The certainty of doubt

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By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species. His book brought into the open a conflict between science and religion that had been simmering below the surface since the days of the Enlightenment. It is a blood feud that many still fight in the attempt to prove that science is the only avenue to truth with certitude. According to the mindset of those who see fact and faith as irreconcilable, only what can be proven by science is true. 

In reality, doubt is a constant in every scientific enquiry. The 18th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell actually called science a “thoroughly conscious ignorance.” For science to make any advance, its practitioners must doubt their own conclusions. Everything is questioned. Everything is uncertain.

As in science, so too in faith, doubting has a role to play. As we try to make sense out of life, so often incomprehensible and filled with suffering, we find ourselves doubting truths that we have already accepted. How can an all-good God allow tragedies to cut down whole groups of people? Is God really in control? If he is so loving, why does he allow cancer to strike a little child or anyone for that matter? 

Sooner or later, the brutal facts of life make us question and even doubt. We reach out for certitude and find ourselves groping in the dark. And, we are different than those who knew Jesus during his public ministry and were even witnesses to his Resurrection. In all the gospel accounts of the appearances of the Risen Lord, there is always an element of doubt. 

When Jesus appears to Magdalene near the empty tomb, Jesus has to reassure her that she is truly seeing him risen from the dead (Jn 20:16). Likewise, he needs to confirm the angel’s announcement of his Resurrection to the other women (Mt 28:8-10). Jesus also has to dispel the doubts clouding the minds of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Only after he explains the Scriptures to them and breaks bread with them do they believe in the Resurrection (Lk 24:13-35). 

On Easter evening, when the Risen Lord appears to the apostles in the Upper Room, he asks them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” (Lk 24:38). A week later, he appears to them again in the Upper Room. This time, he offers proof of his Resurrection to doubting Thomas, who had been absent the week before (Jn 20:27).

In his only account of the appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples, Matthew includes a very embarrassing detail. He tells us that, when the Risen Lord appears to the disciples and is standing right before them, they still doubted (Mt 28:17). As Jews, the disciples looked forward to the resurrection as an event of the end time. For them, all the dead would be raised on the last day. It never entered their minds that one individual would be raised from the dead before the world ended. And, now in front of them is Jesus, risen from the dead. It was almost too good to believe. 

The doubts of the disciples in all the Resurrection appearances and their slowness to believe is an indirect proof of the Resurrection. It took them time to come to understand that Jesus, their rabbi who had suffered and died, not only had been raised from the dead, but was truly God. Their questioning, their hesitation, was the means that the Holy Spirit used to lead them into a deeper understanding of the mystery of faith. We should, therefore, never be worried or surprised that we ourselves have doubts. The same Holy Spirit wills us to come to an always greater possession of the faith we profess.

In this life, everyone lives by faith in one form or another. The believer who trusts in God. The scientist who works on experiments. The student who accepts what the professor teaches as truth. Even the atheist will have misgivings that there is something more than this material world. Since we all live by faith, we all have doubts. 

As the famous British novelist C. S. Lewis once said, “Believe in God, and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in him, and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction religious or irreligious will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of faith resulting in the habit of faith will gradually do that.” In other words, only living our faith to the fullest and handing ourselves entirely over to the Risen Lord will free us from the certainty of doubt.

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