On Sunday, a week after Easter, I had the privilege of preaching at our church in Luton. And so I took as my text the story of Doubting Thomas and his refusal to believe in the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection–until a week after Easter, when the risen Jesus appeared to him in person.
So, turn with me to John 20:19-29:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fears of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”. When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld”.
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The Importance of the Resurrection
So I want to talk about Thomas, not just because I think he resonates with the skepticism of our free-thinking generation, but because I like him! He’s most definitely not the sort of easily-duped peasant that David Hume‘s chronological snobbery would have us believe the witnesses of the Biblical miracles must have been. No! This is a man who wants evidence. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that he’s not content with just evidence, he wants proof.
So I want to talk about Thomas. But more importantly, I want to talk about the resurrection — because this is the keystone upon which the edifice of Christian truth stands or falls. It is the resurrection of Jesus which makes possible the very thing that every human was made for and which all creation is longing for — to enjoy the presence of God.
In the beginning God created humankind with the intention that they should walk with their infinite Creator as friends–but humanity rebelled against God, sin entered the world, and we were separated from God. The apparent absence of God which the ‘doubting Thomas’s of our day are so quick to remind us of is not, Isaiah 59 tells us, a result of God’s impotence or unwillingness — no! Rather, it is that “your iniquities have separated you from God, and your sins have hidden his face from you” (v2)
And it is because of the gravity of our sin that Jesus had to come and die: “For God has done what the law, weakened by sinful flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). The resurrection then is the proof that Jesus’s death was successful — that through death Jesus destroyed the power of death, as Hebrews 2:14 puts it.
But the resurrection is more than the proof that our sins are forgiven and we need not fear the death of eternal destruction from God. The resurrection is the beginning of a completely new and re-newed creation. The resurrection is the first-fruits of the coming kingdom of God, the breaking-in to history of the coming age, where human flesh will no longer be enslaved to death and destruction.
Because of the resurrection we can — at last! — fulfil our destiny, be restored to our original design, experience the nearness of the presence of God. And so, as his first deed upon being raised from the dead, what does Jesus do? As his first proclamation, what does he declare? He breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.
Being convinced of the truth of the resurrection is of vital importance because it is in believing that Jesus Christ is risen that we receive the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in Romans 10, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. And conversely, “If Christ is not risen, our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15).
The Evidence Which (A) Doubting Thomas Should Believe
So let’s look at three pieces of persuasive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus which any Doubting Thomas who takes their skepticism seriously must try and wrestle with.
First, there’s the Transformation of the Disciples.
What can possibly have happened to turn the disciples from the state of dejection and denial that Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion had left them in, to this sudden conviction that Jesus’ mission had not failed — in spite of all apparent evidence to the contrary — but rather that he was alive and they had seen them with their own eyes?
In Thomas’ case, the full implication of what had happened was still sinking in for the disciples, and at this point they are still fearfully hiding behind locked doors, so he has some excuse. But for us today, we are able to look back at the complete story of phoenix-like rise of the early church, from Peter’s cowardly denial as Jesus is put on trial, through the disciples’ desertion of Jesus while he is crucified — and then suddenly out of nowhere comes the conviction that Jesus is not dead but alive. A conviction that caused those early disciples to spend and eventually give up their lives testifying to the truth of the resurrection.
Some would say they were making it up. But they had nothing to gain but persecution — and they chose to die rather than deny it.
Some would say they were deluded. But could so many of them be deluded? And yet able to write as coherently and compellingly as the writers of the New Testament do?
Secondly, there’s the fact that Jesus had prophesied his death and resurrection.
He had said that he would ‘destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days’ (Jn.2; Matt.26:61). He had said that the sign to vindicate all his signs would be ‘the sign of Jonah’, who was cast in the sea and ‘buried’ in the belly of a fish before being spat back up onto land on the third day. He had said he would be like ‘the stone the builders rejected which has become the capstone’ (Ps. 118; Matt. 21:42).
The evidence of the historicity of these prophecies is strong, them being found across the spectrum of the Biblical witness.
And having satisfied ourselves with their authenticity, we can play CS Lewis’ argument that the only three serious explanations that account for the things that Jesus said, are that he was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Son of God.
Third, the emptiness of the tomb.
Thomas could, like Peter and John, have gone and seen for himself that the tomb in which Jesus has been buried was empty. For us in this day, we may not be able to go and see for ourselves that the tomb is empty (though you could go to Jerusalem and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden Tomb — whichever you think is the relevant site!), but we do have multiple pieces of evidence, faithfully recorded within the different gospels.
And there are only four options for how this happened.
i) Foes stole it — but why then did they not produce the body to discount the disciples’ claims?
ii) Friends stole it — but as we have already said, the transformation of the disciples needs somehow to be accounted for.
ii) Jesus never died and escaped — although he had been certified dead by professional executioners, Jesus somehow managed to remove the stone sealing him inside the tomb, overpower the guards, and convince the disciples that he had defeated death. Really?
iv) God raised Jesus from the dead — unless you dogmatically deny the possibility of this, then it is the only reasonable option.
The Options of Unbelief
Still not convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection? Then you have a few choices:
i) Judas’ Committed Hopelessness
If there is no life after death, if Jesus’ resurrection was in fact impossible, if life has no objective value and death is the ultimate end of all things, if everything is ‘meaningless, meaningless’ — then perhaps Camus is right. Perhaps the supreme philosophical question is, ‘why not commit suicide?’
This was Judas’ choice, having betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin and seen them sentence him to death.
It is a choice I both think is a logical outworking of convinced atheism and also one I would urge you not to even consider. Ever. Not even if you have Alzheimer’s.
Because if only Judas had held onto hope until that third day when Jesus rose from the dead, then might not Jesus have restored and forgiven him, just as he did Peter (Jn. 21)?
ii) The Chief Priests’ Manipulative Apathy
The option most people take is of course to ignore the gospel news of Jesus’ resurrection.
This was the chief priests’ response when the soldiers appointed to guard the tomb came and told them “all that had happened” (Matt. 28:11). Instead of responding in faith or at least investigating more for themselves, they continued stubbornly in their rejection of Jesus and actually tried to manipulate the situation so as to avoid the personal challenge of Jesus’ resurrection by bribing the guards to explain it away by accusing the disciples of stealing the body.
iii) Thomas’ Faithful Doubt
The third option is to doubt like faith-filled Thomas, who in spite of his vocal skepticism, did not give up meeting with the rest of the disciples, deluded though he thought they were. Was this just out of commitment to his friends, or did he in spite of himself hold on to some faint hope that their claims of Jesus having been seen alive might in fact be true.
We don’t know. But we do know that the following week, he was there again in the upper room, gathering together with the other followers of Jesus. And this time he found the evidence that he needed to convince him that Jesus was indeed “Lord and God”.
So I end with this encouragement to you: although you may not be convinced by my hastily typed-out clumsy regurgitations of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, at least do what Thomas did and keep gathering together with others committed to obeying the infinitely challenging but unfailingly life-changing teaching of Jesus. Don’t lose hope. Don’t ignore the testimonies of others. But don’t think that you have to rest forever on someone else’s word.
Because if you are seeking assurance for yourself that Jesus is who he says he is, then keep seeking and you will find it. It’s a promise.
For a scholarly and intellectual approach to the question of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, NT Wright is probably the best there is. And he is very readable. Try starting with The Challenge of Jesus.
For something more popular, The Case For Christ is meant to be very good. Lee Strobel was an investigative journalist whose wife became a Christian, and so began to examine the evidence for the truth of Christianity. The book is the record of the evidence that convinced him.