Room for Doubters & Skeptics

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Jesus formed an inner circle of people who were called apostles, and that group included doubters. Yes, Jesus invited doubters and included them in His inner circle. Two of those people were Thomas and Bartholomew (also known as Nathanael).

There is nothing wrong with doubt. Honest doubt is always better than false faith. We should never trade our integrity for something that isn’t genuine. It’s better to have no hope than a false hope.

I recently wrote about a statement made about Stephen Hawking: “A great scientist, even like Stephen Hawking, if he had to admit a creator, it would be unavoidable, he would have to seek him because he is a great scientist.” I don’t know if that statement is really true. I’m not sure if Stephen Hawking would really seek God if he thought God existed, but a person should seek God if God exists. There could be no greater or more important finding than that!

Ultimate truth for finite beings like us, however, is always accompanied by doubt. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know everything, and we never will. Yet, we seek for something solid, something we can trust and something in which we can put our faith. We all do that, even atheists, even if all we trust is science (and the human intellectual capacity to understand it).

For these reasons, the stories of Nathanael and Thomas are so significant.

We read about Nathanael in the very beginning of the public life of Jesus that was chronicled by John in the Gospel that bears his name.

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (John 1:45-46)

Philip was pretty excited to introduce Nathanael to Jesus, but Nathanael wasn’t prepared to be very impressed. His response was the equivalent of, “Yeah right! Where’s he from? Really? Nothing good comes from there!”[1]

Nathanael (or Philip) might have ended the conversation there, but that isn’t what happened. Although, Nathanael wasn’t buying into what Philip was telling him. Philip invited Nathanael to “come and see”[2]; and though Nathanael doubted what Philip was claiming, he went and met Jesus for himself.

I am not going tell the rest of the story here, though you can certainly read it for yourself.[3] For our purposes, I only want to note that Jesus described Nathanael as “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.”[4] Being an “Israelite indeed” suggests that Nathanael had ingrained beliefs that colored his worldview, but there was no deceit in him. What you saw was what he was. He wasn’t fake. He was honest and had integrity.

That says something about how God views doubters. Nathanael became one of the twelve apostles, a member of the inner circle of people who followed Jesus. If Jesus had room for a person like Nathanael, who had his own worldview and was honest enough to say so, he has room for anyone who is honest about their doubts about Jesus.

The other story is about Thomas, the person we know popularly as “Doubting Thomas”. Thomas was a pretty negative guy according to the two passages in John in which he is mentioned. The first mention of Thomas is in John 11. We read there that Martha sought out Jesus to tell him her brother, Lazarus was sick. Instead responding immediately, Jesus waited two days as Lazarus lay on his death bed in Judea. When he finally decided to go to Lazarus, the disciples tried to discourage him because Jesus had royally pissed off the religious leaders in Judea the last time he was there – so much that the religious leaders tried to stone him to death.[5]

When the disciples reminded Jesus of the last time he was in Judea, Jesus ignored them. He said that God was to going to be glorified, that “Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go that I may awaken him out of his sleep”.[6] The disciples responded the way I might have: “If he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”[7] What’s the big deal?! Why would Jesus risk his life, and possibly the lives of his followers, to see Lazarus if he was going to be ok? It didn’t make sense.

And then Jesus said something that made even less sense: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe….”[8] This is where Thomas chimes in (imagine the sarcasm): “Let’s go, too–and die with Jesus.” (NLT)

He might have been thinking like this: What’s he doing? Is he crazy? He knows they want to kill him, and they are going to kill us too!”

The other place Thomas is mentioned is john 20, after Jesus had died on the cross. Jesus had just appeared to the disciples risen from the dead, in the flesh, but Thomas wasn’t with them. The disciples were naturally excited to see Thomas and told him about it, but Thomas was less than enthusiastic: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”[9]

Think about it. Thomas had walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, traveled with Jesus, lived life for several years with Jesus, and his response to the other disciples is, “I’ll believe it when I see it!” This is the same Thomas who was afraid he would die with Jesus in Judea. He was negative; he was skeptical; he was doubtful; but he was still there!

Again, I’m not going to tell “the rest of the story” here, as Paul Harvey famously said. You can read it for yourself, or read the footnotes to this blog piece.[10] The point I want to make here is that Jesus invited and embraced honest doubters. He didn’t have an issue with genuine skeptics. He even welcomed two of them into his inner circle of followers. You can be a follower of Jesus with honest doubt and genuine skepticism. He won’t turn you away.

There is room in Christianity for honest doubters and genuine skeptics. Honest demands for evidence and genuine interest in the proof of the claims of Jesus who claimed to be God in the flesh are welcomed. Christianity makes testable claims and invites honest and genuine inquiry. Christianity makes uniquely historical and factual claims with the expectation that seekers will put those claims to the test.


[1] A little back story is helpful in understanding the interchange. Nathanael was a Jew, of course, and he likely believed in the coming of the Messiah that is promised in the Prophets (a portion of the Jewish scripture that is part of the Christian Old Testament). The Prophets predicted that the Messiah would be a descendant in the line of King David and come from Bethlehem. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of course, the City of David, where his father, Joseph, we from because he was from the line of David.  But, people didn’t know Jesus by his birth place; they knew him by the place he grew up – Nazareth, a rural community with a poor reputation. Nathanael would have known were the Messiah was to come from, and he would have known of the poor reputation of Nazareth.

[2] John 1:46

[3] For a prologue on the rest of the story, see Faith Requires a Personal Encounter.

[4] John 1:47

[5] John 11:8 (“The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?”)

[6] John 11:11

[7] John 11:12

[8] John 11:15

[9] John 20:25

[10] Faith Requires a Personal Encounter

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