Learn the art of learning enough and then letting go. And faith is not going to stay there if you ignore it. That’s why people who follow Jesus read the Bible, worship, fellowship with other Christians, etc. because it reinforces our faith when we hang around people who don’t think they have to answer the same questions every day.

Don’t Get Lost in the Details

The two most common beliefs Christians lose when challenged is:

#1: Someone challenges them by saying something like, “the universe wasn’t created in six 24-hour days.” The answer should be: “And? Your point?”

Or…

#2: Someone tells them the Bible is not inerrant (in other words, it’s filled with errors). The answer should be: “Your point?” They might say, “That means you can’t believe it,” but that does not follow. 

Even if you believe the majority of the Bible is unreliable, you can still use the parts of the Bible even skeptics accept as historically accurate documents and still show that the resurrection occurred.

I personally don’t believe there are mistakes in the Bible, but even if there were mistakes in the details, I could still hold my doctrines because Christianity is based on the truth of the gospel data. If all that’s true about Christianity is that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead, then Christianity follows.

And it just so happens that the strongest evidence we have is for Jesus being the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead.

Just remember: People will always debate 6-day creation and all the other details in the Bible, but those are periphery issues. They’re small details in comparison to the primary message of the Bible.

You can’t have the mindset that if one thing in the Bible is confusing or doesn’t seem to make sense, then the Bible as a whole can’t be right in any area at all. That’s not logical. Human beings have an overwhelming tendency to misinterpret and argue over things. It’s what we do. Don’t let that drive you away from what is most important.

The gospel message is one thing in the Bible that is absolutely undeniable. It also just so happens to be the most important thing in the entire Bible, and it’s the one doctrine that is the most supported by evidence. In other words, God put the most evidence for the most important thing we need to know. 

The gospel isn’t all there is to the Bible, but in the Bible itself, Paul clearly put “first importance” on the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3). So, Christians are most defensible in their most important belief. Everything else people love to argue over is just periphery and a distraction from the central information.

Ask yourself this: How much would it change your life and eternal future if [insert Christian doctrine] were true? How much would it change your life and eternal future if it were false?

For example, if you found out tomorrow that the world was created in 6 literal days instead of 6 long time periods, how would that affect your life, purpose, and future?

The truth is, it wouldn’t at all. Because regardless of whether you’re right or wrong about your periphery doctrines, Jesus Christ still lived, died, and rose from the dead for you to have true life in relationship with God. That’s what matters.

Minimize the importance you place on periphery issues. It will save you a lot of stress and wasted time.

Look to answer the most important central doctrines:

Then, if that’s not working and something is still nagging at you, and you’re in pain, then you’re probably experiencing emotional doubt.

Posted by Mike P. Taylor

Mike Taylor is a proud husband, father of 4, and author from Nashville, TN who communicates God's love in a way that makes sense.