Theodore Hesburgh, at one time President of Notre Dame University, a Roman Catholic institution, said “the university is a place where the church can do its thinking.” Would that mean that ordinary saints assembled for worship are not supposed to think? The members of the church at Berea might have something to say about that. Acts 17:11 highlights the role of the members as both believers and explorers. The New Living Translation puts it nicely: “And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.”
The KJV has “more noble.” But the phrase “more open-minded” suggests intriguing possibilities and fits the context well.
Generally, it’s not a good idea to compare one local church with another. But in this instance the book of Acts seems to have had good reasons for doing so. Acts 17:11 combines two ideas: eagerness and skepticism. Skepticism may be too strong a word, but the point is that the Bereans were eager, willing learners. Indeed, they were enthusiastic. And they were skeptical enough not to simply accept everything they were told.
The Berean church is our first stop on a wide-ranging survey of the “skeptical” tradition in Scripture. We’ll look at both Testaments to see what the Bible can tell us about thinking, doubting, exploring.
After the powerful Berean example, we’ll complete our survey of the New Testament. Then we’ll move back to the Old Testament, which provides us with a wealth of material.
Three New Testament notables expand our list of believing doubters: Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist; the Pharisee Nicodemus; and “doubting” Thomas. Taking them in order of importance, let’s look briefly at each one.
Luke 1 describes how Zechariah was struck temporarily dumb because he did not believe the angelic messenger who told him that his childless wife Elizabeth was to give birth to a son. After the boy was born, the family was startled when his mother said his name would be John. “None of your relatives has that name,” they argued. But when they asked his father, Zechariah asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” Everyone was amazed—and now the doubting Zechariah could talk!
The story of Nicodemus, our second example, unfolds gradually. John 3:1–10 tells how this highly regarded Pharisee came to Jesus by night with some urgent questions. Jesus answered them, but in a way that made them even more puzzling and more urgent!
You need to be born again, Jesus told him.
Impossible, returned Nicodemus.
But Jesus pushed him further: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10, NRSV)
John leaves the story open, but in 7:51–52 tells how Nicodemus quietly called his colleagues to account with a crucial procedural question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” They turned on him, but John’s readers now knew where Nicodemus stood and, at Jesus’ burial, he joined with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial (John 19:39).
Our third, and most famous, believing doubter in the New Testament was Thomas, one of the Twelve. The story unfolds in two steps. First, Jesus appeared to the disciples in Thomas’s absence. But when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas bluntly declared: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25, NRSV).
A week later, Jesus again appeared among them, this time with Thomas present. Jesus simply said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27–28, NRSV).
But for doubters, Jesus’s final comment to Thomas is a tantalizing one because Jesus affirms those who believe without evidence: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29, NRSV).
Turning now to the Old Testament, we find two kinds of evidence. First, the big-name doubters, Abraham and Moses. Second, two whole books, Ecclesiastes and Job, in the “wisdom literature” genre, that allow us to explore in depth the question of believing skeptics.
Abraham, the first of the big doubters, was also a great man of faith. Three examples from his life fill out the picture for us.
Example #1: Abraham and Sarai in Egypt: Genesis 12:10–20
A great famine led Abraham to Egypt. But because he doubted God’s readiness to protect his wife, he told lies, asking his wife to declare herself to be his sister. He was afraid that they would kill him in order to take his wife.
Sure enough, the officials of Pharaoh were struck by Sarah’s beauty and took her into Pharaoh’s house. But then the Lord stepped in, striking Pharaoh and his house with great plagues. The narrative in Genesis is worth quoting:
But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So, Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had (Genesis 12:17–20, NRSV).
Abraham did not believe that God would protect his wife from the advances of the pagan Pharaoh. He even told lies. Yet God did not reject Abraham either for his lack of faith or his doubts, not even for his lies.
Example #2: Abraham and Sarah and the prospect of an heir: Genesis 17:15–17
When God told Abraham that his aged wife would bear a son, he fell on his face and laughed. But God ignored his doubts and gave him a son despite his doubts and his laughter!
Example #3: Abraham and the fate of the innocent at Sodom: Genesis 18:23–26
God had such respect for Abraham that when it became clear that Sodom’s wickedness called for action, he decided to tell Abraham. Listen to the horror in Abraham’s voice as he pondered the implications:
Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake” (Gen. 18:23–26, NRSV).
God did not condemn or even rebuke Abraham for his questions but granted his request!
Moses, the second great believing skeptic in the Old Testament, showed his colors at Mt. Sinai, when Israel turned wild and made the golden calf. Scripture records God’s outrage to Moses and Moses’ spunky response:
The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:9–14, NRSV)
On balance, we see God responding to doubters in a variety of ways. In the case of Abraham at Sodom and Moses at Mt. Sinai, the doubters won through. Sometimes there was a temporary judgment for doubting (Zechariah), or a gentle rebuke (Thomas, Nicodemus). But there were no she-bears coming out of the woods to maul forty-two boys, a sobering story from 2 Kings 2; and no one was struck dead, as poor Uzzah was when he touched the sacred ark, a scary story from 2 Kings 6.
But now we must reflect briefly on the issue of doubting believers from the perspective of two of the so-called “wisdom” books of the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes and Job. The New Testament has no direct counterparts, but these books were part of Jesus’s Bible and we have every right to take them seriously. Indeed, when we talk about church and education, those books are our best resource.
This “wisdom literature” focuses on the disciplined human intellect, the very stuff on which education thrives. So, while there may be no specific passage of Scripture that brings school and church together, the sacred text of the church gives us illustrations of what the disciplined human mind can and should do.
Wisdom literature is typically divided into two types: “Higher Wisdom” is more speculative and exploratory, represented by the books of Ecclesiastes and Job. “Lower Wisdom” is more practical and conservative, best represented by the book of Proverbs.
Of the two books of “higher wisdom,” the book of Ecclesiastes is more secular in tone than the book of Job. God is present, but more on the fringe. Neither prayer nor praise appears anywhere in the book, and Ecclesiastes 5:1, 2 gives the framework within which the author operates:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few (Eccl. 5:1–2, NRSV).
In many ways, Ecclesiastes is a unique book in the Bible. There is nothing even remotely like it in the New Testament, and even in the Old Testament it stands alone. Under the heading of “remarkable” vocabulary, these words and phrases are worth noting: the phrase “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” provide two bookends for the book, appearing at the beginning (1:2) and just before the epilogue (12:8). Altogether, the word “vanity” occurs thirty-one times in the book and only three times in all the rest of the Old Testament. A companion phrase with the similar thrust is “a chasing after wind,” which occurs nine times in Ecclesiastes. In body language, all that would translate into a massive shrug.
So, what’s the author’s remedy or solution? Enjoy life! The verb occurs nine times in Ecclesiastes and only fifteen times elsewhere. The noun enjoyment occurs six times in Ecclesiastes and only once elsewhere. Finally, a phrase that occurs five times in the book is “eat and drink”! In short, nothing makes sense—so one might as well enjoy life while it lasts. Indeed, one could almost see 3:11–15 as the author’s motto:
God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So, I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God (Eccl. 3:11–15, NLT).
So, is the author of Ecclesiastes a doubter or believer? Yes!
The book of Job, in contrast with Ecclesiastes’s shrug, offers us seething anger. The famous “trust” passage, Job 13:15, rendered by the KJV as “though he slay me, yet will I trust him” is radically revised in several modern translations. The NRSV is a good example: “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face.”
So, is the author of Job a doubter or a believer? Yes—but not at all like the author of Ecclesiastes.
To sum up, for believers, both those who doubt and those who never raise any questions at all, the crucial question is: How are we to know whether we are following God’s will or just are own natural inclinations?
It is indeed helpful to know the examples in Scripture. But we need more. It’s not enough to know God’s Word, we need to know God. And that comes through the discipline of prayer. Interestingly enough, Jesus tells us very little about how to pray, though his example in prayer is certainly worth noting. Mark 1:35 declares: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (NRSV).
As we seek to know God’s will and to know God, the church can help us—help us think, help us believe, and help us worship.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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