Doubting Thomas: A Response to Catholic Dave Armstrong

Doubting Thomas: A Response to Catholic Dave Armstrong March 17, 2021

Yesterday, I wrote a very short piece concerning the episode of doubting Thomas in John 20:

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, who was called [e]Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

26 [f]Eight days later His disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus *came, the doors having been [g]shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be to you.” 27 Then He *said to Thomas, “Place your finger here, and see My hands; and take your hand and put it into My side; and do not continue in disbelief, but be a believer.” 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus *said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

I will leave aside the dubious historicity of this pericope, especially given that it is merely a response to the Pauline theology of a spiritual resurrection (each successive Gospel renounces the Pauline theology more and more, with John having Thomas prove that Jesus is not just resurrected spiritually, but very much bodily too). Instead, let me return to my original point, which is just a corollary of this asserted incident: that the great St Thomas only ended up believing in Jesus’ resurrection when presented with first-hand sensory experience of it (such that the apparent eyewitness testimony of his fellow disciples was not enough).

Yet, for an awful lot of modern potential and actual Christians (and all people throughout time, from Amazonian tribespeople to someone born in Riyadh in the 1600s), there is a completely unfair distribution of evidence. Thomas is afforded far more evidence so that he eventually believes (and becomes a saint, no less) than I can ever hope for or reasonably expect. If the end result of judgement (and heaven or hell) is based on my belief decision (or in Amazonians’ cases, there is no Christian option in their “decision”), then this seems even more unfair.

Dave Armstrong, a fellow Patheoser, though on the Catholic channel, often baits me to respond, and this time I have accepted. He replied to my short piece, saying on my own thread:

Perhaps some folks will have the intellectual courage, and/or curiosity, and/or open-mindedness to actually rationally interact with my argument this time, rather than engage in crazed, mindless personal attacks, such as massively, obsessively took place in two recent threads. One person already has, which is wonderful.

This is ironic since he has, as you shall see, failed to interact with my actual points.

His defences of this are as follows:

“Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Did you notice the last verse there? The Thomas incident was not regarded by Jesus as normative, but rather, a special act of mercy that was not “epistemologically required.” Jesus thought it wasn’t necessary, and criticized Thomas at the end for his undue doubt. He did it because He loved Thomas, and we all do many things that aren’t required for our loved ones.

Irrespective of whether Thomas was somewhat chastised here, the point remains entirely the same: Thomas was afforded far more evidence, and went on to be a foundational member of the church and have some kind (one is pretty sure) of union with God, which appears to be one of the goals that God has set for humanity.

I still don’t remotely get to cross or even approach that evidentiary threshold or benchmark. All I get is a bunch of people telling me a particular book is true, amongst a whole collection of holy books and revelations from other people and cultures and religions around the world, and the assertion that this one alone is the one.

And that’s it.

I cannot be convinced by personal revelation, since Muslims and Hindus have them too. And philosophical arguments can only really get you to atheism, or deism or theism, as large umbrellas. The Bible is what gets you to Christianity.

And that is very poor evidence indeed. Unknown authors, writing in unknown times and places that we can only guess at, with unknown sources, unverified and unverifiable, writing with evangelising agendas ex post facto, with no historiographical pedigree.

It’s shockingly poor evidence.

And I can supposedly go to hell on the back of whether I choose to believe that very low-level evidence (let’s call it 5%) and St Thomas (the Apostle) gets to stroll through the pearly gates, one assumes, on the back of not believing (assuming the Gospels are true here) with a level of, say, 90%, and Jesus then reversing this unbelief (in the Resurrection, and thus Jesus’ divinity, and thus the atonement – not that he actually would have understood this at the time, I wager) by getting Thomas to poke him, and raising the evidential threshold to 95%!! (I am somewhat making these figures up to illustrate my point).

Armstrong claims my position is based on three premises that he refutes:

1) The notion that empiricism is the only way to verify or prove anything, as if there are no other ways of knowing.

2) The denial that God is already known by observing the universe, as Romans 1 states.

3) The idea that every atheist would immediately believe (and respond exactly as Thomas did) if only they had the “100% sure!” experience of Thomas: with the risen Jesus standing there, bodily, so that he could touch Him.

Thanks for putting these words into my mouth, but the first two doesn’t really apply to Thomas – or at least all equally get him to Judaism, or some theism.

At any rate, the first two are either nonsense or straw men, or both.

(3) is a false analogy since Thomas was not an atheist. Thomas has just been in godmanspirit’s ministry. Either he already believed Jesus was God (almost certainly not the case) or that he was a Messiah (much more likely, though it must be remembered that this whole event recorded here almost certainly never happened). Then, after all the crazy stuff that supposedly happened, and all the claims of his fellow disciples that this would have entailed, he still didn’t believe. (It is worth reinforcing here that the theology of this piece is not primarily about epistemology, but about the form of Jesus’ resurrection to fight off the theology we see Paul discussing with the Corinthians).

Thomas was, according to the Gospel, afforded a level of evidence I will never get, and nor will (or has) any other human, I would argue, in the history of Christianity.

Thomas got to be in Jesus’ gang, and then touch his resurrected body whilst conversing with him (God).

I’ll ignore the long tirade of articles Armstrong offers to attack my apparent sole reliance on empiricism (as if, as a philosopher arguing all day long about all sorts of things, that empiricism is my single only route to epistemological conclusions).

His claims about point (2) are pretty naive:

Romans 1:19-20 (RSV) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  [20] Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. . . .

Not only is this just asserted nonsense that also gets you to every other religion, but it has nothing to do with the point in hand: Doubting Thomas and the varied apportioning of evidence for the Christian god to all humans throughout time.

So I will ignore this and his defence of it.

His defence of point (3):

As for #3, many atheists — if not necessarily Jonathan — casually assume that pretty much every atheist and skeptic would respond as Thomas did. Jesus thought quite otherwise…

He misses my point. I am not really bothered whether I would react the same or differently to Thomas. My general point is that all sorts of people react differently to the same level of evidence, and all sorts of people get different levels of evidence. It’s all a bit of an unfair mess.

Imagine I have a class of 30 children to whom I give a test. All 30 children have different brains, knowledges, abilities and thresholds, etc. I give them a test of 100 questions, and declare that the children who fail to get 70/100 will get detention. Children who get 70 will get a special treat.

I then give them a test.

Except, I also give out different cheat sheets to everyone ranging from 0 points of help to 90 points. Each child either gets no extra help or gets some kind of leg up to getting closer to that 70 point success. Some people, like little Thomas, get a cheat sheet with answers worth 95 points. Lucky him.

Poor Alice, who is not very clever (due to her genetics and troublesome environment) gets a cheat sheet with 0 points of help, and gets 16/100 and detention.

We could actually make this more accurate: some children are given trickster cheat sheets, like our Saudi student, Mo, who gets a sheet that actually tells him wrong answers, and leaves him with 35 points less than he would have got. He gets 50, and receives a detention.

This is my analogy to explain the point.

And, in my previous piece, this was my potential theistic wriggle:

Perhaps, as a teacher, I actually take in the answers, don’t announce to anyone the results until the end of the school day whereby, after plugging their results into a matrix that calculates an outcome based on (1) abilities, (2) environment, (3) cheat sheets, and (4) their results and spits out their end mark, I enforce on them a detention or a reward.

That would need some unpicking and looks rather like some kind of deterministic algorithm, the results of which, as a teacher, I knew in advance anyway. In other words, creating the test is pointless. What it would actually look like is everyone getting the same marks since the algorithm would have to be fair: there would be no child who would have their environment, genetics, cheat sheet or anything else over which they have no control giving them an advantage or disadvantage.

The only fair option for an OmniGod designing and creating all humanity from nothing is to give everyone the same chance; and when we control for causal circumstances, this translates to the same score.

Armstrong doesn’t get all of this, it seems; he is happy merely taking the opportunity to have some pop shots:

Jonathan, like most atheists, completely overlooks the prideful, stubborn and irrationally defiant aspect of atheism (and indeed of the human race, generally speaking). St. Paul wrote about that, too…

But lest atheists (or anyone) think that therefore no atheist can be saved, this is not Paul’s position, either, as he clarifies in the next chapter:

Therefore, an atheist can possibly be saved, and there is a big biblical distinction between the not-convinced seeker after truth and the outright rejecter of God. But they can’t be saved if they know God exists (are conscious of that belief) and reject Him and His free offer of grace and salvation. How much one “knows” is obviously the key. And only God knows that for any given person. It’s not for other persons to judge that or to condemn people to hell. They don’t have nearly even knowledge to make that determination.

Lovely, but almost nothing to do with the point at hand. Thomas decided not to believe; he rejected God. But God gave him special treatment. Why can’t he do that for everyone else?

This is not about what it would take to make any given person believe, but about that some people throughout history are supposedly afforded huge amounts of evidence, whilst others suffer terribly from divine hiddenness, perhaps being brought up in Saudi Arabia or the Australian outback in the 1500s. Some get those cheat sheets with 50 extra points, others are set back -30.

Armstrong finishes off with:

Lastly, atheists manage to believe many extraordinary things without much proof (or even understanding) at all.

Whaaaaat? Examples please. Otherwise what can be asserted without evidence can be summarily dismissed without any.

Why should they place the existence of God in a category all its own? For example, I have written about how atheists in effect “worship” the atom (this paper raised such a huge ruckus that I had to do a follow-up paper to explain the nature of the satire), and attribute to it virtually every characteristic that Christians believe God possesses: it supposedly came from nothing (this one not a trait of God), managed to have the inherent capability to evolve and create and bring about everything we see in the universe, including consciousness, life, the galaxies, etc.

Nothing to do with the point at hand. I won’t get sidetracked onto why there is something rather than nothing. Why is God as a brute fact any more reasonable than the universe as a brute fact? God + universe fails Ockham’s Razor compared to the universe alone as brute fact.

These are extraordinary attributes. And why do atheists believe in them? Well, they have few ultimate reasons to explain it, but it’s the only alternative they think they have to admitting that God exists and that He created, designed, and upholds the universe. If you want to reject God: concerning Whom there are many evidences and arguments that have been rationally and seriously discussed for thousands of years, then you go instead to a blind faith position: the atom (and a larger materialism) can do anything: including creating itself from nothing (a self-evidently absurd position that science has long since rejected).

G. K. Chesterton observed”: “if men reject Christianity, it’s not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything.”

Drivel and nothing to do with my point.

All told, my point still stands and it would be nice to see Dave actually address it.

[EDIT: which he only decided to do, a little bit, in another comment on my thread, which I will address next.

EDIT 2: It seems like Geoff Benson came to the same conclusion.]


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