Dealing with Doubt in Our Christian Faith

Dr. Michael Gleghorn points out that it is not having doubts about our Christian faith that is an issue, but rather how we respond to that doubt. Attacking this issue from a biblical worldview perspective, Michael helps us understand our doubts and respond to them as an informed Christian.

Help! My Doubts Scare Me!

Have you ever doubted your faith? We all have doubts from time to time. We may doubt that our boss really hit a hole-in-one at the golf course last weekend, or that our best friend really caught a fish as big as the one he claimed to catch, or that the strange looking guy on that late night TV show was really abducted by alien beings from a distant galaxy! Sometimes the things we doubt aren’t really that important, but other times they are. And the more important something is to us, the more personally invested we are in it, the scarier it can be to start having doubts about it. So when Christians begin to have doubts about something as significant as the truth of their Christian faith, it’s quite understandable that this might worry or even frighten them.

Reflecting on this issue in The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel wrote:

For many Christians, merely having doubts of any kind can be scary. They wonder whether their questions disqualify them being a follower of Christ. They feel insecure because they’re not sure whether it’s permissible to express uncertainty about God, Jesus, or the Bible. So they keep their questions to themselves—and inside, unanswered, they grow and fester . . . until they eventually succeed in choking out their faith.{1}

So what can we do if we find ourselves struggling with doubts about the truth of Christianity? Why do such doubts arise? And how can we rid ourselves of these taunting Goliaths?

First, we must always remember that sooner or later we’ll probably all have to wrestle with doubts about our faith. As Christian philosopher William Lane Craig observes, “Any Christian who is intellectually engaged and reflecting about his faith will inevitably face the problem of doubt.”{2} Doubts can arise for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they’re largely intellectual. We might doubt that the Bible is really inspired by God or that Jesus was really born of a virgin. But doubts can take other forms as well. If a person has experienced great sorrow or disappointment, such as personal wounds from family or friends, the loss of a job, a painful divorce, the death of a loved one, or the loss of health, they may be seriously tempted to doubt the goodness, love, and care of their heavenly Father.{3}

Whenever they come and whatever form they take, we must each deal honestly with our doubts. To ignore them is to court spiritual disaster. But facing them can lead ultimately to a deeper faith. As Christian minister Lynn Anderson has said, “A faith that’s challenged by adversity or tough questions . . . is often a stronger faith in the end.”{4}

It’s Not All in Your Head!

Sometimes people have sincere doubts about the truth of Christianity, intellectual obstacles that hinder them from placing their trust in Christ. In such cases, Christians have an obligation to respond to the person’s doubts and make a humble and thoughtful defense for the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, as Craig observes, it’s important to realize that “doubt is never a purely intellectual problem.” Like it or not, there’s always a “spiritual dimension to the problem that must be recognized.”{5} Because of this, sometimes a person’s objections to Christianity are really just a smokescreen, an attempt to cover up the real reason for their rejection of Christ, which is often an underlying moral or spiritual issue.

I once heard a story about a Christian apologist who spoke at a university about the evidence for Christianity. Afterward, a student approached him and said, “I honestly didn’t expect this to happen, but you satisfactorily answered all my objections to Christianity.” The apologist was a bit startled by such a frank admission, but he quickly recovered himself and said, “Well that’s great! Why not give your life to Christ right now, then?” But the student said, “No. I’m not willing to do that. I would have to change the way I’m living, and I’m just not ready to do that right now.”

In this case all the student’s reasons for doubting the Christian faith had, by his own admission, been satisfactorily answered. What was really holding him back were not his doubts about the truth of Christianity, but a desire to live life on his own terms. To put it bluntly, he didn’t want God meddling in his affairs. He didn’t want to be morally accountable to some ultimate authority. The truth is that a person’s intellectual objections to Christianity are rarely the whole story. As Christian scholar Ravi Zacharias observed, “A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God.”{6}

Unfortunately, Christians aren’t immune to doubting their faith for similar reasons. I know of a young man who had converted to Christianity, but who’s now raising various objections to it. But when one looks beneath the surface, one sees that he’s currently involved in an immoral lifestyle. In order to continue living as he wants, without being unduly plagued by a guilty conscience, he must call into question the truth of Christianity. For the Bible tells him plainly that he’s disobeying God. Of course, ultimately no one is immune to doubts about Christianity, so we’ll now consider some ways to guard our hearts and minds.

I Believe, Help My Unbelief!

As He came down the mountain, Jesus was met by a large crowd of people. A father had brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus’ disciples, but they were not able to cast the demon out. In desperation the father appealed to Jesus, “If You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus answered, “If You can! All things are possible to him who believes.” The father responded, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”{7}

Can you identify with the father in this story? I know I can. Oftentimes as Christians we find that our faith is in precisely the same state as this father’s. We genuinely believe, but we need help with our unbelief. It’s always been an encouragement to me that after the father’s admission of a faith mixed with doubt, Jesus nonetheless cast out the demon and healed the man’s son.{8} But of course no Christian should be content to remain in this state. If we want to grow in our faith and rid ourselves of doubts, what are some positive steps we can take to accomplish this?

Well, in the first place, it’s helpful to be familiar with the “principle of displacement.” As Sue “Archimedes” Bohlin, one of my colleagues, has written:

The Bible teaches the principle of “displacement.” That is, rather than trying to make thoughts shoo away, we are told to replace them with what is good, true, and perfect (Phil. 4:8). As the truth comes in the lies are displaced—much like when we fill a bathtub too full of water, and when we get in, our bodies displace the water, which flows out over the top of the tub.{9}

Once we grasp this principle, a number of steps for dealing with doubt quickly become evident. For one thing, we can memorize and meditate upon Scripture. We can also listen attentively to good Christian music. Paul speaks to the importance of both of these in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

In addition, we can read good Christian books that provide intelligent answers to some of the questions we might be asking. Great Christian scholars have addressed almost every conceivable objection to the truth of Christianity. If you have nagging doubts about some aspect of your faith, there’s almost certainly a work of Christian scholarship that speaks to it in detail. Finally, we must never forget that this is a spiritual battle. So let’s remember to put on the full armor of God so we can stand firm in the midst of it!{10}

Faith and Reason

How can we know if Christianity is really true? Is it by reason, or evidence, or mystical experience? Dr. Craig has an answer to this question that you might find a bit surprising.{11} He distinguishes between knowing Christianity is true and showing that it’s true. Ideally, one attempts to show that Christianity is true with good arguments and evidence. But Craig doesn’t think that this is how we know our faith is true. Rather, he believes that we can know our faith is true because “God’s Spirit makes it evident to us that our faith is true.”{12}

Consider Paul’s statement in Romans 8:16, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Since every believer is indwelt by God’s Spirit, every believer also receives the Spirit’s testimony that he is one of God’s children. This is sometimes called the “assurance of salvation.” Dr. Craig comments on the significance of this:

Salvation entails that God exists, that Christ atoned for our sins . . . and so forth, so that if you are assured of your salvation, then you must be assured of . . . these other truths as well. Hence, the witness of the Holy Spirit gives the believer an immediate assurance that his faith is true.{13}

Now this is remarkable. For it means we can know that Christianity is true, wholly apart from arguments, simply by attending to the witness of the Holy Spirit. And this is so not only for believers but for unbelievers, too. For the Spirit convicts the unbelieving world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, particularly the sin of unbelief.{14} So when we’re confronted with objections to Christianity that we can’t answer, we needn’t worry. First, answers are usually available if one knows where to look. But second, the witness of the Spirit trumps any objections we might encounter.

Consider an illustration from the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Suppose I’m accused of stealing a document out of a colleague’s office. Suppose I have a motive, an opportunity, and a history of doing such things. Suppose further that someone thought they saw me lurking around my colleague’s office just before the document went missing. There’s much evidence against me. But in fact, I didn’t steal the document. I was on a walk at the time. Now should I doubt my innocence since the evidence is against me? Of course not! For I know I’m not guilty!{15}

Similarly, writes Dr. Craig, “I needn’t be shaken when objections come along that I can’t answer.”{16} For my faith isn’t ultimately based on arguments, but on the witness of God’s Spirit.

Stepping into the Light

We’ve seen that both Christians and non-Christians can have doubts about the truth of Christianity. We’ve also seen that such doubts are never just an intellectual issue; there’s always a spiritual dynamic that’s involved as well. But since we’ll probably never be able to fully resolve every single doubt we might experience, I would like to conclude by suggesting one final way to make our doubts flee before us, much as roaches flee to their hidden lairs when one turns on the light!

In John 7:17 Jesus says, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” Here, Jesus frankly encourages us to put His teachings to the test and see for ourselves whether He really speaks for God or not. As biblical scholar Merrill Tenney comments, “Spiritual understanding is not produced solely by learning facts or procedures, but rather it depends on obedience to known truth. Obedience to God’s known will develops discernment between falsehood and truth.”{17} Are we really serious about dealing with our lingering doubts? If so, Jesus says that if we resolutely choose to do God’s will, we can know if His teaching is really from God!

Sadly, however, many of us will never take Jesus up on His challenge. No matter how loudly we might claim to want to rid ourselves of doubt, the truth is that many of us just aren’t willing to do God’s will. But if you are, then Jesus says that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”{18} In other words, we can know by experience that Jesus is from God, that His teachings are true, and that He really is who He claimed to be!

As Christian philosopher Dallas Willard observes, the issue ultimately comes down to what we really want:

The Bible says that if you seek God with all your heart, then you will surely find him. Surely find him. It’s the person who wants to know God that God reveals himself to. And if a person doesn’t want to know God—well, God has created the world and the human mind in such a way that he doesn’t have to.{19}

The psalmist encourages us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”{20} If we do, we can know not only that God is good, but also that He exists. And even if we still have some lingering doubts and unanswered questions in the back of our minds, as we surely will, they’ll gradually fade into utter insignificance as we become more intimately acquainted with Him who loves us and who reconciled us to Himself through the death of His Son!{21}

1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2000), 316.
2. William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003), 31.
3. Lynn Anderson, interviewed in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, 322.
4. Ibid., 326.
5. Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers, 33.
6. Ravi Zacharias, quoted in Strobel, The Case for Faith, 343. See also John 3:19-21.
7. Mark 9:14-24.
8. See Mark 9:25-29.
9. Sue Bohlin, “I’m Having a Terrible Battle in My Mind,” Probe Ministries,
10. See Ephesians 6:10-20.
11. This section is largely just a summary of the discussion of faith and reason in Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers, 35-39.
12. Ibid., 35.
13. Ibid., 36.
14. See John 16:7-11.
15. Alvin Plantinga, “The Foundations of Theism: A Reply,” Faith and Philosophy 3 (1986): 310; cited in Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers, 38-39.
16. Ibid., 39.
17. Merrill C. Tenney, “The Gospel of John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 84.
18. John 8:32.
19. Dallas Willard, quoted in Strobel, The Case for Faith, 352.
20. Psalm 34:8.
21. See 2 Corinthians 5:18-21.

© 2007 Probe Ministries

“What’s My Purpose in Life?”

A dear younger friend of mine recently posted this question on a forum:

“Do you feel that you have a great mission or purpose in life?

“I do feel like I’m made for something more than this, but whatever it is I can’t reach it, or find out what it is. I do feel as though I have a great purpose or mission in life—I’m sure I do!!! Why can I just not figure it out?

“Was I born in the wrong time? My roommate says that I’m like a young person who thinks they were meant for more. She says hardly anyone here has a great life of purpose and I just have to accept reality. 99% of the people are just normal people—that there are not that many characters, priests, prophets, or heroes.

“Does everyone go through life never figuring out what their great purpose is? There has to be a purpose beyond just surviving. Roommate says that my problem is that I think I’m born to be a superstar, a saint or a hero. She thinks I’m just unrealistic, and what I expect from and of myself is unrealistic. I think she’s a pessimist. I want to do something big. I don’t want a mediocre life.”

Similar to C.S. Lewis’ argument that our longings correspond to God’s plan for the fulfillment of those longings (such as experiencing hunger because food exists for us to eat, and experiencing fatigue because there is such a thing as sleep), I think my friend’s longing for the something bigger and something more, her disdain for a mediocre life, is indeed shaped by God’s call to love and serve Him in large and glorious ways. But we may have been waylaid by the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” gospel, since many 20th-century Westerners seem to have directed their focus to finding out this wonderful plan rather than on God Himself.

I don’t see anywhere in scripture where we are called to find our purpose in life. I think God just wants us to obey what He’s already given us. When we do a search for the phrases “God’s will” or “will of God” in the Bible, we know for sure God wants us to do things like give thanks in all things (1 Thessalonians 5:18), be sanctified and avoid sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3), silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good (1 Peter 2:15), and sometimes, suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong (1 Peter 3:17).

All the “one anothers” in the Bible are commands, so those are God’s will as well. So our purpose in life is to please Him through obedience, which should grow out of our awareness that He loves us and made us for Himself.

Because we are made in the image of God, our purpose in life is to put Him on display. We—our bodies, our minds, our humor, our gifts and talents—are a display case for the glory of God. I think the specifics of how we go about that don’t matter as much as we seem to think they do. Desiring to be truthful and transparent in serving as display cases for the treasure within matters more, I believe.

According to John 15, it is the Lord’s pleasure—and thus His purpose for us—that we bear much (as opposed to some or more) fruit in us. That means Christlikeness; that means the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (Galatians 5:22). So whether we are engaged in paid work or evangelizing on street corners, changing diapers or driving in traffic, putting Jesus on display is the most important thing. To do that, we need to continually immerse ourselves in His presence and His word, and hang around His people who are also immersing themselves in His presence and His word.

Right along with spiritual fruit is the topic of spiritual gifts. Finding God’s personal purpose for us will involve discovering which of the spiritual gifts He has given each one of us, and using them to build up the body of Christ and bless others. (They are found in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4.)

And finally, 2 Corinthians 2 offers a delightful word picture of Christ-followers serving as “a sweet aroma of Christ to God” the Father, as well as bringing the fragrance of knowing Christ to people who are either being saved or perishing. That, too, is part of our purpose in life. I think that if we focus on what God has already told us pleases Him, obeying the commands He has already given His children, we’ll get to the point of looking in the rear-view mirror of life and discovering, “Oh, that was my personal purpose! Cool!”


This blog post originally appeared at on Aug. 14, 2012.

Is it Time to Change Your Filter?

Life doesn’t just happen to us; we experience it and interpret it through a filter. That filter, like a pair of glasses, consists of beliefs and values we might not even realize we hold.

The same event could be experienced and interpreted in different ways by different people because of their different filters: for example, getting a flat tire. One person might get out of the car, see the flat, and start to rage: “What the **** is this? Why does this kind of **** always happen to me? You stupid tire!” This response is the result of a filter that believes life should be good and easy, that nothing bad should ever happen to her. This unrealistic expectation is a setup for massive disappointment and anger when life doesn’t cooperate.

Another person might see the flat and think, “Oh bummer! Well, Lord, thank You for protecting me from a dangerous high-speed blowout. Please help me here—would You send a road angel to help me change out the spare?” This very different response is the result of a filter that recognizes we live in a fallen world where unfortunate and even bad things happen, but God is still good and we can call on Him to help us at any and every time.

We can’t change life or the things that happen to us, but we can change our filter to bring it into alignment with biblical truth.

You might need to change your filter if:

• You consistently see the glass half-empty instead of half-full; if you always put a negative spin on any news you hear. [Check out Philippians 4:8]

• You see any comment other than glowing praise as a personal attack that threatens your well-being, and you aggressively growl back. [Check out Philippians 2:3]

• You dismiss other people’s answers to prayers, and blessings they receive, as yet more proof that God loves everybody but you. [Check out Romans 8:38-39]

• You evaluate everything in terms of how you feel about it. You are nice to your spouse or your co-worker only when you feel like being nice; you don’t repent if you don’t feel repentant; you don’t spend time with God if you don’t feel like it; you are obedient when you feel like being obedient, etc. [Check out 2 Corinthians 10:5-6]

• You view everything in terms of the here-and-now, temporal, earthly sphere, and ignore the eternal, spiritual dimension. [Check out 2 Corinthians 4:18]

• You get uncomfortable when people bring spiritual conversations into Monday through Saturday because they only belong to Sunday. [Check out all references to the Lord Jesus Christ]

What do you think. . . is it time to change your filter?


This blog post originally appeared at
on Aug. 16, 2011.

“What Do You Think About Headcoverings for Christian Women?”


I am intrigued by this article “Should a Christian Woman Wear a Headcovering?” by Daniel Botkin (enclosed by mail and also available online here) about headcoverings, and it makes sense to me, but I would really like your input as a woman.

I read the headcoverings article with a huge smile across my heart. Its an excellent article! . . . And I couldn’t agree more.

Before I go further, though, let me first state that Probe does not have an official position on this issue; my answer is about me and my response to this issue. For six years or so I struggled with the plain command of scripture [1 Cor 11:10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.] and finally gave in. I just could not get around the phrase “because of the angels,” which has absolutely nothing to do with cultural- and time-bound practices. So, about a year ago, I started wearing hats to church. Recently, I purchased a couple of scarves which I also use as a headcovering in worship and for public prayer.

It’s been interesting the strong response I’ve received from men, who absolutely love to see a woman in a hat, even though they usually don’t know it’s not a fashion statement for me. They just know something strikes them as very, very right about it. What startled me was the effect on ME: I have so enjoyed feeling so feminine! I have also enjoyed experiencing the peace that is the fruit of obedience.

I started out wearing lace doilies or some other kind of headgear when I was in Catholic grade school. In the 60s and 70s, there was a wholesale dropping of the headcovering in almost all Western churches (with the rise of feminist thought, and I think they are related). I never even thought about how quickly 1900 years of church history were overturned in a mere decade until I couldn’t come up with a single good reason to disobey scripture.

So there you have it! Thanks for sharing the great article with me!

Sue Bohlin

Hi Sue!!

Your response was such a blessing and encouragement to my wife and me! Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and respond. Because of your response actually, my wife went out and bought a couple of scarves today! 🙂 Well thank you for your faithfulness and may the Lord continue to guide you in His word and in His love.


See Also:
“Do the Bible’s Statements on Head Coverings Apply Today?”
Sue Bohlin’s Blog Post: “Why I’m the Lady in the Hat”


The Psychology of Prisoner Abuse

Those Awful Pictures

Do you remember how you felt as the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal began to unfold in spring 2004? Maybe you saw the disturbing pictures when they were first aired on CBS television’s 60 Minutes II. Soon they were transmitted around the globe. They greeted you on the front page of your morning newspaper and on the evening news. The stream seemed endless.

You saw naked Iraqi prisoners in various stages of humiliation: hooded, naked men stacked in a pyramid; others lying on the floor or secured to a bed; one in a smock standing on a box with his arms outstretched and wires attached to him. In some of the photos, male and female American soldiers grinned and pointed. In one picture, a female soldier stood holding a leash around the neck of a naked male prisoner. In others, soldiers grinned over what appeared to be a corpse packed in ice.

What feelings did you experience? Shock? Anger? Rage? Disgust? Maybe you felt embarrassed or ashamed. “How could they do such degrading things to other human beings?” you might have wondered. Perhaps you feared how the growing storm might affect the life of your friend or family member serving in Iraq. Or wrestled with how to explain the abuse to your children.

Finger pointing began almost as soon as the story broke. High-ranking military and government officials announced that these were aberrations carried out by a few unprincipled prison guards. Accused military police claimed they were merely following orders of military intelligence officials to soften prisoners up for interrogation. Others insisted soldiers had a moral obligation to disobey orders to do wrong. The accused countered that the harsh techniques were in place before they arrived for duty at the prison. Ethical arguments surfaced that the war on terror demanded tough methods to help prevent another 9/11.

What factors prompt people to abuse others in such degrading ways? What goes on inside the minds of the abusers? Are there special social forces at work? While this article won’t attempt to analyze specific cases in the Iraq prison scandal, it will consider some fascinating psychological experiments that reveal clues to the roots of such behavior. The results -– and their implications -– may disturb you. A biblical perspective will also offer some insight.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

CBS News correspondent Andy Rooney said the Iraq prisoner abuse is “a black mark that will be in the history books in a hundred languages for as long as there are history books.”{1}

Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo was not surprised by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. He had observed similar behavior in his famous 1971 experiment involving a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.{2} The experiment showed that otherwise normal people can behave in surprisingly outrageous ways.

Zimbardo and his colleagues selected twenty-four young men considered from interviews and psychological tests to be normal and healthy. Volunteers were randomly assigned to be either “prisoners” or “guards.” Guards wore uniforms and were told to maintain control of the prison and not to use violence.

On the second day, prisoners rebelled, asserting their independence with barricades, taunting and cursing. Guards suppressed the rebellion. Zimbardo reports that the guards then “steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners.”{3} He says the worst abuse came at night when guards thought no psychology staff were observing.{4} Zimbardo remembers that the guards “began to use the prisoners as playthings for their amusement…. They would get them to simulate sodomy. They also stripped prisoners naked for various offenses and put them in solitary for excessive periods.”{5} They dressed them in smocks, chained them together at the ankles, blindfolded them with paper bags on their heads, and herded them along in a group.{6} Sound familiar?

It was Berkeley professor Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s then romantic interest whom he later married, who jolted him back to reality. On Day Five, she entered the prison to preview the experiment in preparation for some subject interviews she had agreed to conduct the next day. Shocked by what she saw, she challenged Zimbardo’s ethics later that evening – screaming and yelling in quite a fight, she recalls. That night, Zimbardo decided to halt the experiment.{7}

Zimbardo feels that prisons are ripe for abuse without firm measures to check guards’ lower impulses.{8} He recommends “clear rules, a staff that is well trained in those rules and tight management that includes punishment for violations.”{9}

An old Jewish proverb says, “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over a helpless people.”{10} Unfettered prison officials -– or most anyone -– can yield to their baser natures when tempted by power inequalities.

The Perils of Obedience

What about those who say they were only obeying authority? How far will people go to inflict harm under orders? In the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted classic experiments on obedience.{11} (Ironically, Milgram and Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo were high school classmates.{12})

At Yale, Milgram set up a series of experiments “to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.” He writes, “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”{13}

Milgram’s basic design involved a volunteer “teacher” and a “learner.” The learner was actually an actor who was in on the deception. The learner was strapped to “a kind of miniature electric chair” with an electrode on his wrist. The teacher sat before an impressive-looking “shock generator ” with switches indicating voltages from 15-450 volts.{14}

The teacher asked test questions of the learner and was instructed to administer increasingly large shocks for each incorrect answer. (You say you’ve known some teachers like that?) The machine here was a fake –- no learner received shocks -– but the teacher thought it was real.

In the initial experiment, over 60 percent of teachers obeyed the experimenter’s orders to the end and punished the victim with the maximum 450 volts. Milgram found similarly disturbing levels of obedience across various socioeconomic levels. His conclusions after hundreds of experiments were chilling:

…Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.{15}

Why did they obey? Milgram offers several possibilities. Fears of appearing rude, desires to please an authority, aspirations to do one’s best, and lack of direct accountability can all cloud judgment. But could there be something deeper, something in human nature that influences abuse? A famous novel illustrates how the dark side of human nature can affect group behavior.

Lord of the Flies

Prisoner abuse shows what can happen when power inequalities and inappropriate devotion to authority distort one’s moral compass. Nobel laureate William Golding’s short novel, Lord of the Flies,{16} illustrates through a fictional story how similar flaws can manifest in society. A film version of the book helped inspire the popular television series Survivor.{17}

Lord of the Flies opens on a remote, uninhabited island on which some British schoolboys, ages six to twelve, find themselves after an airplane crash. An atomic war has begun, and apparently the plane was evacuating the boys when it was shot down. The island has fresh water, fruit, and other food. The setting seems idyllic. Best of all, the boys discover, there are no grownups (the plane and its crew presumably have washed into the sea).

Four central characters soon emerge. Ralph is elected leader. Piggy, an overweight asthmatic and champion of reason, becomes Ralph’s friend. Simon is a quiet lad with keen discernment. Jack becomes a hunter.

At first, the boys get along without much conflict. Soon, though, fears envelop them, and they debate whether an evil beast might inhabit the island. Jack and his followers kill a wild pig and, in frenzied blood lust, dance to chants of “Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Bash her in!{18} When Ralph criticizes Jack for breaking some tribal rules, Jack replies, “Who cares?” His hunting prowess will rule.{19}

One night, some boys see a dead parachutist, which they mistake for the “evil beast” and flee. Jack posts a pig’s head onto a stick in the ground as a gift for the beast. The decaying, fly- covered pig’s head soon becomes for Simon the “Lord of the Flies,” a sort of personification of evil.{20} Later, Simon discovers that the feared “beast” is only a human corpse. Running to tell the group this good news, he encounters their mock pig-killing ritual. The crazed boys attack Simon and kill him. Nearly all the boys follow Jack and, acting like savages with painted bodies and spears, kill Piggy and hunt down Ralph. Only the surprise appearance of a British naval officer, drawn by the smoke from a fire, halts the mad pursuit. Ralph and the boys dissolve in tears. Ralph weeps, as Golding writes, “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart….”{21}

Lord of the Flies is filled with symbolism, both biblical and from Greek tragedy. But Golding’s stated purpose was “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.”{22} Could his point that darkness lurks in the human heart help explain the prisoner abuse?

Animal House Meets Lord of the Flies

Prisoner abuse is a sad reality in the U.S. and abroad.{23} The Iraq prisoner abuse scandal smacks of fraternity hazing on steroids, Animal House meets Lord of the Flies. Consider from this sad episode some lessons for both prison reform and society in general:

  • Establish clear rules for prison staff; train them well and punish them for violations, as Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo recommends.
  • Educate against blind conformity. Some of Milgram’s experimental subjects found the strength to resist abusive authority.{24} Some psychologists feel that strong moral values and experience with conformity can strengthen moral courage.{25}
  • Involve external observers and critics. Often outsiders, not emotionally swept up in a project or event, can through their psychological distance more clearly assess ethical issues. For example, Christina Maslach, Philip Zimbardo’s friend and colleague who challenged the ethics of his prison experiment, credits her late arrival on the scene with facilitating her concern. The experimenters who had planned and had been conducting the experiment for five days were less likely to be startled by the developing misconduct, she maintained.{26}
  • Realistically appraise human nature’s dark side. Again, Golding said Lord of the Flies was “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.”{27} Jesus of Nazareth was, of course, quite clear on this point. He said, “From within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder,adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, eagerness for lustful pleasure, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within….”{28}

Some dismiss as simplistic any analyses of human suffering that begin with alleged defects in human nature. They would rather focus on changing social structures and political systems. While many structures and political systems need changing, may I suggest that a careful analysis of the human heart is not simplistic? Rather it is fundamental.

Perhaps that’s why Paul, a leader who agreed with Jesus’ assessment of human nature,{29} focused on changing hearts. Paul was a former persecutor of Jesus’ followers who zealously imprisoned them{30} but later joined them and became a prisoner himself.{31} Paul eventually claimed that when people place their faith in Jesus as he had, they “become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!”{32} Could this diagnosis and prescription have something to say to us amidst today’s prisoner abuse scandals?


1. Andy Rooney, “Our Darkest Days are Here,” CBS 60 Minutes, May 23, 2004,

2. Kathleen O’Toole, “The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years,” Stanford University News Service, January 8, 1997, A slideshow presentation of the experiment is at See also W. Lawrence Neuman, Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997), 447; Claudia Wallis, “Why Did They Do It?”, posted May 9, 2004 (from TIME magazine, cover date May 17, 2004),; John Schwartz, “Simulated Prison in ’71 Showed a Fine Line Between ‘Normal’ and ‘Monster’,” New York Times, May 6, 2004,

3. O’Toole, loc. cit.

4. Ibid.

5. Wallis, loc. cit.

6. O’Toole, loc. cit.

7. Ibid.

8. Schwartz, loc. cit.

9. Wallis, loc. cit. The words are Wallis’.

10. Proverbs 28:15 NIV.

11. Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s, December 1973, 62-66, 75-77. (The article is adapted from Milgram’s book, Obedience to Authority [Harper and Row, 1974]). See also Neuman, loc. cit.; O’Toole, loc. cit.; Schwartz, loc. cit.; Wallis, loc. cit.; Anahad O’Connor, “Pressure to Go Along With Abuse Is Strong, but Some Soldiers Find Strength to Refuse,” New York Times, May 14, 2004, 5059&en=854c94250243f62d&ex=1084593600&partner=AOL&pagewanted =print&position=.

12. O’Toole, loc. cit.

13. Milgram 1973, op. cit., 62.

14. Ibid., 62-63.

15. Ibid., 75- 76.

16. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Perigee, 1988). This “Casebook Edition” includes the 1954 novel plus notes and criticism edited by James R. Baker and Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr.


18. Golding, op. cit., 69; emphasis Golding’s.

19. Ibid., 84.

20. Many have noted that the phrase “lord of the flies” translates the word “Beelzebub.” See, for instance, E.L. Epstein, “Notes on Lord of the Flies,” in Golding, op. cit., 279: “‘The lord of the flies’ is, of course, a translation of the Hebrew Ba’alzevuv (Beelzebub in Greek) which means literally ‘lord of insects.’” Theologian Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., commenting on Matthew 10:24 ff. says, “Beelzebub (the Gr. has Beezeboul) was a name for Satan, the prince of the demons, perhaps derived from Baal-Zebub, god of the Philistine city of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2). ‘Beelzebub’ means ‘lord of the flies,’ and ‘Beezeboul’ or ‘Beelzeboul’ means ‘lord of the high place.’” (In “Matthew,” John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1983, 1985], Logos Research Systems digital version.) Biblical references to Beelzebub include Matthew 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15, 18, 19. In a 1962 interview, Golding himself referred to “the pig’s head on the stick” as “Beelzebub, or Satan, the devil, whatever you’d like to call it….” (James Keating, “Interview with William Golding,” in Golding, op. cit., 192.)

21. Golding, op. cit., 186-187.

22. Epstein, op. cit., 277-278. The words are Golding’s.

23. For example, see “Missouri ‘Rain’ Leads to Toilet Duty,” Inside Journal: The Hometown Newspaper of America’s Prisoners, 14:7, November/December 2003, 5. Inside Journal publisher Prison Fellowship,, and its affiliates seek to help rehabilitate prisoners and promote restorative justice.

24. Milgram 1973, op. cit., 63-64.

25. O’Connor, loc. cit.

26. O’Toole, loc. cit.

27. Epstein, loc. cit.

28. Mark 7:21-23 NLT.

29. For detailed information on Jesus and evidence to support His claims, see

30. Acts 8:3; 22:3-5 ff.

31. E.g., Acts 16:19-40.

32. 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT.

© 2004 Probe Ministries