Overcoming Doubt

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 28:16-17

Maybe you’re one of those who have trouble believing that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Would you like to learn how doubt can be overcome?

One of the things I most appreciate about the New Testament writings is their honesty. I don’t see how anyone can read the gospels and fail to be impressed with the straightforward way they tell the story of Jesus, neither glossing over difficulties nor altering facts that might appear embarrassing or inconvenient. A good example of this honesty occurs near the end of the book of Matthew. It was some days after Jesus rose from the dead. The eleven remaining disciples had gathered in Galilee, where they were probably joined by many other followers of Jesus. In fact, many think that this was the occasion the apostle Paul referred to when he reported that on one occasion more than 500 people had seen the risen Lord at the same time (1 Cor. 15:6).

Here is what Matthew writes about it:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

(Matt. 28:16,17)

That little touch of realism convinces me that this story is an authentic historical account, not something the disciples made up. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” wrote the apostle Peter, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). The doubts of some of the disciples in the very presence of the risen Christ are not the stuff myths are made of. But they are the stuff life is made of. For this is exactly how it is today. Many people throughout the world on this day are worshiping the risen Lord Jesus Christ, while at the same time many are doubting. Sometimes they’re doing both at once. If you are one of the doubters, I’d like to tell you how doubt can be overcome.

HOW DOUBT ISN’T OVERCOME

But before I do that, I need to talk about some ways in which doubt is not overcome – at least not as a rule. One way is by accumulating evidence for the truth. Surprising as it may seem, doubt is usually not overcome by evidence, even the evidence of our own senses. After all, everybody standing on that hillside in Galilee could see Jesus with their own eyes that day, but still, some of them doubted. The evidence before them was not enough to convince them completely.

Now this doesn’t mean that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is weak. There’s an old joke about a preacher who wrote at one place in the margin of his sermon: “Weak point, shout louder.” That’s not how the apostles preached about the resurrection. They didn’t try to soft peddle it because it was unsubstantiated. They didn’t avoid mentioning it as much as possible because they felt it was the shakiest part of the case for Christianity. They didn’t just touch on it briefly and then pass quickly on to the ethical teachings of the Christian faith, hoping that no one would take a long, hard look at the historical evidence for what they were proclaiming.

No, the apostles drew attention to the resurrection whenever they could. It was the central point of all their preaching. Every sermon of every apostle recorded in the New Testament book of Acts has as its theme the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostles not only declared that this event happened; they invited investigation of it. “This was not done in a corner,” as one of them put it. Christ’s resurrection was very much a public event, and the apostles consistently drew attention to all the evidence for it. Among the pieces of evidence for Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead are: his empty tomb just outside of Jerusalem, the many people who saw him alive on Easter and for several weeks afterwards, the transformation of Jesus’ disciples into bold witnesses to his risen life and saving power, and the eventual rise and worldwide expansion of the Christian church. As one scholar has said:

Taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ. We’re certainly far more certain that that happened than of any other event or incident from the ancient world.

(B. F. Westcott)

So the problem with the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is not that it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t strong. The problem is that it can be denied. Indeed, that’s the problem with evidence for anything. You can always ignore it or explain it away. The late Oxford philosopher and atheist Sir Alfred Ayer wrote about a vision of eternity he had when his heart had stopped for several minutes. He said this, “My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death . . . will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no God.” That’s the trouble with experience; there are always alternative explanations. People who say “Show me and I’ll believe” are missing the point. Even if they saw, they probably still wouldn’t believe. People who claim that they would accept Christ if only he proved to them that he was real are really only fooling themselves. Even if Christ did appear before their very eyes, they could explain it as a hallucination or a trick of some kind. So doubt is usually not overcome by evidence, even evidence that is solid and real.

TWO QUESTIONS

Nor is doubt usually overcome by argument. Again, this doesn’t mean that there are not compelling arguments for believing in the resurrection. If you want to approach the whole matter logically, you will find that there are a number of powerful reasons for believing that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Anyone attempting to explain what happened on Easter morning has to answer two questions. The first question is, “What happened to Jesus’ body?” That the tomb in which he was buried on Friday afternoon was empty on Sunday morning seems to be an undeniable fact, but if his body was gone, how did it disappear? There are only two possibilities: either someone took it or he left on his own. But who could or would have taken the body of Jesus from its grave? Surely not his baffled and leaderless disciples. Besides, they were no match for the Roman squad that had been posted to guard the tomb. On the other hand, it certainly couldn’t have been the authorities who took the body. That was the very thing they were trying to prevent, and if they had it, why didn’t they simply produce Jesus’ body a few days later when his disciples began to proclaim that he had risen from the dead? That would have stopped the whole Christian movement dead in its tracks. So who could have done it? One more detail: the New Testament says that though Jesus’ body had gone from his tomb, his grave clothes were left behind. Who would steal a corpse and leave its shroud?

The second question that has to be answered is, “What happened to Jesus’ disciples?” What turned them from frightened, disoriented, disillusioned men and women into fearless apostles whose mighty witness turned the world upside down? Jesus told them to go into all the world with his message and make disciples for him from every nation. The incredible thing is, they actually did it! They did exactly what he had commanded. This handful of ordinary people, without money or influence or education, actually took the gospel to the entire Roman world. Within a lifetime, their faith had been planted throughout the then known world, and by our time the worldwide Christian movement has grown to be the greatest enterprise in human history. The church of Jesus Christ is even now growing and expanding among every nation and people group on earth. What has made this happen? What single cause is powerful enough to produce such an effect? What spiritual “big bang” is strong enough to create this new universe of world Christianity? Is it all based on a lie or a myth? Or did it all come about because Jesus actually rose from the dead thereby proving that he is God and Lord of all?

These are questions that have to be answered by those who are genuinely interested in the truth. But the problem with reasons and arguments is that they generally just lead to counter-arguments, and even if those are weak, people will often seize upon them. Matthew says that the authorities in Jerusalem, when told by the Roman soldiers that Jesus’ tomb was empty, published the story that his disciples had stolen his body. So in the first instance, the force of the truth did not lead Jesus’ enemies to believe in the resurrection. It led them to lie. The fact is, doubt is not usually overcome by reason. People generally are not argued into faith.

HOW DOUBT IS OVERCOME

So what’s the answer? If doubt is not overcome by evidence or by argument, what will make the difference? The answer is right here in front of us, in what Matthew writes. “When they saw him . . . they worshiped him” (v. 17). The word translated “worship” here means literally “to bow the knee.” Jesus’ disciples, we are told – even including those who doubted and even while they were doubting! – fell down at Jesus’ feet in adoration. Their worship was a sign of personal surrender. We’re not told all that was going on in their minds as they did this, but it seems certain they must have been filled with questions. They did not have all the answers. They must have been wondering and arguing within themselves all along. But regardless of that, when they saw Jesus, they worshiped him.

“But wait a minute,” you say. How can I possibly surrender to Jesus Christ when I’m not even sure if he’s real? How can I worship him when I don’t know if I believe in him? Well, you could begin by being honest enough to recognize the real issue. The problem isn’t with evidence or arguments or proofs. It’s not that it’s impossible for a rational person to believe in Jesus Christ. The real issue is not whether you can believe in Christ. The real issue is whether you are willing to worship him, to surrender to him.

The problem is not in our minds, in other words. It is in our wills. You see, if I become a worshiper of Jesus Christ, if I acknowledge him as Lord and God, then I have to surrender control of myself, my whole life, to him. Then I’m no longer the most important thing in my own life. He is. Then I no longer decide what’s best for me. He does. And a lot of people don’t want that, which is why they take refuge in their doubts. But doubt can be overcome if you are willing to come to Christ, doubts and all, and bow before him in worship.

During an early battle in the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant and his army had surrounded an enemy force. He received an inquiry from the enemy commander who wanted to know if Grant would meet to discuss surrender terms with him. “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted” was Grant’s reply. Unconditional and immediate surrender. That is what Christ expects from us. And he has a right to. After all, he is the Lord. Moreover, this is the only answer to the problem of doubt. In the end, doubt will not be overcome by arguments. Doubt will only be overcome by surrender.