Believing in John 20-21

Believing in John 20-21 July 8, 2019

I should have realized it when I read that the disciple found the tomb with Jesus’ body no longer in it, and believed, but still did not understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

I should have realized when I wrestled with the problem that the blessing pronounced on Thomas can be construed as praising gullibility. Was the author of this Gospel really advocating belief without evidence? Could he not see how dangerous that was, and that it allowed one to believe not just what he hoped they might, but also anything else?

In the end, what helped me see that the story can be understood differently was…”it.”

In the New International Version, Thomas tells the rest of the Twelve that unless he verifies the wounds (presumably to confirm that this is genuinely the same man, Jesus) he will not believe it.

I was curious, so I looked at the Greek text. And it wasn’t there. I mean, “it” wasn’t there. The word “it.” The text simply depicts Thomas as saying that unless he verifies the wounds, he will not believe.

Could that mean he won’t have confidence? That he won’t trust rather than assent to propositions?

Think about the implications of what Thomas says in that context. Did he really think that a resurrection body would have the wounds acquired during one’s life? Perhaps he did. Perhaps he thought this simply meant that Jesus had not in fact died, that he was back because through some miracle the crucifixion hadn’t managed to kill him in actual fact. But most likely, the focus is on Thomas wanting to verify that the person that the other apostles saw, whether alive in the present age or having entered the age to come, is really their lord and teacher and not some imposter that doesn’t deserve their trust.

Trust is the primary meaning of the word that most English Bibles render in terms of “faith” and “believing.” In this context, though, Thomas probably didn’t doubt that the disciples had had someone come to them claiming to be Jesus. But wouldn’t some people happily mock them and pretend to be their Lord, to show just how foolish and gullible these people are?

Thomas would not give in to the would-be mockers. He wants to know who he is dealing with before he trusts them. And rightly so. He wants to know that he isn’t dealing with an impostor, and according to the story, Jesus honors that desire, while acknowledging that what Thomas is depicted as having the opportunity to do, will not be an option for others yet to come.

When the author of the Gospel of John depicts Jesus as pronouncing a blessing on those who have not seen and yet have trusted, the point is not that Thomas was wrong to want to verify that he was in fact placing his trust in Jesus and not someone else. The point was that future Christians would not have the same opportunity. For those who can find it in themselves to trust in God and in Jesus even though they are not in a position to verify wounds inflicted by crucifixion, the blessing is so much greater. But it is important to emphasize that that blessing is not on those who assent to propositions without evidence, but those who trust in God when they find themselves in those inevitable situations in which tangible evidence is not available to settle matters.

There are all sorts of other questions that we could and probably should ask about the narrative. Are we to understand that it was the disciple whom Jesus loved who told the others about details such as Jesus’ side being pierced? In the Gospel of Matthew, in which they go to Galilee and see him there, such information would not have reached them even if Jesus’ side had been pierced as the Gospel of John alone claims.

Of related interest:

Richard Beck writes, “It seems that heaven hasn’t given us a strict rule book to follow. We have to make decisions as we go, making choices about what is or isn’t a sin, what should be bound or loosed. Heaven then follows our choices.

That seems crazy to us, God waiting on us to make a call. But that seems to be the situation we’re in.”

We talked about this text in my Sunday school class recently too.

Elizabeth Felicetti writes:

I regularly preach to my congregation that many Episcopalians doubt, and that the Episcopal Church is a safe haven for doubters. From my perspective as an Episcopal Christian, this dates back to Queen Elizabeth, who told Catholics and Protestants that they could believe what they wanted, but that all would worship the same way using the same prayer book. I would argue that worship is essential in the Episcopal church, not belief.

Bob Cornwall preached a sermon about true faith.

AtheistRev pushed back against notions that faith is a virtue or that atheism requires faith.

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  • Gary

    “The point was that future Christians would not have the same opportunity.“

    Exactly. Considering that the author of John was writing many years after the actual event, and the author was probably not really an eyewitness of anything, the author was “shaming” the current Christians that had doubt. I believe Elaine Pagels’ description of John being the only Gospel that effectively “shames” Thomas – that is, three times has rather negative comments about Thomas and his doubt. In one case, even going so far as to imply Thomas wasn’t around when the other disciples received the Holy Spirit. So the author of John was rather mean-spirited himself.

    • Gary

      I should clarify regarding “it”.

      “he will not believe it.” The resurrection?

      “he will not believe.” The religion in general? I think this version, leaving out “it”, makes more sense for the author of John. He was chastising current members that had doubt. And, probably also Gnostic, or other variants, that deviated from the material, blood and flesh aspect of their particular religion/resurrection. Feeling blood and flesh wounds wasn’t exactly a good experience (sticking your finger and hand into the wounds? Ouch!)

  • John MacDonald

    AtheistRev pushed back against notions that faith is a virtue or that atheism requires faith.

    I’m not sure if atheism requires belief without evidence or not. For instance, on the one hand, I am a convinced “Zeus Atheist,” and I don’t see this position as being a kind of faith. On the other hand, other “atheistic-type-claims” seem to involve guessing in that there are positive claims about the “absence” of something that we really don’t seem to have evidence about one way or the other (eg., God created/didn’t create the Universe). I’m not sure?

  • Am I splitting hairs here? Matthew tells us that zombies rose from their graves and walked around Jerusalem. John tells us that Thomas doubted and then, a week later, he finally saw Jesus.

    But the entire city would’ve been buzzing about the many risen dead. You didn’t need to see Jesus to know that many dead had risen. Thomas wouldn’t have needed to see the wound evidence from Jesus to believe that he had risen. He would’ve stopped doubting long before finally meeting the risen Jesus.

    • I wouldn’t say you’re splitting hairs. But you are blurring two narratives. I don’t see any reason to think that readers of John would know the story that Matthew concocted, do you?

      • Yes, I agree. But then where does that leave the historicity of Matthew? Or the gospels as a whole?

        • Matthew is patently unhistorical on this detail, which is clearly an addition to Matthew’s source. That has no real bearing on its own on the historicity or otherwise of other information in the text.

          • You’re not saying that the walking dead story in Matthew was added by a later copyist but that the author of Matthew embellished an earlier source? That’s easy to imagine, of course, but how have scholars concluded this? Is it just because it’s crazy or does it appear to be coming from a different school of thought? Or perhaps other reasons?

          • Because Matthew used Mark. I’m not referring to other hypothetical sources. Just this basic point that is hopefully common knowledge among anyone discussing the Gospels, whether as history or as literature.

          • Helpful, thanks.

    • Gary

      I think it gets to motivation of authors versus describing real events/semi-real/not-so-real events, regarding “Thomas wouldn’t have needed to see the wound evidence“.

      https://news.stanford.edu/news/2004/february4/pagels-24.html

      • Interesting article, thanks. I’d never considered that the Doubting Thomas story might’ve been a factional thing.

        Tangent: infighting seems to explain Peter’s 3 denials of Jesus. I often read the apologetic, “Why would the gospels embarrass Peter like that? You wouldn’t put in embarrassing details like that unless they were true!” But of course if you don’t much like Peter (and prefer Paul instead), showing Peter in a bad light might work just fine.