Celebrating Easter with the Doubting Disciples

The tradition of viewing Easter as the end of disbelief can be traced back to the New Testament itself, to the Gospel of John, where Thomas, being absent when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, expresses skepticism, only to be confronted by the physical risen Jesus himself. The message of these stories, readers of this Gospel are told, is for those who come along later and do not have the benefit of such physical encounters – it is even more blessed to not see and yet believe.

Yet there is another strand, much more neglected, that also goes back to the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that the disciples travel to Galilee, and when they encounter Jesus we are told that they worshipped him, “but some doubted“. This does not seem to simply be a variation on the Thomas story, not only because the setting is different (Galilee rather than Jerusalem) but also because it happens “when they saw him” rather than “because he had not seen him”.

If we look more closely, we’ll see that the element that leaves room for doubt and at times even acknowledges doubt as a reality or a real possibility predominatesin the New Testament:

  • Paul describes his own experience as in the same category as that of other apostles, which would suggest that they were all visionary in nature (in 1 Corinthians 15, our earliest account of resurrection appearances; see too Acts’ accounts of Paul’s Damascus Road experience).
  • Mark, our earliest Gospel, ends abruptly with no resurrection appearances at all.
  • Matthew says some doubted, as we’ve already noted.
  • Luke and John, written some 50 years after the fact, are the first to introduce a physical element to the encounter with Jesus. Both have Jesus eat in the disciples’ presence. Yet both also have Jesus not (or at least not always) look like Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him. The disciples in John 21 might have asked him who he was, but did not.

None of these traditions and narratives can be said to remove doubt. Yet even though they suggest that doubt was not eliminated altogether for those who had the original Easter experiences, some conservative Christians today not only claim a higher degree of certainty than the apostles seem to have had, but make such certainty the standard of their Christian orthodoxy. If the apostles do not meet the criteria of their “fundamentals of the faith”, nor do the New Testament authors, then something is terribly wrong with this definition of Christianity.

But it should come as no surprise that some get Easter wrong. The same people generally misunderstand the crossas well. Claiming that God has said sin must be punished and that Jesus was punished in our place, they make two major errors, from a Christian perspective:

  • In claiming that God must punish sin and yet he punished the innocent in the place of the guilty, they make God unjust and a liar. For in those passages where it mentions death as a punishment, it says things like “you will surely die” (Genesis 3) or “the soul that sins will die” (Ezekiel). There’s no provision for substituting the innocent and allowing the guilty to go free. And so the penal substitution theory of the atonement is not merely unjust, but also unbiblical.
  • In claiming that God requires sacrifice, they invert the Scripture quoted by Jesus, which said that God “desired mercy, and not sacrifice”. And so in claiming that God requires sacrifice in order to be merciful, they are not merely being unbiblical, but un-Christian.

I fully expect someone to object at this point “But it says in Hebrews…” I would love to know how a point of view that allows an epistle that barely made it into the canon to override the words of Jesus may be called Christian. Intriguingly enough, Hebrews is perhaps the strongest candidate in the New Testament for representing a form of Christianity that didn’t believe Jesus underwent a bodily resurrection. It is really hard to fit a return to reclaim a body into Hebrews’ view of Jesus dying and then presenting his sacrifice in the heavenly tabernacle.

Be that as it may, the point remains that Easter is not about historical certainty. In Matthew, it even explicitly includes doubt. And by making the day a day for celebrating certainty, we risk losing one of the most important steps that may help us to experience the “resurrection power” that drove early Christianity and has continued to transform lives down the ages.

Death and resurrection is one of Christianity’s most powerful metaphors. Paul uses it in Romans 6, when he tells Christians “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NIV). Although elsewhere Paul uses language that might suggest that there is an objective reality to our transfer from one kingdom to another, in fact it is something we have to “reckon”, something that we have to take from Christianity’s most central symbolic story and make our own.

Talk of being crucified with Christ was no idle image to many early Christians. Surely the very first disciples knew there was a danger that they might share their master’s fate. Good Friday (and the Saturday that follows it) reminds us not only of victory through suffering and dying for what one lived for, but also the sense of apparent defeat and the loss of certainty that accompanies it. Yet for those of us who have experienced it, often it is that very sense of having nowhere to hold onto that leads us to die to the world, and until we do so there can be no rebirth.

I wish you a happy Easter. But to get there, you may need to experience the uncertainty the earliest disciples felt. And then, finding no certainty to cling to, may you know the powerful, life-transforming effect of letting go. It is like being reborn, like being raised from death to life.

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  • Interesting post.

  • A good post.’The message of these stories, readers of this Gospel are told, is for those who come along later and do not have the benefit of such physical encounters…’Paul seems not to have heard that message.When he was writing to Christian converts scoffing at the idea of their god raising corpses, he kind of forgets that there was a meeting expressely for the people who did not have the benefit of such physical encounters.JAMESYet both also have Jesus not (or at least not always) look like Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize himCARR’….but they were kept from recognizing him.’They only recognise him when their eyes are opened by an act of God.So how do we know that the Jesus had changed to not look like Jesus, when we are told it was the eyes of the disciples that were affected and no mention is made of any change to Jesus?Of course, their hearts had ben burning when the scriptures were being explained to them, and they should have recognised Jesus when the scriptures were being explained to them.Not of course that the author of Luke is suggesting that Christians learned about Jesus from the scriptures, and that people who did not realise Jesus was revealed to them in the scriptures were blind.

  • Steve Hays has posted a blog response to this post titled Faith, Doubt, and Disbelief.He is risen!He is risen indeed!All genuine Christians wholeheartedly affirm the physical, historical, and factual resurrection of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  • Wade G.

    Nice post. As Paul Tillich put it, “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

  • But Acts 1 says Jesus showed them “many infallible proofs” (as the King James has it), so it’s probably in the same category as John (though some may say that Acts protesteth too much).

  • james, i bet you never thought you’d get such over the top action at the poker table every single hand, now did you? those boys push all in every hand, but just don’t have the cards to hold up.

  • steph

    Even Jesus doubted, Mr Truth Unites… Jesus, and James, are honest. I bet God prefers an honest Christian 😉

  • Hey, hey, I visited the famous Triablogue just now. Yikes!

  • steph

    Yikes is right. Such arrogant certainty seems self deceiving. Like militant atheism. Puffed up ‘know-alls’ like the gnostics. 😉

  • Jesus doubted.He probably had no idea he was God, and didn’t have one of those life-changing experiences modern Christians have.Possibly Jesus wasn’t even convinced he was born of a virgin.

  • steph

    What’s your point and who are you trying to make it to? I don’t think Mark thought virgin birth and Jesus being ‘God’ (and I’m not aware of anyone suggesting Jesus is ‘converted’) was on his mind. Mark has Jesus express something like doubt near the end which seems an odd thing for the author to make up.

  • I was just recounting facts.Why would Jesus doubt, if he knew he was God and knew he was born of a virgin?Or if he had seen Moses return from the dead, as Mark claimed happen.I’m not even Jewish, but if I saw Moses return from the dead, I would be transformed.But Jesus doubted.It’s all made up, you know.The stories have more continuity errors than Crossroads (if you ever saw that British TV show)

  • steph

    Mark was dealing with different, written, traditions. Maybe Jesus doubted that he was the Messiah or that his mission to bring Israel back to God was in vain. Maybe he doubted that God would raise him up as he had predicted. You don’t ‘know’ any more than I do. If you think Mark made all of it up you should have some alternative hypothesis but you haven’t.

  • Mark was dealing with written traditions?I assume there is some evidence for that.After all, it is clear that Mark made it all up, as his story is as mythical as Pilgrim’s Progress.

  • steph

    Yes plenty of evidence for written Aramaic and even Greek sources in the Greek text of Mark. But you might have to do some reading because I’m not going to repeat it all here. But you won’t read because it’s easier for you to behave like a parrot. What’s the point? You’re not going to convince anyone because you haven’t got a convincing alternative – just “he made it all up”. Yeah right – why and how do you deal with the evidence for using different sources…Enough of my time wasted on you.

  • I wasn’t aware of any Christian Aramaic writings.Can you name some of these Christian Aramaic writings from the first century? Or a Christian who wrote in Aramaic?Where does the author of Mark say he was using sources?Now about this claim that Mark did not make up Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joseph of Arimathea, Barabbas, Judas….Do you have any evidence that they existed?I have documentary evidence that the Gospel of Mark used the Old Testament at Here So we can see him making things up.But that would involve you reading something….We can see his sources – the Old Testament.

  • steph

    Didn’t think you’d have heard of them and they’d be Jewish. Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible well enough. You’re just making it up. You don’t know what evidence is.

  • Jay

    The character Thomas in John always seems to get the short end of the stick. To my late grandmother, calling someone a “Doubting Thomas” was worse than calling someone a “mouthbreathing idiot”.That’s an unfair (and in my view virtually unsupportable) interpretation of the situation. Note that in the immediately preceding verses (John 20:19-23), when the author of John places Jesus in the locked room with the disciples, we have verse 20:After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. In this scene, the very first thing Jesus did after greeting the disciples was to show them physical evidence of who he was, after which the disciples got their happy on.Thomas didn’t seem to want any substantively different proof than the other disciples were offered, so it’s puzzling to me why he’s become almost the poster child for stubborn doubt.The words that the author fo John puts in Jesus’ mouth in verse 29 seem directed much more towards the readers of the Gospel than to the disciples in the room, which accords well with the statements in the last two verses.

  • Anonymous

    Stephen:How can you doubt Jesus? According to the standard you established in the Ehrman thread, if someone names himself and said they saw something, then that gives the thing more credibility. So if Oral Roberts goes on record as saying he saw a 50-foot Jesus telling him to raise money, that is therefore more likely than a claim from an unnamed first-century author. By your standards, you have to believe that Roberts and others have seen Jesus and the Virgin Mary.If I had a pet ferret, it would be more logical than that. If it was dead.Look, you may well be right, but you have less proof of your claims than anyone else here, so stop pretending. All you do is keep repeating the same crap. No, there is no videotape of Jesus. I can’t imagine why.pf

  • At least that would be eyewitness testimony from Oral Roberts.It would at least be evidence.But Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome, Lazarus, Nicodemus , Bartimaeus aren’t even in church history.As soon as there is a public church, they vanish as though they had never been.Only to appear in anonmyous works of no provenance, which works contains such fantasies as Jesus talking to Satan in the desert.These people are *less* well attested than Oral Roberts claim of a 50-foot tall Jesus.

  • I think that Steven is looking for verifiably authentic first-person writings by eyewitnesses. Although we do not have reason to believe that any of our earliest Christian sources meet those criteria, we do have Paul referring to leaders of the Jewish-Christian church, including Peter and James “the Lord’s brother”. I will also mention once more that, if it is unlikely that someone would invent a historical figure, and then simultaneously claim that figure is God’s anointed and was executed by the Romans, it seems even harder to explain how a purely heavenly figure (which some mythicists claim Jesus originally was) comes to be thought to be crucified by the Romans.If one argues that the cross was salvific, not shameful, to the earliest Christians, I’d say that this is because they so successfully made a virtue of a necessity. But then we have the depiction of Jesus praying for the cup to pass from him, and however much that may have been reworked with hindsight, it is hard to imagine a group that thinks of the crucifixion as the only means of salvation inventing the portrait of Jesus praying that it might not happen.It is worthwhile asking the question of why we ought to believe Jesus existed at all. But ultimately, the view that Jesus was a historical figure about whom stories and doctrines were sometimes invented involves a more straightforward treatment of some details in the sources, than the view that he was invented entirely from scratch.

  • Angel Moroni!!Sorry had to throw that in there. Steven seems to have neglected him recently.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Jesus’ crying out a recitation of Psalm 22, which starts off as a lament and resolves itself as a declaration of hope for the nations?

  • steph

    Hope is not certainty. There is his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane which would have been overheard by those close to him.

  • ‘Although we do not have reason to believe that any of our earliest Christian sources meet those criteria, we do have Paul referring to leaders of the Jewish-Christian church, including Peter and James “the Lord’s brother”.’And Paul says in Philippians that ‘Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.’Were these ‘brothers in the Lord’, all brothers of Jesus?Just how many brothers did Jesus have?Mythicists have perfectly good explanations of all of these things, while historicists struggle to explain the data.Just why does Luke/Acts omit all references to this James ever having seen Jesus ,let alone being his brother?Was the author trying to airbrush this family connection out of history?Historicists have never explained this. Often they don’t even notice it.Just why do the Epistles of James and Jude refer to James and again be silent as the grave as to any family connection?Just why did Paul insist that Jesus had been made known to the world through the Old Testament?Just how did Paul teach that a recently executed criminal was a divine being without being stoned to death within 2 days?Just why did Paul insist in Romans 10 that people had not heard of Jesus, as a preacher had not been sent, other than by Christians preaching about him?All these questions and more are ignore by historicists, which explains why the quest for the historical Jesus has failed so spectacularly.First, start with the data….

  • TERRICorrect me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Jesus’ crying out a recitation of Psalm 22….CARRYou don’t recite a Psalm by just saying the first line.That is called a quotation, not a recitation.

  • Steven, two points. First, including the whole of a psalm in the Gospel would be unprecedented, not just in the Gospels. In the rabbinic and other Jewish literature one regularly gives the first line as a way of indicating the book or passage. Indeed, the books of the Torah don’t have “titles” and are known by the first words, but obviously someone mentioning them doesn’t necessarily mean only those words.There are plenty of instances where “brothers in the Lord” could mean Christians in general. Can you provide an instance of brothers of the Lord in the plural meaning that? But at any rate, the Gospels do give indications of more than one biological brother.Luke-Acts is late, and the epistles of Jude and James are not beyond doubt as to their authenticity, and so I would hesitate to allow that evidence to trump evidence that is clearly earlier.

  • steph

    I don’t find it unlikely that Luke/Acts didn’t assume knowledge of certain things already by his audience. Mark certainly assumed his audience had knowledge of certain things which he saw no need to explain – like for example things to do with Jewish law. Therefore Luke’s audience probably already knew that James, brother of Jesus and leader of Jerusalem church, had had a vision of Jesus.

  • Chuck Pyle Pastor

    Where’s The BEEF? Where’s The BELIEF?

  • Looks like Scot doesn’t get it either :'(


    Edit: @jamesfmcgrath:disqus, perhaps this might interest you as well.

  • Funsized98

    You speak about belief as if it’s a bad thing. Why was Jesus described as our Passover lamb is he wasn’t to die for us? Why even die in the first place? You’re outright ignoring the Torah, which has God commanding an innocent, unblemished animal to be sacrificed so that they could be forgiven and atoned for their sins. I certainly encourage questioning of the faith, it in the end either cuts out the faithless or it makes our faith stronger, but you outright talk about believing with little to no doubt as if it’s bad. I don’t usually comment even if I disagree with something someone says, simply because it’s their opinion, but this I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around. Do we not celebrate a religion based on faith?

    • I’d recommend reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, which advocates understanding faith as ultimate concern, rather than as simply choosing to believe things despite lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary. The Biblical terminology tends to focus on trust rather than acceptance of propositions without sufficient evidence.