READ : John 20:24-29
Seeing is believing, or so people say. But is that necessarily so?
“Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
John 20:24-29, NIV
It seems that a person’s personal beliefs are mostly determined by his or her culture and upbringing. So most people who are Christians were raised in Christian families, just as most Jews or Muslims or Hindus have been brought up in those faiths. Isn’t religious belief largely then a product of one’s environment and early training? Early on most of us learn to accept our culture’s world view and value system. We believe certain things because others believe the same things, and later in life we rarely radically change those basic inherited patterns of faith.
Yet Christianity says that everyone will be judged on the basis of their beliefs; specifically, on whether or not they believe in Jesus Christ. But what are the chances that someone who was born and raised in, say, Saudi Arabia will ever believe in Christ? So how could God in fairness judge them for not doing so?
These are serious questions, and we ought to take them seriously. But let me say this: I don’t believe that faith is merely the result of social conditioning. Whatever role our upbringing might play in the beliefs that we eventually hold, living faith is more than a product of heredity and environment. In the last analysis, faith in Christ is a gift from God, made available anytime, anywhere, to anyone who desires and asks for it. It is offered to those who have a genuine encounter with the risen and living Lord, Jesus Christ.
Let me tell you about one such man. His name was Thomas; we know him as “doubting Thomas.” Thomas was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples who was hit especially hard by the Lord’s death. When he heard the report of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Thomas simply couldn’t believe it – until one unforgettable evening when doubting Thomas encountered the risen Jesus Christ personally, and his doubt was turned to faith.
This encounter took place on a Sunday evening one week after Jesus rose from the dead. Ten of Jesus’ original twelve disciples had seen Jesus alive on Easter Sunday and the evidence of their own senses convinced them that he had risen from the dead. But Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas hadn’t seen him and Thomas didn’t believe. As far as he was concerned, “seeing is believing.” When the other disciples told him excitedly that they had seen the Lord, he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
The following week the disciples gathered once more, probably in the same upper room where they had spent so many memorable hours with Jesus both before and after his death and resurrection. This time Thomas was present. The story introduces him as “one of the Twelve,” that is, one of Jesus’ disciples. Now, I think that’s an interesting description. Here’s a man who doesn’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, who has rejected the eyewitness testimony of all the other apostles, whose attendance record at the Sunday services of the brand new Christian church leaves much to be desired (so far he’s missed half of them, one out of two!). Yet he’s still called one of the Twelve. He’s Thomas the disciple, not Thomas the ex-disciple.
How could that be? How can someone who doubts such a basic truth of the faith not only still be considered a disciple but still keep his place as one of the elite Twelve? When you stop and think about it, maybe that’s not so shocking after all. The other disciples hadn’t exactly distinguished themselves so far as lions of faith and courage in the days immediately after Jesus’ death. Every one of them was weak and faltering, and capable of denying or deserting their Master. When some of the women among Jesus’ followers first went to his tomb and then returned with the fantastic story that Jesus had been raised from the dead, his male disciples flatly rejected their report. So Thomas wasn’t all that different from the rest.
The fact is, you don’t have to have perfect faith to be a Christian. It’s all right if you have doubts and difficulties – you can still be a real follower of Jesus Christ. Absolute, unswerving confidence is not a requirement for membership in the company of Christ’s disciples. Being a believer doesn’t mean you never question anything. Have you ever lain awake at night wondering whether or not it’s all true after all? Have you ever asked if there really is a God, or if Jesus Christ really is alive? Is the Bible actually trustworthy? Well, if you’ve done that, you’re in good company because believers ask those sorts of questions all the time.
“Wait a minute!” you say. “Let me get this straight. If a Christian can still have doubts, including doubts about some very important points of the Christian faith, then what makes somebody a non-Christian?” In other words, how do you tell the difference between a doubting believer and an unbelieving doubter? Well, I think part of the answer is found in one’s basic desire or orientation. Do you want to believe in Christ? Are you seeking him? Do you genuinely long for a stronger faith? Christians are those who say to Jesus along with the man in the Gospel, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
A second part of the answer involves the sort of doubts you struggle with. Thomas’s doubt wasn’t so much head doubt as heart doubt. His doubt wasn’t primarily intellectual in nature; it was deeper and more personal than that. Though he was skeptical, Thomas was not cynical. There is a kind of doubt that really exists on the surface. It doesn’t cause those who entertain it any deep pain or trouble, nor is it something they earnestly desire to overcome. This sort of doubt characterizes the uncommitted and serves as an excuse for their non-involvement. It’s the doubt of permanent fence sitters. It’s the doubt of people who love to argue and find difficulties but who don’t really want answers, people who claim they can’t believe but whose real problem is they don’t want to believe because faith would require that they eventually bow the knee like Thomas did.
That was not Thomas’s kind of doubt. His doubt didn’t come from intellectual questions. It rose out of his sorrow. The reason Thomas found it difficult to accept the testimony of his friends to Jesus’ resurrection was because Jesus’ death had so utterly devastated him. From what we learn about him elsewhere in the Gospel, Thomas seems to have been one of those people whose basic temperament was gloomy. He may have been melancholic by nature, but he wasn’t coolly detached. He wasn’t neutral. No, Thomas’s was the doubt that is prepared to be overcome if only it can believe that the news that seems too good to be true really is true after all.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
So this is the first thing to note: despite his doubts, Thomas is still a disciple of the Lord. And here’s another fact. Despite Thomas’s doubt, Jesus still loved him. When he came again into the midst of his gathered followers, he came especially for Thomas’s sake. His first words to them in that upper room were, “Peace be with you” – not “Peace be with you, except for Thomas who doesn’t believe in me and therefore I’m angry with him and intend to punish him.” No. Jesus sought Thomas out. He went to him; he didn’t make Thomas come to him. He readily offered to him the proof that Thomas had demanded. “Put your finger here; see my hands,” Jesus said to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
What an amazing thing! The risen Lord invites Thomas to personally touch his glorified body. That seems to break every rule in the book. Of course Thomas was wrong in arrogantly demanding certain things before he would believe and laying down conditions before he would have faith, demanding special proof. Of course the blessing which Jesus pronounces is for those who believe even though they haven’t seen. The Word of God alone should be the resting place for our faith, not any subjective experiences we have. But in this case Jesus brushes all these things aside, comes to Thomas and invites him to touch, handle and believe.
Thomas did not take Jesus up on the offer. As someone has said, Thomas didn’t need to see the nail prints any more – he recognized Jesus by his love. Instead of examining Jesus, Thomas went to his knees and confessed, “My Lord and my God.” When he actually came face to face with Jesus, all his doubts vanished like the morning mist under the summer sun, and Thomas fell at Jesus’ feet and worshiped.
So you see, it is possible to come to genuine faith in Christ. It doesn’t really matter how or where you’ve been raised, whether you call yourself a Christian or call yourself something else altogether. The only thing that matters is whether you have encountered Jesus Christ as Thomas did. In Thomas’s action we find exactly what it is that separates Christians from non-Christians. It isn’t the degree of doubt. It isn’t how much faith you have. What defines a Christian is the act of bowing in surrender and worshiping Jesus as Lord and God. If you do that, then you belong to him; you are one of his.
ENCOUNTERING JESUS OURSELVES
The Lord Jesus Christ continues to encounter and win the allegiance of people from other cultures and backgrounds today, sometimes in dramatic fashion. Recently I met a young woman from a country in the Middle East. In fact, I was privileged to participate in her baptism. Though raised in another religious tradition, this woman had become a follower of Jesus Christ, even though it would cost her much in many ways. I asked her when and how she had decided to become a Christian. So she told me her story.
When she was a little girl, she had lost her father. She missed him very much, and one day in particular she felt terribly sad and lonely because it was her birthday. Eventually she cried herself to sleep, and that night she had a dream. In the dream a kind and wonderful-looking man approached her with a beautifully wrapped gift in his hands. The girl forgot about the gift, though, when she looked in the man’s face and saw the incredible love and compassion there. She asked the man who he was. “I am Jesus,” came the reply. She awoke with an overwhelming feeling of warmth and comfort. For years this girl treasured the memory of her dream, though being so young there was nothing she could do about it.
Some time later the girl, now a teenager, dreamed again. In this dream Jesus appeared to her once more. She immediately knew who he was. The Lord asked the girl if she wanted to follow him, and she said yes. He led her to some water, and there she was baptized. When the girl awoke, she was in her own bed – but her nightgown was soaking wet! A strange story, but that’s how she told it.
And what comes next is even more wonderful. The girl, driven by a desire to learn more of this Jesus who had now twice appeared to her, went to a church in her city. At first she was frightened and felt unwelcome, and she left. But after more than a year had passed she tried going to church again, and this time she continued to visit. She heard the Bible read and explained. She joined in prayers to the Lord Jesus. She met people who were Christians, who knew and loved Christ and who befriended her. Eventually she became one of their number, and nine years later she was baptized, not in a dream this time but in real life, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It still is possible to encounter Jesus personally today, just as Thomas did, just as my young friend did. Maybe you’re struggling with doubts yourself. Maybe you’ve been laying out conditions that you think have to be met before you could really believe in God. What would it take for you? To witness a miracle? Would you believe if you could see the lame walk or the dead raised? Would you have to actually see God himself or hear his voice? Would you need to lay your eyes upon Jesus, or touch him with your own hands, or at least meet him in a dream? If you did that, would you believe then?
You know, whenever we say, “If I could only see, I would believe,” God says, “If you would only believe, you could see.” You can prove that by doing it.