Flawed Man? No. Doubt and the Genuine Humanity of Jesus

Flawed Man? No. Doubt and the Genuine Humanity of Jesus April 12, 2021

A.J. Swoboda, PhD – Bushnell University

Nijay K. Gupta, PhD – Northern Seminary


On Good Friday, April 2, we published an (admittedly too-short) article with Christianity Today entitled “Jesus was the God-man, not the God-Superman.” Within, we (A.J. as a theologian and pastor; Nijay as a New Testament scholar) sought to identify what we believed was an array of integral, pressing, and pertinent set of questions regarding the nature of doubt. First, did Jesus ever experience doubt? And, secondly, if so, does his life, death, and resurrection show us as followers a way to walk in and through our own doubts unto obedience and deeper faith. In short, we suggested that (1) Jesus did; and (2) it does. 

Our intention was to communicate, indeed, that Jesus had moments of deep internal struggle (that we opted to call “doubt”) and eventually walked faithfully through them to the cross where he secured our salvation from sin by his self-giving death. 

The article received a wide array of readers’ responses. On both sides of the discussion which almost immediately ensued, we received hundreds of responses on social media and in person ranging from numerous words of gratitude to countless messages of disdain, anger, and theological outrage over what we were suggesting. One thing remains clear: both of us were ignorant to the fact that this conversation about doubt and Jesus would turn out to be as upsetting as it turned out to be. 

Since our article’s release, a variety of written responses have been published. One in particular, we believe, deserves our careful attention. Professors Brandon Smith (Cedarville University) and Madison Pierce (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) penned a loving, generous, and thoughtful rebuttal entitled “Jesus is the God-man, not the flawed man” that was published on Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today blog, “The Exchange.” Their response embodied a generosity and kindness in tone, candor, and care. They love Jesus as we love Jesus. They care for the spiritual journeys of doubters as we care. And as we do, they desire to be faithful to the sacred words of Scripture.

What, then, still needs to be said? 


Generous Dialogue is the Christian Way

A few points of response are in order. To begin, first, we believe this conversation must continue even beyond responding to each other’s articles. The deepest and most beautiful mysteries of Christian theology deserve the deepest and most beautiful of discussions. Why? Because what we are discussing here pertains to the most ultimate of realities—namely, Jesus Christ, his kingdom, and the centrality of the gospel’s witness in the world today. Particularly, for those who wrestle with doubt and are enduring deconstruction. We serve our students, our children, and our neighbors best when we invite conversation, not throw careless grenades at one another from afar on social media. If civil and grace-filled to-and-fro discourse continues, we are excited to stay engaged.


What Counts as “Doubt”?

Second, we admit at the onset that we do not believe that the article was conclusive by any stretch of the imagination. Nor was it as clear as we wish it were. We erred on a number of fronts. At points, we failed to understand how our language would fit into the broader theological discussions already afoot regarding these things. And, for another, we never explicitly defined “doubt.” As a result, it produced a discernible strain for the reader between Christ’s humanity and particular New Testament texts which clearly cast “doubt” in a negative light (such as James 1). As a result, when read through a particular lens, one could (wrongly) say we were arguing that Jesus sinned. For that we are sorry for the misunderstanding. Hindsight = 20/20.

Let us be very, very clear:

Jesus is fully God.

Jesus is fully human. 

Jesus never sinned.

Jesus did not for a moment abandon his hope, faith, or love in his Father in heaven.

Full stop. 

Part of the ongoing problem, it appears, is there remains a lack of agreed-upon, biblically-determined, and user-friendly definition of “doubt” that can speak to the diversity of biblical literature in both the Old and New Testaments and the nature of human experience. Undeniably, if one defines doubt exclusively in negative terms (“distrust,” “unbelief,” “lack of belief,” or “rejection of God”) then clearly we would agree: Jesus never doubted. But this was an imported assumption by many who read the article. We weren’t using doubt in this “vice” sense. We were using “doubt” in the modern, conventional sense of a “feeling of uncertainty,” reservation, reluctance, and hesitancy (see Merriam-Webster, OED). While we wish we could retroactively be more sensitive to this in our original article, we are profoundly grateful for the tension points this conversation has exposed. 

In this very vein, we are simply not convinced that doubt should always be cast in such a negative light. The Psalms, in particular, give voice to a kind of experience we might call “struggle” or “inner turmoil” or “angst” that clearly echoes throughout the Psalter and other wisdom literature. This is the very angst and struggle we believe Jesus walked through when he cried out with the words of Psalm 22 at his crucifixion. German theologian Helmut Thielicke confesses that on the cross the Cry of Dereliction demonstrates how “Jesus undergoes the assault of doubt.” Yes, the long-form Psalm Jesus quotes has a crescendo of hope. Indeed! But we believe we rob Jesus of his anguish when we quickly appeal to the part of the Psalm Jesus did not actually voice. As Markan scholar Joel Marcus explains, “The Markan Jesus does not quote Psalm 22’s ending but its beginning, and that agonized incipit corresponds perfectly to the situation of torment in which a crucified person finds himself.” Correspondingly, we echo the sobering words of theologian T.F. Torrance who describes the Cry as “the desperate question which man directs to God out of the depths of his God-forsakenness and despair…[Jesus] descending into the hell of our darkness and godlessness.” Jesus’ words on the cross are enough. And they should not be added to. We believe it is important to resist the urge to supplement Jesus’ words on the cross. 

We do great damage to orthodox Christology when we circumvent these excruciating aspects of Jesus’ life, ministry, and humanity. His humanity was not just physical; he had a human mind too (a paradox, again), which could experience turmoil. It was this very inner turmoil that caused Jesus to sweat teardrops of blood, cry out from the cross, and weep at the death of his friend Lazarus. One thing is clear: Christ’s suffering was real on the outside and on the inside. It seems for some of our most angry responders, Jesus had a human body with a divine brain. But he is both human and divine at the same time. And we ought not to partition which parts are “divine” and which parts are “human.” 

Our respondents in Smith and Pierce have suggested that we “argue that one (consistent) aspect of Jesus’s human experience was doubt.” That word “consistent” is theirs. We never used that word and we wouldn’t now. Rather, we offered very clear examples of New Testament texts testifying to Christ’s inner turmoil. There simply is not enough New Testament evidence to suggest it was “consistent.” We would say Jesus faced moments of doubt in the feeling of struggle, inner turmoil, or angst sense—not as some flaw in his divinity or in humanity, but simply because it is part of being human, having a human brain which at times has to make difficult decisions, that experiences uncertainty, reluctance, hesitancy. 

This raises one vital concern regarding which particular aspects of humanity Christ experienced in his humanity? Our respondents rightly contend that “Jesus was finite and socially-constrained in his humanity…[which does not] diminish the fact that Jesus is God with us in our suffering, but we cannot assume that taking on flesh requires the assumption of every aspect of humanity’s fallen heart, mind, or will.” Indeed, again, Christ never sins. Christ does not become a sinful human. Christ enters humanity who are in a sinful world. As such, Christ’s enfleshment shows us how to be a faithful human in a world influenced by the serpent. 

What is one to do about Christ’s restlessness and inner-turmoil in Gethsemane? “Doubt,” Smith and Pierce contend, “is not proper to humanity.” (Emphasis ours) By this, they rightly argue that doubt is not a normative part of the Edenic, original, human condition. Amen! We could not agree more. But neither is heavy inner-turmoil Jesus endured a part of the original human condition. Or deep sadness. Or intense suffering. Would Smith and Pierce (or anyone else) dare to suggest that Jesus sinned as he endured that turmoil of Gethsemane, sweating blood, asking his Father for a reprieve from the suffering cup? Does his seeming anxiety of the impending cross mean he was flawed? Does his anger mean he was a sinner? Do his tears mean he is a fallen being? No!

Restlessness is not a sin.

Inner turmoil is not a sin.

Temptation is not a sin.

Sin is humanity’s giving itself over to these things. We see this in the gospels. The New Testament clearly outlined the difference between a Judas and a Peter. Both sin in the very same way—they both turn their back on Jesus in their own denial. The difference between Peter and Judas? One gives up by giving in to the denial. The other perseveres through the denial by the grace of God. What so few people struggling with their faith recognize is that there is great grace for doubt. Judas gave himself to his denial. Peter was willing to repent. 


Jesus Redeeming Doubt

That brings us, thirdly, to why we wrote the article. We wrote this article almost exclusively with pastoral intentions. In so doing, we failed to fully understand the broader intramural theological debates swirling around that readers implicitly had in their minds when they read the article. For that we are sorry. We did not primarily write this piece to question the integrity or divinity of Jesus; rather, we had pastoral concerns. We are seeking to help doubters find the grace of Jesus who became one of us to change us.

Unquestionably, our mistake was in equating this experience with “doubt” without proper explanation. But we continue to believe that the category of “doubt” might actually be helpful in bridging people to the gospel of Jesus. And here is why. We have all come to see it for ourselves: there is a generation of people who are walking away from the faith, our churches, and our families over these issues of doubt and deconstruction. They want to follow Christ but see so much in Christianity that does not reflect who he is. Whether it is this conversation or not, the church of Jesus is in deep need of theological reflection around the doubt and deconstruction experiences. Without it, we will see one generation after another walk away from the church because we have not thought in a more robust way about this experience. In the end, we increasingly suspect that there is a lurking Docetism alive and well in our various ecclesial tribes. By this we mean that the contemporary church’s failure to wrestle with the full humanity of Jesus keeps us from understanding ours. We can’t become the humans God calls us to be if we fail to see the kind of human God became when he walked on our planet in Jesus. 

The hope of the world is Jesus. Not the church. Jesus! Nothing else. And that the hope for the doubter is not therapeutic or remedial—it is Christological. We were, and are, seeking to help doubters find themselves in Jesus. 


Explaining Jesus Can Be Messy

Finally, fourth, the respondent authors use the word “paradox” at the beginning of their article. That is a great word. And one that we share a desire to enter into. The humanity/divinity conversation is challenging, fraught with difficulties, but deeply important. We grieve if in any way we undermined the church’s historic, orthodox theology of Christ. But we don’t believe we did. The paradox of Christ’s humanity and divinity is messy, difficult, and fraught with potential landmines. For some, we stepped on one. But for others, we have disarmed one. 

This isn’t a new conversation. A cursory glance of church history would reveal that this debate matters, is difficult, yet exceptionally worthy of having. If we look back to the Church Fathers, they wrestled with the mystery of the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus. Leo the Great, for instance, comments on the Garden of Gethsemane:

“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.” The first petition arises from weakness, the second from strength: He desired the former based on our nature and chose the latter based on his own. Equal to the Father, the Son knew that all things were possible to God; rather, he descended into this world to take up the cross against his will so that he might suffer through this conflict of emotions with a disquieted mind. But in order to show the distinction between the receiving nature and the received nature, what was proper of humanity desired divine intervention and what was proper of God looked upon the human situation. The lower will yielded to the higher will, and this demonstrated what the fearful person may pray for and what the divine healer should not grant. (Sermon 43.2.26) (See similarly Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew, 83).

A disquieted mind indeed. That’s putting it mildly, but yes Jesus’ (weak, as Leo puts it) human will yielded to his Father’s will. He took on our humanity to teach us how to journey in and through doubt to living with faith and hope in God. It’s not a flaw, it was and is a beautiful plan to redeem fallen humanity. It’s not a “plot hole” in the story of the Gospel, it is the Gospel: he became what we are, so we could become like him (Irenaeus).

On a personal note: for the robust biblical response we received from Smith and Pierce: thank you! You went out of your way to help us think afresh about some very important key biblical texts. You edified us. Nobody in this conversation seeks to shape the Bible around our own thoughts. We all long for our theology to be cruciform: shaped around the self-giving, other-loving Jesus we find in the New Testament. 


Final Words (But the Discussion Should and Will Continue)

You may have noticed: we began with a quote by John Calvin. We are not Reformed either theologically or denominationally. We come from the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. But this has by no means kept us from being impacted by the great theological tradition of our Reformed brothers and sisters in history and at present. In some odd and providential way, we find ourselves strangely aligning with the words of one of the Reformed traditions greatest minds. Calvin wrote a great deal about doubt:

Therefore the godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from its recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from the awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promises of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death. This variation arises from imperfection of faith, since in the course of the present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith. (ICR 3.2.18)

Calvin wrote a great deal about doubt. As described in his excellent overview of Reformed theology of justification, Faith Alone, Dr. Thomas Schreiner has brilliantly unpacked Calvin’ theology for today’s church. We can’t help but find ourselves aligning deeply—in this case—with Schreiner, Calvin, and the theological tradition that seems to have really struggled with what we sought to argue. Schreiner’s words are worthy of our attention:

Calvin taught that believers can have a sure and certain knowledge, an assurance that they are justified by faith in Christ. Calvin’s emphasis on assurance in faith raises questions about the role of doubt, for on first glance, his definition seems to say that believers never suffer from doubt. Calvin, however, affirms that believers struggle with doubts; what characterizes genuine faith is not that it never doubts but that it perseveres to the end. Believers experience ups and downs in their lives, but the final reality of their lives is faith. The divided experience of believers is captured well by Calvin. 

 

We are not contending that Jesus doubted and stopped believing, loving, or trusting the Father. We are contending that we can persevere because Jesus first persevered for us—we follow his footsteps. Jesus faced his own crucible—his own moments of internal struggle—and, as Shreiner puts it, “perseveres to the end.” But that perseverance implies, indeed, there was a great struggle. And in that, Jesus not only teaches us how to walk with our own internal struggles (even doubts?), but how to walk through ours into the loving arms of the Father. 

Perhaps we can all agree on this: that there is most certainly a way to walk through doubt faithfully because of Jesus. We fear—for a generation of people asking these questions—that Smith and Pierce’s likely unintentional suggestion that doubt equals being “flawed” will perpetuate the doubters’ own internal struggle that they are people abandoned (even forsaken) by the living God. Have we too quickly forgotten the story of the one disciple known for doubting—Thomas? What does Thomas do after his doubt? History tells us he went to India and preached the gospel—starting the famous Thomas Christian community still alive today. We refuse to perpetuate any notion that those in the throes of what Thomas went through are a problem for the church. Doubters who are trying to follow Jesus in their struggle aren’t a problem. 

We dare to believe they are the gospel’s next generation of missionaries, led by the faithful God-man Jesus. 


If you want to get more detailed discussions and arguments regarding Jesus and New Testament Christology, see our relevant publications below. And please check out our co-hosted podcast IN FAITH & DOUBT

 

Nijay K. Gupta


 

A.J. Swoboda

 

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