by David Phelps
In George R. Stewart’s classic novel Earth Abides, most of civilization has been wiped out by a plague of unknown origin. Earth Abides is the story of a group of survivors, and especially of university student Isherwood Williams, or simply “Ish” for short.
After a small community of survivors forms and begins raising families, one couple, George and Maurine, decide to begin having church services “‘for the sake of the children.’” Maurine asks Ish what church he belonged to before the “Great Disaster” and he confesses that he is a “skeptic.” Maurine is unfamiliar with the word and so begins referring to Ish as a member of the “Skeptic Church.” She and George approach Ish about leading services, and Maurine, who is Catholic, says magnanimously that she would have no objection to “the Skeptic form of services.”
I don’t know what “the Skeptic form of services” might be but the dictionary defines a “skeptic ”as:
1. One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.
2. One inclined to skepticism in religious matters.
In other words, it would seem, someone who doubts. And doubt, as far as Christianity—and, in fact, most religions—is concerned, is generally considered a bad thing. Throughout years of Sunday School classes and sermons, we’ve heard about “doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-29), about faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains (Mark 11:23), and about Jesus pulling a soaked, half drowned Peter out of the Sea of Galilee and saying, sadly, “‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matt. 14:31 New King James Version). When I was younger, and attending the Church of God, and later the Baptist Church, pastors would talk about “know so salvation.” If you think you’re saved or believe you’re saved, the reasoning went, then you’re not, because if you’re really saved, you know it. I confess that, for the most part, I have more in common with Peter than with someone who goes around moving mountains. And I’ve never had what I considered a “know so salvation.”
Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said, “The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.” Skeptics are those who seek. Faith is about seeking, not certainty. The author of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1 NKJV). Faith is not the same as substance or evidence. But when we don’t have them, we are called to rely on faith. One day, a man brought his son, who was possessed by a spirit, to Jesus (Mark 9:17-29). Jesus told the father, “‘all things are possible to him who believes.’” (9:23b NKJV). The man replied, “‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” (9:24b NKJV). Personally, I think most of us can probably relate to the man’s lament: He confessed his unbelief but he also knew that no one but Jesus could make his son well. Faith is not knowledge; knowledge doesn’t require faith. Faith can only exist when there is the possibility of doubt.
If we act on our faith, it can be a powerful witness. 19th century preacher Hosea Ballou said, “A godly life is the strongest argument you can offer the skeptic.” James gives us the true test of faith: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas. 2:17 NKJV). During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the people, “‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.’” (Matt. 5:16). We can demonstrate that God doesn’t require perfect faith—just honest seeking (1 Chr. 16:10-11, Psa. 105:3-4). A few years ago, our church adopted the slogan, “Giving faith hands and feet to do God’s work.” I pray that it is more than a slogan, that it might be the way we live and what we seek.
“Then one of the crowd answered and said, ‘Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. . . . But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:17, 22b-24 NKJV.)