Is seeing believing?

Easter 2 – 2010

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who accepts our frailty, respects our desire for proof and blesses us with faith. Amen.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for all the mistakes committed by some Catholics in the last 2,000 years of the Church’s history. Included in the apology was the trial of Galileo. Galileo, who changed how we see the world, was at the time, pilloried, charged with heresy and placed under house arrest for a large part of his life.  From a twentieth century perspective, the church’s treatment of Galileo seemed to be unnecessarily harsh – especially as Galileo’s theories were not even new.

Earlier in the 16th century Copernicus had used mathematics to develop a theory that the sun was the centre of our galaxy and that the earth and all other planets revolved around the sun. This view completely contradicted a view held for 14 centuries that the earth was the centre of the universe and that all else revolved around it. Copernicus did not publish his work, but news of his theory began to circulate after his death.

Galileo began his teaching career expounding this earlier view, but based on his own observations soon became convinced of Copernicus’ research and incorporated these theories into his lectures. The church was not particularly perturbed by the theory, or by science as a whole. The problem for the church was that Galileo’s theory could not be conclusively proven. Furthermore, the theory contradicted scripture – After all, didn’t Joshua make the sun stand still and the Psalmist say that the earth was set firmly in its place?

Even though Galileo was a devout and committed Catholic and a brilliant physicist, but he could not confine himself to the limits of the time. As well as spreading his new theory as if it were proven, he attempted to demonstrate how scripture should be interpreted so that there was no contradiction between his theory and the bible. In so doing, he entered the territory of scriptural interpretation and theology – areas reserved for the church. The church of the time was not un-scientific. It was a church of the age, a church of reason not of guesswork. Galileo broke the rule by presenting theory as fact.

Theory vs fact, imagination vs confirmation, fantasy vs reality, fact vs fiction, faith vs doubt. To accuse the church of Galileo’s age of being unscientific is to misrepresent the facts. It was not afraid of knowledge, but it was concerned that knowledge be backed by reason.

The early disciples have a lot in common with the church of the 16th century. They were people of reason and fact. Even an unscientific age knew that the dead did not rise. They needed proof before they could believe. Their faith did not come all at once. In fact they took some convincing. To them empty tomb was just that – an empty tomb. On its own it was not sufficient to convince the disciples that Jesus had risen. Neither were the words of the angels proof enough. And reports that the women had seen Jesus were not sufficient to convince them.

Initially all the disciples were uncomprehending. For them it was impossible that the man whom they saw crucified could be anything but dead. They needed evidence. They needed to see and touch for themselves before they believed. Why then does John separate out Thomas for special mention? Thomas asks for no more than the others have sought and received. The women have seen, and the disciples have seen. Thomas would like to see and feel. Why then is he censured?

In order to understand the account of Thomas we have to understand when and why John was writing. John’s is the last of the gospels to be written and it is written at a time when there are no longer any eye-witnesses to the earthly Jesus or to the resurrection. He is writing for those who have not, and probably will not, see the risen Christ. The generation for whom he writes believe according to what they have heard. Whereas Luke is concerned to prove that the risen Jesus was a physical reality and not merely a vision, John is concerned to emphasise that the resurrection does not require palpable proof and that faith alone is sufficient.

Both Luke and John record Jesus’ appearance behind locked doors on the day of the resurrection. Only John records a second appearance. According to John, Thomas, absent on the first occasion, cannot believe the accounts of the disciples (just as they could not believe Mary Magdalene). He is adamant that he requires concrete proof. Jesus second appearance allows John to make the point that those who believe without seeing are in no way inferior to those who have seen. He is thus able to affirm the faith of those for whom he is writing. He quotes Jesus is as saying: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ John’s readers then are among the blessed. They are the true Christians – they believe without ever having seen the earthly or the risen Jesus. They are the Christians of the future, the model of all those who are yet to come. Faith does not belong to the first generation, but to every succeeding generation.

Today’s physicists are less dogmatic and certain than Galileo. They recognise that we do not and may not have answers to all the questions of the universe and that theories are just that – ideas about the nature of things. They are more willing to live without absolute certainty. Every age sees the world through a different lens. The age of miracle and superstition gave way to the age of science and reason. Now an age of certainty is giving way to a willingness to live with uncertainty.

If Jesus was really displeased with Thomas he would not have returned, nor would he have invited him to touch his hands and his side. The story is important not because of its censure of Thomas, but because it affirms the faith of all who have not seen.

We count ourselves among blessed, because we have not seen and yet we believe.


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