Doubting Thomas

For years, one of the things I’ve wanted most is to see God reveal himself supernaturally to a skeptical world. The Christian world is mostly divided up into churches that say God does healings and miracles of various kinds all the time in their midst and churches that say God doesn’t do that kind of thing these days. I’ve been one of the Christians on the fence: I have to admit I’ve probably never seen a real example in my own life, but I try to remain open to the possibility.

In recent years, it’s shaken me on occasion that God hides himself so completely. I want to have faith, but I want it to be real faith in things God is really doing, not just a kind of made-up wishful thinking.

Through the years, a few of my friends have claimed to have experienced overt manifestations of God’s power in various ways. The question is, what am I to do with these reports?

When it comes to relative strangers making such claims, I am frankly skeptical. I think there are a lot of people out there who are just faking the supernatural because of what they can get out of it.

In the case of my friends, I know them well enough to judge their character. I know (in any reasonable sense of the word “know”) that they aren’t charlatans.  Still, sometimes I think my friends were confused or exaggerating. One said God healed his eyesight, but a week later he was wearing his glasses again. I don’t think he was deliberately lying; he just got carried away in the moment and a week later reality reasserted itself. Sometimes they took relatively ordinary events and assumed they were miracles. God “showed them” some secret bit of knowledge about the future, for instance – when in fact, all that happened was that a thought came to mind which later turned out to be true.

What confused the issue further was that many people who had such experiences developed doctrinal views with which I strongly disagree. I decided that even if the things that they said happened to them, they were drawing the wrong conclusions from those experiences.  It became important to me that I could accept someone’s experience as real without having to accept their interpretation of that experience as accurate.

It’d been years since I moved in charismatic circles, so I hadn’t talked to anyone I trusted about things like this for quite a while. This week, though, I had the opportunity to hear from a believer who claims to experience the manifestation of God’s supernatural power frequently in her life. She described at length what it feels like to have God speak or heal through her. What I appreciated is that although she has a definite interpretation about what God is doing and why, she didn’t editorialize much. She just reported. And I realized that I do believe her reports. The things she says she experiences, she really does experience.

Furthermore, if I were to experience the same things, those experiences would convince me that God was speaking and healing through me. I wouldn’t believe everything she believes about them, but I would believe that much.

Whenever I used to hear reports like this, they renewed my hunger to have God do the same things through me, so it is natural that this week also I wondered if I needed to be more open to the power of God. After all, it seemed funny to believe God does miracles and not expect to see them in my own life. Or, put the other way around, it seemed funny to admit I didn’t see miracles in my own life and then be willing to believe her.

The next day, though, I read the passage about “doubting Thomas”, and it took on a whole new light:

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord …

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (John 20:19-20, 24-29)

Jesus showed up to the other disciples, but Thomas was missing. When they kept trying to convince him of what they’d seen, he didn’t believe. He said the following:

 “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

I always used to read this with the emphasis this way:

 “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

In other words, Thomas was more interested in actual sensory evidence than the other disciples. It wasn’t enough for him to hear about it, he wanted to see it. And it wasn’t really even enough to see it, he wanted to touch Jesus’ wounds.

This may indeed have been the emphasis Thomas used when he said it. But when Jesus showed up, and invited Thomas to put his hand in the wound (rebuking him mildly at the same time), Thomas doesn’t seem to have needed to. Now that he’d seen Jesus himself, he was ready to believe right away. The difference was that this time it was Thomas who was experiencing the presence of Jesus.

In other words, regardless of how he said it, Thomas’ really meant his initial objection with this emphasis:

“Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

Thomas’s doubts weren’t based on the difference between hearing and seeing, they were based on the difference between other people’s experiences and his own. Thomas trusted his own experiences; he just didn’t trust other people’s.

Jesus concluded by saying, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” In other words, blessed are those who were willing to believe on the basis of others’ testimony what they themselves have not experienced.

This fits with the message of Scripture elsewhere. During the time of the Exodus, God did great miracles. A couple of generations later He did none. Yet He told the generation of the Exodus over and over, “Tell your children what happened to you, so that they will believe in Me.” There are apparently some people who will personally experience God’s demonstrations of supernatural power and others who will have to decide whether to believe based on what they are told.

I believe in the value of first-hand evidence. Hearsay isn’t good testimony. But even in a courtroom we don’t insist that the jurors see everything for themselves! My legitimate desire not to be taken in very quickly becomes the presumption that I am the only fit judge of reality.

The point is, I trust my friends. I believe they’ve had the experiences they say. If I had the same experiences, I’d interpret them as God’s demonstration of His power in my life. Therefore, I can believe based on the fact that He has shown His power in their lives. That should be enough for me. Surprisingly, I find that it is enough.

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