Unbelieving the resurrection
by Campbell Markham | April 12, 2017
Easter has long been my top bit of the year. It is the time of crisp autumn weather. It is the time of the delicious Friday-Tuesday break. It is the time of hot cross buns and chocolate eggs. And it is the time when some Bishop somewhere writes to the paper to explain why we don’t have to believe in the resurrection.
It’s like clockwork. Every Easter an Archbishop Carnley, a Bishop Spong, or a Dean Shepherd (remember them?) will write to the paper, and—grinning photo attached—will cheerfully explain to the wider population that Christians are now sophisticated enough not to believe in something so superstitious and unscientific as the physical resurrection of Jesus. (In fact a 2002 survey revealed that a third of the C of E clergy doubted or disbelieved the resurrection.)
I lie awake wondering what they think they will accomplish by this. Do they think that we will be impressed with their “courage” and “honesty”? Do they think that the general public, relieved that being a Christian no longer means believing in Jesus’ resurrection, will flock with shouts of joy into our churches?
Does it not occur to these antishepherds that they just confirm the public’s vague hypothesis (false, as a matter of fact), that there is no real problem with staying out of the church?
Does it not occur to them that the truly honest thing, if they can no longer believe what is at the beating heart of Christian thought, would be to give up their fat salaries, oak-lined studies, and grand titles, and walk away from the Christian church? Would not the courageous thing be to cease feeding parasitically on the church, and to start their own organisation concordant with their own beliefs?
As depressing as this is, however, unbelief in the physical resurrection of Jesus should never surprise us. The Gospel of John frankly describes, explains it, and challenges it. For, long before Messrs Spong, Carnley, and Shepherd, there was Thomas, one of the Twelve.
The original doubting Thomas
Listen to John’s description of what happened on the Sunday after Good Friday, when Jesus’ was falsely condemned, scourged, mocked, stripped naked, nailed to a cross until dead, and then buried.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord (John 20:19-20).
Jesus had already appeared to Mary Magdalene, and she had already told the surviving disciples that she had seen Jesus alive. Yet they are cowering behind locked doors. Jesus does not knock and enter, but appears suddenly, his body transformed by resurrection to be able to appear and disappear at will.
Surely they turned white with fear at Jesus’ sudden appearance, partly explaining his “Peace be with you!” He displays to them the nail marks of his crucifixion, and terror dissolves into joy. The Lord is alive! Wonderfully, physically alive!
But someone was missing.
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:24-25).
Thomas was a twin, for that is the meaning of Ta’oma’ in Aramaic, and didymus in Greek. An interesting detail. Now if you were Thomas, what would you have thought about this report? What would you have said in response? Perhaps something like this:
“Now I know these men. I have lived life with them for three years. They wouldn’t lie about something this important. They can’t all have hallucinated the same thing. And they saw a physical body, not a spectre. Besides, Jesus had foretold on many occasions that he would die, and then rise to life. I should rejoice with them!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
On the face of it, Thomas’s conditions seem reasonable: “I just want to see some evidence for myself. I need to know for myself that this is not a ghost or an imposter. This is the standard of evidence I want: not listening to the eyewitness authority of others, but seeing and hearing and touching for myself.”
Notice that though this seems reasonable, that this is not the standard that that we apply in many crucial areas of our lives.
No court of law operates on this basis. No one would accept a juror who said, “Yes I agree that there is eyewitness evidence that Mr Kelly shot police Sergeant Kennedy dead; but unless I see this with my own eyes, I will not believe.”
No historian operates on this basis. “Yes thousands of people saw the December ’41 horrors of Pearl Harbour, but unless I see the Japanese torpedoes and dive-bombers with my own eyes, I will not believe.”
No scientist operates on this basis. “Yes I know Watson and Crick claimed to have discovered DNA, but unless I see a strand of DNA myself, I will not believe.”
What Thomas asked for sounded reasonable, but it wasn’t. Because he already had reasonable evidence. The fact is, he was demanding special and extraordinary evidence. Why?
The bravado of his reply gives us a clue: “Unless I see those wounds myself, and actually insert my hand into his speared side, I will not believe!” Bravado is usually a covering for something, and John shows us right at the beginning of his Gospel what lies hidden in Thomas.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it (John 1:1-5).
The last sentence could also be translated, “The darkness has not grasped it,” or “the darkness has not acknowledged it.”
The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:9-11).
The world that Jesus made did not recognise him, in fact refused to recognise him. How pathetic and wretched is that final phrase? “His very own did not receive or welcome him.”
John’s Gospel describes a baleful heart bias against Jesus. And Thomas exemplified this bias. Why didn’t he believe? The problem was not a lack of evidence. The problem was his heart. He didn’t want to believe.
The problem is not wanting to believe
There is nothing illogical about believing in the resurrected Jesus. There is nothing unscientific about believing this—if God is there, then of course he can raise his Son to life! The problem is not evidential: there is abundant reliable eyewitness evidence, and colossal circumstantial evidence, for the resurrection of Jesus.
The problem is that we don’t want to believe.
But why not? Why wouldn’t we want to believe? There is no great mystery to this. To believe that Jesus rose is to recognise his status as our Creator. It is to recognise his authority as Lord. It is to recognise that we belong to him and that we must love him and obey him.
We refuse to believe in order to retain autonomy. An illusion of autonomy as it turns out:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas... (John 20:26-27).
Put yourself in Thomas’s skin at that exact moment. He had refused to accept his brothers’ reasonable testimony. He had demanded special evidence. From stubborn pride he had shot off his mouth. And he had been stewing on this for a week.
And now Jesus is facing him. He has appeared suddenly, as though he had been in their presence the whole time, as though he had seen and heard everything. And he had.
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).
With those final four words Jesus puts his finger directly on the wound in Thomas’s soul: the wound of unbelief. He should have believed, but he didn’t want to. And Jesus’ calls him to change: to turn from stubborn unreasonable doubt, to belief.
Thomas is conquered. His rebellion is exposed and broken. He finally confesses the truth:
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
This declaration is the pinnacle of John’s Gospel, the culmination of twenty chapters of testimony and reflection. It is arguably the pinnacle of human civilisation.
Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Jesus’ response may sound like chastisement, but it is not. It is a word for the ages.
Jesus is not saying that it is wrong to want evidence. Jesus is not saying that spiritual people believe when there is no evidence. Jesus is not saying that the super-spiritual believe in spite of the evidence. Jesus is not blessing the ignorant, the superstitious, and the credulous.
Thomas had been told by the other disciples that Jesus was raised, and until the end of time every human being stands in exactly the same place as Thomas at that first meeting. We, like Thomas, have heard the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ disciples: “We have seen the Lord!”
Thomas’s absence at that first encounter was not accidental. Jesus arranged it that way, for us. We stand in Thomas’s shoes. We have heard the eye-witnesses. Thomas is us.
But unlike Thomas, we do not have opportunity to see the risen Jesus with our own eyes, or to touch him with our own hands. We are “blessed,” therefore, if we do what Thomas did not do, but should have done. We are blessed if we believe the disciples’ reasonable and reliable eyewitness testimony.
What’s at stake? Everything. You can read that for yourself in the final two verses of John 20.
It’s a beautiful time of the year. And along with the delightful Easter routine of holidays, buns, and chocolate—and in spite of the miserably routine drivel of unbelieving bishops—may blind eyes and stubborn hearts everywhere be lifted up to believe in the gloriously risen Son of God.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: thoughts and letters.