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Nagging doubts

Published: 17 March 2018 (GMT+10)

Caleb L., from the US, wrote in with a question about how to overcome the persistent fear that he might be wrong about God and the afterlife. Keaton Halley of CMI–US offers advice.

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After a few months of reading your site I have been able to grasp how atheism and Darwinism are irrational beliefs. I suffer from OCD however and can never stop thinking, what if we are wrong? What if somehow we are wrong and we die and it is just over. The idea of ceasing to exist is disturbing to the extent that I would rather go to Hell than ceased to exist. Again, I deeply believe now that Darwinian evolution is an impossibility and that God has to exist, I just can not get the "What if" out of my head. Something else that reinforces this obsession are those studies that show religious people are dumber than people with no religious affiliation. It makes me think "What if I am just stupid". Are there any refutations of these supposed studies? I am skeptical of them. But anyway back to the original thing. How can i fully overcome my irrational fear of being wrong and ceasing to exist when I die? I did not really know where else to ask this so I posted it in the other section.

Hi Caleb,

Sorry to hear that you are struggling with this, but I’m glad you are seeking answers and asking for help. That is much better than ignoring the problem and allowing it to fester.

My advice would be, first, to analyze the cause of your doubt—is it primarily intellectual or emotional? If it is rooted in intellectual stumbling blocks, then perhaps getting answers to the specific challenges that bother you would help. You say that your doubts are reinforced by studies showing that religious people are less intelligent. I do not know what studies you are referring to, but any study which reaches that conclusion is plainly flawed, in my opinion. Experience tells us there are intelligent people on both sides and unintelligent people on both sides. Just think of all the brilliant theologians, philosophers, and scientists throughout history who professed Christ. And it’s not hard to find non-religious folk all over the map in terms of their ability to reason carefully. So, any study that claims religious people are significantly less intelligent would have to shoulder an enormous burden of proof to overcome the weight of contrary evidence. Simple observations tell us they cannot be right.

On the other hand, if the cause of your doubt is primarily emotional, then you might just need to instruct your feelings with facts that you already know deep down. You say you can already see that atheism is “irrational” and that your fear of being wrong is “irrational”. So, when doubts arise, you might simply need to actively remind yourself that there are no good reasons to give those doubts a foothold. You might review your reasons for believing in the Bible, spend time praying that God would restore your confidence, and refuse to give in to your feelings whether they subside or remain.

In any case, I think the following articles contain much advice that should also be applicable to your situation. So, I strongly encourage you to read these as well.

Besides all this, consider that ‘what if’ questions aren’t typically very helpful in getting to the truth of a matter. This is because they stipulate something that may be contrary to fact, instead of dealing with the evidence. Questions like, “What if the Mormonism turns out to be right?”, “What if the earth really is flat?”, etc. do nothing to help us decide whether these things really could be the case. Whatever answer you give only tells us about how you might respond in a hypothetical situation—a made-up world. But the strength of the case for and against Mormonism or the flat earth remain exactly the same in the actual world.

The same is true for life after death. The question, “What if we’re wrong” doesn’t help at all in assessing whether we’re wrong. We need to evaluate that based on reason. If we have good reason to trust the Bible as the Word of God, then we have good reason to believe in life after death.

The question, “What if I am just stupid?”, is similar. It sidesteps the evidence for life after death, and worries instead whether you can trust your own reasoning. But what reasons do you have for distrusting your own reasoning in general? We’ve already dispensed with the studies which reached that conclusion. But, furthermore, this approach is self-refuting. If you really concluded that studies proved you were too dumb to reason properly, then how would you know that you reasoned properly to reach that conclusion? If applied consistently, doubting your beliefs solely on the basis of questions about your intelligence would prevent you from reaching any conclusions with confidence. So, we need to focus on the reasons we have for our beliefs and just do the best with whatever intelligence God gave us.

By the way, Christians have an explanation for why we can trust our reasoning powers, but atheists don’t.

Finally, remember that Jesus is patient with us when we doubt, and He can help us to overcome doubt. For example, John the Baptist initially acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 3), but later sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was really the one they sought (Luke 7:18–19). Jesus pointed John to the ways in which He was fulfilling Old Testament predictions about what the Messiah would do (Luke 7:22).

Peter had enough faith to walk on water (Matthew 14:29), but Jesus saved him when he wavered and began to sink (Matthew 14:30–31).

Thomas said he wouldn’t believe in the resurrection until he felt Jesus’ wounds for himself (John 20:25). Jesus gently chided him for his lack of faith, yet still allowed him to touch the wounds, leading to Thomas’ climactic profession of faith (John 20:27–29).

The father of a boy with an unclean spirit requested that Jesus heal his son, with the words, “if you can” (Mark 9:22). Jesus said all he needed to do was believe. The man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), and Jesus healed the boy. This is a prayer I’ve prayed myself many times, because I do not have perfect faith either. I believe, yet I still need Jesus’ help with my own lack of complete trust in Him.

I pray that God will help you to overcome your own doubts as He’s helped others.

One more thing. We aren’t meant to live the Christian life alone, so you make sure you are also faithfully fellowshipping with other believers in a local Bible-believing church. It could be beneficial to seek advice from your pastor, elders, and friends there as well, who can come alongside and encourage you.

Blessings!

Addendum

My initial response did not address your mention of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). If this is a genuine diagnosis, perhaps a somewhat different approach would be best. We do not give medical advice, but a colleague shared with me that, if you suffer from OCD, compulsive ‘scary thoughts’ may only get worse the more you try to reason your way out of them. If you recognize that your doubts are a result of your condition, then it might be better to ignore them and remind yourself that it comes from compulsion and is not a rational doubt. You also might benefit from counseling/therapy and possibly medication, seeking advice from professionals and fellow Christians, of course.

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