Surveying the current spiritual landscape of our culture, one could be forgiven for concluding that unbelief, or atheism, is the most important challenge of our time. It is accepted by theists and atheists alike that one of the most important questions of life is whether or not one believes in God, and that the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, allied with wounded former believers, are mounting an outright assault on belief, and presenting Christianity in particular with a great challenge.
There is some irony in this, not least because atheism as such is not as simple to define as we might like. It varies from culture to culture and particularly from religion to religion. Something of this is captured in the old joke about the Irishman who, while filling out a government form, puts down “atheist” as his religious preference. “yes, yes” the government official says, “but are you a protestant atheist or a catholic atheist?” Context matters. At significant points in history both Jews and Christians were accused of being atheists, since their beliefs denied significant portions of received religious wisdom.
The idea that the New Atheism is presenting any great challenge to belief, Christian or otherwise, is I think, simply another in a long line of trumped up conflicts encouraged by media and given thanks for by publishers who hope to market and sell the books of both theists and atheists involved in such public debate on the various imprints they’ve designed to target those niche demographics. This is not to say that one shouldn’t take the questions raised seriously, but only that they should not be taken seriously as a threat to belief, for indeed, the challenge itself supposes the meaningfulness and possibility of belief.
Philosophers who have the most consistent claims against belief are those who argue, a la A.J. Ayer (and other Logical Positivists) that “God talk” is simply nonsensical. Since claims to the existence or non-existence of God are impossible to falsify (or verify empirically), then they are meaningless. Of course, Ayer would never write a book such as those written by the New Atheists because he would view the whole enterprise as a waste of time. While the new atheists may appeal to science and various popular understandings of reason, many times their most moving arguments against belief are those that do not so much challenge the existence of God directly as they challenge the existence of a good God, and supposedly proving that no such good God could exist, force those thoughtful persons troubled by the cruelty of life into a sort of stated unbelief that has as its foundation rejection of belief in a specific picture of God.
In some ways then, stated unbelief is often a response to the struggle C.S. Lewis writes about in his book A Grief Observed:
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, “so there’s no God after all,” but, “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, cited in Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, p. 285)
Deceive yourself no longer. No longer believe in a good God, for only a wicked deity would afflict his creation with such pain and evil. This is the great challenge to faith. Not disbelief, but believing something evil about God. Atheism is not the biggest challenge to the Christian faith; false beliefs are. This is why the commandment against idolatry is so central in scripture because the impulse to believe is strong. Strong enough to leave us believing even horrible things.
The danger that one might come to believe evil things about God, especially in the face of human misery is why one of the authors beloved by Lewis, George MacDonald would write the following in his sermon on Job:
“To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood… Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed” (George MacDonald, Sermon on Job, Unspoken Sermons)
The point then, is that for some people, they remain closer to belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ by choosing a form of unbelief rather than believing a God who is the author of evil. As David Bently Hart puts it in his book The Doors of the Sea:
After all, at the heart of all such unbelief lies the undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to be reconciled to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should want to disparage. For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture (Hart, p. 15).
Now we turn our attention to Thomas. Doubting Thomas he’s remembered as today. To be called a Doubting Thomas is to be challenged, even ridiculed for one’s doubt or reticence. The thing is, the word that is translated doubt, might have an even dimmer cast to it if it were translated as many scholars believe it should be: unbelief. Not “doubting Thomas” but “unbelieving Thomas.”
Of course, Thomas’s unbelief is no greater than that of the other disciples who, rather than credit the words of Mary upon her return from the tomb, were still holed up behind locked doors because of fear. They too required an encounter with the living Christ to convince them of the truth of the resurrection. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the disbelieving disciples and tardy Thomas.
But what Thomas does, which is different from the other disciples–partly from circumstance and partly from personality–is to demand evidence when he hears the other disciples echoing the words of Mary, “we have seen the Lord.”
Thomas demands evidence–not only to see, but to touch the risen Lord–because he too has experienced the horrors of the world. All the disciples have. Their teacher, their friend, their messiah, was taken from them by means of a brutal public execution shot through with horror and torture and surrounded by spectacle and blood sport. Of course they were fearful. Of course they doubted. Of course they were living with the specter of unbelief. But they encountered the risen Lord. Jesus came to them at their moment of greatest weakness and gives them his peace.
The risen Christ comes into the room where the disciples are hiding out, and he offers them peace, sending them out into the world to spread the news of the Kingdom–as the Father sent me, so I send you, he tells them. He breathes upon them (in what scholars sometimes refer to as the Johannine Pentecost) and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might conquer their unbelief and accomplish the work they’ve been given.
But Thomas was not there, and when he hears he does not believe. He demands proof. The same proof Christ offers the other disciples and more: to actually touch Christ’s wounds.
It would be easy for some to criticize Thomas’s request, but it makes sense. Thomas, the disciple who, when Jesus made the decision to return to Judea, “Let us also go so that we may die with him,” is struggling with the events he has been through; with the end that he believes his master to have met. How could he not struggle with unbelief, having seen these things and desiring to reject any notion of evil in God.
Notice that Christ himself does not ridicule or reject Thomas’s demand for a sign. Unlike those who demanded miracles and other signs before the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus hears Thomas’s request and responds by offering exactly the proof he asked for: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
And Thomas, the doubter, the unbeliever, responds with the strongest testimony to Christ’s identity in the gospels: “My Lord and my God.”
We could all hope to do so well as to say of Christ, with Thomas, “My Lord, and my God.” Through his encounter with the living Christ, Thomas moves from unbelief to belief. And try as we might to oppose these to one another neatly, we can never escape the cry of the man in who implores Jesus “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Scripture understands that we are always moving between belief and doubt, belief and unbelief. But encountering Christ moves us ever more deeply into belief.
Just as all the disciples could rightly be called doubters or unbelievers, so too could all of us rightly be described in that way at various points of our lives. But just as Christ heard the plea of Thomas, he hears ours today. As long as we refuse to give up on God’s goodness and love, he will provide us grace to go the rest of the way.
“Peace be with you” Christ said to those doubters, those unbelievers all those centuries ago, and he says the same to us today. “Peace be with you.” In the midst of the trials and tribulations of life: peace be with you. In the midst of challenges at home, at work, in our nation and the world: peace be with you.
In the midst of our darkest night, our deepest fears and our greatest doubt: peace be with you.
And because he has ascended to the father, and we await his coming again, Christ had left us with the sacrament of his body and blood. We cannot, like Thomas, put our hands in his wounds, but we can receive his body and blood and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” as the Apostle Paul puts it. And by proclaiming his death and resurrection, by receiving this sacrament and the grace that flows through it, we are empowered to be Christ’s body, to continue his work in the world, to truly be his people even in the midst of our personal struggles and doubts, because Christ is always with us in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit and in one another as the people of God.
“have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We are all doubting Thomases. But that’s OK, because Thomas was able to confess Christ as his Lord and his God. By his grace, we can do the same.
[Extra: click below to hear/read the lyrics to a great song from Nickel Creek, entitled "Doubting Thomas," which I hear every time I preach on this passage.]