Dealing with Doubt
It was my sister’s turn to ride in the front seat, so I climbed into the back. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but that wasn’t unusual, so I sat quietly as mom backed the station wagon out of the driveway.
I was thinking about the doctrine of the virgin birth, that it was simply impossible for Mary to get pregnant without “knowing a man.” I wasn’t stupid, after all. I had read the booklet that my mother gave me about the sperm and eggs joining to form a zygote; I had taken health class in seventh grade. I’d already known everything in the booklet that Mom had given me, but I hadn’t told her that. She was trying to be a good mother, it wasn’t my place to tell her that she was too late to teach me about the birds and the bees. And health class came even later, when I couldn’t think of even one kid in my class who didn’t already know the material that we were taught. We may have been immature, giggling and blushing behind our text books, but we already knew where babies came from. So now, sitting in the back seat of the car, I couldn’t stop thinking that it was impossible for Jesus to have been born of a virgin, it just didn’t make sense. But how could I be doubting such a basic Bible story, one I’d been taught for my entire life, the single fact that was considered true in every church I’d ever attended? I’d known about sex for years, yet I’d never had a problem believing in this miracle before.
My head hurt from the frown on my face, my clenched teeth, and the intense concentration of my mind. I could not come up with an answer but I knew I didn’t want to doubt. I wanted to have faith, even faith as small as a seed that could grow into a tree. If I could only muster up a tiny bit of faith…. but no. The doubt, the science of reproduction, was prevailing over my thoughts. My heart started pounding in my chest, and my breathing got faster and faster. In a few minutes, tears started flowing down my face. I tried to cry quietly so my mother and sister wouldn’t hear me. But they were used to my emotional outbursts by then and probably would have ignored me anyway, after asking what was wrong and getting no response.
Inside my head I began chanting, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” I couldn’t talk; my nose was completely stuffed up from the crying.
I felt like Thomas, who needed to see Jesus in the flesh after the resurrection. Thomas needed to touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side in order to believe. But God wanted us to believe without seeing. That was the whole point of faith, wasn’t it? If I couldn’t believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, if I couldn’t believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a huge fish and then vomited up alive several days later, if I couldn’t believe that God had created the earth in six twenty-four hour days just by speaking, how could I possibly believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he had the power to forgive my sins? How could I even be saved if I doubted something so fundamental? Maybe I was starting to slip away from the Lord, maybe I was going to backslide.
“I love you, Lord.” I kept praying, trying to catch my breath and to stop the scenes of doubt from replaying in my head every few seconds, “Please, please don’t let me backslide.”
Slowly, the panic started to fade and the crisis passed; I stopped crying, pulled a tissue out of my purse, and blew my nose. I pushed the doubt and fear into the back of my mind. Somehow I would force myself to believe. I had to.
I loved comic books. Batman and Robin, Superman, Archie, and Christian comics by Jack Chick. Uncle Albie gave me most of the comics after he read them, but the Chick tracts came from church or the Christian bookstore. My mother was concerned that some of Uncle Albie’s comics might be too scary for my sister and me when we were younger but it was the Chick books that were truly chilling.
I knew that Superman, Jughead, and the Joker were make-believe but the Christian comics made real life into a nightmare. The drawing style was disturbing, making even normal people look slightly deformed and nauseating, and the messages were terrifying. Evil was waiting at every door and “spells, astrology, occultic jewelry and rock music” were all traps that had to be avoided. The “Crusaders” were the superheroes in these Christian comics. Everyday people were the villains.
According to Jack Chick the Catholic Church—where Grandma went—was satanic. Mary and the saints were idols; the Catholic church was behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; the Communist Party and the Third Reich were both formed by Jesuit priests led by Satan; and all Roman Catholics were going to burn in hell.
Evolution was almost as threatening to Jack Chick as Catholicism. According to Chick, there were no valid discoveries of transitory fossils. The comic Primal Man listed only a few fossil discoveries of early hominids, and claimed that all were faked, flawed, or fossils of modern humans. Evolution wasn’t real science, the comic declared. It was a misleading theory—an elaborate hoax—intended to disprove the Bible.
The characters in the tracts seemed insane. Teachers screamed and threw things at their students; everyone was frowning and crying except for the Christian Crusaders; and people changed their minds about important issues after five-minute conversations.
Jack Chick was over the top in his portrayal of the secular world, and I knew it. I went to school and brought my Bible with me. I put it on top of my textbooks on my desk because I didn’t want anyone to think I was ashamed of my faith. My science teachers never screamed at me or threatened to throw me out of class when I asked questions. I’d gone to the Catholic church. There were no sacrifices to Satan there. And Grandma certainly didn’t seem to me like she was being used by the devil.
I wasn’t sure why Chick was so angry and afraid or why he took the Bible so literally. I thought the Bible was the infallible Word of God, sure; but I didn’t see why God couldn’t have uses evolution to create the diverse life forms I saw at the Bronx Zoo. I didn’t believe the six days of creation were twenty-four hours each; the sun and moon weren’t even created until the fourth “day,” so how could the days be literal?
I didn’t actually think about the information in the Christian comics too much. I read them and put them in the pile with my old Archie and Superman books. I figured I could look things up at the library if I ever became interested enough to care that much. When I finally did, years later, I found the details surprisingly easy to refute. I discovered that the tracts were full of distortions of science and history, misinformation, and flat-out lies. What did that have to say about everything else I’d learned in church?
I always enjoyed Bible study classes, so much so that I went to Bible School instead of college. After I graduated from the one-year school, I continued to read the Bible on my own and I frequented the local Christian bookstore, searching for study guides to enhance my own reading of the scriptures. At some point I picked up a guide to Ephesians, a New Testament book I was already quite familiar with. The pages of my own Bible were marked with green and yellow highlights and with red, orange, and blue underlines, with notes in the margins near my favorite verses.
The book I’d purchased went through Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus chapter by chapter, verse by verse. When I got to the middle of chapter 5, I read:
22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
Nothing in Ephesians chapter 5 was highlighted or underlined in my Bible. Well, I wasn’t a wife, so this didn’t apply to me, did it? I guessed it probably would in the future, but I’d never paid much attention to these verses before. Yet now I became curious about the other passages about women in the New Testament. It turned out that Paul had quite a bit to say about women, some of which was underlined in my Bible, including I Timothy 2, verses 9 through 12:
9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
I didn’t see Paul’s admonitions being practiced—or even preached—in the churches I attended. We women all spent a lot of time fixing our hair. We also wore jewelry and fancy dresses to church. Our “Sunday best” was modest all right, but not necessarily inexpensive. Married and single women were preaching, leading praise and worship, and teaching Bible classes. As I went through all of Paul’s letters to find what he had to say about women, I decided that I simply did not agree with him. This made me nervous. Was I in rebellion against God because I disagreed with something in the Bible?
It turns out that Paul himself let me off the hook when he noted twice in I Corinthians 7 that he was giving his own opinion, not God’s law. “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord,” and, “I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment…” he wrote, specifically when giving advice to women (about whom he knew nothing, being single and allegedly celibate). Paul’s words, I saw, weren’t necessarily God’s words. Some things in the Bible were just opinions. Something cracked open in a back corner of my mind.
Years later, after many more encounters with scripture and struggles with doubt, I came to see everything in the Bible as the opinion of one author or another. Each book was written by a different person, each of whom had a different message or agenda to promote. I realized that the Bible is the same as any other book or anthology. Some things I agree with, others I don’t. Some things are factually accurate, others are riddled with errors. Some authors are good writers, others are not. Some passages are beautifully inspiring, others are revolting. Some advice and commandments are worthy of emulation, others deserve ridicule and scorn.
Concerned friends have since asked me if I was looking for an excuse not to believe, thinking that I must have wanted to live in sin and I was searching for a way to justify my disobedience to God’s commandments. But they were wrong. For most of my life I desperately wanted to believe the Bible was the infallible Word of God. For long stretches of time, I did believe. And I did my best to suppress the doubts that occasionally cropped up for almost twenty years, pushing them down deep inside. In the end, however, I stopped running from my fears. After twenty years of struggling, I finally embraced my doubt and found that it was doubt that could finally set me free.
Today I don’t think the Bible is the infallible, or even the inspired, Word of God. “The Bible,” as John Shelby Spong states in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, is “not a literal road map to reality, but a historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal human quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God.” The Bible is the story of the early evolution of Jewish and Christian thought. The story is not finished, and it is not the only story worth listening to. Nor is it the greatest story ever told. Each of us must write that story for ourselves.
- Part I: Introduction
- Part II: Born Again
- Part III: Was I saved or brainwashed?
- Part IV: Change Creeps in Unawares