Evidence & Belief

 

"Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe" (John 20:29).

 

We are all, or at least most of us, very familiar with the story of the doubting Thomas, the apostle who refused to believe unless he saw and even touched the concrete evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead. So Jesus offered to give him his wish, and so finally, even if stubbornly, Thomas was convinced it was true.

 

But when this story was written down, probably about sixty or seventy years after it happened, how are we who read it supposed to believe? Several centuries later Pope St. Gregory the Great pondered this problem, pointing out that what Thomas saw was only the external evidence of something invisible: the risen, live body of Jesus was only the outward manifestation of his spiritual identity as the eternal Son of God, and that it is not in seeing the external evidence but in recognizing the invisible truth that real faith is involved.

 

"Fine," you and I may say, "but how are we supposed to believe if we see no evidence at all?" Gregory had an answer for that too: that the evidence is no longer the physical presence of the risen Christ, but instead the story of the apostles themselves, the fact that these timid, ignorant, and largely illiterate peasants were eventually able to go out and give their lives for the sake of converting the whole world, or at least a major part of it, to Christ. Of course, it didn't happen all at once: but the fact that it eventually did, and the fact that pagan Rome, the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, became, within 300 years, Christian Rome, was a miracle enough, a miracle big enough for the whole world to see.

 

But is that enough to compel our belief? If you and I are honest about it, I think we have to say "No." The fact is that we have to want to believe or to be open enough to believe: no one nor no thing can force us to believe. At the very least, we have to be like the father of the epileptic boy in the gospel who asks Jesus to cure his son, but when asked by Jesus "Do you have faith?" answers "Yes, I do believe (that is, have faith), but help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).

 

In other words, beliefs or the convictions that form our beliefs can only work their life-changing effects in our minds if we have that openness or loving trust we call "faith" in our heart or will. The mighty Roman empire was converted to Christ not because the pagans saw the risen Christ first-hand, but because they saw how his followers loved one another, forgave their enemies and converted suspicion into friendship, hardheartedness into compassion, and wondered how people could accomplish such things—unless that divine power or God was with them and in them in a very special way.

 

But unfortunately, that mass conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity turned out, not too long after, a very mixed blessing.  In some striking ways, it looks like Roman imperialism co-opted Christianity for it own purposes.  Where Christians, following the example and urgings of Jesus, once refused to fight, they now had no qualms about being part of a professional army.  Where once Christian families sold their properties to share their wealth with all in need, they now began to revert to the standards of the pagan world. And while slavery was gradually abolished in Europe, it was replaced by feudal serfdom, which combined with the commercialism of modern times, produced the colonialism and its destructive aftermaths that we still see in much of the contemporary world. Once this whole degenerative process began, only the monastics, and later, a few other religious radicals, like the Mennonites and Quakers, tried to retain the total Christian vision.

 

Given human nature, plus the fact that Jesus never returned as soon as the first Christians expected, some see all this as having been inevitable. Yet one can only wonder. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “Christianity hadn’t failed, [but that instead] it had never been tried.”  But maybe he was wrong: that Christianity was tried, and because it seemed to demand too much, was in fact largely abandoned, and no longer provides much evidence to convince a world long grown cynical.  So instead, seeing Christians as being no different than anyone else, why should anyone believe the claim that “Christ has risen”?                                   R W Kropf 4/22/09   Evidence2.doc  09-04-22.html