"I believe—help my unbelief"
My response to a listener going through a difficult time of doubt.
There’s an interesting scene in Mark chapter 9 in which a father brought his son to Jesus for help. The boy was possessed by an evil spirit, and when the spirit saw Jesus, “immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell to the ground…” Jesus then asked the father, “How long has this been happening?” “From childhood,” he responded. “If you are able, help us, have compassion on us.” Jesus then said, “If you are able? All things are possible to the one who believes.” Then the father said, “I believe—help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:14-24).
On the last episode of my podcast, Alisa Childers told me that this passage was of immense help to her in the midst of her own faith crisis. It’s the honest expression of a person whose faith was mingled with doubt, but it also included a passionate plea for Jesus to intervene and to help resolve those doubts.
Well, I was reminded of this scene few days ago when I received an email from a listener named Melissa who described herself as a believer struggling with doubts. She gave me permission to reprint her letter, and here’s part of what she wrote:
Could you possibly address the inconsistencies in the genealogies of Joseph in Matthew and Luke? The mere difference in the number of generations alone is concerning, not to mention that the names don't match. I've read writers who attempted to shoehorn Jesus into fulfilling the Messianic prophecies, and the fact that the Virgin Birth is said to have been added later, and no other books of the New Testament even mention it besides the Gospels. It seems weird that such a huge miracle would never be mentioned by any of the other NT writers. Also, Luke said they had to go back to the hometown of their ancestors for the census, but this isn’t how the census worked according to other historical records.
How is believing Jesus is the Messiah any different than believing David Koresh? It’s easy to prove David Koresh was a phony, but we can’t prove what was happening back then. How do we know Jesus wasn't doing something similar, just in a different era where we can’t prove whether something happened or not?
I’m terrified by my doubts and often wake up from sleep scared. This could be the worst day of my life—the day my doubts got worse, and I lost all hope of having any idea about anything at all. I love Jesus and want to believe so badly. Please send a lifeboat.
Here’s what I offered to Melissa in reply:
I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through a difficult time. However, I believe there may be a silver lining. You want to believe in Jesus, but you are beginning to have doubts about the things you’ve been taught. In my view, this is actually healthy because it suggests you want to make sure that your beliefs are grounded in reality. Paul says in 1Cor 15 that the very heart of what Christians refer to as “good news” relates to the fact that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day. These aren’t timeless eternal principles or collections of myths and legends, but were events that took place just a couple decades earlier, and which had been seen by hundreds of witnesses (most of whom were still living when Paul wrote his epistle). Furthermore, these events had also been described hundreds of years in advance by the Hebrew prophets.1 So Paul then went on to say, “If Christ isn’t raised…your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:14). Therefore, I believe every Christian has an obligation to investigate these matters thoroughly in order to confirm the truth of these claims.
You say you love Jesus and want to believe in him, but if Christianity is rooted in myths, legends, or outright deception, then there would be no Jesus for us to love. So you shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions of this kind. Instead, I encourage you to pursue them with all your might. If true, the gospel of Jesus is the most amazing story ever told, but if false, “we of all men are most to be pitied” (1Cor 15:19).
Now, with regard to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, let’s assume for a moment that one of them is correct and the other is historically inaccurate. Would that prove Jesus never existed, or that he wasn’t Israel’s diving Messiah? Actually, no it wouldn’t. It would perhaps be an indication that one of the four Gospels contains truth mingled with error—which would call for its removal from the New Testament canon. But even if we did that, we’d still have three other Gospels, along with 23 other New Testament documents to contend with. Now, as to your specific question about resolving the differences between Matthew and Luke on the topic of Jesus’ genealogy, Christians have wrestled with this question since the earliest days of the church. The most common answer is that Luke traces Jesus’ lineage through Mary, while Matthew traces it through Joseph. So when Luke says that Joseph was the “son of Heli,” he’s referring to the legal, rather than natural relationship (i.e., Joseph was what we would call “the son-in-law” of Heli). Now, the fourth-century bishop Eusebius offered a different explanation that’s a little more complicated, but it’s worth considering due to its antiquity (because of the length, I have presented this material in the footnotes).2
You say, “I've read writers who were trying to shoehorn Jesus into fulfilling Messianic prophecies.” I know what you’re talking about — I’ve been “unimpressed” with many contemporary writers on this topic as well. However, there also happen to be some excellent books out there on this topic. Once again, Eusebius is helpful. He wrote a book titled Proof of the Gospel that I highly encourage you to read. A more recent book that I’d recommend is titled The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy, edited by Michael Rydelnik and Edwin Blum.
I’d also encourage you to go back and read Isaiah 52:7 through 53:12. When I read this passage for the first time as an atheist with a secular Jewish background, it caused me to question many of my assumptions. After many years of study and reflection, I discovered that there were some Jews before the time of Christ who believed this passage spoke of the divine messiah, who would suffer and die for his people in order to atone for their sins.3 Jesus applied this prophecy to himself in Lk 22:37, and I believe this passage alone has the power to rekindle your faith (if you’re interested, I walk through some of the implications of this prophecy on episode 9: The Gospel Creed.
You write, “The fact that the Virgin Birth is said to have been added later, and no other books of the New Testament even mention it besides the Gospels. It seems weird that such a huge miracle would never be mentioned by any of the other NT writers?” On this topic, I’d recommend J. Gresham Machen’s classic work, The Virgin Birth of Christ. But again, let’s think about the worst-case scenario. What if the idea of the virgin birth was in fact “added later.” Would that disprove Christianity? Again, it would not, since even if we ended up removing both Matthew and Luke from the New Testament canon, we’d still have Mark and John to reckon with, along with 23 other canonical texts.
I’d encourage you to thoroughly investigate this claim that material has been added to the Gospels. As I’ve wrestled with this question over the years, I’ve concluded that it’s a claim that just doesn’t happen to be supported by the facts. Along these lines, I’d highly recommend Peter J. Williams’ book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Also, here are links to two of his lectures that are currently available on YouTube that I believe could help to resolve many of the questions you’re wrestling with: “New Evidence the Gospels Are Based on Eyewitness Accounts”, and “Things Which Ought to Be Better Known About the Resurrection.”
Though it may seem odd that a huge miracle such as the virgin birth wouldn't be mentioned by other NT writers, if you think about it, the feeding of the five thousand, the resurrection of Lazarus, and many other miracles also aren't mentioned outside the Gospels. It’s important to realize that the NT Epistles were written in response to various issues that came up in the life of the church, and weren't intended to recount everything recorded by the four Evangelists. However, many things that Jesus said and did were mentioned in passing, and Paul (as well as others) simply assumed his readers were familiar with the larger story about Jesus, which in itself is rather telling.4 Now, if Jesus really is the one promised in Isaiah 9:6-7, if he is the “child born” whose name will be called “Mighty God,” whose kingdom will never end, perhaps we should ask whether it would be surprising to discover that he had a miraculous birth?5
“Luke said they had to go back to the hometown of their ancestors for the census, but this isn't how the census worked according to other historical records.” Let me ask you this; you’ve started doubting many aspects of your “faith,” but have you ever thought about doubting any of your “doubts”? Where did you discover this information about the way census records worked in the ancient world? Are you sure that this information is trustworthy? Are you sure that there weren’t any exceptions to that rule? We have very strong evidence that Luke was a careful historian and that countless details from his two-volume work have been corroborated by other sources,6 so I’d encourage you to start investigating Luke’s reliability before you end up dismissing him because of a single claim.
Peter J. Williams is super helpful on this point. If the Bethlehem narratives are fictional stories that happened to be added much later, this would open up a whole new can of worms that would then need to be explained (he specifically addresses this issue in the video lectures linked above). Now, once again, if it is discovered that both Matthew and Luke are unreliable on this point, even if we determined that they should be removed from the NT canon, as I’ve argued above, this would still leave us with two other Gospels and 23 other NT texts that we’d have to account for. Here, for example, is an article I’ve written on the authenticity of John. I’m convinced that if all we had was this one Gospel, along with the prophecy of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 52-53, we’d have enough to lay the foundation of the Christian faith.
“How is believing Jesus is the Messiah any different than believing it's David Koresh? Today, in modern times, it's easy to prove David Koresh is a phony or crazy. But we cannot prove what was happening back then. How do we know Jesus wasn't doing something similar, just in a different era where we can't prove it happened or not?” These are really good and important questions that I encourage all Christians to wrestle with. But there also happen to be really good answers to these questions. Richard Whately’s Introduction to Christian Evidences is a great place to start.7 After over three decades of research, I’m convinced that the canonical Gospels are extremely reliable biographies of the life of Jesus. These accounts were written during the crucial eyewitness period, and provide the only plausible explanation for subsequent historical events such as the explosive growth of Christianity among Jews and Gentiles in the face of incredible persecution. In addition to Peter J. Williams, I’d also recommend Richard Bauckham’s Jesus & The Eyewitnesses (but FYI, this is book is not for beginners!). I’ve also addressed this issue on numerous episodes of my podcast.8
Let me know if any of this helps!9
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See in particular the repeated line “in accordance with the Scriptures” that appears in 1Cor 15:3-4. Another place to look for more information on this topic are the sermons recorded throughout the book of Acts. Everywhere the apostles went, they spoke of things they had witnessed, which ended up fulfilling countless OT prophecies.
In his History of the Early Church, Eusebius writes: Matthew and Luke in their gospels have given us the genealogy of Christ differently, and many suppose that they are at variance with one another. Since as a consequence every believer, in ignorance of the truth, has been zealous to invent some explanation which shall harmonize the two passages, permit us to subjoin the account of the matter which has come down to us, and which is given by Africanus, who was mentioned by us just above, in his epistle to Aristides, where he discusses the harmony of the gospel genealogies. After refuting the opinions of others as forced and deceptive, he give the account which he had received from tradition in these words: 2 “For whereas the names of the generations were reckoned in Israel either according to nature or according to law; — according to nature by the succession of legitimate offspring, and according to law whenever another raised up a child to the name of a brother dying childless; for because a clear hope of resurrection was not yet given they had a representation of the future promise by a kind of mortal resurrection, in order that the name of the one deceased might be perpetuated; — 3 whereas then some of those who are inserted in this genealogical table succeeded by natural descent, the son to the father, while others, though born of one father, were ascribed by name to another, mention was made of both of those who were progenitors in fact and of those who were so only in name. Thus neither of the gospels is in error, for one reckons by nature, the other by law. 4 For the line of descent from Solomon and that from Nathan were so involved, the one with the other, by the raising up of children to the childless and by second marriages, that the same persons are justly considered to belong at one time to one, at another time to another; that is, at one time to the reputed fathers, at another to the actual fathers. So that both these accounts are strictly true and come down to Joseph with considerable intricacy indeed, yet quite accurately. 5 But in order that what I have said may be made clear I shall explain the interchange of the generations. If we reckon the generations from David through Solomon, the third from the end is found to be Matthan, who begot Jacob the father of Joseph. But if, with Luke, we reckon them from Nathan the son of David, in like manner the third from the end is Melchi, whose son Eli was the father of Joseph. For Joseph was the son of Eli, the son of Melchi. 6 Joseph therefore being the object proposed to us, it must be shown how it is that each is recorded to be his father, both Jacob, who derived his descent from Solomon, and Eli, who derived his from Nathan; first how it is that these two, Jacob and Eli, were brothers, and then how it is that their fathers, Matthan and Melchi, although of different families, are declared to be grandfathers of Joseph. 7 Matthan and Melchi having married in succession the same woman, begot children who were uterine brothers, for the law did not prohibit a widow, whether such by divorce or by the death of her husband, from marrying another. 8 By Estha then (for this was the woman’s name according to tradition) Matthan, a descendant of Solomon, first begot Jacob. And when Matthan was dead, Melchi, who traced his descent back to Nathan, being of the same tribe but of another family, married her as before said, and begot a son Eli. 9 Thus we shall find the two, Jacob and Eli, although belonging to different families, yet brethren by the same mother. Of these the one, Jacob, when his brother Eli had died childless, took the latter’s wife and begot by her a son Joseph, his own son by nature and in accordance with reason. Wherefore also it is written: ‘Jacob begot Joseph.’ But according to law he was the son of Eli, for Jacob, being the brother of the latter, raised up seed to him. 10 Hence the genealogy traced through him will not be rendered void, which the evangelist Matthew in his enumeration gives thus: ‘Jacob begot Joseph.’ But Luke, on the other hand, says: ‘Who was the son, as was supposed’ (for this he also adds), ‘of Joseph, the son of Eli, the son of Melchi’; for he could not more clearly express the generation according to law. And the expression ‘he begot’ he has omitted in his genealogical table up to the end, tracing the genealogy back to Adam the son of God. 11 This interpretation is neither incapable of proof nor is it an idle conjecture. For the relatives of our Lord according to the flesh, whether with the desire of boasting or simply wishing to state the fact, in either case truly, have banded down the following account: Some Idumean robbers, having attacked Ascalon, a city of Palestine, carried away from a temple of Apollo which stood near the walls, in addition to other booty, Antipater, son of a certain temple slave named Herod. And since the priest was not able to pay the ransom for his son, Antipater was brought up in the customs of the Idumeans, and afterward was befriended by Hyrcanus, the high priest of the Jews. 12 And having, been sent by Hyrcanus on an embassy to Pompey, and having restored to him the kingdom which had been invaded by his brother Aristobulus, he had the good fortune to be named procurator of Palestine. But Antipater having been slain by those who were envious of his great good fortune was succeeded by his son Herod, who was afterward, by a decree of the senate, made King of the Jews under Antony and Augustus. His sons were Herod and the other tetrarchs. These accounts agree also with those of the Greeks. 13 But as there had been kept in the archives up to that time the genealogies of the Hebrews as well as of those who traced their lineage back to proselytes, such as Achior the Ammonite and Ruth the Moabitess, and to those who were mingled with the Israelites and came out of Egypt with them, Herod, inasmuch as the lineage of the Israelites contributed nothing to his advantage, and since he was goaded with the consciousness of his own ignoble extraction, burned all the genealogical records, thinking that he might appear of noble origin if no one else were able, from the public registers, to trace back his lineage to the patriarchs or proselytes and to those mingled with them, who were called Georae. 14 A few of the careful, however, having obtained private records of their own, either by remembering the names or by getting them in some other way from the registers, pride themselves on preserving the memory of their noble extraction. Among these are those already mentioned, called Desposyni, on account of their connection with the family of the Savior. Coming from Nazara and Cochaba, villages of Judea, into other parts of the world, they drew the aforesaid genealogy from memory and from the book of daily records as faithfully as possible. 15 Whether then the case stand thus or not no one could find a clearer explanation, according to my own opinion and that of every candid person. And let this suffice us, for, although we can urge no testimony in its support, we have nothing better or truer to offer. In any case the Gospel states the truth.” 16 And at the end of the same epistle he adds these words: “Matthan, who was descended from Solomon, begot Jacob. And when Matthan was dead, Melchi, who was descended from Nathan begot Eli by the same woman. Eli and Jacob were thus uterine brothers. Eli having died childless, Jacob raised up seed to him, begetting Joseph, his own son by nature, but by law the son of Eli. Thus Joseph was the son of both.” 17 Thus far Africanus. And the lineage of Joseph being thus traced, Mary also is virtually shown to be of the same tribe with him, since, according to the law of Moses, inter-marriages between different tribes were not permitted. For the command is to marry one of the same family and lineage, so that the inheritance may not pass from tribe to tribe. This may suffice here. (1.7.1-17).
I discuss this point in an interview I recorded with Berkeley professor, Daniel Boyarin, author of The Jewish Gospels.
David Wenham is helpful on this topic (see in particular, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, and Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right?
According to Matthew 1:23, Jesus’ birth fulfills the prophecy of Is 7:14 which spoke of a child to be born of a virgin (or young maiden). But it’s clear that child was to be born in the lifetime of King Ahaz. Matthew’s point is that Jesus is the ultimate “Immanuel,” the ultimate child born of the virgin. In other words, it’s a case of double fulfillment.
Melissa wrote back saying: “Thank you so so so much for taking the time to write back to me, especially such a thoughtful and kind email, and for including so many resources. I've been working my way through some of the material tonight, including listening to the podcasts you specifically referenced)…I especially appreciated the point about Jesus' brother James and how he is recorded in history, and how something changed his mind about the identity of Jesus as the Christ. I also do take into consideration your points about how quickly Christianity spread, and it would seem odd that it would spread so quickly at a time when people would most likely be able to verify its claims through eyewitnesses. I wish this alone was enough to convince me and cast out my other fears and doubts. It isn't, but it does help me. I did appreciate you bringing up the idea of doubting my doubts. It's a good point. To be honest, I am poring over articles and materials all day, and there is so much back and forth between opinions that I don't know who to trust. Evangelical apologists do seem biased and like they will absolutely jump through convoluted hoops to get to the conclusion they prefer. However, I need to remember that there are skeptics with an agenda who may do the same thing as well, and who just don't “want” to believe. I am the opposite. I'm a skeptic who desperately and frantically wants to believe, but I keep getting more discouraged the more I look into it. But I suppose it's possible that I am also taking by faith what the skeptics say (after all, I didn't complete the research, so I don't really know what archaeology or historical records say - I'm taking them at their word). So you did bring up a good point there. I will keep investigating using the materials you sent and referenced. I can't express my gratitude enough for the fact that you took the time to respond so thoughtfully and in such an understanding way. Thank you for pointing me toward materials, and thank you for encouraging me to keep researching and for being positive about it. Mostly, thank you for caring. I actually tear up when I think about how kind you are to spend so much time on a troubled seeker who you have never even met or spoken to before.”