Unbelief and Doubt Are Two Different Things

Matthew 28:1-20

There is a lot going on today.

In case you have not heard, at the end of this month, John Rights is leaving us. John is going to be the head pastor at the Kernersville Moravian Church. He will be preaching next week, the 22nd, and we will have a reception for him and his family on the 29th. Put both those June dates on your calendar.
It is also Father’s Day, and we honor the Fathers among us, and those who have filled the roll of father in our own lives. These father figures may be our natural fathers, or stepfathers, who stepped in to help our mothers raise us, or mentors, who brought us along at work or in life. The author of 1st John writes to the fathers, the young men, and the children. The fathers are those who have an experience of faith that they can pass along to those who are less mature. We have lots of fathers here at New Philadelphia.

Finally, the passage from Matthew 28 reminds us that it is Trinity Sunday. The text does not use the word “Trinity,” the New Testament never does. The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicit in the New Testament, but implicit. The moment Christians started to worship the One LORD of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4), as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Trinity became inevitable.

Some people tell me that they find it hard to believe in the Trinity. They say they believe in one God, or three Gods, but not in a God who is both One and Three. I don’t have any problem with the Trinity. The universe itself teaches us that two mutually opposed truths are sometimes equally true, even when they appear to cancel each other out. For instance, physicists tell us that if you extend, too far, the laws of the Large Scale Universe, meaning the laws that govern the stars and the planets, and all the things we can see through a telescope, we rule out the laws of the Small Scale Universe, meaning the laws that govern those things that we can only see with the help of a nuclear collider. And vice versa. Albert Einstein dedicated the second half of his life trying to reconcile the two, searching for a Unified Field Theory, and many physicists think that he wasted his time.

I think it is a waste of time to spend too much time worrying about the Trinity. It is impossible to improve upon the classical doctrine of the Trinity, which declares that the goal, when speaking of the Trinity, “is not to divide the Essence, or confuse the Persons.” If even that confuses you just remember that when you worship Jesus Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, you are worshiping God; but not all the God there is, for the One God who is fully present in Jesus Christ, is also infinitely beyond any beauty, grace, or power we can imagine.

So, on this particular Sunday, all this is going on, and I want to add to the mix. I want us to look at doubt. I feel we must, for right smack dab in the middle of one of the most read and most quoted passages in the New Testament, Matthew introduces the idea that, at least for a time, at least some of the eleven disciples doubted the Risen Christ.

The short version goes like this. Jesus was crucified on a Friday. On the Sabbath everybody rested. On the First day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They saw the empty tomb, and an angel, who told them that Jesus had risen, and that they should go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and that he is going before them to Galilee, and there they will see him. And on the way to tell the disciples this astounding news, the women encounter the Risen Christ, and they fall at his feet and worship him. Then, Jesus, too, sends the women, who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection, the apostles to the apostles, to tell his disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see him. And the text continues:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’

I

If you wish to grasp the true meaning of this text, there is one thing that must be understood above all: It must be understood that unbelief and doubt are not the same thing.

When Javier Bardem says that he does not believe in God, he believes in Al Pacino, that is not doubt, it is unbelief. When Andy Rooney says, “I am an Atheist, …I do not understand religion; I think it is all nonsense,” that is not doubt it is unbelief. When Christopher Hitchens says that “God Is Not Good,” and that religion is the main source of hatred in the world, making no distinction between faith as a corrupt and corrupting political power and a faith of the heart, that is unbelief.

Unbelief is settled. It is a slam-dunk. It rules out almost any possibility of a person ever embracing belief. I say “almost” because with God “all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

Doubt on the other hand is far from settled. Doubt is the state of being caught between two opinions. It limps along, like the people of Elijah’s day, who tried to serve Yahweh and the Baals.

In the Old Testament the true nature of doubt is clearly seen in a passage from Deuteronomy 28. Moses has set the Covenant before the Children of Israel. And he tells them that if they keep it, they will be blessed, and if they break it, they will be cursed. He says that if they break it, God will bring on them, and their offspring, “extraordinary afflictions, severe and lasting.” He says that they will be scattered among the nations, and (at the same time) brought back to Egypt and to slavery in ships, that is, by express! It took them many years to reach the Promised Land, but they will be driven from it quickly! And then Moses talks about doubt. He says:

Your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread. In the morning because of the sights your eyes shall see you shall say, ‘Would it were evening!’ In the evening because of the dread which your heart shall fear you will say, “Would it were morning!”.* (Word order altered for clarity).

Can you see how doubt vacillates between one thing and the other?

You get the same thing in the New Testament. In James 1:6 we read that when we ask God for something, “…we must ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”

The translators of the RSV have done a great job. In both testaments unbelief is fixed and settled. Doubt is anything but. Doubt means to be of two minds about something.

Now let us apply what we have learned to Matthew 28. The eleven disciples who see the Risen Christ on the mountaintop in Galilee—-“doubt.” They do not “disbelieve,” they “doubt.” They are of two minds. It must be so. On the one hand, they must have recognize that this magnificent being who stands before them bears a striking resemblance to their old Teacher, Master, Lord, and Friend, Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, at least some of them must have asked, “How can this be?” For at least some of them stood at a distance and saw Jesus crucified, and killed by the cruelty of human beings just like us.”

There is a cure for their doubt. Matthew tells us that “and Jesus came….” That phrase can best be translated, “and Jesus drew near.” This is reminiscent of the way that Jesus drew near to Thomas, in John’s gospel, offering to allow him to place his finger in the mark of the nails, or to thrust his hand in his side. (John 20) “Jesus drew near,” and we can be sure that doubt gave way, not to faith, but to sight. The disciples were permitted to see that we might be permitted the privilege of believing.

II

Now, what does this passage tell us about doubt, and the role of doubt in our faith?

1. First, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, it teaches us how perform a difficult task, which we sincerely believe comes to us from God, and is a part of God’s will for our life. In Matthew 14:31 the disciples are in a boat. Jesus comes to them walking on the water. Peter asks to join him. Jesus says, “Come.” And Peter starts toward him, but when he saw the wind and the wave, he was afraid, and he started to sink. And Jesus took him by the hand and said, “O man of little faith, why would you doubt.” This story about Peter is unique to Matthew. Some scholars think that the whole narrative is part of a misplaced Resurrection narrative. People wonder what it means. In the context of Matthew, whatever else it means, it means that when we accept a task as coming from Jesus, as Peter did, we must not doubt. We must not be of two minds, tossed to and fro by the wind, we must settle our minds to do the thing. No person ever achieved anything of difficulty and lasting greatness by thinking it was an option. When Wellington was about to face Napoleon at Waterloo one of his commanders came to him and asked for a fall back strategy. Wellington said, “Our fall back strategy is to stay right where we are and fight to the last man.” When something comes to us as the Will of God for us, we must be equally decisive.

2. Second, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, it teaches us how to pray. Perhaps you will remember how in Matthew 21:19 Jesus cursed the fig tree, and it withered, and his disciples were surprised. And then he said to them:

Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive it, if you have faith.

Some people take this to mean that anything and everything is ours for the asking, if only we have faith enough. That is not true at all. Jesus says anything and everything is ours if we have faith and never doubt. It is only possible for a disciple to ask for something without doubt if we are absolutely sure that God wants for us what we want for ourselves. The truth is that we often ask for things and do not get them, knowing full well that God does not want those things for us anyway. That is what James is getting at when he writes:

“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2b-3)

Indeed there are times when we ask God for things that are perfectly alright for others, but not for us. St. Paul is a good example. He writes that three times he asked God to remove his thorn in the flesh and three times the word came, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2nd Corinthians 12:9)

3. There is a third thing that must be mentioned. Doubt can be an important prelude to faith.

John Cornwell a member of Jesus College, Cambridge, once asked Graham Greene, the celebrated novelist, why he described himself as a Christian. Greene responded that he started writing fiction while working as a reporter on a small newspaper. He said he felt his intuition for separating fact from fiction was as good as any experienced newspaper editors. He said that when he read the story in John’s gospel of the two disciples racing each other to the empty tomb after Christ’s body had disappeared, he felt that it was “authentic reportage.” It was this, he went on to say, that enabled him to doubt his doubts about the resurrection. Greene became a Christian.

I feel the same about this passage in Matthew as Greene felt about the passage in John. Think of it. Matthew is notorious for protecting the reputation of the disciples. Mark 10:37 tells us that James and John the sons of Zebedee asked Jesus to sit one at his right hand, and one at his left, when Jesus came into his kingdom. Matthew 20:21 puts those words into the mouth of the disciples’ mother. Matthew protects the disciples, yet in this passage, certainly one of the most important episodes in their discipleship, he does not hesitate to tell us that the disciples hesitated before they acknowledge the majesty of their risen Lord. I think this passage smacks of what Graham Greene called “authentic reportage.”

4. Finally, I think we ought to say a word about overcoming doubt.

It must be admitted that some doubt cannot be overcome. We cannot overcome out doubts if we used them simply to avoid doing the right thing. Some doubts are not doubts at all. They are a smoke-screen that we put up so we can live our lives free of what we regard as God’s interference. If we have doubts, and spend little time trying to overcome them, then chances are, our real problem is not doubt, but disobedience.

There is nothing wrong with honest doubt. The philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote that true science teaches us above all, to doubt, and to be ignorant, for only then are we open to the truth. The same is true in the life of the spirit. The 12th century saint, Peter Abelard, said that “the first key to wisdom is doubting, for in doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at truth.”

If you have sincere doubts about the truth of the gospel, you should and will investigate. I urge you to spend time in the scripture. About five years ago, when I was on sabbatical, I took a page from Zinzendorf and read the opposition. I read Dawkins, and Hitchings, and Harris, and several other big name Atheists. Some of what they said made sense. We need to listen to their criticism. Then, to counter falling too much under their influence, I went to scripture. I started where I always do when my faith grows weak. I started with 1st Corinthians 15, the earliest witness to the resurrection, and I read how Paul said that the Risen Jesus appeared to Peter, and to the Twelve, and to James, and to all the Apostles, and to the 500, and then, last of all, he appeared to him, a persecutor of the church. Then I read Galatians, about how Paul talked with Peter, and John, and with James the brother of the Lord, all of whom were pillars of the church in Jerusalem. And I remember how Paul, and James, the brother of the Lord, doubted Jesus—until the Risen Jesus appeared to them, after his crucifixion. And I remember how Peter betrayed Jesus, not once but three times, on the night he was taken. And I remembered how selfish John the son of Zebedee was when he asked to sit at the right hand of Jesus in the kingdom. For me, all this smacks of authentic reportage, and my doubt always gives way to faith.

Of course, there is an even better way to overcome our doubts. When the Risen Christ drew near his disciples he commanded them to make and baptize disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all he commanded them. Jesus gave his disciples something to do—they were to share their faith. Nothing seals the deal on faith like sharing it. That is why, when John Wesley came to Peter Bohler and said that he was afraid that he lacked faith, and would leave off preaching, Bohler said to him, “No, do not neglect the gift that God has given you; preach faith until you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” I would say the same to you in those seasons when your faith grows weak. “Live faith until you have it, and then, because you have it, you will live faith.”

Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.