Unbelieving Thomas

And Belief in the Modern World (John 20:19-31)

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

( John 20:19-31, NRSV )

About two weeks ago the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was published, which showed the shifting nature of religion in America. About 28% of Americans have left the faith they were raised in and switched to another religious tradition or no tradition at all (this does not include those who have switched from one Protestant tradition to another.) As recently as the 1980s, two-thirds of all Americans were Protestants. Now only 51% are Protestants – in other words, Protestantism is on the verge of becoming a minority religion in the U.S. Twenty-six percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical Protestants, 18% as Mainline Protestants, and about 7% belong to historically back denominations.

Nearly one-third of all Americans were raised in the Catholic Church, but only 24 percent are currently Catholic. The Catholic Church has maintained its quarter portion of the American population largely due to the massive immigration over the past generation. Forty-six percent of all immigrants to the U.S. are Catholic, and only 26% are Protestant.

About 16% of Americans claim no religious affiliation at all, and the remaining 9% includes all other groups: Jews, Muslims, Mormons, etc.

Thomas

America by the standard of almost any developed country continues to be a very religious country. Still, the waves of modernity and immigration and religious competition have made for a very unstable religious scene in our country. This instability suggests that we live in an age of questioning and doubt. It’s appropriate, then, that we read this morning the story of Thomas, the so-called doubter. Thomas missed the initial gathering on Easter day when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. And when they told him about it, he didn’t believe it. Everyone in the group, more than eleven people, were saying to him, “But, Thomas, we were there, and we saw him.” With his back against the wall, and in his melodramatic style, he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

Thomas, it should be said, was not really much different than the other disciples. They had not believed the report of the women who had visited the tomb; and they did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until they had seen him themselves. Thomas just didn’t happen to be there at the time. One important point to note about this story is that, despite years of church tradition to the contrary, Thomas was not actually doubting; he was simply not believing. When Jesus appeared a week later, he did not hesitate to give Thomas exactly what he needed to believe. He immediately went to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here in these holes in my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” The NIV (and most Bibles) translate then that Jesus said, “Stop doubting and believe.” But the word doubting doesn’t occur here. Instead he says, “Stop apistos and pistos” – Stop being an unbeliever, and start believing.

Doubters and Unbelievers

There is an important difference between doubters and unbelievers. Doubters are people who aren’t sure about something. They have questions that they would like to have answered: Does God exist? Is Jesus His divine son? Why is there so much pain in the world? Will there be life after death? Such people, at their best, are true seekers. They read, they study, they examine, they discuss. And, in my experience, a true seeker/doubter will usually come to some conclusion. Unbelievers, on the other hand, may pose as doubters, but they have clearly made up their minds. Such persons might say that they’re doubting, but if they’re not actively pursuing the issue, chances are they are simply hiding in their doubt. They may even be hiding from themselves. Saying they are doubters means they don’t have to take a position. But of course, not taking a position is itself a position.

Jesus doesn’t play these kinds of games with Thomas. He does not address him politely as a “doubter;” rather, he calls him an “unbeliever” – apistos. Now, it’s important to note that in John’s Gospel unbelief is a sin. We are used to thinking of sins only as moral faults (lying, cheating, stealing); but in John’s Gospel there are also theological faults that are sins. In John 16:8-9, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit is going to come and “convict the world with regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. In regard to sin, because human beings do not believe in me.” The passage certainly means that no one can really come to a belief in Christ and see themselves as sinners apart from the Holy Spirit. But it also means that a lack of belief is a sin. John also makes this point more clearly toward the beginning of his gospel – the third chapter. We all love to read John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But then read on to verses 18 and 19:

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

I used to have trouble with these verses because I thought that they were being unfair to a lot of honest doubters. People do go on spiritual journeys that take them slowly and by circuitous routes to faith; and doubt is often a part of that journey. It could be that doubt is even the threshold to faith over which we all must cross. But honest doubters are usually people who come to some conclusion one way or the other.

You might ask, can’t some people conclude that God has not given us enough evidence to decide definitively about his existence – as Bertrand Russell contended? In a purely intellectual way, that might be possible. But people are not purely intellectual-rational creatures. We have hidden motivations and impulses and desires that often make a mockery of our purely rational decisions. And so we play games with ourselves. We say that we are agnostics or doubters or seekers as a way of shelving the issue. Or, worse, we say that we are believers because we were baptized and raised as Christians, or because we occasionally attend a church, but in effect we live as if God does not exist. In effect, we are practical atheists. We all know people like this, and we have all behaved like this at times.

Jesus had a very simple word for such people. It was what he said to Thomas. “Stop being an unbeliever, and believe.” Belief after all is a decision. It is a moral decision, and it’s a theological (or intellectual) decision. And in God’s eyes, we fall in to one of two camps: believer or unbeliever. And so-called doubters or agnostics are, in effect, practicing unbelief. And those who are practical atheists are saying by their deeds (or lack of deeds) what, perhaps, they can’t bring themselves to say in words – Jesus Christ is not truly their Lord or Savior.

The Secular Thesis

For at least the last two hundred years social commentators in the West have been saying that the rise of science, reason and modernization is making religion passé. According to this position, a secularized worldview is slowly and inevitably eclipsing a religious worldview. Deeply conservative Christians have not always helped this situation by clinging to outmoded scientific views and interpretations of Scripture that the best modern science and history contradict. And liberal Christians have also not always helped this situation by attempting to so modernize the faith that they throw the baby out with the bath water by denying fundamental principles of traditional Christianity: the miracles of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture. God becomes so domesticated in this view that he seems like a parody of “political correctness,” mirroring all the latest hot-button social/cultural concerns. God no longer stands in judgment of our world, but we stand in judgment of God and remake him in our own image – that is, the ever-changing image of the moment. We pull God’s teeth. We make him a gentle grandfather, who offers non-judgmental love.

But most people have not bought into this repackaging of Christianity. The liberal churches are not succeeding; and the conservative churches, for all their faults, are succeeding. Let me give just two statistics. The Presbyterian Church in 1960 had 4.2 million members; it’s down to 2.3. The Southern Baptist Convention in 1960 had 8.7 million members; it now has 16.4. In general we could say that over the past generation the liberal churches have lost half their members, while the conservative churches have doubled theirs. The mainline liberal churches, however, may be beginning to hear other voices and consider other directions. For example, the Episcopal writer Diana Butler Bass has been calling us back to our best spiritual traditions; and she detects that there is a hunger – even, and perhaps especially, amongst a growing part of our secular culture – to rediscover traditional Christianity.

Discontent in the Secular World

Others are sensing the same thing, that secularization in our society has not satisfied the needs once met by religion. In fact our secular world is leaving many people will a deep sense of loss and a longing for purpose and transcendent meaning. It seems that, as the author of Ecclesiastes put it, God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” which is the Bible’s way of saying that religious faith in hardwired into our very beings. Moreover, the secular thesis that the world will become increasingly atheist has not played out in the United States, which has been at the forefront of modernity for a century and a half. Ninety percent of us believe in God; sixty percent say that their faith is important to them; more than 50 percent believe in miracles; and at least 40 percent regularly attend worship services. Even the religious situation in Europe, which is often painted as bleak, is not necessarily so. Ireland, Poland and Slovakia continue to be very religious countries. In a recent poll in Greece, 90 percent of the citizens said they believed in God. And Europeans in general, while rejecting organized religion, often describe themselves as “spiritual.”

And then there is the astonishing growth of Christianity and religion in general in the developing world. Dinesh D’Souza has recently written that “the biggest come back story of the twenty-first century” is the explosion of religious conversion and church growth going on all over the world. Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all experiencing tremendous growth in the world – and Christianity remains the fastest growing religion in the world. Hinduism is experiencing a resurgence in India. Islam, we all know, is resurgent in the Middle East but also in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey and East Africa. But Christianity is outstripping them all as the only truly universal religion. Hinduism is largely limited to India. Islam occupies primarily the Middle East and certain central regions of the world. But Christianity is a considerable force in every region of the world with the exception of the heartland of Islam, the Middle East.

In 1900 80% of all Christians lived in Europe or America. Today that statistic has been halved: only 40% of Christians live in Europe or America; and fully 60% live in the developing world. Of the world’s six billion people, about two billion are Christians – one-third of the world’s population. There are 480 million Christians now in Latin America. There are 313 million in Asia. There are 360 million in Africa. Central and South America in the last generation has experienced an explosion of growth in the Pentecostal church. In part this represents a shift in the population from Roman Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism. For example, as David Martin has shown in Tongues of Fire, in Brazil today there are currently 50 million Protestants, while two generations ago there were not enough to count. In Asia, China continues to be the big story. David Aikman in Jesus in Beijing estimates that there are currently 100 million Christians (Protestants and Catholics) in China, who worship largely in underground churches.

The world – both the developed and the developing world – wants modernity, but it also wants its religious faith. The old argument that secularization would completely eclipse religion has not happened. Instead we now talk about “multiple modernities.” We want the modern world of science and technology, but we don’t want a modernism that rejects our deepest religious inclinations. In effect, the world’s people have not gone along with the predictions of the social scientists and philosophers of modernity. As G.K. Chesterton phrased it a hundred years ago, we are witnessing a “revolt into orthodoxy.”

Conclusion

I’m bringing this to your attention this morning, first, by way of encouragement. We can get discouraged when we get too focused on our personal lives and, perhaps, the life on an individual church and miss the broader picture of what God is doing in the world. It seems very clear, at this point, that atheism in the world is a dead end, and the future is God. And secondly, I bring all of this up by way of warning. Despite the religious statistics that I’ve cited, we in the United States are awash in a secular culture in which our deepest beliefs are not always valued and are constantly threatened and undermined. For us, keeping the faith is going to be a struggle. We may be moving with the general currents of the world, but we are definitely moving against the currents in our own immediate culture. The author of Hebrews had a word that I think applies to us: “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” (Heb. 10:28). In our individualistic culture, we often think that we don’t need each other, that we can do everything by ourselves. The disciple Thomas, as I said, was not really so different from the other disciples: they all were guilty of unbelief, of not accepting the testimony of the women who first witnessed the risen Lord. The difference is that Thomas was not in the upper room with all the rest when Jesus appeared. People of faith need each other. Things happen when we are together that don’t happen when we are alone. There is a synergy in the church that can occur nowhere else. God wants us to worship and pray and sing together. The glow and warmth from each other’s faith will keep our life of faith warm and bright.

The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.

© 2008 Michael T. Parker