Yesterday was Easter, which as I wrote last week provides an excellent window into the core of Christianity. Christmas might be more widely celebrated in our culture today, but Jesus’ virgin birth is far less important than his resurrection to the existence, progress, and veracity of Christianity.
The centrality of the resurrection to Christianity could really not be understated. In text frequently read at Easter, Paul claims that Christians are really all-in on the resurrection: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Historically, the ideas of Christianity would not have gotten off the ground if all it was spreading was the message preached by a dead messiah-claimant. At the very least, Jesus’s followers would have needed to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.
But one famously didn’t…
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although 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, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29, ESV).
“See! Christianity is about blind faith! Jesus is encouraging Thomas that he should ‘just believe!’ How can this possibly be consistent with rationalism?” That’s the naive reading that many people get from this passage, and exactly what I’d like to address.
The weak answer is that Jesus still gave Thomas the evidence he asked for. He didn’t stonewall him, leaving him to doubt forever even if that’s not what he was supposed to do. We see God responding similarly to Gideon’s specific requests for evidence in Judges 6:36-40. But there’s a big difference: Jesus rebukes Thomas, while God doesn’t rebuke Gideon.
Let’s reopen Thomas’s case for a closer look: Should he have believed that Jesus was risen from the dead? The evidence before him: The other ten remaining disciples of Jesus, his close travelling companions for the last three years, had just simultaneously seen Jesus in the flesh and told Thomas about it. If you read a few verses earlier in John 20, Jesus offered them the same evidence of his bodily wounds from the crucifixion.
So if you are Thomas, to disbelieve is to claim that these close brothers of yours are all deluded or lying (or playing a very mean practical joke). But the more likely scenario is that Thomas had such a strong prior expectation against resurrection that he stopped listening to evidence and updating his expectations.
Taking everything into account, therefore, it was completely rational for Thomas to believe. He should have been willing to outsource the sensory experiences to his friends, especially in a day before “pics or it didn’t happen” would have been a valid response. Sure, he probably should have sat each of them down separately and asked them about random mundane details they would have etched into their memory if it was real but wouldn’t have bothered to fabricate (like, say, who was standing where), and cross-referenced their stories to make sure they were accurate. But supposing he had no reason to suspect a lie or a prank, it was irrational not to update his beliefs on the secondhand evidence he had received.
This is a much bigger issue than the interpretation of one particular story in the Bible, though. The concept of faith plays a central role throughout the Bible. Chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews gives the most stirring recollection of how God’s people have been defined by their faith. Yet I believe that many people are mistaken about the true nature of faith.
I’m not the first to think this. Here’s CS Lewis on this subject:
Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief — accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people — at least it used to puzzle me — is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue. I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue — what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants to or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.
Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then — and a good many people do not see still — was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have my down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other. (Mere Christianity, p138-139)
To clarify the discussion, let’s define blind faith as belief opposing or in the absence of evidence. My claim is that blind faith is never the sort of faith advocated in the Bible.
So what should faith really be? Jesus’s rebuke of Thomas gives us an excellent starting point: Belief without sight. Hebrews 11:1 solidifies this definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Sight is not the only form of evidence, and this is the key. Lewis’s surgeon example fits well: He believes on the basis of the credentials of the surgeon that he will be fine, even when what he sees (the mask) disagrees. Believing based on what we see is the easy way to live, but keeping in mind evidence that isn’t right in front of us is harder but more correct, and that’s why it’s commendable.
This sort of faith is overwhelmingly necessary in today’s world. We need this faith to remind ourselves that the risks of air travel are still quite small even if the news is filled with reports of individual airplane crashes. We need this faith to believe that vaccines aren’t injecting dangerous chemicals into our bodies that could make us sick or autistic. Some of us need this faith to drink Soylent for our meals even if it doesn’t look like real food to us.
Now let me argue that the positive examples of faith in the Bible are all examples of this sort of faith: belief in stronger evidence than what one can see, not belief in spite of evidence.
Many Old Testament figures heard directly from God, which is pretty strong evidence once you believe that it’s God speaking to you. Abraham didn’t just have a hunch that he should sacrifice his son Isaac to God, but God spoke to him directly. God tells Noah how to build an ark, Moses where to cross the Red Sea, and Joshua how to march around Jericho. They are all commended for their faith in following what God had said to do, which overpowered the evidence their eyes gave them.
It’s most interesting to me what happens when someone is unsure of whether this is really God’s command. Talking to the burning bush, Moses realizes that his “God spoke to me through a bush” story will not convince the Israelites. Instead of mourning their lack of blind faith, God gives Moses three signs to use, reproducible miracles (!) to convince them that Moses was sent by God. When Gideon similarly realizes the sheer odds against him being chosen to rescue Israel, he asks for two signs involving the moisture in a fleece he lays out overnight. The combined likelihood of both of them coming true overwhelms his prior and convinces him to take on the role God had meant for him.
Moving to the New Testament, a Roman centurion gets high commendation from Jesus: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” What did he do? Like many others, he asked Jesus to heal someone close to him, his servant, who was paralyzed. But unlike others, he didn’t expect that Jesus needed to lay hands on his servant or even come to his house. He inferred from examples he had heard that Jesus had authority over the universe and would be able to heal without touch. In other words, he didn’t have to see this type of healing to infer that it was possible for Jesus.
Later on, when the disciples see Jesus walking on water, he reassures them that it is him. Peter, believing what Jesus had said, initially overcomes what his sight was telling him and started walking on the water, too, once Jesus called him out. His sight was too overpowering, though, and Jesus rebuked that sight-based fear being stronger than the conviction that Peter could in fact walk on water coming from Jesus’s example and command.
All of these examples have one more similarity: They’re all talking specifically about faith in God (or Jesus) to fulfill what he had promised. Peter might have asked Jesus to invite him out upon the water, but Jesus still called him, “Come.” In this way, this sort of faith could also be called simply “trust in God.”
Of course, faith can’t be applied when there isn’t stronger evidence available to overcome our sight. This is the important distinction: It isn’t enough to just “believe” that something will happen; your faith needs to be well-placed.
I remember in elementary school seeing a slogan on a milk carton: “You can be anything if you try!” Not needing additional unfounded encouragement, my friends and I mocked this slogan, with one friend saying that he had tried turning into a chicken a bunch of times in different places but it didn’t work.
This is one of the problems I have with the two best-known film depictions of the story of the Exodus: Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Exodus has gotten enough of a bad rap from Christians that I’ll focus instead on Prince of Egypt. The main message of the movie seems to be captured in the chorus of one of the songs, When You Believe:
There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail
It’s hard to kill
Who knows what miracles
You can achieve
When you believe
Somehow you will
You will when you
While the song is catchy, that’s really not the point. The main message of Exodus is not the power of the Israelites’ belief, it’s the power of God! They did not “achieve” miracles like the plagues, but witnessed them.
The trouble comes when both of these films try to make the Exodus story relate directly to the present in some unconventional way, which to be fair is something movies often try to do. In Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott assumed that when people hear from God it is always a bit unclear and riddled with alternative explanations, leaving God’s will in a state of continual agonizing doubt even for Moses. Prince of Egypt tried to relate the divinely-ordained exodus to modern anti-slavery movements, subtly leaving God out of the picture to focus on untethered ‘belief’ as a commonality between the two.
So, why should we have trust in God? What are those stronger reasons than our sight for following Jesus’s teachings?
Here’s where we come full circle to the resurrection that we celebrate each Easter. Jesus rising from death showed his power, validating his claim to be God and hence the authority of his words.
And the veracity of his resurrection is unparalleled. This deserves a future post on its own, but there is simply no reasonable alternative explanation for the resurrection that fits what we know from history came afterwards. Might he have simply staggered out of the grave having not actually died? No, that wouldn’t inspire awe and worship by his followers. Might the disciples have secretly stolen the body? That wouldn’t explain the eyewitness testimonies and radical willingness to die on the part of the persecuted early Christians. Surely someone would have leaked the lie under such persecution. Might they have simply hallucinated? Well, there aren’t any examples of simultaneous shared hallucinations at any other point in history, and it also doesn’t explain the empty tomb. Might the story have slowly evolved over time to include an actual resurrection that wasn’t original? That runs into troubles explaining how this radical shift in message was achieved, or why the disciples even bothered to spread the message of their failed messiah.
This is why we celebrate the resurrection every Easter Sunday. We know that our faith needs reminders of Jesus’s power, conquering Satan, sin and death and kick-starting the church. We need the reminder of the conclusion we’ve already drawn (“He is risen!”) for when our emotions and moods lead us to forget.
Not convinced that Christianity is on the side of the evidence? Well, one week from today, I’m helping to organize a dialogue between two MIT professors on that very subject. We’re calling it Does Science Point to Atheism? A Christian chemist and agnostic physicist discuss God, miracles, and the evidence that shapes their perspectives. Kind of a long title, but the emphasis will be on the evidence. What convinced them of their respective worldviews?
It’ll be at MIT next Monday, April 13th, at 7:30pm in 10-250. If you’re coming, please get a ticket through Eventbrite, on the Facebook page I linked to here. Also RSVP on Facebook and invite your friends! It’ll be a great discussion starter, as I hope this post is as well.