Seeing and believing: Lessons from “Doubting Thomas”
On the second Sunday of Easter, Anglicans traditionally reflect on Jesus’ appearance to so-called doubting Thomas. Richard Dawkins once proposed the apostle Thomas for the role of patron saint of science, as the only disciple that required proof of Jesus’ resurrection. He levels the claim, “religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops.” Is this assessment fair?
Seeing and believing are prominent themes in John’s Gospel. By the time we reach the account of doubting Thomas in chapter 20, these concepts have been foreshadowed several times. In the opening chapters Jesus calls the first disciples to “come and see.” Philip invites Nathaniel to “come and see” a few verses later. The Gospel is packed full of mentions of testimony and “signs” bearing witness to Jesus’ identity.
Thomas’ request for tangible evidence of the risen Lord leads to his declaration, “My Lord and My God”. He is the first disciple to make this explicit confession, a high point in John’s gospel account.
Commentators point out that Thomas’ journey towards seeing and believing has not been a one-off event, but rather a progressive journey in the face of mounting evidence. Historian of science, Thomas Dixon, and Professor of Physics, Wilson Poon, have both drawn parallels with the modern scientific method which depends on eyewitness accounts and the accurate testimony of others.
According to Dawkins the story is told so that we should admire not Thomas, but the other disciples, “whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence.” What is wrong with that? Well, first of all, the other disciples believed in the resurrection not through blind faith, but because they saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes.
The suggestion that “blind faith” is being applauded in this gospel account does not stack up. John’s intention is to set out to provide an account of “signs” and first-hand evidence with the goal, “these are written so that you may believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). Dixon goes on to suggest that Thomas’ “sin” was not, in this case, a failure to believe, but failure to trust the credible testimony of reliable witnesses.
Dixon and Poon both highlight the importance of trustworthiness in method, peer review and publication to scientific progress. This chimes with John’s conclusion in chapter 21: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things…and we know that his testimony is true.”
Modern science requires that we take scientists at their word- however this is no blind leap either. Much of following the science demands that we who have not seen believe based on the credible evidence of others, and in this sense, the Christian believer and the scientist find themselves in more similar territory than Dawkins suggests.
Dixon T. (2013) Doubting Thomas: a patron saint for scientists? https://blog.oup.com/2013/05/doubting-thomas-dawkins-dixon/
Wilson C. K. Poon (2017) Thomas: The Apostle of Scientists, Theology and Science, 15:2, 203-213, DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2017.1299377
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