‘I Will Not Believe Unless…’

Shutting doors and locking them – powerful testimony to fear, anguish and distress. And why not? The religious authorities, in league with the Roman officials, had killed their teacher, their master. These disciples of Jesus of Nazareth had good reason to worry about themselves; after all, it was customary to stamp out at least the closest followers of a recently executed leader.[1] Of course, one might say they also had reason to be joyful, and it’s important we don’t miss this. When we bring into account the fact that Mary Magdalene and other women had already told the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected,[2] indeed that they had seen Jesus,[3] these men had every reason to be calm and confident … or is this a naïve assumption? Perhaps.

At any rate, they apparently didn’t believe the testimony of these women,[4] and instead hid behind locked doors in fear and despondency.[5] Despite all of the miracles; despite the fact Jesus had even raised the dead; despite the fact the Lord had told them again and again that he had to die but would rise again; they did not believe, and they were frightened. Maybe, though, we shouldn’t be critical; after all, how we actually know something, in terms of actually having knowledge, is a perennial question philosophers are still wrestling with today.[6] They were, at first, being asked to believe the testimony of two or three women, who were otherwise trustworthy, but this was an awfully big deal. Resurrection? It’s no wonder, really, that we have difficulty believing the historical record of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ; many people don’t believe this, of course.

Back to fear, though. I remember very well my little, 80-something year old grandmother walking around our house locking all the doors as soon as mom and dad were gone. This was back in the early-to-mid 1970s, in what was then the small town of Dothan, Alabama, during the day, in a nice and quiet neighborhood. Hardly anyone locked their doors, and my brother and youngest sister were just down the road at school, within walking distance. My parents were not far away, either, and could be home in about five to ten minutes. Our neighbors were all good, upstanding, trustworthy folks, and many of them were also at home during the day. Violent crime was almost unheard of in our community… You get the picture.

Despite all of this, however, my dear grandma was afraid, period. There was no compelling reason; she simply refused to believe everything was alright, and that she was safe. In the end, though, perhaps we have to give her more credit for rationality after all, since we cannot say with full assurance that she was safe, only that there was an high probability of safety. She did not – nor could anyone – absolutely know she was safe, but this points to the difference between knowledge and belief, does it not? Belief precedes knowledge anyway, as Jennifer Trusted points out:

All our claims to knowledge presuppose belief, for if we claim to know that some statement is true we have to believe that it is true… But, apart from certain fundamental and instinctive beliefs … which we accept as needing no justification, we must produce evidence for a belief if it is to be rated as knowledge.[7]

Did the disciples have evidence of the resurrection? They had testimony, and we might describe this testimony as veritable – according to what we read, there was no compelling reason for these men to doubt the testimony of the women – but did the disciples have actual evidence? Or perhaps we should ask, did the women have evidence to offer in order to substantiate their claims? Obviously, the women believed their claim to be true, but they were apparently not able to actually “produce objective evidence” supporting the claim, even though, according to the record, the claim was, in fact, true.[8] In the end, the disciples simply had to see for themselves the risen Jesus. Until then they refused to believe, and even after most of the disciples actually saw and spoke with the resurrected Christ, Thomas still doubted (hence the proverbial “doubting Thomas.”)

So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’[9]

It did not matter to Thomas that Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Joanna, and all of the other disciples had now witnessed the resurrected Lord; he said, “I will not believe, unless…” And down through the centuries, Thomas has come under some fairly harsh criticism as professing Christians have been taught to avoid following his doggedly skeptical attitude. This is probably somewhat unfair. Thomas was asking for objective evidence, concrete proof the claims were true. Evidently testimony was not enough, even though it came from several trustworthy sources very well known to Thomas. Is testimony enough? It would seem this is the foundation of what we as Christians believe, which, as we have already discussed, is admittedly not the same as having knowledge; still, if we need more than testimony, do we have evidence?

Well, 19th century English poet and cultural critic, Matthew Arnold, claimed that the resurrection of Jesus is one of “the best attested facts in history.” The pre-eminent English attorney, Sir Edward Clark, likewise said:

As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the first Easter day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.[10]

Thousands upon thousands of people down through the ages have died the death of martyrs completely convinced of the resurrection, and many died joyfully. Point in fact, the Church and the whole of the Christian faith-religion is completely inexplicable apart from the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As Dr. Karl Barth of the last century observed, “The apostles … spoke as men who had behind them the empty tomb and before them the living Jesus,”[11] and they were, of course, the infant New Testament Church. Dr. William Lane Craig hit the proverbial nail on the head when he said:

Without the belief in the resurrection the Christian faith could not have come into being. The disciples would have remained crushed and defeated men. Even had they continued to remember Jesus as their beloved teacher, his crucifixion would have forever silenced any hopes of his being the Messiah. The cross would have remained the sad and shameful end of his career. The origin of Christianity therefore hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead.[12]

They did believe, even eventually Thomas; otherwise, they would have remained cloistered in a locked room, at least until they could have escaped back to Galilee or somewhere safer. And then what? Would they have preached there? Would they have ever testified about Jesus? Would they have called him Lord and Messiah? No, of course not. Craig is right: There would not even be a Christian faith had Jesus not risen from the dead. This is something even a contemporary Jewish rabbi observes:

This scared, frightened band of the apostles, (who were) just about to throw away everything in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when these peasants, shepherds and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter than before Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.[13]

Is this sufficient evidence? Does this even count as evidence? I’m probably not the one to say one way or the other; however, one thing is certain: Believing and being Christian has always required lively faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”[14] There have always been objections, naturally, such as: Maybe the body of Jesus was stolen? But, then, maybe those Roman soldiers were executed for dereliction of duty, too! Because if they really had fallen asleep or fled the scene for any reason, they would most assuredly have been killed post haste! This was not merely Roman custom, but strictly enforced legal practice.[15]

No, this line of reasoning won’t do in the end. There was no body snatching, no psychotic visions, or drugged hallucinations, or mass hysteria.[16] The disciples didn’t sit down one day and decide to take the whole tragedy and turn it into a New York Times best-seller, followed by a whirlwind tour through the Empire, signing autographs and whatnot. Can one prove any of this? This depends on the criteria for proof, but even with quite liberal allowances we likely cannot prove the resurrection beyond reasonable doubt … yet, this is precisely where faith kicks in, as well as what has been called (appropriately so, in my humble opinion) the “inner witness of the Spirit.”[17]

There are a couple of other points about knowledge and belief worth mentioning before we conclude this subject, namely, the difficulty in assimilation of the idea of resurrection, and the near impossibility of knowing anything at all if the definition of knowledge is too stringent. First, we have a schemata about life, or the cycle of life. One is born, lives (however long), and then dies. Different peoples around the globe believe in some kind of after-life; in fact, most people do not believe death is simply the absolute finem vitae. None too few believe in reincarnation; however, resurrection seems more difficult to swallow – that is, that someone dead and buried could (and did) walk out of his/her tomb some days later, not only fully alive but in an altogether different type of body that defies our basic physiological understanding of the human (or any creature.) In accepting the reality of the resurrection of Christ Jesus, we are forced to assimilate an essentially different understanding of birth, life and death that includes the real possibility, if not probability, of revivification and physical transformation (and/or “glorification,” to use biblical terminology.)[18]

This is admittedly very difficult, as well it should be, which is why rejection of the whole idea of resurrection, perhaps especially in the context of this present time and our world as it now exists, is completely understandable. This in turn helps explain why salvific faith is a divine gift. People exercise faith on a regular basis, but not faith on this scale. Surely we might go so far as to say it is (almost) humanly impossible to comprehend revivification of a corpse three days following the death of that person. Obviously, though, people do believe – even if they/we fail to have what can properly be called knowledge – but there are others, just as obviously, who scorn and ridicule us for holding what they consider an utterly ridiculous belief.

This brings us to our point about the definition of knowledge, which Jennifer Trusted explains quite well:

If we do not accept the Cartesian reliance on God, and concede that there is always a logical possibility that our calculations or ratiocinations are incorrect, then we cannot even claim to know that mathematical and logical statements are true. So, if we do not permit appeal to the beneficence of God, we cannot claim to know that any statement is true, and then we have no use for the word ‘know,’ in the sense of ‘knowing that.’ It would be impossible for us ever to claim that we had knowledge that any statement whatever was true. We have got ourselves into a ridiculous position; for we use ‘know’ to make a distinction between what we regard as well-justified belief and semi-justified and unjustified beliefs. We do not want to adopt a criterion for the use of the word ‘know’ which will make it inapplicable to any situation involving belief.[19]

We might say, then, that those who scorn and ridicule us for believing in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are unjustified in their derision, that our belief is at the very least semi-justified and leads us to reasonable faith (as opposed to irrational, or blind, faith.) This reasonable faith growing out from justified (or semi-justified) belief is what St. Peter extols in his epistle to an early community of Christians, noting that “without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.”[20] Here the Apostle St. Peter is placing himself below his readers, then and now, saying in a very real sense to them and to believers today, “it is more praiseworthy, indeed, that you love the Lord whom you have not seen than to love him even as much as I do precisely because I have seen.”[21]

Besides, it really smacks of arrogance to put down someone for her beliefs as if she’s naïve, childish, superstitious or whatnot, without even seriously and reasonably considering testimony and whatever evidence she might have to justify her belief(s) as being valid and true. And even if one concludes that her belief is not true, it might still be, at the least, semi-justified – that is, we might very well understand, if we’re unbiased, why it is she believes what she believes, and we might very rightly conclude that, while her belief may be untrue, it’s not so outrageous after all. (As an aside, we should all be this humble and considerate. For my part, I cannot say, Christian though I am, that Ahura Mazda didn’t visit and speak to Zoroaster. God may very well have revealed Godself to Zoroaster… Why not?)

At any rate, as Christians we believe we have been given enough in order to believe, and so every Sunday, and especially during the Paschal (Easter) season, we confidently celebrate and praise and worship our resurrected Lord and Redeemer, Jesus the Christ. We also hear again the words of our Savior, “Do not be faithless but believing… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”[22] Christ came and suffered and died; this we believe. Christ was buried for three days and rose again; this we also believe. “And if Christ has not been raised,” as the Apostle St. Paul tells us, “then (our) faith is a delusion and (we) are still lost in (our) sins. It would also mean that the believers in Christ who have died are lost. If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world.”[23]

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[1] Craig Keener, Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 2, 1200

[2] Cf. Luke 24.10

[3] Cf. Mark 16.9; Matthew 28.9-10

[4] Cf. Mark 16.10; Luke 24.11

[5] Keener, Op Cit, 1200-1201; J. Ramsey Michaels, NIBC, vol. 4, John, 343

[6] For example, read through Jennifer Nagel, A Short Introduction to Knowledge, published by Oxford, or the larger work by Jennifer Trusted, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Knowledge, published by MacMillan. This is a field all to itself … although one might wonder how profitable it is to spend centuries wrangling about what knowledge is and how we know, when it always seems debatable whether we actually know anything at all. If we don’t, then how can we make any progress? Of course, Nagel and Trusted both handle the whole subject very expertly; their works are certainly good to read for an introduction. Cf. also Stephen Law, Philosophy, 48-64 (Published by Metro Books)

[7] Jennifer Trusted, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Knowledge, 231

[8] On criteria for “assessing whether a claim to know that a statement is true of false,” cf. J. Trusted, Op Cit, 231-232. Trusted offers three stipulations:

  1. The statement must be understood and the claimant(s) must believe that the statement is true.
  2. The claimant must be able to produce objective evidence which supports the claim; the evidence is objective in the sense that it satisfies other appropriately qualified people, as well as the claimant.
  3. The statement must in fact be true.

[9] John 20.25 ESV

[10] Both as quoted by J. M. Boice, Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, The Triumph of the King, 640

[11] K. Barth, Evangelical Theology, 29

[12] As quoted by J. McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict, 204

[13] As quoted by J. McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict, 240

[14] Epistle to the Hebrews 11.6 ESV

[15] Albert Roper and George Currie, as quoted by McDowell, Op Cit, 235-238

[16] Cf. J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, vol. 1, God, the World and Redemption, 382-385 in which Williams notes that “no record,” biblical or otherwise, “exists of anyone so much as suggesting a search for Jesus’ body.” Also, in 384n9, Williams mentions the “swoon theory” popularized by Hugh Schonfield in his Passover Plot, and notes that “this similarly would have led to a search for his whereabouts after his reported resurrection. Again, no one searched for Jesus, for the simple reason that both friend and foe knew he had died.” In other words, dead and not risen would eventually have resulted in a corpse; swooned and revived would eventually have resulted in the rediscovery of the revived and living Jesus … but the detractors (enemies) of Jesus produced neither, nor is there any indication they attempted to do so. We are left with multiple testimonies, then, of encounters with the resurrected Lord Jesus, the Christ, Son of the living God.

[17] Cf. Romans 8.16 and Gospel of St. John 15.26

[18] On schemata and assimilation, cf. Kendra Cherry, Essentials of Psychology: An Introductory Guide to the Science of Human Behavior, 100-103

[19] J. Trusted, Op Cit, 233

[20] I Peter 1.8 RSV

[21] Richard Lenski, Interpretation of Peter, John and Jude, 41

[22] John 20.27b, 29b RSV

[23] I Corinthians 15.17-19 GNT

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4 thoughts on “‘I Will Not Believe Unless…’

  1. Excellent article, Jon.. It reminded me of two very bright folks I heard of who were Jewish by ancestry: Mortimer J. Adler (philosopher, “Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica) and Robert Novak (conservative political writer, reporter, commentator) who both converted to Christianity. i had thought Adler did so through his studies alone, but found that it reported that he said once ‘faith is a gift and I haven’t received it.” He later did. I had them confused with an Archaeologist named Ramsay – William Ramsay. He set out to disprove the Book of Acts, because he thought it to be absurd in a scholarly sense. After a number of years he became convinced of the accuracy of the book and of the all the Pauline letters.

    1. Thank you, my friend, very much! Yes, William Ramsey’s work is and has been quite important. As you point out, he was an archeologist who converted to the Christian faith after researching the Acts of the Apostles and concluding it was/is valid. You’ve shared something I’ve never known before about Adler; Novak’s story I’ve heard, but not Adler’s. Thank you! And God bless…

      1. You know if you haven’t already done so, you ought to consider putting these essays of yours in another book. These most recent posting are quite good, I think.

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