In many children’s Bibles, the Son of God swoops in like Superman to save the day. In these clearly mythological depictions of Christ, Jesus never fails to say and do the right thing. He handily vanquishes his enemies, while essentially sidestepping the realities of real, enfleshed humanity.
But does this miss something?
As fun as these edited stories may be for bedtime snuggles, they simply don’t reflect the whole story the Gospels attempt to tell. Jesus didn’t come merely to die for our sins. Nor did he come to show off his miraculous superpowers and celestial wisdom. In the history of Christianity, the incarnation of God teaches us that Jesus was born into the fullness of humanity. He was born, in other words, into the complete mortal experience, warts and all.
And yes, Jesus may have had warts. He breastfed as an infant. He learned to walk. And the Messiah—in those awkward teenage years—went through puberty. Why did Jesus have to experience all of that? He did this to free us from the grip of sin and death by entering humanity. As the second-century theologian Irenaeus famously put it, “He became what we are so that we could become what he is.” What Jesus brought with him into our world was his godness, which included a deep trust and faith in his Father; part of what he received from us in his humanness was our ability to doubt—and doubt he did.
Doubt is a real part of human experience. And Jesus was so committed to entering humanity that he dared to enter human doubt as well.
Resilience and determination
The New Testament gives us some insights into this. In the Gospels, Jesus goes into the desert, where he is tempted by the Devil. There, he has to wrestle with the Devil’s words: “If you are the Son of God” (Matt. 4:3). These words place seeds of doubt in Jesus’ head. One wonders if they played like a tape in his mind at points where he suffered or experienced loss because of his ministry.
What we learn here is that the real human Jesus could be tempted—though he did not sin. Indeed, temptation is not a sin. And we learn that the real human Jesus comes face to face with doubts about his identity. But hearing and even having these doubts is not the same as buckling under their weight. By the end of the temptation story, we witness Jesus’ resilience and determination. Soon, the angels come to care for him. Perhaps they give him food and drink to refresh his body, but it’s possible that Jesus may have needed spiritual reassurance of God’s presence as well. Jesus passes the test, but his faith may have taken a heavy beating.
In the same vein, consider Matthew 26:36–46, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is alone. His disciples are asleep. And he is about to enter the final crucible of his earthly journey. What does Jesus do? He starts getting cold feet: “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” A moment later, of course, he shakes this off and confesses, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39). But this is not faith replacing doubt; it is faith moving forward in spite of doubt. Jesus didn’t want to take that cup of suffering, but he still did.
In that moment, Jesus embodied the first character in the parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28–31): When told by his father to do the work that needed to be done, he declined before changing his mind (v. 29). The second son said yes at first but then didn’t go through with it. Perhaps the question Jesus asked his disciples after telling that parable—“Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (v. 31)—came back to mind and gave him clarity in the garden.
Jesus prayed the true desire of his heart, but that wasn’t the end of his story. As C. S. Lewis once observed in an essay on prayer, “I must often be glad that certain past prayers of my own were not granted.” And we can say the same about Jesus’ prayer in the garden. If the cup of suffering had been taken away, we would all remain alienated from God. In the economy of God’s grace, God can save the world by a prayer that goes unanswered.
Then, during his Passion, Jesus cries out to the Father from the cross. In what is called the Cry of Dereliction, Jesus shouts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). In that moment, Jesus does not call out to Abba, Father. He does not feel like the superhero Son of God. He is all alone, crushed by the weight of human sin and suffocating in doubt. There is no response from heaven, no descending dove or clarion voice—only silence as the blood drains from his still-warm body.
Did Jesus’ doubt put God’s divine plan of redemption at risk? Certainly not. In fact, his doubt was an essential ingredient. As a real human being—more than human but no less than human—Jesus steeped himself in all our doubts and questions so that he might lead us by the hand in the darkness. The Gospels point to a Jesus who saves us not by distancing himself from doubt but by teaching us how to trust God in faith and doubt.
Why is this so critical for our moment in time? Swirling around us are echoes of doubt and deconstruction. The claims and assertions of the gospel are being challenged just about everywhere in the increasingly post-Christian West. But is doubt the end of faith? Is doubt the enemy of faith? For so many followers of Jesus, there is a desperate need to see their own doubt not as the result of demonic influence but as a reflection of Jesus’ humanity. If Jesus doubted, can’t we follow him all the more in his doubt?
That brings us to a critical point: Doubt (like temptation) is not a sin. Now, Scripture teaches us that doubt can be dangerous. There are clear passages that warn about the trajectory of doubt (Matt. 14:31; 21:21; Mark 11:23; James 1:5–8). But there are equally clear biblical texts that speak to how someone walking through doubt can (and should) be a welcome part of the Christian community (John 20:24–29, Matt. 28:17). In fact, the command in Jude to “be merciful to those who doubt” (v. 22) implies that the doubters are meant to be in our midst.
Years ago, we came upon a story about a well-known theologian who disclosed that the very cry of Jesus from the cross—the Cry of Dereliction—was the reason he had become a Christian. He had determined that a God who can give voice to his own doubts was a God worthy of being followed.
Is it possible to truly follow someone who has not endured the human experience of doubt? We think not. Because Jesus endured true humanity—because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15)—he can be fully followed.
Jesus was tempted. He did not sin. Therefore, temptation cannot be understood as sin. Likewise, Jesus doubted. Yet he did not give in to unbelief or give up on God. Likewise, doubt cannot be understood as sin.
We know we are saved by the love, grace, and faithfulness of Jesus. That’s the focus of the Gospels, the theme of the New Testament, and the very center of Christianity. But Jesus is God-man, not God-Superman. He became one of us not to shame us for our doubts but to teach us how to doubt well, to doubt faithfully. And so we are somehow saved too by his doubts.
A. J. Swoboda, assistant professor of Bible, theology, and world Christianity at Bushnell University in Eugene, Oregon, is the author of After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith without Losing It. Nijay K. Gupta is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. Together, they co-host the In Faith and Doubt podcast.