The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Jesus Thinks Evidence Helps Address Doubt

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A Question

As John the Baptist sits in a jail cell, he sends a few of his students to ask Jesus a question. Here it is:

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:3; see also Lk. 7:20)

It’s a striking question since, well, it’s John the Baptist asking the question. This is the one who, in his ministry, prepared the way for Jesus. At their first meeting (ex utero!), John the Baptist himself, in effect, confesses that Jesus is the one who is to come just before John baptizes him (John 1:29-34). One would have thought if anyone was confident Jesus was the promised Messiah, it would have been John the Baptist. But he’s not sure and he’s asking.

Embarrassing

It’s interesting that both Matthew and Luke record this story. It’s might be thought to be a bit embarrassing that not even John the Baptist is sure that Jesus is the Messiah. If the Gospel writers were trying to get people to believe Jesus is Messiah, then it would have made sense for them to leave this one out (just think how odd this story would have been to include if the Jesus mythicists are correct that Jesus never existed). But, as is usual (I would argue), the Gospel writers don’t attempt to avoid what’s embarrassing and there’s so often a deep lesson to be learned.

What’s going on?

What was going on here for John? What we know is that John is sitting in prison for publicly criticizing Herod Antipas and he will be beheaded soon enough. Given these dire circumstances, many have speculated John is at a very low point in his life. He is struggling. Despite the fact that he did the right thing, he is unjustly suffering for it. So the inference is this is causing John to doubt who Jesus is.

Now I’m not sure we can know the psychological states of John the Baptist. Is he downtrodden and struggling? The text doesn’t say. I know I’d be downtrodden and struggling in his situation. What we know is he’s asking. We know that he is unsure about Jesus. He’s clearly having some intellectual doubts.

Intellectual Doubt

What is intellectual doubt? It is when we experience an intellectual tension in our beliefs. What seems to happen is we begin to suspect a belief of ours may be wrong. Put another way, we feel the force or pull of some objection to one of our beliefs. It’s clear, by John’s earlier confession, he believed Jesus was the Messiah. At some point, he began to feel the pull of the idea that Jesus was not the guy and that perhaps they should be expecting someone else.

I have argued there is great value in experiencing times of intellectual doubt since, as we press in and investigate, we can be led to a greater faith. What becomes really interesting in this passage is Jesus’s reaction to John’s question.

Two Aspects of Jesus’s Reaction to John’s Doubt

First, he does not rebuke John’s questioning of him. This is important. I don’t recall one time when Jesus turns down an honest question. With John the Baptist, Jesus even goes to commend him as, in one sense, the greatest who has ever lived (Matt. 11:11; Lk. 7:28)! This is in the face of his doubting who Jesus is. So it seems okay to wonder. It’s okay to not be sure. There are other sorts of questions, often posed by Jewish religious leaders, where Jesus does rebuke. However, these are not genuine seekers and their questions aren’t designed to even get answers. When it comes to genuine seekers, Jesus welcomes.

Second, Jesus points at evidence as the answer to John’s question. The passage goes on:

[Jesus] replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news, and blessed is the one who isn’t offended by me.” (vs. 22-23)

Notice Jesus does not merely tell John “the answer is, yes, I am the Messiah.” Who knows, this might have satisfied John. He also doesn’t tell John to just drum up more faith. He offers actual evidence to address John’s doubts.

What seems clear is that evidence helps our intellectual doubts. It may not solve everything going on in our hearts. I’m convinced that, for some, no amount of evidence is ever going to satisfy. This is because they are, like the Jewish religious leaders, not genuine seekers. I’m also convinced that if we approach open to have our questions addressed, there is a compelling case to be made.

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