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Where Are You on the Belief-O-Meter?

Can a person be 100% certain there is a God in this life? 

BeliefOmeterIf you answer “yes,” how can a person be absolutely, indisputably, unreservedly, positively confident about the existence of Someone they have not and cannot physically see, locate, hear, or touch? Isn’t there even the slightest possibility that they can be mistaken, only partly right, or even deceived? None of us are infallible. So when it comes to belief in God, is 100% certainty even possible?

If you answer “no,” what percentage of certainty must one have to be a believer? Ninety-percent certainty? Seventy-five percent certainty? Or does anything over fifty percent certainty count as belief?

We commonly, perhaps wrongly, consider that people either “believe” or they “don’t believe.” I mean, Christians are called “believers” for a reason. They believe in certain things — that there is a God, that the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again from the dead, etc. But is belief a black and white proposition? Are we either “in” or “out”? And if so, what is the threshold that one crosses to move from a unbelief to belief? Is it stark, or is there a grey area of agnosticism one must pass through to become truly believing?

The Bible seems to suggest that belief is less cut-and-dry than we sometimes make it. Faith is not something we either have or don’t have; it’s something we can have in differing proportions.

For instance, the Gospel of Mark chapter 9 contains the story of a boy with an evil spirit who is cured by Jesus. During the event, the boy’s father pleads with Jesus thus,

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” — Mk. 9:23

The implication here is that one can be both believing and unbelieving at the same time. Think of it as a Faith Scale with opposite balances. One side is weighted with Belief, Surety, or Confidence, the other side with Doubt or Skepticism. Christ often implored His listeners to believe. In fact, He did certain things to bolster people’s faith in Him, to tip the scales away from Doubt and more toward Certainty.

In his book, Love Your God with All Your Mind, Christian apologist J.P. Moreland provides a helpful perspective on this subject of belief:

It is unproductive to try to believe something beyond your grounds for believing it and dishonest to act as if you believe something more strongly than you do. Overbelief is not a virtue. For example, I am far from certain on many Christian beliefs I hold. I lean toward the view that the days of Genesis are vast periods of time and not literal twenty-four-hour periods. But about two days of the week I flip-flop and accept the literal view. Based on my study, I cannot convince myself either way, and I’m about sixty-forty in favor of the old-earth position. Other beliefs of mine have grown in certainty over the years — that God really exists, for example. We should be honest with ourselves about the strength of our various beliefs and work on strengthening them by considering the issues relevant to their acceptance. (emphasis mine)

I glean a couple of things from this approach. First, it is not wrong to admit uncertainty concerning some beliefs. In fact, it is virtuous. Like Moreland, I confess a measure of uncertainty concerning some theological issues. While my belief in the existence of God has grown over time (I’m definitely in the high nineties), my certainty about other issues has changed. Things like my personal belief in a literal hell (probably now at 60/40), a literal Adam and Eve (80/20),  a young earth (20/80), and a complementarian view of gender roles (70/30) are all in a degree of flux. Does this make me unbelieving? I don’t think so. Truth is, we cannot grow in certainty until we admit, like the father of the possessed boy in Mark 9, that we are unbelieving. In fact, the admission of uncertainty might be the most important step toward truth.

Secondly, “[o]verbelief is not a virtue.” I like that term — overbelief. At a certain point, faith can be forced. For example, we know we should believe that the Bible is God’s Word, inerrant and infallible. But we haven’t researched the subject enough to tell anyone in detail why we believe such a thing. We’ve trusted the experts to do the thinking for us and simply choose to exercise faith in their opinion or our church’s stance. However, deep down inside we have no grounds for such confidence; our faith is really just an intellectual leap. On top of this is the false strain of teaching so prevalent in the American church that suggests that faith plays an important role in things like physical health and financial prosperity. As if faith is force I can will to grow. Of course, faith plays a huge part in a relationship with God. But forcing yourself to be confident about something you have little grounds for or have genuine questions about is not faith, it’s folly. In this way, overbelief is just as flawed as underbelief.

Question:  Do you think a person can be 100% certain there is a God? What are some personal beliefs you’ve found changing over the years, growing stronger or waning? How do we harmonize the Bible’s teaching about having faith with the need to be honest about our doubts and uncertainties?

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Kat Heckenbach December 16, 2013, 9:17 AM

    A lot of people love the mustard seed quote, which is found in Luke 17:6, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed….” But the verse before that says, “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!'”

    That is a verse I held onto very tightly when I was going through chemotherapy nine years ago. My faith was anything but stable during that time. And I often looked for ways of increasing it, by reading and all sorts of things. But when I found that verse it was like, wow, I can just *ask*??

    So I did. One day, I lay on the floor of my daughter’s room, sick, weak, and wondering how I was going to get through the remaining weeks of my treatment. I have an aunt I’ve always looked to as an example of strong faith, although she lives out of town and I only ever see and talk to her at family gatherings. That day, face in the carpet, I prayed for God to send me faith like that of my aunt. Before I’d even said “amen” the phone rang. It was her, wanting to know if she could come visit.

    Of course, I still have days where I doubt, where my faith feels like it’s going to topple over. But I’ve maintained that the definition of faith is belief (and obedience) despite doubt. It’s totally okay to doubt. I just think we need to turn to God, and other Christians, and honestly voice those doubts. When we ask for reassurance, when we ask for more faith, God gives it to us. It’s not necessarily our responsibility to *have* more than the seed. We keep the seed, and God helps us grow it.

  • Gray Rinehart December 16, 2013, 9:59 AM

    About the line, “For example, we know we should believe that the Bible is God’s Word, inerrant and infallible.”

    We learned in church a few weeks ago that this idea was proposed by a Harvard professor in the early 20th century, that prior to its appearance the idea was not a tenet of faith, and that it is not a claim the Bible makes for itself. Yet it has become ingrained in our U.S. Christian culture to the point that it is almost sacrosanct.

    Where in the Bible does it refer to the Word? John 1, which reveals that the Word is not a book, or a library of books — which is what the Bible is — but rather the Word is a person. Jesus was and is the Word. Looked at that way, then, the Bible proclaims the Word, but itself is not the Word.

    Puts a very different spin on things, doesn’t it?
    G

    • Jessica E. Thomas December 18, 2013, 3:10 PM

      “We learned in church a few weeks ago that this idea was proposed by a Harvard professor in the early 20th century.”

      What’s the name of this professor? I’m not buying it, personally. Your preacher\pastor\whomever is saying Martin Luther (for instance) didn’t believe the Bible was inerrant and infallible? I highly doubt it.

      Jesus is the Word in the flesh, but the Word existed before He arrived in the form of scriptures that prepared the way for him. So, the Word is actual words too.

      • Gray Rinehart December 19, 2013, 6:38 AM

        Jessica, the beauty of it is that we are all free to doubt whatever we wish.

        With respect to Luther: since he translated the Bible into German, he would have been well aware of the difficulties of translation — especially of idiomatic phrases for which a direct word-for-word equivalent either does not exist or makes no good sense. Indeed, it has been said that Luther “had a low view of Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation,” as shown in his preface to those books in his German Bible; if so, then it would seem he did not view the Bible as wholly inerrant. With respect to the book of James, Luther wrote, “it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works,” that “he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper,” and “I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.” Doesn’t sound like inerrancy to me. (See http://www.bible-researcher.com/antilegomena.html for more.)

        As for the professor I mentioned, I erred in saying he was from Harvard; the gentleman in question was Benjamin B. Warfield, who was a professor of theology at Princeton and wrote a book called The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (which appears to be an expansion of an 1881 article he co-wrote). His Wikipedia entry notes that the original article “drew attention because of its scholarly and forceful defense of the inerrancy of the Bible.”

        As Luther apparently knew, scripture can be authoritative and even inspired without being inerrant. Warfield may not have been the first to argue for its inerrancy, but he seems to have been one of the most successful in terms of convincing people that his view was correct. That view is so widespread that few Christians (especially in the U.S.) would be unfamiliar with it, but it is not necessary to hold to that view.

        You got close to the crux of the matter in your last paragraph, but the difference lies in what we mean by the capitalized Word as opposed to lower-case words. Yes, the words of the Hebrew scriptures existed before Jesus was born in the flesh, but the Word — the Logos, the Reason — existed before there ever were people to hear the voice of God or to write the words of the scriptures. “In the Beginning was the Word,” and it was not ink on paper. The words are about the Word, but they themselves are not the Word.

        Best,
        G

        • Jessica E. Thomas December 19, 2013, 7:27 AM

          In the beginning, it was not ink on paper, but God used human language to convey his message to us, so the words themselves are also significant.

          In terms of “inerrancy”, learned theologians have applied it to the original texts while allowing for the challenges of translation.

          It sounds like Luther was questioning the cannon, not the scriptures themselves. As a man, he had opinions about what should and should not belong, but at some point, I think believers have to trust the Holy Spirit was at work in the men who compiled the cannon, otherwise, every book in the cannon is up for grabs if we decide in our human intellect, that we don’t like it. I guess, the question for me is, how far am I willing to deconstruct the Bible? And my answer is, not very far. Otherwise, I may as well make up my own religion and that hasn’t worked well for me in the past.

          Also, semantics may be an issue here. What does this Warfield mean by inerrant? Because my understanding is that the scriptures are inerrant in their ability to point the lost toward God and that everything written in the scriptures is truth about God. In my mind it’s not about periods, commas, articles, and a dropped phrase here or there.

  • Nissa Annakindt December 16, 2013, 10:03 AM

    I think some people who have experienced rare and extraordinary blessings can be 100% sure. Like Moses, perhaps.

    But then on the other hand some of the great saints have experienced doubts and the dark night of the soul— and gone on being Christians anyway.

  • Nigel December 16, 2013, 11:46 AM

    Hi Mike,

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I think it is possible to be 100% certain of anything. Whether or not you’re actually correct in your certainty is flexible, but it’s not a prerequisite. Doubt comes into play when what appears to be contradictory evidence challenges that certainty. Unfortunately, one of the devil’s greatest tricks is making little things seem like bigger contradictions, hence instilling more doubt.

    As long as sin remains in us, having faith without doubt is going to be challenging. Of course we should be honest with our doubts and not hide behind “forced faith.” But I think we should confess and pray about them instead of taking them for granted.

  • R. L. Copple December 16, 2013, 12:16 PM

    I believe we all have, even if we fail to acknowledge it, agnosticism about our faith. It’s impossible for finite humans to be 100% certain about anything–within human knowledge, logic, and reasoning. Most any human argument about anything is based on assumptions that we believe are “self-evident.”

    So am I, within my ability to know, deduce, induce, able to come to 100% certainty that God exists? No. I could be wrong. I’m well aware of that.

    Likewise, all us agnostics place our faith in something. That is, we all live out a commitment to a belief. For instance, there are self-proclaimed agnostics. But those agnostics have to live out something, and most of them live as atheists.

    They place their faith in there not being a God. Academically, they don’t know, and chose to live as if God doesn’t exist. Likewise, though I could claim some agnosticism, I’ve chosen to live in the belief God does exist. We could both make arguments why we’ve placed our faith–i.e., how we live our life–in what we have. Living forces one to have faith, even if it is by default.

    Percentages? It is hard to think of it that way. The process is too intuitive to draw a % line in the sand when I can live out a belief. It is more a trust in a testimony and/or in myself.

    Bottom line, pride comes before the fall. That would include believing you know anything within your own ability to know 100%. That would put you on the same level as God in whom you are 100% certain about.

  • D.M. Dutcher December 16, 2013, 4:15 PM

    The thing is, you can’t use numbers in this way, because numbers need to correspond to a countable reality. Faith in this sense isn’t countable, and people are using the numbers when they should use adjectives like certainly believe, strongly believe, weakly believe, don’t know, etc. Numbers are very specific tools and relate to each other in a way that won’t work here. Like, how do you define believing 1% less or more?

    I think you’re right in the general thrust of the argument. It’s possible to believe in bad faith, and believers can believe as well as doubt. I think sometimes we forget that faith is faith, and doubt comes naturally at times. Christians have a perfectionist streak that harms us when it comes to things like this. It’s just more of a different reality than a numerical scale.

  • Jim Williams December 16, 2013, 10:20 PM

    Interesting that your subtitle is: “Can a person be 100% certain there is a God in this life?”
    You said “person”, not “Christian”. Many times when I have confided in my Christian acquaintances that I am not certain there is a God, I have immediately been painted with the Atheist brush. Like an A on my chest.
    It sort of reminds me of the “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” discussion here, and everywhere for that matter.
    I would be less than 10% on the existence of God (at least as described by Man so far), and 0% on new earth and a literal Adam and Eve.
    I once had a discussion with a close friend who explained his understanding of Hell from his church’s perspective (Jehovah’s Witness) and he said that the main torment of Hell was the separation from God’s love for all eternity, and all the fire and torture was more or less metaphoric. He was earnest, and while he was telling me, I could see it.
    I have seen supernatural things in my life, some of which seemed designed to speak to ME. Thus, the 10%…….

  • Ricardo Williams December 17, 2013, 8:34 AM

    I am 100% sure there is a God. I could not get through my journey through life without God intervening my life at the right times. I feel the presence of God in my silent communications and my acts of kindness. I will give the glory of my life to no one else, but God.
    Now I believe in Jesus Christ. He is the only God I pray and communicate with.
    I struggle with some aspects of the bible though.

  • Linda December 17, 2013, 10:44 AM

    On the flip side, it does seem that there are many people who believe 100% in evolution as reality and not theory, 100% in global warming, and 100% in old earth big bang concepts. Yet the evidence for these things are usually based on someone else’s scientific studies and not on first-hand knowledge and experience. We believe 100% in the existence of certain historic figures who preceded us, even though there are no photos or written documents directly from them. So conversely, yes, it seems it is 100% possible for some to believe in the God of the Bible.

    • Jim Williams December 17, 2013, 1:23 PM

      I would agree that it is entirely possible for a person to 100% believe in God, without the need to compare it to global warming or evolution. I think there is reproduceable evidence to support scientific conclusions.

      A belief in God requires a different criteria. It requires faith. I think this is set apart from the tenets of scientific exploration and theorizing.

      Mike makes an important distinction in his post regarding the belief in God being separate from a 100% belief in the Bible as literal truth.

      This cracks the door just the tiniest bit for people like me.

  • LeAnne McKinley December 18, 2013, 6:53 AM

    If we could be 100% sure, would faith even be required? That’s why it’s faith, right? Because there is room for uncertainty?

    If we are saved by grace through faith, then our faith does not save us anyway. It is the object of our faith that saves us. The Christian life rests on a promise from God, that IF I believe, he will save me. I am not always faithful, but God is.

    I don’t like that word overbelief very much. I would call it misplaced belief. I have believed all sorts of things that I no longer believe, spiritual and otherwise. None of us can have an exhaustive understanding when we are starting out, and have to learn with humility as we grow. I think its pride that leads us to overconfidence in things without really thinking them through, and sometimes a fear of uncertainty. (And who wants uncertainty? It is always something we avoid.) But I don’t think anyone can have too much faith in the right thing.

  • Lyn Perry December 21, 2013, 5:14 AM

    Fortunately, our salvation doesn’t depend on our “amount” of faith but upon the one in whom we have faith. The object of our trust is what matters. I can have 100% belief that the ice on the lake will hold me, but if it’s too thin, I’ll drown. Thick ice doesn’t care whether or not someone believes…it’ll hold even for 100% doubters. (Don’t press the analogy, lol.)

  • Linda December 21, 2013, 10:50 AM

    This Scripture comes to mind:
    Matthew 22:37–Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” NIV

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