Two Reflections on Thomas and the Story of Easter
Believing Without Seeing
Thomas is frequently dubbed “doubting Thomas” because of that famous incident in the gospel of John (20:24-29) where he refuses to believe in Jesus’ resurrection simply on the basis of the eye-witness testimony of his fellow disciples. Instead, Thomas insists that he must personally be an eye-witness of the risen Lord before he can believe that Jesus is risen: “Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my fingers into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
But the apostle Thomas has received a bum rap. Nothing in the gospel accounts warrants the conclusion that Thomas was especially resistant to belief, exceptionally hard-hearted, or otherwise more severely prone to doubt than any of the other disciples. If you read the gospel accounts carefully, you discover an interesting thing: every disciple—so far as we can tell from the record—had an opportunity to believe in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection merely on the basis of someone’s eyewitness account (a man or an angel); and yet none of them believed in the reality of his resurrection until they had some first-hand empirical evidence of their own. (Note 1) This puts Thomas’s hesitance to believe in perspective. When Thomas gives expression to his requirement that “unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my fingers into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe,” he is requiring nothing more in the way of evidence than what every other disciple had already received. Thomas is simply saying that he too must see for himself—as each of them had—before he will be able to believe such an astounding claim.
Typically, we assume that John includes this account of Thomas’s doubt in order to expose and to warn us against the sort of doubt Thomas manifested. But this is not right. Why then is the whole encounter with Thomas noteworthy? Why does John include it? Here, I think, is the reason: In the unfolding of the historical events, Thomas, and no one else, explicitly articulates what evidence he requires in order to believe. All the other disciples—as we can see by their actions—implicitly act on exactly the same requirements for belief, but Thomas happens to be the one whose circumstances forced him to make them explicit by articulating them. This, in turn, creates the opportunity for Jesus to make the profound and interesting point which I believe prompted John to include the event in his account: “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
Strictly speaking, Jesus could have said exactly the same thing to any disciple in that room. Among the disciples present at that time, Thomas was not unique in requiring first-hand empirical evidence for his belief. Virtually all of the disciples had required that.
Two points follow from this discussion of the evidence required by Thomas and the other disciples for belief in the resurrection: First, contrary to certain ways liberal Bible scholars portray the first Christians, the first Christians were not hysterical with grief and obsessed with wishful-thinking and an unrealistic desire to overcome the power of death. If the New Testament account is anywhere close to accurate, the first Christians were hard-headed realists.
My second point is longer and must be developed at length. The whole Thomas account raises this vital question: Why do people like you and me believe? We have not put our fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ side and feet. We have not seen Him alive from the dead. We never even saw Him alive before He was crucified. Why, then, do we believe? Are we satisfied with something Thomas and all the other disciples were unwilling to be satisfied with—the say-so of other people, the claims of those who say they saw Jesus alive from the dead? Do I believe that Jesus lived, died, and was raised again because some first-century Jew named Thomas and a group of his friends supposedly claim all this is true? I don’t know Thomas; I’ve never talked to him; I’ve never seen him. I have absolutely no basis whatsoever for making my own judgment or determination about his intelligence, his character, his sanity, his stability, his motives, his intentions, his anything. He is a nearly abstract human figure out of the distant past who—according to certain written records—claims to have encountered in a convincing way the risen Jesus. And because I think this guy might have said that he saw Jesus, I believe it? Isn’t that just a bit too easy? Aren’t I being just a bit too hasty? Aren’t I being terribly gullible? Even irresponsible?
I think John records Jesus’ encounter with Thomas for precisely this reason: to acknowledge the extraordinary hurdle that exists for people like you and me to come to a belief in the resurrection of Jesus. We have not seen; how can we believe? Thomas could not believe until he had seen. Peter could not believe until he had seen. Mary could not believe until she had seen. How can I believe when I have not seen? Because I have been blessed, says Jesus: “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” My believing is a gift from God. He has given me something to make my belief in the risen Jesus possible—even when I have never seen the risen Jesus.
What, exactly, has God given me? In simple terms, he has given me “eyes to see and ears to hear.” He has given me eyes that see the truth of Jesus’ messiahship, resurrection, and kingdom. But what are these God-given eyes seeing that leads me to believe the claims of these early Christians?
The eyes which come from God’s blessing do not bring me to see the risen Messiah as Thomas did. I do not see the empty tomb with the first-generation disciples. I do not see Jesus in His resurrection body sitting in a room chatting with His disciples. No, what I see with these eyes is something rather different.
I “see” how plausible it is that God would become a man and come to die that I might live. I “see” how fitting and appropriate it is that the Messiah sent from God would suffer and die a humiliating death. I “see” how necessary it is that the whole gospel story be true if there is to be any meaningful and significant salvation for mankind at all. In other words, God’s gift to me is a keen and incisive perception into the nature of human existence and into the nature of the human predicament, such that the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection appear as a reasonable, natural, and likely response by God to the human predicament. Once I have “seen” that, then, in the light of the story’s intrinsic plausibility, Thomas’s alleged eye-witness testimony naturally seems probable.
So, do I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because some people told me they saw the risen Jesus? Yes, in part; but not really and not primarily and not only for that reason. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, most importantly, because it makes so much sense in the light of everything I have come to understand and know about myself, about God, and about life in general.
It is important that the first disciples bear witness to the fact that they were convinced they saw and spoke to the risen Jesus. It is important to me that their testimony to that effect is plausible and consistent and not self-contradictory and incoherent. If their testimony were seriously flawed and suspect, that would be a powerful and compelling reason for me to withhold belief in the resurrection. But I don’t believe in the resurrection simply because they say it happened. I believe the resurrection is likely to have happened on other grounds—on the grounds that it makes so much sense in the light of everything else I know about God, His creation, and what He is up to in that creation.
So it is just as true to say that I believe Thomas saw the risen Lord because I believe Jesus did raise from the dead as it is to say that I believe Jesus did raise from the dead because Thomas said he saw Him. Both are vitally important to my belief; and they exist in a sort of dialectical support of one another. In any event, my belief is not at all so simple as “if Thomas says it, I believe it.” Thomas’s saying it could never be enough for me (or for any human being trying to understand his experience with intellectual integrity); and if God had not blessed me with other critical insights which render the story of the resurrection plausible, then I could never have come to believe on the basis of the disciples’ testimony alone.
The inversion that has taken place between the first-century believers and now is interesting when you think about it. We have a hurdle to belief that they did not have, but they had a hurdle to belief that we do not have. Our hurdle to belief: we have not seen the risen Jesus for ourselves. The first-century believers did not have that problem; they saw him with their very own eyes. Their hurdle to belief: though they saw him with their own eyes, they were not prepared to understand easily how the resurrection could be or what it could mean. (Note 2)
The hurdle for the first-century believers was to find plausible in the first place the fact that the Messiah sent from God would come to humiliation rather than victory, that He would suffer and die rather than assume His power and authority as King. As a reading of the New Testament attests, this was a very difficult obstacle to the belief of those first-century Jews. They did not immediately understand how it all was supposed to work; what God was up to; nor how it all was consistent with the promises He had made through His prophets down through the centuries. They struggled with these issues and were eventually able to get past the apparent implausibility of the gospel. Searching the Scriptures, they came to see how utterly fitting and how entirely consistent with what God is up to the story of Jesus actually is. (Note 3) They left their thinking, their arguments, their understanding, and their wisdom to us as a legacy. That, in large part, is what the New Testament is—their hard-fought understanding as to how what God did in and through the events of Jesus’ life all makes sense.
As a consequence of this legacy, we have an advantage the first-generation believers didn’t have. If God has given us the eyes to see life and reality as it truly is—so that we are open to the truth at all—then in the New Testament we are given a true and adequate account of exactly what God is up to; and, therefore, we are given an account of exactly how Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and resurrection fit into the picture of what God is up to. We are in a position to judge for ourselves the plausibility and likelihood of the Easter story apart from ever having heard of Thomas or Peter or John or Mary. If God blesses us with the “eyes” to see how true the Easter story has to be, and we then hear a consistent, coherent, and realistic story of Thomas sticking his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ side, we can say, “Oh sure, that undoubtedly did happen. Why would I doubt it?”
The first-century believers had the advantage of knowing—beyond any reasonable doubt—that the events of Easter did occur. They had the disadvantage of not being able to understand immediately what the events meant and how necessary it was for them to occur. If God has cleansed our hearts of the numbing effects of sin and rebellion, then we have the advantage—with the help of the New Testament—of understanding clearly how true the story of Jesus has to be. We have the disadvantage of not being able to say from direct experience, “These things did occur; I know; I saw them with my own eyes.” For both the first-century believers and us, however, the advantage God gives is able to overcome the disadvantage. Because they could not—with integrity—deny the facts of Easter, the first-century believers were able—against tremendous obstacles—to come to an understanding of the meaning of Easter. Because we cannot—with integrity—deny the meaning and therefore the inevitability of Easter, we are able to believe—on what would otherwise be less than adequate evidence—the facts of Easter.
A Paradigm of Realistic Faith
I had a friend once who attended a healing seminar put on by the Vineyard movement. We had a conversation in which he described to me a miracle that he had “seen” take place at the seminar:
“There was a woman there who was born without any toes on one of her feet. This guy prayed for her healing, and right then and there her foot grew toes. It was a real miracle.”
“Really!” I responded. “Now that’s an impressive miracle. A little more substantial than getting over a headache.”
“Did you actually see this happen?”
“Well, no, I didn’t personally. A friend of mine who was at the seminar—he saw it.”
“Well, did your friend actually see with his own eyes the toes grow on the woman’s foot?”
My friend wavered, “Well, uh, let me think. What did he tell me? Uh, I think he. . .well, I mean, sure, he must have. I mean, how else would he have known what happened?
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t know if your friend had actually seen the foot without any toes and then saw the toes grow, or if he just saw a foot with toes on it at some point and was taking another person’s word that the foot used to be toeless.”
“Well, now that you bring it up, I don’t actually know for sure how he knew—I mean, I don’t actually know whether he saw it with his own eyes or not—but he must have had a good reason for believing what happened. I can’t imagine him telling me that he knew it happened if he didn’t have a good reason for believing it himself.”
The conversation went on, but this is enough to illustrate what I want to talk about.
Unlike my friend, I did not find myself at all able just to take his colleague’s word for what had happened. I was not inclined just to assume that whatever reason he had for believing in this miracle, it must have been a good enough reason. There are lots of reasons why people might believe all kinds of things. Not all of them are “good enough” reasons. As for me, there are some things I cannot believe merely on the basis that somebody told me it was so. This miracle was one of those. Reminiscent of Thomas (in John 20:24-29), I could very well have said “unless I see directly with my own eyes a toeless foot and see directly with my own eyes a moment later that same foot with real toes on it, I will not believe.”
Why am I telling you this story? As I mentioned in my first reflection on Thomas, the Gospel accounts do not present him as a spiritual villain, a man weak in faith who displays a hesitant, doubting attitude much to be avoided. On the contrary, Thomas gives expression to an attitude which all of the disciples had and one which Jesus does not condemn, correct, or rebuke. (Note 4) Jesus does not begrudge the disciples the evidence of His hands and sides; He invites them to make sure. He invites them to convince themselves and then believe. (Note 5)
The lesson for us is this: it is vitally important that we believers exhibit the hard-headed realistic rationality of the first-generation believers like Thomas, and not the gullible, wishful-thinking of many modern day miracle-seekers.
Why was my friend so easily convinced of the reported miracle at the seminar he attended? By the evidence? Clearly not. He wasn’t even clear on what the evidence was—or even if there was any evidence at all. He explicitly announced to me that he just assumed there must be evidence. But clearly, then, the evidence was not the reason why he believed.
My friend believed because he wanted to believe. My friend believed because he had already been persuaded by miracle-seeking theology that the world he should expect to live in is a world where the miraculous is mundane. According to this theology, if and when God is at work, there will and must be dramatic shows of unusual power on every hand; if not, then God is absent or, at least, silent. For believers who are really submissive and obedient to God, God will be neither absent nor silent; He will make His presence known through unusual works of supernatural power.
Whether or not this theology is true, it is what my friend had come to believe. Hence, it formed his expectations before he even heard the story of the woman’s foot. He did not believe that her foot was miraculously healed because of the evidence; he believed it as a matter of course. His theology told him that such things happen—they happen all the time—so why not this time? Sure it did.
Now why did my friend embrace such a theology and hold such expectations? Because the theology is true? That is, of course, logically possible. But I don’t think so. (I do not think so for a host of reasons; the issue, however, is too large to discuss in this brief article.) My friend embraced such a theology, I submit, because he preferred the imaginary reality presented to him by that theology rather than the actual, objective reality that truly is. He did not want a gospel that allowed people to suffer and be deprived of health. He wanted a gospel that promised—at least as a significant possibility—deliverance from every pain and every tear. One thing, however, has become clear to me through years of Bible study: such a theology is an awful, diabolical distortion of the true gospel. But my friend embraced it nonetheless; for that is the one he wanted to be true.
My point here is simple: we need to avoid vigorously and assiduously the wishful thinking that motivates so many Christians’ beliefs. What we believe, in the context of our faith, must be grounded in something other than what we desire to be true. With the hard-headed rationality of Thomas, we must refuse to believe something that we have not—at some level, or in some sense—”seen” for ourselves. Whether we have seen it through the study of the Scriptures, through our own experience, or through a combination of both, we must not believe something if we have not seen it. We must never be willing to believe without any evidence at all. For if we do, we open ourselves up to deception and wishful thinking. If I believe without evidence, I do so because I want to believe; I would much prefer reality to be a certain way, so that’s what I will believe reality is. This is no attitude for the Christian to have. The true Christian is a lover of truth. The true Christian wants—before anything else—to believe what is true. To reject truth in favor of reality as I would prefer it is the epitome of unbelief.
It is a virtue of the foundations of the Christian faith that the first generation of believers did not believe in the resurrection because they wanted to believe in it. Their confession that Jesus is risen was not a casual confession—”Oh, wow, far out, Jesus is back! Isn’t that cool?” It was a confession that shook all of their prior assumptions apart and turned their worlds upside down. They did not accept it lightly; they only finally accepted it when they no longer had any choice, when they were compelled by the evidence of their own eyes. But they fought it; they resisted it; none of them could believe it only on the word of someone else. Each of them believed only as the evidence of Jesus’ being alive became undeniably present to their own eyes. They accepted it only when to deny the reality of the resurrection would have been to deny the very possibility of knowledge itself.
This first generation of Christian men and women, therefore, were not wishful thinkers. They did not even understand at first the significance of what they were seeing with their own eyes. (Note 6) So clearly they were not constructing reality as they wanted it to be. They were hard-headed realists who came to terms with the objective reality of how things truly are. And how are they? Jesus really is risen; the Messiah sent from God really did suffer and die, only to be raised from death; and his death and resurrection really was the thing God did in order to bring life to a dead world.
May the version of Christianity we embrace always be soberly realistic, like that of the first generation of believers. May I never use my Christianity to run off in a flight of fancy. May I truly long for the salvation God is really in the process of giving, and not wander after a different salvation I think I would prefer.
(1) With the possible exception of John, who in some respects appears more ready and willing to believe the resurrection (see John 20:8), all of the disciples—the men and the women—appear reticent, hesitant, doubtful, and afraid to believe that Jesus has been raised. In one account, the disciples are hesitant to believe in the risen Jesus even while Jesus is standing among them talking to them. They are not sure whether they are seeing a resurrected Jesus or a ghost. (See Luke 24:36-43.) In every case, it is their eye-witness observation of Jesus Himself raised from the dead that forces the disciples to acknowledge the reality of the resurrection. None of the disciples were unhesitatingly willing to believe merely on the basis of eyewitness testimony. (See Mark 16:11, 13 and Luke 24: 10-12.) (Back to text)
(2) See John 20:9. After Peter and John have seen for themselves the empty tomb and are to one degree or another prepared to accept that Jesus may have been raised from the dead, John writes, “But as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” (Back to text)
(3) This is exactly what Jesus Himself was showing the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). Luke writes, “And he said to them, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” [Luke 24: 25-27, emphases mine.] (Back to text)
(4) Jesus did rebuke the disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart (see, for example, Luke 24:25-26 and Mark 16:14), but His rebuke is not elicited by the fact that the disciples wanted and needed evidence as the foundation for their belief. Rather, Jesus rebuked them because of the slowness with which they came to belief even when they had received ample evidence. (Back to text)
(5) For example, look in the encounter recorded in Luke 24:36-49 at the tender, caring, and sympathetic way Jesus responds to the disciples’ hesitancy to believe. He invites them to feel the nail holes in His hands and feet and to assure themselves that it really is He. (Back to text)
(6) John 20:9 (Back to text)
Copyright June 1994 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.