Sloth, greed, anger, lust, gluttony, envy, and pride: these are the infamous seven deadly sins. But unbelief is not even on this venerable list of our vulnerabilities. Why? Perhaps because it is the deadly sin.

Other sins—including the seven lethal ones—are often expressions of unbelief. Jesus himself considers the failure to believe in him the primary sin (John 16:9). The author of the letter to the Hebrews strongly warns against unbelief so that we will not fall away from the living God (Heb. 3:7–19). John calls unbelief an affront to God because it makes God a liar (1 John 5:10). And the apostle Paul concludes his discussion of Christian conscience with a warning that whatever is done as an expression of unbelief is sin (Rom. 14). Clearly, unbelief is hazardous to your health.

By contrast, I know of no biblical passage where we are even warned against doubt. Perhaps this is because doubt and belief are compatible, and because there is no slippery slope from doubt to unbelief. Actually, as odd as this may sound, I think that doubt is not a hazard to vital Christian faith. Rather, some sincere doubt is necessary to sustain the vitality of the Christian walk.

Here is the difference: Doubt is the act of questioning, the expression of uncertainty. Doubt is the humility of a mind asking real questions and seeking real solutions. Surely one can believe and question at the same time. In fact, if we did not believe we would not question.

In contrast, unbelief is the “uncola” of faith. In its biblical usage, “unbelief” always connotes stubborn resistance, disobedience, and rebellion. In short, doubt is the sincere question, but unbelief is the unwillingness to hear the answer.

In fact, doubt, far from itself being unbelief, can help us avoid some of the more pernicious forms of unbelief. I will draw from some personal examples, because doubt has been a faithful companion and pesky gadfly throughout my own difficult pilgrimage.

Formaldehyde Faith

A while ago a large church invited me to preach the Sunday morning sermon. The only people who knew me were out of town that weekend, so I was on my own. I came early enough for Sunday school, and some very pleasant people introduced me to an adult class as a “visitor”—without anyone recognizing my name as the preacher for the morning service. The people in the class were certainly cordial. I was glad to be there.

But during the lesson, everything the teacher taught, and all the answers to his contrived questions, seemed comfortably canned. So, attempting to encourage these good Christians to think and speak from real conviction, I began to ask questions—gently, politely, and as unobtrusively as I could:

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“Why is that really important?”

“Why do you believe this?”

“What difference does that make?”

The effect was dramatic. My goal of stimulating these Christians to express themselves with genuine feeling was a sudden success, far beyond my greatest hope. In fact, the emotional thermostat moved up from cool, and well past lukewarm, to hot. And these Christians immediately became critical of me, questioning whether I was a Christian and objecting to me as an outsider trying to disrupt their class.

A few minutes later, when I walked out on the sanctuary platform at the beginning of the worship service, I could immediately recognize members of that class in the congregation: they were the ones with their mouths locked in a dumbstruck pose!

In two important senses, these brothers and sisters were suffering from unbelief. First of all, they showed such little confidence in their own faith that they were easily threatened by an unknown brother who asked simple questions. And, just as important, these people lacked passion. They were so comfortable with the mouthing of a set of faith formulas that they were thrown off track when I interrupted their repetition.

This is the kind of unbelief I call formaldehyde faith. On Sunday morning and various other occasions it is so easy for us to scamper into our positions within the glass museum cases of “church-ianity” that passionate faith becomes unnecessary. Because of our overemphasis on being display items to the world, we constantly run the risk of becoming and producing “plastic-perfect” people.

How can we free ourselves from the unbelief of formaldehyde faith? For one thing, by developing an active, questioning mind. We all agree that “Jesus is the answer.” But that profession becomes absurdly false when we fail to entertain serious questions. And by those I mean questions that require more than intellectual rigor, that require personal openness and discovery.

An important symptom of the Pharisees’ unbelief was the dearth of serious questioning and doubting. Most of their beliefs were absolutely correct, but the Pharisees nevertheless remained in the posture of unbelief because they would not seriously question their own interpretations nor openly seek what God was doing right before their eyes.

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Unbelief is a state of being. It is neither a single question nor even a dogged doubt. Unbelief is the condition of being closed, out of touch with God—even when that very closedness is a plastic-perfect profession of evangelical faith. This may be the most dangerous form of unbelief for us.

Intellectual Disdain

The second form of unbelief I call intellectual disdain. It is generated by a type of “unbelievability criterion.” Presently this often takes the form of an unbelieving attitude toward miracles, for example, simply because miracles violate our own conceptions of natural law. This unbelief is not merely a doubt about the historicity of some event, but a blanket assertion that the event would be impossible at any time.

Now, to circumscribe God’s work on the basis of our own constantly revised—and always limited—descriptions of the “laws of nature” is perhaps the very height of sinful pride and arrogance. The history of natural science and a knowledge of its limited focus has helped me to doubt whether our own understanding of natural events could ever be complete and absolute. This doubt helps protect me from the unbelief of intellectual disdain.

Nevertheless, most of us probably have—at one time or another—doubted the historic reality of even the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This incredible event powerfully shatters our deeply entrenched expectations of the sovereignty of natural processes, our fear of death, and our despair of hope. If the Resurrection took the disciples totally by surprise, surely we ourselves, so saturated with scientific values, must react honestly with shock and doubt. Otherwise we would not understand the point of the empty tomb; otherwise we would not comprehend that the gospel is still news—good news!

Unbelief leaves no room for the Easter surprise. It refuses the possibility that dead bodies rise to new life. In contrast, doubt is the hopeful symptom that the renewing of our minds is not only necessary, but is also possible.

Dashed Hope

The third kind of unbelief, dashed hope, is the flip side of intellectual disdain. Paradoxically, while the unbelief in miracles may be rather strong, of roughly equal strength is the common human desire for miracles. Some of my earliest memories concern earnest prayer that God would magically undo the effects of some misdeed of mine—or at least that God would cause all to forget the guilty party.

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“God, please make Daddy forget who broke the window.”

“Dear Father, please make the tomato plants that I pulled up grow back. I was just trying to help Mommy weed the garden.”

Of course, many of our prayers are not nearly so trivial. As a teenager, I prayed earnestly for the healing of a dear cousin, and I believed that God could heal her. Her death left me angry, frustrated, and spiritually crushed. Since then, I have been angry at God repeatedly. There are so many “good” things he does not do. Even worse, there is so much wrong that he seems to endorse by virtue of his letting it happen.

I realize that this anger expresses my doubts that God is running the world the best that he can. However, as the “all-knowing One,” God knows my doubts anyway. Am I not better off expressing them honestly, openly? After all, he surely is big enough to take my complaints. Moreover, if our friendship is not strong enough for me to express my doubts and concerns honestly, that friendship is already on shaky ground.

Perhaps this is why the Holy Scriptures include many psalms of anger, encouraging us to sing out our doubts and disappointments. The scriptural expressions of anguished doubt encourage my faith, for they teach me that God is there and that he cares to listen. By contrast, in a state of unbelief our anger would be completely pointless and absurd. But if I do not sincerely express my doubts to God in the frequent pains and disappointments of my life, how can I say that I believe he is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful?

Pain and disappointment often lead me to a sense of utter loneliness, abandonment, a kind of existential alienation. As a result, one of my favorite psalms of anger is Psalm 22. In the loneliness of suffering I sometimes feel like crying out the first line of that psalm: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” I find it helpful to express those words openly, as a reminder that even in that lonely experience God participates with me.

Sometimes I even turn to look for Jesus and let him remind me, “I am with you in your loneliness, because I have drunk deeply of the same anguished doubt.” This does not take the pain away. But it does give my pain significance and provides me with an unexplainable peace. Unbelief would leave me lost.

Comfortable Numbness

Perhaps the most difficult challenge of unbelief hit me when I was 19 years old. I was involved in a large evangelical church—so involved, in fact, that I became, even at such a young age, the chairman of the Outreach Committee for a church of over 2,000 members. I was a certified believer of the evangelical faith, and I sought to live by its moral standards.

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Nevertheless, something began to bug me. It struck me that we could continue to do our church work, preach, try to obey the Scriptures, and even “win people to Christ,” whether or not Christ was in our enterprise at all. The only saving factor would be if we were, on a personal dimension, aware of the presence of the living Christ.

My problem was that I did not experience the living Christ. In evangelistic work, I professed that I had this personal awareness of his presence. But I lied. It wasn’t there. Perhaps he was there in my work, but I did not know him. I did not even know what to look for in order to recognize him. So I began watching others. And I also began to doubt seriously whether anyone I knew had the personal relationship to Christ that we professed.

I decided to go right to the top. I made an appointment with our senior pastor and explained my problem. However, before he had a chance to give me any comforting or cajoling commentary, I wanted to know if he had what I lacked. I looked him in the eye and asked him if he had the personal experience of Christ that he preached.

He swallowed and quietly admitted, “No.” He was in the same condition I was in. I went to another pastor whom I greatly respected, and with the same results. Could it be that we ourselves were so involved in our own lukewarm activities and religious professions that we did not hear our own Savior gently knocking on the outside of our Laodicean church doors (Rev. 3:20)?

What gave me hope in that situation was doubt. I doubted that this formal profession of faith was all God had for me, for us. And what gave me doubt was hope. I doubted that my knowledge was the extent of Christian faith because I sincerely hoped that there was more. Still believing the Bible, I asked questions. I knocked, hoping the doors would open; I sought, hoping that I would find. Strangely, I would not have asked, knocked, or even sought, if I had not doubted.

I am finding and receiving, and the doors are being opened. Throughout my rough-and-tumble pilgrimage of the last several years, I have discovered ways of being open to the presence of Christ—especially through the practiced disciplines of meditation and service. Such spiritual disciplines have helped me to see Christ, just as anyone needs scientific training to make scientific observations. All mature perceptual experiences require training of some kind. It even took extended training for us as children to begin to recognize the basic colors and the letters of the alphabet.

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Now let me say this bluntly: The comfortable numbness with which my former pastor and, I think, many other Christians publicly profess what they do not have and promote what they do not know is an insidious and deceitful form of unbelief. It is deadly, but also amazingly attractive. You see, as long as we claim to have the truth and live by right general standards, our lives can be comfortably consistent and coherent—and all perfectly within our own control. We can avoid the suffering of Christ as well as the daily surprises of his instruction. We can also miss the incomparable power of his presence and the authentic light of his truth.

Comfortable numbness is an insidious form of unbelief. The walls of theological security with which we seek to insulate ourselves from doubt can become the very fortress of unbelief that makes us comfortably numb to the living Christ. Biblical, evangelical faith requires us to doubt the completeness of our best religious understandings long enough to await still eagerly the frequent Easter morning surprises from the One who has called himself the “I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exod. 3:14).

Constructive Doubt

We can summarize how doubt can be constructive in three ways:

First, we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We can see—we can, to an extent, even see Christ himself. But what we see is always clouded by our finitude and our fallibility, our stupidity and our sin. Consequently, we must doubt. “We see through a glass darkly,” but we have no excuse for failing to strain to see what we can through the glass. We must seek in order that we may find. We must believe in order that we may know. Unbelief has no place for us.

Second, whatever we know in this life we “know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). Humility of mind must characterize our most enthusiastic professions of faith. The power of God’s Word does not depend on our personal assertions. Let us act and speak both in the humility of self and in the authority of God’s presence.

Third, let us be so honestly enticed by our doubts that we are increasingly hungry for the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but him, so hungry that we will earnestly pray for the time when we will know him as well as he knows us (1 Cor. 13:12). And this hunger excludes unbelief.

Paul de Vries is associate professor of philosophy and coordinator of general education at Wheaton College (Ill.). His articles have been published in The Christian Scholar’s Review and The Journal of Business Ethics.

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