In the entire New Testament, the passage that is perhaps the most frustrating to me is from this week’s Gospel. The passage is a single verse, John 20:30: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”
Well, why aren’t they written? All four Gospels have gone to great lengths to record the wondrous things Jesus said and did before he was crucified. His followers now want us to believe that Jesus himself rose from the dead, that He appeared in bodily form, and that He continued to do signs and wonders. As that – the Resurrection – is obviously far more difficult for a non-believer to accept than reports of a man’s actions during his natural lifetime, one would think that the Apostles would particularly want to record those things He did post-Resurrection.
In short, the reality of the Resurrection would be more believable if the Disciples offered more specificity about Jesus’ post-Resurrection actions. This would be ordinary behavior of witnesses, to say something like: “Well, if you don’t believe me, ask Johnny; he saw it, too. He’ll confirm that Veronica did a double-back flip over the elephant. I swear.”
The other Gospels aren’t much help. Matthew merely has Jesus meeting his followers one last time in Galilee and giving them the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.” But that’s it. No other conversation, much less signs, and no Ascension either. Mark as now configured has much the same, plus a cryptic mention of Jesus being “taken up into heaven” – and most scholars think even those details were added to the original end of Mark, which closes with the women fleeing from the empty tomb.
And while Luke offers more details of post-Resurrection appearances, those appearances do not last long – and His Ascension occurs not way over in Galilee, but near Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. The continuation of Luke’s account, known to us as “Acts,” provides a scant few more stories of the post-Resurrection Christ, but even then it is vague when it says Jesus “gave many convincing proofs that He was alive.”
So, while last week this column credited all the disciples for behaving in a way that made it very difficult not to believe they saw a resurrected Jesus, we must still acknowledge that while their devotional commitment was profound, their witnessing skills were remarkably sketchy.
This phenomenon is, of course, why today’s famous story of “doubting Thomas,” which appears only in the Gospel of John, is so important.
Jesus knows the human tendency is to doubt anything remarkable unless we have seen it or heard it ourselves. He knows that our own “confirmation bias” leads many people to discount even the word of numerous people if their testimony does not comport with what he strongly believes. Thus, fans of sports teams or backers of politicians are almost always the last to believe their favorites have done something dastardly, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. (I know people who for decades after Watergate remained convinced that Richard Nixon did nothing wrong, but was framed.)
In this light, no matter how many details the Gospel writers recorded, people who were not there would tend to disbelieve if their general inclinations were to be skeptics. No amount of detail would likely suffice.
That’s why one of my last week’s main conclusions was that the real proof of the Resurrection lies in the disciples’ lives – “their unanimous subsequent devotion to the faith, even unto death” – rather than in the stories they told.
But, to emphasize that faith is (as the letter to the Hebrews put it) “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” Jesus made an example of Thomas. Jesus was not so much rebuking Thomas, but rather offering an explanation and an invitation to everybody else, when He said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We ourselves have not seen Christ in the flesh. But if we are open to it, we see evidence of His presence and His work all around us. We see it in acts of fellow men full of otherwise unfathomable love; we see it in lives that had gone haywire that, with faith, seem redeemed. Would it really help us believe any more deeply if John or Luke or Matthew had specified Jesus’ post-Resurrection, in-the-flesh signs and wonders?
Of course not. That’s why, if the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it makes sense for it not to record the signs and wonders. Its lack of specificity is training us, all of us, for the essence of faith, the evidence of things not seen.
We still may find the lack of specifics extremely frustrating. But we nonetheless should accept them as a boost, not a hindrance, to true faith.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication in June by Liberty Island Media.