July 18, 2008

Christian Agnostic, part VI: Doubt

Sometimes I wonder if everything that will ever be thought has already been written down somewhere; we can always find precedents. For example, I just found the evolution debate in a text by Athanasius from the early fourth century. The worldview of the Christian Agnostic is not totally unprecidented. There was a man even among Jesus' disciples that was a skeptic, that was willing to voice his doubts when others were not.

His name was Thomas.

But contrary to popular belief, Thomas was not the only one who doubted. In fact, both Mark and Luke's accounts record that though the disciples are told by both Mary Magdeline and several travellers that Jesus is alive, they didn't believe it (Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:9-12). In fact, in Luke's account, it took Jesus eating and allowing them to touch his scars to convince ALL the disciples, not just Thomas (v.36ff).

But this is not about the other disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb and were amazed, according to John's account. Jesus appeared to the disciples and they believed. But Thomas is, for some reason, away from the other disciples on this particular day.

People give Thomas a hard time, I think, because he had to ask for proof. But this sort of condemnation misses something: the other disciples already had it. Proof, I mean. They'd already seen the indirect evidence: the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the strips of linnen laying empty on a stone slab. They'd heard the stories told by the women of an Angel and of meeting a mysterious Gardener, and of a pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus encountering a wise stranger. But Thomas missed all this. Why, we don't know, it doesn't say. But he's not there. The disciples tell him all this stuff, but Thomas is a skeptic, a true agnostic: "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side," he said, "I will not believe."

I think we often misinterpret this skepticism. Thomas doesn't want to just be told about the whole event by others - he wants to experience Jesus himself, to feel the wounds and touch the hole in Jesus' side where the Centaurian's spear broke open his heart after death. For Thomas, someone who seems used to getting the proof he needs in a world FULL of decievers, the experience is necessary. And I think the story of the Gospel would be less without Thomas' doubt. Because Thomas asked for proof, Jesus gave it to him - he actually appeared to him and let him touch the nail marks in his wrists, the scars on his forehead, the hole in his side. He ate bread and drank wine to show the disciples that he wasn't just some apparition, some mass hallucination, but a living, breathing, back-from-the-dead guy who was who he claimed to be.

But Thomas was the one who was honest and asked.

The rest of the disciples, I think, don't admit their skepticism. The gospels resonate with their doubt, especially Mark's gospel - he likes to talk about how the disciples just didn't get it, didn't understand. But Thomas goes ahead and voices his concerns, puts himself behind his doubt, and here's the thing:

Jesus actually answered.

Thomas' response? "My Lord and my God!" It's not a question in his mind anymore - he's had the experience, and it was all he needed. He suspended disbelief and lo and behold Jesus really was there. John talks about Thomas a lot, compared to the other gospels. I think it's ironic and somewhat telling that earlier in his gospel (ch. 11), he describes a scene where Jesus is going to go and heal Lazarus in a town where the priests warned him not to return lest he be stoned. Thomas is the one who says "let's go and die with him." Thomas, incidentally, is credited (with minor historical criticism) with the evangelization of India. There are still churches there, in the southern regions, that trace their spiritual heritage to Thomas' missionary journey. The experience of being with Jesus was what Thomas needed and it transformed him into someone with enough faith to travel farther than any of the other disciples ever did to spread the good news.

Jesus goes on to say "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." I don't think that this is a condemnation - Jesus doesn't say "you moron, why didn't you believe the others?" He doesn't get angry, doesn't reproach Thomas. Instead, he simply says "you asked and I gave you the proof. But lots of people from here on out won't get that sort of direct proof; and it's to their credit that they believe anyway." It's not foolishness to ask God for the experience - but it requires a suspension of disbelief. We have to actually seek as if God is there for this to make sense. Otherwise, as the scriptures say, it appears as foolishness. But when we have the experience, what else can we do but exclaim "it's True!" and serve Him with the rest of our lives, with the best that we can give.

(to be continued)


A. Annie said...

No precidents, just precedents.
A. Annie

Chris said...

Yep, sorry. I fixed it :)