Doubt and the Vicarious Faith of Christ

Feast of the Prophet Samuel

THE PAIN would be unbearable if the joy were not indescribable. Doubt is a problem of living with two realities: unbelief and belief, or pain and joy. Doubt is a problem, but it not just an intellectual problem. It is an agony of the soul, of our very being. Pain is bad enough, yet it is truly pain because of the joy in life, the indescribable joy.

“Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves,” cries the woman in the Song of Solomon. “I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (3.1). The joy of love gives birth to the pain of longing, C. S. Lewis’s understanding of joy as longing (cf. Surprised by Joy). The young Lewis treasured joy as a sense of the longing evoked when summer gives way to autumn, or a longing for other worlds, worlds of imagination such as in the Norse legends, science fiction and fantasy tales, preparing one for the reality of heaven, a world without pain and death. The lover may be longing for the missing loved one. What lover has not doubted at times the love of the beloved?

Doubt is not just a question of God’s existence. Doubt tears at the fabric of our being when we live between pain and joy. There is no problem of pain without joy. The young poet’s first encounter with nature in Jane Kenyon’s poem, “In the Grove: The Poet at Ten” juxtaposes joy and pain:

Nothing could rouse her then
from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.
    (Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, p. 3)

Joy is usually conceived to be benign and effervescent. Genuine joy is made of sterner stuff. Genuine joy has even a ‘violence’, like the kingdom of heaven ‘suffers violence’, perhaps by the contrary passions it engenders (Mt. 11.12). Genuine joy, the indescribable joy, therefore, can live with the unbearable pain. So also the disciples, in a wonderfully poignant way, ‘disbelieved for joy’ when they were confronted by the risen Lord and nonetheless possessed doubts (Lk. 24.41). The joy was too wonderful to be believed. The disciples shared the great longing of the ancient Jews for the coming of the Messiah. Like the lover daring the risk of love, the fear of disappointment was formidable.

The fear of disappointment may be fueled by our lack of appreciation for grace. Jane Kenyon, in her poem, “Happiness,” challenges our common view that happiness is to be pursued, even demanded and coerced. No, happiness is that which “finds you asleep midafternoon as you so often are during the unmerciful hours of your despair” (Otherwise, 3). Happiness is grace. Grace pursues us, finds us by surprise in the friends, loved ones, nature, and art that God gives us, not because we demand or coerce it. These gifts are ordinary, not idealized or spectacular, but may come “to the monk in his cell,” “to the woman sweeping the street with a birch broom, to the child whose mother has passed out from drink,” and “to the clerk stacking cans of carrots in the night.”

Yet such happiness is couched with “the unmerciful hours of your despair,” “disbelieving for joy” in the midst of doubt. The late night customer in a convenience store demands cash from the register, and not being pleased with $86.75, permanently interrupts the clerk’s happiness with a revolver. What kind of society do we live in that tolerates such a crime? Here is doubt about the culture. What kind of world is this? Here is doubt about the world. What does my life mean if it can be so cruelly and suddenly terminated? Here is doubt about ourselves. Why would a loving and all-powerful God allow such evil in the world? Here is the most wrenching doubt: doubt about God.

Register to attend the 2018 St John of Damascus Award to honor Dr. Kettler as an exemplary model of Eighth Day Institute's mission of renewing culture through faith and learning.

If you're unable to attend, consider offering a donation in his honor.

We have been suggesting the hope of a christological approach to doubt. Yet such an answer might create more problems than it solves.

No person is less known in the history of the world than Jesus Christ. No person is better known in the history of the world than Jesus Christ. How can these two statements both be true? But they are. World events, whether they involve political coups, elections, natural catastrophes, or epidemics, blithely go on their way regardless of whether or not Jesus Christ lives or lived. Popular culture is filled with music videos, films, and television, all content to ignore Jesus of Nazareth. Apart from the occasional historical television program, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence. Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of Christ, was such a sensation in part because it was an anomaly: a film that sought to portray the Jesus of the Gospels honestly and sincerely. The vast majority of contemporary movies ignore religion or portray it as an oppressive, reactionary relic of an unenlightened former age. Jesus Christ, the Jesus of the four Gospels, is blatantly, yet quietly, ignored.

But is Christ also too well known in the contemporary world? Walker Percy’s fictional character Sutter Vaught bemoans the fact of how well known Christ is. He has, moreover, become particularly offensive because of ‘the company he keeps’, e.g., the narrow-minded, bigoted, anti-intellectual, and anti-cultural fundamentalist.

Christ should leave us. He is too much with us and I don’t like His friends. We have no hope of recovering Christ until Christ leaves us. There is after all something worse than being God-forsaken. It is when God overstays His welcome and takes up with the wrong people (The Last Gentleman, 293).

Malachi Martin’s picture of how we make Jesus in our own image is helpful, comical, tragic, and depressing: whether it is ‘Jesus Caesar’, ‘Jesus Monk’, ‘Jesus Pentecostalist’, ‘Jesus Goodfellow’, or the epitome of Protestant individualism, ‘Jesus Take-My-Marbles-and-Etc.’ (Jesus Now). This is too much Jesus! So much so that one becomes jaded and cynical about any genuine knowledge of the man from Nazareth. The recent attempts by some radical biblical scholars to uncover the ‘real’ Jesus seem simply to reveal just more confusion about the man from Nazareth: Was Jesus ‘the itinerant sage’, ‘the Hellenistic cynic’, ‘the apocalyptic prophet’, ‘the inspired rabbi’, or the ‘classic Jesus’ of the creeds? Is ‘Jesus’ really just a cipher for whatever our greatest values are, as Feuerbach argues in his description of religion (The Essence of Christianity, 12ff.)?


Into this contemporary confusion, the Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance suggests an understanding of Jesus not separate from the four Gospels but including a perspective not often emphasized, which he calls ‘the vicarious humanity of Christ’. In an older theology, it was common to speak of the vicarious death of Christ, in the sense that Christ died in our place, was our substitute, on the cross. While not meaning to dilute the importance of the death of Christ, Torrance urges that the vicarious death must be seen in terms of the wider context of both the entire humanity of Christ and our entire humanity. His humanity involves a vicarious act. The nature of Christ’s vicarious work is not simply one moment on the cross, but His entire life, so that the entirety of our lives might be affected. The Word took on the entirety of humanity, body and soul, in order to save the entire human (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word).

‘Vicarious’ may be a strange and outmoded word, but I am unable to come up with a better alternative. Let me then carefully define what ‘vicarious’ means in terms of the vicarious humanity of Christ. Unfortunately, it can often mean to some people ‘pseudo’ or ‘false’, as in a father getting a ‘vicarious’ thrill from his son’s accomplishments as an athlete. The son experiences the authentic thrill from his athletic accomplishment. The father’s thrill is not based on any accomplishment of his own. In that way it is ‘false’, not real. But Torrance’s meaning of ‘vicarious’ is not of that sort. The vicarious humanity of Christ does not mean that Christ’s humanity is unreal. Quite the contrary! It does mean that the vicarious humanity of Christ speaks of the deep interaction between Christ’s humanity and our humanity at the level of our being, the ontological level. So the atoning work of Christ is neither simply a means by which we are declared righteous by God, nor simply a demonstration of God’s love. It is both, but much more, in the sense of God desiring to recreate our humanity at the deepest levels, addressing our needs and fears, our doubts from within our very being.

A vicarious sense of Christ’s humanity signifies that Jesus Christ is both the representative of and substitute for my humanity. He represents my humanity before God the Father, having taken my humanity upon Himself, bringing it back to God from the depths of sin and death. He is the High Priest, representing the people before God (The Epistle to the Hebrews). But He is also the sacrifice Himself. He is the substitute, doing in my place, in my stead, what I am unable to do: live a life of perfect faithfulness to, obedience to, and trust in God. ‘Vicarious’ at its heart means doing something for another in their stead, doing something that they are unable to do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this Stellvertretung, recently translated as ‘vicarious representative action’ and earlier as ‘deputyship’ (Ethics, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott, 257-60). Deputies in the old western movies were appointed by the sheriff to represent him and to do what he was unable to do by his lonesome: form a posse and apprehend the bad guy. So also, Bonhoeffer argues, we act as a deputy whenever we act on behalf of someone else, whether it is as a teacher for a student or a parent for a child. A young child is unable to tie his shoelaces. The parent has to intervene and do it for him. (The parent, however, should not tie the child’s shoelaces for the rest of his life! This is the importance of the question, “If Christ has believed for us, do we have to believe?” We will have to address this throughout our discussion.) Notice the emphasis here on need and inability. We have already noted the question of our inability to believe in terms of doubt. Here is where the vicarious humanity of Christ yields rich theological and spiritual dividends.

Certainty has been the crucial issue for me. How can I know for certain that Christianity is true? How do I know that I am not a Christian simply because it is convenient or that it gives me friends, or worse yet, (for a college professor and an ordained minister) provides an income? Again, I keep coming back to the center of the faith: Who Jesus Christ is, Christology. How does our Christology affect our deepest crises: despair, guilt, shame, loneliness, anxiety, and doubt? In the Gospels, the risen Christ is the real manifestation of God that becomes the only check upon the disciples’ doubt, so that Jesus can exhort them, “Do not doubt, but believe” (Jn. 20.27) and Thomas can respond appropriately, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20.28). “O strange wonder, unbelief hath given birth unto steadfast faith!” (Sunday of Thomas, Pentecostarion). If there is certainty it is not apart from Jesus Christ.

*The God Who Believes: Faith, Doubt, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005), 2-7. Available for purchase at Eighth Day Books...give them a call at 1.800.841.2541.

Christian D. Kettler is Professor of Theology and Religion at Friends University. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and preaches regularly at the Church of the Savior. He lives in Wichita, KS and is owned by two Siamese cats, Linus and Lucy.

Eighth Day Institute seeks to renew culture by promoting the common heritage of Nicene Christianity. We are committed to facilitating a dialogue of love and truth as a step in that direction. This means we gladly allow a broad range of perspectives. But it does not mean that we agree with everything presented or published.

We hope and pray you will join the conversation. And we humbly ask you to help us continue promoting the unity of Christians for the sake of our dying culture. Our work depends on your support - 95% of our funding comes from individual donors/members. Please consider joining our growing community of Eighth Day Members today.

Become a Monthly Eighth Day Patron & Receive Complementary All-Access Pass to Your Choice of a Signature Event Below, plus a 10% Discount at Eighth Day Books.

Become a Monthly Eighth Day Pillar and Attend them All for Free Every Year!

Inklings OktoberFest - $80 Value

January Eighth Day Symposium - $125 Value

April Eighth Day Colloquium - $125 Value

June Florovsky Week - $125 Value

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.