Luke 24:36-48, John 20:19-31, Matthew 28:17
I have heard the rumours that Elvis has been sighted in various doughnut shops around the world. Do you think that could be true? Is it possible that Elvis is still alive? Is it possible that he never really died? Or if he died, he has returned from the dead? Do you think it’s possible? Do you think it’s probable? What would it take for you to believe it? Is there enough evidence that could you cause you to believe? You look at bit skeptical!
What if someone you really trusted said, “I saw Elvis in Tim Horton’s on Geneva Street in St. Catharines just last week. Honest!” would that help? For me I’m afraid it wouldn’t help much. I would find some other explanation for my friend’s unusual belief. I’d say to myself, “I wonder what kind of medication he’s on?” or “Perhaps he saw one of the 10 million Elvis impersonators that are out there.” But I would be skeptical. I do not and cannot believe Elvis is still out there.
If we have trouble with Elvis, the friends of Jesus had similar trouble believing that Jesus was risen from the dead. Enough people had seen him die. The Roman soldiers were good at their trade. The spear into the chest cavity was the guarantee of his death. He was executed and then entombed. And dead men, all were convinced, do not rise from the dead.
THE GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF DOUBT
It is interesting to note that when four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John tell the story of the first Easter morning, even though their accounts differ in several places, the language of doubt pervades every account.
- John 20:15 – Mary did not believe he was raised, until Jesus appeared personally to her.
Even when he did appear she presumed she was talking to the gardener, not her Lord.
- Mark 16:11 – The disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene when she brought a report that she had seen him.
- Luke 24:22-24 – The two people on Emmaus road could not believe, though they had heard the report of the women from the tomb, that is, until Jesus broke bread in their presence.
- Mark 16: 13 – The other disciples did not believe the two on the road when they reported that they had seen him.
- Luke 24: 36-41 – Even though the 11 have heard of his resurrection from several people, when Jesus appears in the upper room they are startled and terrified as though they were seeing a ghost. Jesus says to them “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts. Look at my hands and my feet, see it is me! Touch me. And then Luke says, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said, “do you have anything to eat.” and he ate in front of them to prove that he was not a ghost.
- John 20:24ff – Then of course there is the story of Thomas, who will be forever dubbed Doubting Thomas, who just cannot believe based merely on the words of his friends. He cannot pump up enough credulity to believe, and only when the evidence is irrefutable does he believe.
- John 21:4, You would think by this time all the disciples would be beyond doubt. But we see them a few days later on the Beach. And they do not recognize him and are surprised by his appearance.
- Matthew 28:17 It is Matthews account of doubt that is most surprising. Jesus has been appearing to the disciples for 40 days, in a variety of encounters. But on the day of the ascension Matthew closes his account with the words, “When they saw him they worshipped, though some doubted.” Even among the 500 that were gathered to see him ascend to His Father, there were some still saying, “But it can’t be him. It must be an hallucination!”
The people who wrote the story of the resurrection were honest writers. They recorded unanimously that no one really believed he was coming back. It was too good to be true.
As we follow the history of the early church, the resurrected presence of Jesus was the church’s greatest strength. But, the story of the resurrection was one of the church’s greatest liabilities. Paul will have no trouble offering to the Greek and Roman world, Jesus the teacher or Jesus the martyr. But let him use the word “Resurrected” and people laugh him to scorn. And yet Paul knew, that in spite of the unbelievability of it all, it was that very fact which had created the church, and transformed Jesus into more than teacher and martyr, but had declared Him to be the everlasting Lord.
THE CRITICAL MIND
Why was the resurrection so hard to believe for those early disciples? Because every one of them was a skeptic. Every one of them was as hard headed as Thomas is reputed to have been. These were not gullible men who believed easily anything told them. They had listened to enough fishermen’s stories over the years to have developed a critical mind. These men had minds that worked well! They knew that you can want a thing so bad, that you can believe too easily. They were even suspicious of their own perceptions.
They were also honest men. They couldn’t pretend to themselves that they believed when they didn’t. They were aware of smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. They knew of conjurers and pseudo-magicians who could make things appear and disappear. They were not prepared to suspend reason for the sake of belief. They couldn’t believe just because they wanted to. And even after they had received evidence, they were prepared to question it to make sure it was authentic.
They doubted because the questioning mind is a gift from God. A mind that is critical is not an affront to God. Jesus is not offended by their disinclination to believe. We are not supposed to check our brains with our hats at the door of religion. Gullibility and naiveté are not Christian virtues. God gave us brains with which to weigh everything we encounter in life. St. John tells us that we are even to test the spirits to see if they are of God.
THREE KINDS OF DOUBT
Let me, however, give a word of caution. Incredulity comes in three varieties.
There is disbelief, and there is unbelief, and then there is doubt.
There is such a thing as Intellectual Doubt. This says the mind cannot accept as fact what is being reported, because it doesn’t make sense. Some people cannot believe in God or the resurrection because it doesn’t ring true. It sounds too good to be true. It is the doubt of an open and questioning mind. Much intellectual doubt comes from a healthy mind. The disciples were right to pause and question.
Then there is Emotional Doubt. This is doubt that is distressing to the doubter. We want to believe, wish we could believe, but assurance is not there. Emotional doubt is often about “am I really a Christian?” Or it arises when we see a human tragedy and ask, “How can God allow that if He is all-powerful and all-loving?” For such people it is painful to doubt. This kind of doubt is not chosen, it come on its own accord. Emotional doubters are not quite sure they can trust God with their lives. The disciples suffered from emotional doubt. They had had their hopes dashed already on Good Friday. They did not want a repeat performance and have their hopes dashed once more. It is normal to feel distrust at such times. This can be called Disbelief.
There is a third kind of doubt, however, that is in a very different kind of category.
It is called Willful Doubt. Willful doubt comes from a desire not to believe. It is not an inability to believe, but a refusal to believe. It is resistance to what is seen to be true, and a refusal to accept it, in spite of the evidence. It is not skepticism which can be healthy. It is cynicism, which is always unhealthy. It is a predetermined set of the mind that refuses all evidence that is contrary to what I already believe. It is the avoidance of evidence. It debunks even the possibility. This is called Unbelief.
None of the disciples had chosen that alternative. Even Thomas wants to believe, but cannot, until the evidence is irrefutable. But upon seeing the evidence, he kneels before Jesus with the declaration, “My Lord and my God.” Is he skeptical, Oh yes! Is he cynical? Oh no! Does he suffer Disbelief? Indeed! Does he suffer from Unbelief? No way!
Those early disciples had emotional doubt. They had intellectual doubt. But when the evidence was presented, they believed because they had seen enough to tip the scales.
THEY WORSHIPPED HIM, BUT SOME DOUBTED.
Let us return to Matthew’s account of doubt disciples. Matthew 28:17 “When they saw him they worshipped, though some doubted.”
This passage can be read two ways. It could be understood to mean, “Some of the spectators worshipped while other spectators doubted,” meaning there were two kind of people that day watching the ascension. Those who believed in the resurrection of Jesus, “the Christians”, and those who did not believe in his resurrection, the “non-Christians”.
But the words of Matthew perhaps should be read this way, “They worshipped him, but some (of those who worshipped) still had their doubts.” Christians? yes! Believers? yes! But still doubting? For some, yes! These were honest people with a commitment to Jesus Christ, but still wrestling with questions of the mind and the emotions.
These people remind me of another man. In the earlier ministry of Jesus a man whose son was epileptic brought him to the disciples for them to heal him. The disciples had been unable to help. Then Jesus arrives and meets with the father of the child. Jesus says, “If you can believe. All things are possible to those that believe.” The distraught father answers back with tears, “I do believe, but help my unbelief.”
There is a man in two minds. He believes and he doesn’t, but honest enough to admit his doubt. Some of us find ourselves also caught between belief and disbelief.
On this Sunday of the Easter season I want to tip the scales.
HE IS RISEN
On that ancient Easter morning, a long time ago now, those early disciples assure us,
- in spite of our doubts,
- in spite of our hesitancy,
- God raised Jesus from the dead, and we witnessed that event.
The facts were true, even if they were unbelievable.
- It was too good to be true, but it was true anyway.
- It was beyond our wildest dreams, but on that day the dream became reality.
- Our brains said, “It can’t happen.” History said, “But it did.”
But the early followers went one step further. They declared that not only was he raised from the grave on that first Easter, but these same disciples cascaded across the face of three continents carrying the unbelievable message
- “He is risen from the dead and lives forevermore!”
- They told the nations that even now He lives His life in companionship with all those who claim his name.
- And belief in that message led to the transformation of life for the hundreds, and then the thousands, and then the millions. Though they had not seen the evidence themselves, they believed it, and encountered in personal experience their resurrected and living Lord.
We may be more skeptical and more prone to cynicism than our predecessors have ever been. Perhaps it is more necessary because of the incessant inundation of information that has to be sifted and sorted. But if the church could get its primary message into our minds it would repeat the words of St. Paul. He writes to the Corinthian Christians,
I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,
That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day …
and that he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve,
then he appeared to more than 500.
During this season of Easter we could do nothing better that accept as true the same announcement that the church has passed on for two millennia.
“He died for our sins, and was raised from the dead, and He is alive today, and will walk with us on our Emmaus roads!” Thanks be to God!