I recently had a conversation with a college sophomore who’s been struggling with his faith. He is a Christian who wants to believe, he said, but there are many days when he wakes up doubting that there’s enough proof to justify belief in God’s existence.
I sympathized with the young man’s struggle because I’ve experienced it myself. Like me, he seems to be an intellectually-driven person who longs for logical reasons to believe—not inexplicit feelings or even experiential evidence.
So I asked him, “On days when you wake up feeling like an atheist, what particular doubts do you find most troubling?”
He said he was particularly bothered by the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection—they seemed too great to be harmonized or explained away. And if they could not be trusted, he thought, what reason did he have to believe in God at all?
I was taken aback by his answer because he seemed to have come to a much more extreme conclusion than his doubt warranted. Discrepancies in the gospel accounts are certainly troubling—but even if there were some conflicting accounts that could not be harmonized, would atheism be the only logical recourse?
And yet that’s often how these kinds of doubts work. Whenever some premise upon which we’ve relied is cut out from under us, we begin to worry that we can’t depend on that foundation—which can ultimately lead us to the conclusion that there is no good reason to believe.
At first, we think we can combat our intellectual doubts by ignoring them (which rarely works) or by focusing intensely on the specific questions we think are at the root of our doubt. But when we don’t find the answers we’re seeking, our doubts only become more intense.
Perhaps it’s because we’re not asking ourselves the right questions. Even if a given skeptical argument were found to be true, would it really leave us with no foundation to believe? Most of the time, the answer to that question is no—because no atheist argument alone can lead someone to the conclusion that there’s no basis for believing in God.
Some Puritans in the 17th century realized this. While Puritans are often painted as holier-than-thou, some of the most thoughtful and spiritually minded Puritans wrestled with temptations to atheism, and in similar ways to many Christians today.
Puritans lived in a community where everyone was supposed to believe in God and the publication of blasphemous arguments was illegal. Yet they were exposed to religious pluralism and the skeptical ideas circulating in Europe—enough to wonder at times whether Christian faith claims could be wrong. Those who never witnessed a miracle or perceived God working in their own lives were especially prone to wrestling with whether it was rational to believe in God.
According to London Puritan minister Stephen Charnock, a “secret atheism” lay “in the heart of every man by nature,” because our sinful inclinations will always lead us to find reasons not to believe. And while the root of this temptation is a sinful wish to escape from God, it often manifests itself in an intellectual form—and thus requires a convincing intellectual answer.
Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672)—a published poet and lover of books who was also a devout Puritan, mother of eight children, and wife of a Boston merchant—struggled with skeptical questions that she couldn’t initially answer. Yet she ultimately found victory by questioning whether her doubts really made it probable that God did not exist.
Bradstreet’s doubts focused on areas that still trouble believers today. She wondered about the “verity of the Scriptures” and how she could know whether the Bible was really God’s true Word. She was also troubled by God’s apparent absence in her life. She had never witnessed a miracle and wondered if she could trust that the miraculous accounts in the Bible were not “feigned.”
And if she lacked proof that the Bible was true, how could she be certain of God’s existence?
Bradstreet was clearly troubled by these doubts because she confessed them only in a letter that she left for her children to read after her death. But this letter did not end in despair. Instead, it ended in the resolution of these doubts.
“That there is a God my Reason would soon tell me by the wondrous workes that I see, the vast frame of the Heaven and the Earth, the order of all things,” she wrote. “The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternall Being.”
Bradstreet wrote these concluding lines for her adult children so that, when they were confronted with similar temptations, they would be equipped to gain spiritual victories over their own skeptical questions.
She said she overcame her doubts by first thinking about the intellectual foundation for believing in God. Regardless of her doubts about the Scriptures, she felt she could know that God existed by looking at the evidence of creation.
Today we have far more information about the universe than the New England Puritans had in the 17th century. Because of this scientific knowledge, we may view God’s process of creation differently than Bradstreet did. But this also means we have even more reasons than ever to be impressed with the “wondrous workes” of creation and the cosmic order.
The physical constants that shaped a universe that was capable of supporting life—and the immensely complex process that was necessary to develop and sustain life—cannot easily be accounted for in any sort of purely naturalistic framework. Which means we can remind ourselves in moments of our greatest doubt that creation itself infers the existence of a Creator.
That said, Bradstreet still had to address whether Christianity was true and whether she could trust its Scriptures. But as she compared the Bible to other religious texts of the ancient world, she realized that no other book in the world was quite like it—with its fulfilled prophecies, its miraculous preservation amid persecution, and its profound power to change lives.
If there were a creator God, which she felt the evidence of nature conclusively demonstrated, it made sense that this God would have revealed himself to humans in some way. And “if ever this God hath revealed himself, it must bee in his word, and this must be it or none.”
Through this process of logical reasoning, Bradstreet overcame her doubts. She may not have found a satisfactory answer to every skeptical question troubling her about miracles and God’s apparent absence, but she was able to arrive at convincing and sufficient reasons to believe despite those objections.
If she had allowed her lack of experience with miracles to drive her beliefs, she might have eventually decided, as some late 17th- and 18th-century deists did (including Thomas Jefferson, who famously removed all mentions of the miraculous from Scripture), that the biblical accounts of miracles were fallacious and could cause a person to give up Christianity altogether.
But she did not do that. Instead, she started with the essential evidence for a Creator, which she considered unassailable, and then continued to reason from that starting point.
Not every Christian today will find Bradstreet’s apologetic arguments convincing. Yet every believer who is plagued by intellectual doubts can still follow a similar method when seeking to rebuild their faith in the face of overwhelming skepticism. Like her, we can return to the core intellectual arguments of our faith and build upon them.
Even when we don’t have the answers to every skeptical question that troubles us, we can respond to the internal doubts of our “inner atheist.” And in the process, we may find that the cynical objections we’re wrestling with may not be so disturbing after all.
I think about that college sophomore struggling with doubts about the Resurrection accounts. It’s true that there are discrepancies between the narratives that, for many, cannot be satisfactorily explained, although some scholars have found ways to reconcile them.
But beyond that, the evidence that something happened to cause the early disciples of Jesus to believe that he rose from the dead is overwhelming. And so, one must account for that belief—regardless of what one thinks about some of the individual accounts themselves.
One must explain what prompted a group of monotheistic Jews to declare that a crucified man was their risen Lord and what prompted them to adopt a deeply countercultural declaration of bodily resurrection to explain what they were seeing. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, these facts are difficult to account for.
While returning to the facts we know can help us directly confront our doubts, overcoming our unbelief is ultimately not done through our own intellect but by the grace of God. As Bradstreet herself wrote, echoing the words of the apostle Paul, “I know whom I have trusted, and whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that I have committed to his charge.”
No matter what, Bradstreet knew she could trust Christ to hold onto her even amid her doubts.
“That hath stayed my heart,” she wrote, “and I can now say, Return, O my Soul, to thy Rest, upon this Rock christ Jesus will I build my faith; and if I perish, I perish. But I know all the Powers of Hell shall never prevail against it.”
In the end, what we know is Jesus—and if we build our belief upon him, we’ll have the foundation we need to quiet our “inner atheist.”
Daniel K. Williams is a historian working at Ashland University and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. He is currently writing a history of American Christian apologetics.