Friday, November 8, 2013

THOMAS AND THE QUESTION OF FAITH

As any observant Christian might have guessed, my favorite disciple by far is Thomas.  He is distinguished from his colleagues by the fact that he openly questioned whether Jesus had actually risen from the dead.  The account is found in John 20:24-29.  In short, Thomas stated that unless he saw and felt the mark of the nails on Jesus’s hands where he was nailed to the cross and felt the wound in Jesus’s side where he was speared, he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the tomb.  A week later Jesus appeared to the disciples, including Thomas, and offered to let Thomas feel the wounds for himself.  Only then did Thomas proclaim his belief in Jesus’s resurrection and divinity.
 

But there’s a problem with Thomas’s approach to faith, and it relates directly to the fundamental definition of the word “faith.”  If there is unequivocal, irrefutable evidence for something, then we are not talking about faith; rather, we are talking about fact.  I don’t have to take on faith, for example, that the Pythagorean theorem is valid for Euclidean geometry; I can prove that it is true.  Nor do I have to accept on faith that the earth is spherical rather than flat.  The scientific evidence is unequivocal that it is. The very meaning of faith, on the other hand, is belief in something for which the evidence is inadequate or nonexistent.

And this was the tack that the noted Christian apologist C.S. Lewis took in arguing in defense of Christianity.  He stated that faith is a demand that God makes simply on the basis that he is the creator and that he can.  According to Lewis, it’s God’s game and he sets the rules.  An example is the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  There was nothing intrinsically dangerous in partaking of the tree.  God’s prohibition was purely arbitrary, a rule imposed simply as a test of faith and obedience that, of course, as the story goes, Eve and Adam failed miserably.  By the same token, according to Lewis, God is demanding that we accept Christ’s divinity and resurrection without proof, that is, by faith alone.

Despite Lewis’s arguments for faith, however, the Bible is in fact filled with accounts in which God and Jesus provided proof of their divinity.  In the Old Testament witness Moses and the burning bush and Gideon and his fleeces, for example.  (See my essay on “Gideon, the Real Story,” 8/25/13.)  In the New Testament Jesus was performing miracles left and right.  And of course there was Thomas.  

Generally we are taught that for all other matters belief should be based on the application of reason to the available evidence.  To be asked to believe in God without evidence, without reason, without proof--that is, on faith--is contrary to how we are taught to approach belief in every other arena.  Why should that be?  And indeed Jesus didn’t demand that Thomas believe in his resurrection on faith alone.  Instead, he offered tangible proof.  Hmf . . . .

When I first abandoned belief in God, I felt that if there were a God that really wanted me to believe, he should perform a miracle or otherwise provide proof of his existence--send an angel with a flaming sword, for example.  Not an unreasonable request, in my opinion.  Never happened.

Before leaving this topic, and perhaps in anticipation of possible responses, I would add that in my view there is no legitimate evidence for God’s existence.  In a sense this point underlies all of what I am trying to get across in this blog.  Those of religious faith commonly point to the love for and from others that we cherish, the beauties of nature or music that we enjoy, the very fact that the universe exists at all.  And those are all wonderful things from my perspective.  But they are all simply what is, part of the basic fabric of who we are.  They don’t require the existence of a deity.  In short, God doesn’t explain anything that isn’t otherwise explicable.  I know that can be hard to take, and I plan to devote attention to that point going forward. 



© 2013 John M. Phillips

4 comments:

  1. Interesting you said that if God wanted you to believe he'd provide proof. I eventually came to the same conclusion. I went through the same reasoning as I evolved away from religion. I figured if there is God that is so loving that he gave his Son he would not hold it against me if I through honest reasoning and analysis and searching no longer had blind belief/faith, in any God.
    At the point in my life when I had evolved away from my particular type of Christianity towards an agnostic belief I felt such a wonderful liberation of thought and feelings toward others. There was a greater mental inclusiveness of a loving connection with all humanity. I was surprised by this. I thought as a Christian I already had this love for fellow humans.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find it fascinating that relinquishing your faith resulted in a greater regard for your fellow humans. But I think it can be the case that Christianity can serve to isolate us from our relationship with others from a simple, basic, human point of view.

      Delete
  2. I Am - "But they are all simply what is, part of the basic fabric of who we are," and may I add, who God is. Yes of couse belief is based on evidence. You, as a parent instill that in a child from birth on...you care for their needs, they learn to trust you. You promise them a vacation and they begin to pack a suitcase...why, because they have faith in you based on evidence. You keep your word. And so God gives us evidence...He says I am love, and He comes and lives with us in humble poverty and does all manner of good while here and He tries in every way to show us what love means...He even goes so far as to allow us to kill Him, without retaliation but with forgiveness, and overcomes the cause of death, which is selfishness, by living a life filled with love... and then we still don't trust Him. Thomas watched all this, He loved His friend, Jesus. And though Jesus had promised He would live after 3 days, Thomas had never seen anyone come back from the dead...he doubted. But Jesus kept Him promise...He is trustworthy and we can have faith in Him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am afraid that you are confusing the concept of faith with the concept of belief. I agree that beliefs should be based on evidence. And we can talk about what does or doesn't constitute valid evidence. However, the very idea of faith is believing something for which there is no (or at least insufficient) evidence for belief. Otherwise, it's not faith. Christians like to say that their "faith" is based on evidence, but they should say that their "belief" is based on evidence. Then it's a question of what should be treated as evidence. Christians are proud of having faith--and they certain do--but they generally don’t like to admit that their beliefs are not supported by evidence.

      You say that Thomas had never witnessed anyone who came back from death, but hadn't he been around when Lazarus was supposedly raised from the dead? That's not my point, though. Rather I was saying that, throughout the period of the Bible, God seemed to provide all sorts of evidence for his existence, in both the Old and New Testaments, including Jesus offering to show Thomas his crucifixion wounds. But since then the overt evidence has been more and more scant. And now it seems the only “evidence” is internal--a feeling. One can claim that that was God's design for whatever reason. Or one can say that as science has advanced there just isn't reason to resort to supernatural explanations--the miracles of old.

      Delete