Because you have Seen

Christians love assuming we know the answers to Jesus’ questions. This is particularly true in the famous case of Doubting Thomas. 

Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had come back to life until he personally saw the man and touched the temporarily fatal wounds. That sounds to me and many others like a perfectly reasonable attitude. Jesus obliged quite spectacularly, appearing in the living flesh and submitting to a probing physical examination. That proof was dispositive for Thomas, whose risen Lord then offered this perfectly baffling comment on the whole affair: ‘have you come to believe because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who do not see, and believe.’

The standard sermon about this event points out that Jesus condescends to offer himself for inspection, that despite our hesitation he will not abandon us. Like Thomas, we all have doubts. But (it’s often observed) that shouldn’t keep us from interrogating scripture, examining the facts, praying for guidance, seeking God.

I think there’s plenty of truth to that sermon. But it does seem to presuppose certainty about something Jesus leaves conspicuously open-ended: is it because Thomas has seen that he has believed? John’s Greek doesn’t have to be read as a question, but it can be — which strikes me as reason enough to hesitate before deciding that the answer is ‘yes.’

In fact I suspect the answer might be ‘not exactly.’ In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul points out that ‘hope for what is seen is no hope at all.’ Because, argues Paul, if you see something in front of you there’s no need to hope for it. The Letter to the Hebrews also defines belief (or ‘faith’) as confidence about something you hope for but don’t see — and so I wonder if ‘believing because you have seen’ isn’t actually a contradiction in terms. Once Thomas has seen Jesus there is, strictly speaking, no need for him to take the resurrection on faith at all. But then what exactly did happen when he touched Christ’s body?

Here is one possible answer from T.H. White’s Arthurian novel, The Sword in the Stone. When the wizard Merlyn demonstrates his astounding powers, the skeptic Sir Ector explains it all away. A parchment scroll materialising out of nowhere is said to have been hidden up the conjurer’s sleeve. The instantaneous appearance of a full-grown tree is attributed to a trick with mirrors. And when Merlyn makes the heavens pour down snow, Sir Ector, shivering with cold, is sure he has simply been hypnotised. If you don’t believe in magic, nothing is enough to persuade you it exists.

Or take an example from John’s Gospel (12:28-9). When the voice of God rends the sky and answers Jesus’ prayer, many who hear say it must have just been a convenient clap of thunder. If your belief precludes the possibility of miracles, then your prejudice will supply a natural explanation for even the most plainly supernatural occurrence.

Honestly, if a man told me he was Jesus come again, and even if he authenticated his claim by guiding my own two hands towards gashes pierced in his flesh by Roman blades and nails, I might be cynical. I might insist that I was being pranked with clever technology or elaborate prosthetics. I usually flatter myself that I have some faith. But actually, as a child of the scientific era, I don’t know what kind of evidence — if any — could convince me that I was well and truly face-to-face with my God. To my chagrin, I’m unsure whether my heart of hearts believes such things can happen.

Thomas was different. When he touched Christ he was convinced, meaning he must already, on some level, have believed it was possible for his saviour to triumph over death. He could never have seen that it was Jesus if he didn’t already believe that it really might be Jesus he was seeing. Maybe he confirmed his belief because of what he saw. But he was only able to see it because of what he believed. And so blessed was he, because though he had not yet seen, he believed he could.

The way Jesus talks, I’m often inclined to tell him he can keep his blessing to himself, thanks. Being blessed in the Gospels means being hungry and thirsty, ridiculed and exiled. Now we add to that list another dubiously desirable state, the state of believing you might see God victorious though as yet you haven’t. 

You’ve never watched someone rise from the dead. You’ve probably never witnessed anything that defies the laws of physics. But maybe you can’t shake the idea that you might. Maybe sometimes thoughts cross your mind which have a more heartbreaking grace in them than you could ever muster yourself. Maybe you wonder whether those thoughts come from somewhere outside your own head. Maybe you’ve been told there’s a natural explanation for everything, but maybe there are some moments in your life for which such explanations just don’t hold water.

This blessing is of a piece with the others. The inkling that God might live is like hunger for food you’ve never tasted, or thirst when everyone tells you there’s no such thing as water. Should you confess to such a notion, it could get you mocked and even rejected from trendy circles of casual atheism where you crave acceptance. 

Yet the rejected are blessed, and those who believe can see. If indulged, the irritating and perhaps humiliating pull towards faith will deny you worldly comfort. But it will also lead you, half-blind, towards a peace which this world cannot give. And when at last our eyes are fully opened, when we are confirmed in our suspicion that peace was always the realest thing, will we have believed because we have seen? Or will it be our faith that allows us to see?