Is it a sin to doubt God?

What do Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman have in common – that is, besides talent, good looks, popularity and wealth? They both grew up in strict Christian families, both went through considerable doubt in their adolescence and both eventually abandoned the faith.

Pitt has said that his doubts came early and revolved around the question of fairness: Why should people born into another religion not “have the same shot at heaven” as those born into Christian families? He eventually substituted faith in himself for faith in Christ: “I had faith that I’m capable enough to handle any situation.”

Jackman grew up in church. It was “sort of [his] life out of school.” His friends came from church. His girlfriends came from church. But when he was around 16 or 17, he began to be bothered by the idea that “all these nonbelievers” were “going to hell.” Jackman still believes in some kind of God and in an afterlife. He meditates twice a day for a half-an-hour at a time, but he has discarded his parents’ faith.

Not many people share the kind of talent and wealth that Pitt and Jackman possess, but many people have experienced the same kind of doubt, and were subjected to it at about the same time of life. Struggles like this with doubt are more common that most people realize.

But church leaders rarely talk about it. Perhaps they fear that talking about it will somehow legitimize it, so they remain quiet. It becomes an unwritten law in churches: Never admit you have doubts.

When a teenager has trouble putting together all the information he has haphazardly gathered over his fifteen or so years – he doesn’t, for example, see how God can be loving and still allow his grandfather to die or how God’s justice and the doctrine of judgment he has heard taught can be reconciled – he begins to experience doubts.

At this point, parents sometimes panic. They tell their teenager he mustn’t have doubts. They urge him to put such thoughts out of his mind and toss religious clichés at him. The apprehension of his parents and the silence of the church lead the young doubter to infer that experiencing doubt is a terrible sin.

None of this relieves doubts. If anything, it increases them. Trying to stifle doubts is like throwing water on a grease fire: it doesn’t put out the fire, it merely splashes it in all directions.

What doubters young and old need to know is that doubt is not a sin; or at least that it is not a sin unless it becomes an excuse – an excuse for laziness or self-indulgence. Doubt provides an opportunity for discovery – Pitt’s and Jackman’s doubts could have led them to further discoveries that might have confirmed their faith, had they only kept looking.

Too often people approach this issue with the idea that doubt and belief exist in an either/or relationship: if we doubt we do not believe and if we believe we do not doubt. They see belief as if it were a kind of light switch that is either on or off.

The reality is that in this life belief is always incomplete. There are areas of unformulated doubt, even in the sincere Christian’s life – though he or she is often surprised by them when they appear. Doubt wages guerrilla-style warfare against belief, waylaying the believer at unforeseen moments in unexpected places.

This should not unsettle the believer too much. Even died-in-the-wool-unbelievers experience doubt. The Oxford professor and former atheist Alexander McGrath has written that even in his vehement denials of faith “a still, small voice within me whispered words of doubt.”

When a person is ambushed by doubts he must not resort to evasion, still less must he give in. He must face his doubts, pray and search out the truth. Doubt will eventually subside, faith will grow stronger and he will be more capable of handling doubt the next time it appears.

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