Doubting the Resurrection - Part 1
Frequently, in the Bible, when the disciples heard the report that Jesus had risen from the dead, their initial reaction was to doubt that it could be true. Perhaps no one demonstrates this more vividly than Thomas. We are not sure why Thomas struggled so much to believe, but he certainly made his doubts clear. When other believers told him that they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas’ immediate response was, “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” (Jn. 20:25).
The account of Thomas’ struggle in John 20:19-29 provides a helpful case study for exploring the issue of doubt in our own lives. Thomas’ story gives us a platform for discussing the reasons we doubt, the way to handle our doubt, and the positive results of doubt.
In this blog entry, I’ll look at reasons for doubt. I’ll examine the other two topics (the way to handle doubt and the benefits of doubt) in future entries.
Why was Thomas so skeptical of the Easter message? We are not exactly sure, but a couple of reasons are possible.
The hypocrisy of others. Sometimes people doubt the gospel because of inconsistencies they notice in the lives of others. When believers behave in ways that contradict the faith they profess, it’s easy to question whether their message is really true.
It’s possible that Thomas struggled for this reason. John 20:19 tells us that the evening of the first Easter, the disciples (except for Thomas, who was absent) were gathered in a certain place “with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.” Their fear was understandable. These leaders were the people who had arrested Jesus and delivered him over to the Romans to be killed. These same people might easily be hunting for the followers of Christ to have them executed, too.
But then, as the disciples huddled in fear behind locked doors, Jesus appeared in the room proving that he was truly alive. The Bible says that, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (Jn. 20:20). All reason to hide was gone. Their master had conquered the grave. He had overcome death. Now, the disciples could live boldly without fear. But did they live that way? Not really. The Bible tells us that a week later the disciples were in the same house again, concealed once more behind locked doors (Jn. 20:26). They were still hiding. Their encounter with the risen Lord had apparently done nothing at all to empower them to live boldly.
Was this the reason Thomas doubted? Maybe it was. The believers who told him with joy, “We have seen the Lord!” (Jn. 20:25), acted as if they had not seen the Lord at all. It would be reasonable for Thomas to question whether they were telling him the truth when their actions did not coincide with their words.
Difference of experience. Sometimes we doubt the gospel message because we hear other Christians describe their relationship with God in ways that sound foreign to us. They speak of profound emotional connections to the Lord. They report the many ways God has spoken to them through the Spirit. They talk of their relationship with Christ in terms of deep, personal intimacy. This does not mean that what these other believers say is untrue; it’s just that it may not match our own experience. Perhaps God doesn’t relate to us in such a dramatic manner. If this is the case, our inability to sense what others describe can sometimes lead us to doubt whether what we have is real.
Christian author Brant Hansen describes himself as an analytical introvert who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form or autism. His whole life he has struggled to process the normal range of emotional and relational feelings that most people experience. In his book Blessed are the Misfits, Hansen describes the crisis of faith he faced in college when he compared his dry, emotionless relationship with God to the more passionate experience of his peers. He writes:
“Clearly, something was wrong with me. The campus Christians were pumped about their faith. They had emotional worship services. I sang, and felt little. They sensed God’s overwhelming presence in prayer, so I’d join prayer groups, dutifully waiting, trying to rein in my wandering mind, asking God to help me feel His presence. But I couldn’t feel anything. Something was amiss with me spiritually, and I knew it. Prayer felt like talking into a walkie-talkie, knowing that the batteries were dead. Maybe God gave up on me? Maybe I’d sinned too much? Maybe He wasn’t there? Worse, it occurred to me that maybe He had never been there.”
Was this a problem Thomas was facing? Possibly. In John 20:19-23, we read of a powerful encounter that the disciples had with the risen Lord. Jesus appeared and personally spoke peace to them. He invited them to view the scars he had sustained on the cross. And then he breathed on them directly, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For the rest of their lives, these disciples must have recounted the life-changing impact of this experience.
The only problem for Thomas was that he wasn’t there. He wasn’t present that day. Because of this, Thomas didn’t see, hear, or feel any of the things these other believers experienced. Did their glowing report of their encounter with the Lord cause him to question his own relationship with Christ? We don’t know, but perhaps it did.
Rebellion and sin. Sometimes the cause of our doubt is disobedience or rebellion in our lives. It’s difficult to believe when belief would necessitate repentance on our part. I heard of a campus ministry worker who learned over time to respond to college sophomores who were considering abandoning their faith for “intellectual reasons” by immediately asking them who they were sleeping with. More often than not, he had come to realize, the reason for these students’ doubts was not so much intellectual as it was moral.
Of course, we should not automatically accuse doubters of having unconfessed iniquity in their lives. To do so would be unwise and unfair. But the truth often is, when something is wrong in our lives, our hearts will try to disguise our rebellion behind the mask of unbelief. If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that none of us approaches the gospel with the unbiased objectivity of a neutral observer. If the gospel is true, it calls us to surrender control of our lives to someone other than ourselves; it requires us to gives ourselves to God. We should expect our God-resisting hearts to shout out objections the closer we come to a knowledge of God’s truth, especially if there is something in our life of which we need to repent. As Hebrews 3:13 says, it is possible to “be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
The Bible doesn’t say that Thomas doubted because he was sinning. However, Thomas’ description of what it would take for him to believe seems to betray an attitude of bitter defiance against the Lord. “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” (Jn. 20:25). Imagine how much it would hurt a person to stick your finger into their wounds. Was Thomas really that angry with Jesus? Perhaps he was. When the Lord finally appears to Thomas, his words to the disciple seem designed to target more than merely intellectual struggles. He seems to be addressing sin. His words convey a tone of rebuke: “Stop doubting and believe” (v. 27b). Was the biggest barrier to belief for Thomas his own need to repent? Maybe not. But I know that this has often been the case in my own life.
Of course, the hypocrisy of others, the differences in people’s emotional responses, and the possibility of sin in our lives are not the only reasons why we might doubt the resurrection. But they are common enough reasons to make us pause when we are doubting and ask ourselves where our unbelief really comes from. As you old-timers used to say, “You need to doubt your doubts.”
If you are wrestling with doubts about the Easter message, I invite you to read my next blog entry where I’ll explore healthy ways to deal with our doubt.