“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” John 20:8
One of the reasons John’s gospel seems more accessible to modern readers in Western culture than the other three is that John offers a clear purpose statement: “But 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.” (20:31) This purpose statement helps us make sense of his text in a manner similar to the way we deal with other texts. It helps us trace the rhetorical and thematic connections of the material in his gospel. Moreover, central to John’s development of the purpose statement is his treatment of the relationship between seeing and believing.
It is a commonplace to say that “seeing is believing.” Indeed, this would probably approach something like an empiricist’s creed. Nevertheless, even a rigorous empiricist would have to acknowledge that it’s “seeing is believing” is not quite as simple as it sounds. John, though, is writing for people for whom there is no possibility of “seeing” and believing in the same way the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ did. He is writing to plant the seed and nurture faith in the hearts and minds of those will not, in this life, have the opportunity of seeing the risen Christ.
We meet this theme of seeing and believing early on in John’s gospel at the wedding in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” It encounters us in a more surprising form in the narrative of the healing of the man blind from birth in chapter 9. Jesus cures the blind man by sending him away to wash in the pool of Siloam. The blind man has met Jesus, but he has not seen him; still he trusts him enough to seek healing in the appointed way. As the story unfolds, the blind man is excommunicated for defending Jesus, whom he has not seen, but who has certainly healed him. At the end of the story, Jesus finds him and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. When the blind man asks Jesus who the Son of Man is, so that he might believe, Jesus replies, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” Here, John shares a profound insight that faith is nothing less than a form of seeing! The blind man, though he could not see Jesus with eyes, had, in Jesus’ own words, seen him all the same!
Nowhere, though, is the relationship between seeing and believing examined more critically than in the narrative of doubting Thomas in at the end of Chapter 20. Thomas is a true empiricist. “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.” Of course, when Thomas does this and believes, it may appear at first sight to be a straight-forward case of “seeing is believing.” But the narrative is more nuanced than that. When Jesus invites Thomas to see and touch his wounds in his resurrected body, he exhorts Thomas to abandon unbelief and have faith! Now if seeing is, in fact, believing, there is no need for Jesus exhort Thomas to have faith. The reality, though, is that Thomas, can potentially doubt even the evidences of his senses.
“Seeing is believing” only if one does not critically examine the evidence of sight and touch. Or, to put it differently, relying on one’s physical senses itself involves an act of faith. Thus, while the testimony of eyewitnesses is at the heart of Christian faith, and is indispensable to our faith, faith involves an inward orientation toward the truth of God that only the grace of God can create and sustain. Unbelief can blind our eyes to what stares us in the face. Unbelief can likewise lead us to discredit the testimony of credible witnesses. This is what we learn from doubting Thomas. Just seeing the evidence does not settle things.
One still needs to turn away from the spirit of unbelief and trust in God.
In our Easter text from John 20:8, seeing and believing are joined together in a way that demands that we pause and consider another aspect of their relationship. However, I want to stay with Thomas for a moment and acknowledge the particular challenge to faith that we face in our cultural moment and setting. Thomas’ struggle with faith reminds me of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s description of our age as a “Secular Age.” In his massive tome by that title, Taylor seeks to answer this question:
“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”
(Cited in J.K.A. Smith, 2014, p. 19)
J.K.A Smith has made Taylor’s challenging thought more accessible to the average reader. In his introduction to Taylor’s A Secular Age, Smith explains that faith is more difficult and complicated for us all in our time:
“Even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.” (Smith, 2014, p.4)
Note Smith’s word: “We’re all Thomas now.” There is something about our historical and cultural moment that makes it easy for us to identify with Thomas. Thus, on an Easter Sunday morning, even among the faithful, I assume that there is a struggle with doubt, or a struggle to believe. We can acknowledge that without denying the faith. We can acknowledge that, in fact, through the words of many of the Psalms where the poet likewise struggles with doubt. This morning, though, I want to look at the “other disciple who came to the tomb first” and listen to his story alongside that of Thomas. That, after all, is the way the full story is told. My hope is that in the testimony of the “other disciple” we may find some help with our believing while doubting.
The “other disciple” we understand to be the author himself, John the Evangelist. This is his indirect way of referring to himself in the narrative. At the beginning of today’s text, in John 20:2 he is named “the other disciple whom Jesus loved.” A few verses later, the “other disciple” entered the empty tomb, where the burial cloths were neatly arranged, and “saw and believed.” It is easy to move past these words, but when we are aware of John’s concern with seeing and believing, the words should wave before our eyes like a red flag!
This is one of those relatively rare words of personal testimony from the apostles in the New Testament. Of course, we are familiar with St. Paul’s personal testimony from his repeated telling of it in Acts and hints of it in the epistles. But we do not have much like it from the Twelve. Still, here in John 20:8 we have what we might call a brief word of testimony from John. It is as if he says to us: “Here is how I came to faith. Here is how I came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. I went into the tomb and saw that it was empty. That was the moment that I became a firm believer.”
Now stop and think for a moment about the connection here between seeing and believing. Remember that he is writing to people who, like us, cannot go back to the first Easter Sunday and hope to catch a glimpse of the risen Christ, people who in this life, unless Jesus returns before we die, have no possibility of seeing what the disciples saw. John goes into the empty tomb and sees and believes. What did he see? Well, he did not see the risen Christ in the empty tomb. He would see him later, but when that time came, he was already a believer! Do you see the parallel between us and John? When we see the Lord, we will see the one in whom we have already believed! So what did John see that was decisive for his faith? He saw the tomb was empty.
On this Easter Sunday I would urge you to consider that the empty tomb is a door for faith. The empty tomb creates room to believe. Now it does not compel or constrain faith. The women saw that the tomb was empty and assumed that someone had taken the Lord’s body away. The fact that the tomb was empty does not prove that Jesus rose. But opens wide the door for faith. If the body of Jesus were in the tomb, it is highly unlikely that we would be here today. But, the tomb is empty and there is room to believe. As long as the tomb is empty, no one can demonstrate that your faith is in vain. As long as the tomb is empty you are free to believe, as fraught and contestable as it may seem in our culture.
But notice that John does not leave it there. He adds a sort of apology. He adds an explanation of why they hadn’t already believed before even setting out. The angels at the tomb in Luke 24 chided the women for looking for Jesus in the tomb! “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”(Luke 24:5) In a similar way, John acknowledges that he and Peter ought to have raced to the tomb expecting to find it empty. “For they did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” (20:9)
In a secular age, we may indeed all struggle a bit like Thomas. But, we are not called to live wishing that we could experience the kind of deliverance from doubt granted to Thomas. Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In his own personal testimony, John identifies with the latter—the people who believe before they see. He identifies with us. We may all be Thomas, but there is nothing to prevent us from learning from John and identifying with him as he does with us. We can remember that the tomb is empty. And we can read the Book. All who read it with saving understanding will necessarily read it as people who believe while doubting. It was written by at least some who believed while doubting! To our nagging, whispering doubts it answers, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!”