Faith, reason and evidence.
They still call him “Doubting Thomas” – the disciple of Jesus who became famous for demanding evidence. When the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus alive after his execution, Thomas was sceptical. He said, “Unless I see His wounds with my own eyes, and touch them with my own hands, I will not believe!”
Today Thomas’ attitude is seen in a positive light, and called rational, reasonable, scientific, or evidence – based, and contrasted with “faith”, used in the sense of believing without evidence or contrary to evidence. The basis of science is to test evidence, and build our knowledge on demonstrable facts available to everyone.
Thomas’ initial reaction was to declare the reports of his fellow-disciples too hard to accept. But events changed his position. John, as an eyewitness, recorded the meeting that changed Thomas’ life. (John 20:24-29) Jesus appeared to the disciples again, this time with Thomas present. Jesus acknowledged Thomas’ doubts by giving him the opportunity to test the evidence Thomas had demanded. “Reach out your hand, and touch my wounds!” But Jesus also said “Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas no longer needed to touch Jesus’ wounds. Jesus’ presence was enough. Thomas acted on that evidence to commit himself to Jesus, the one he had already followed for three years. Thomas declared; “My Lord and My God!” His affirmation was based on the facts he had seen, but his response was a choice, a commitment to a person, an “act of faith.”
What can we make of the story of Thomas? Something extraordinary must have happened, that motivated sceptical Thomas to spend the next 40 years of his life taking the Message of Jesus to India. And something has to explain why today there are over 8 million Christians in Kerala, India, who worship in the various St Thomas Christian Churches which trace their history back to the witness of Thomas!
The resurrection is an event beyond normal human experience, as difficult to believe then as it is today. And yet the spread of the Christian faith was based on this central fact, presented as a happening both historical and super-natural. In the book of Acts, Luke records the expansion of the “Good News of Jesus” in the years after Jesus’ death. Luke, the doctor and historian, collected the stories of the first disciples, and was a companion of Paul on his preaching journeys. Again and again, the central point of the preaching of Peter, and later of Paul, speaking to both Jews and Gentiles, was to present the fact of the resurrection as the evidence of the truth of the message.
The apostles saw themselves as “eyewitnesses of the resurrection.” Acts 1:21- 22
- On the day of Pentecost, Peter explained to the crowd what they had experienced. “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” Acts 2:32-33
- After the healing of the crippled beggar, Peter explained the source of the healing. “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong.” Acts 3:15-16
- Peter was the first to take the Gospel of Jesus to non-Jews when he preached in the house of the Gentile soldier, Cornelius. “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people but … by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God has appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” Acts 10:39-42
- After Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, he preached the message of Jesus in the Jewish synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.” Acts 13:28-31
- In Athens, Paul reasoned with the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus. “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has appointed a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17: 29-31
- Within five years of Jesus’ execution, the core beliefs of the new religion had been crystallised into a simple creed taught to new converts, including Paul. It was this; “Christ died for our sins; he was buried and rose again on the third day!” – and, as Paul wrote a few years later, – “Most of the witnesses are still alive today.” 1 Cor 15:1-7
If the resurrection could be shown to be a hoax, a delusion, or the wishful thinking of disappointed disciples, Christianity’s foundation as a supernatural religion would crumble. But we can examine the historical evidence based on the testimony of the eyewitnesses. In the same way, judges and juries in courts of law today consider evidence concerning events that have happened in the past, and form a judgement or conclusion to convict or acquit the accused.
When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he first offered him the chance to confirm the evidence Thomas had demanded. Then he challenged him to make a commitment on that evidence. If there are roadblocks to reasonable belief in the form of real questions of fact or logic, it is legitimate to ask for evidence. But there is a point when we must act on the evidence that is available and choose to commit to a journey, a relationship, a pilgrimage. Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Thomas had first hand evidence of Jesus’ return to life. He was given the evidence he demanded. But his experience and the testimony of the other witnesses, is evidence for us! Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who believe without evidence!” (Before his death, Jesus prayed for his disciples and “for those who will believe in me through their message. (Jn 17:20) We have the records of the lives of those who did see Jesus returned to life after his execution and the evidence of the impact of the Message of Jesus over the 60 generations of human history since then.
In my own journey of faith, a commitment to Jesus made as a child has been challenged at every stage of life, and is still often challenged. The bedrock of this continuing journey remains the witness of the first disciples to this Divine Man. The primary reason to continue to believe in the reality of the unseen world, the existence of a knowable God who has shown Himself as a “Heavenly Father”, the validity of prayer, the hope of a life after death, the anticipation of the setting right of evil and injustice, and an expectation of a final answer to all the hard questions we face, comes back to this intervention in human affairs by the Author Himself, vindicated in Jesus’ return to life after death.
There is a time for investigating the evidence for belief. But there will always be more questions and some unanswered mysteries. We, like all scientists, must act on the evidence we have. Avoiding or deferring a decision is also a choice!
Jesus said to Thomas, “Stop doubting – the evidence is sufficient! Now is the time to believe!”
Today, his words echo for us. “Stop doubting, and believe.”
Further reading; see “Only love believes: The resurrection of Jesus and the constraints of history.” By N. T. Wright on ABC Religion and Ethics, 17/4/14.