Faith, evidence, and careful Bible reading

Is faith believing something without any evidence? Or is evidence related to faith?

That can be a tricky question. But John 20, the famous account of Doubting Thomas, is a great example of how reading scripture really carefully can help us get some clarity on tricky questions like this.

This passage is often presented as a picture of evidence for faith being asked for, and then given. Thomas won’t believe until he has seen and touched the risen Jesus (John 20:25), and then Jesus comes and gives him what he asks for (John 20:27).

But then some people say: ‘hang on a minute, that’s rubbish’. You see, the point of the passage is actually to encourage believing without seeing – Jesus says to Thomas ‘Because you have seen me you have believed, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:29). So Jesus is here trying to encourage those who haven’t seen to ‘yet believe’.

Now as far as they go, both these readings of John 20 are actually true and good.

Thomas does call for evidence before he will believe. And Jesus does oblige. And if we’ve been reading through all of John’s Gospel (as we should have if we are reading this passage properly), by now we’ve got a lot of time for Thomas: he has turned up a couple of times already (John 11:16; 14:5), and one of those times he showed huge commitment to Jesus, being ready to die with him. And in John 20, although he possibly should have been with the other disciples the first time Jesus appeared (John 20:24), he goes on to make the biggest confession of Jesus in the whole book when he calls Jesus ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). This is a huge high point in the Gospel. So Thomas is a positive character, and the story of the Gospel is calling us to identify with him. So when he asks for evidence and is given it, at one level we are probably supposed to see that that’s okay.

Yet, as has been rightly pointed out, that isn’t where it all ends – readers of John’s Gospel (like us) are shown that faith apart from the sort of seeing and touching that Thomas wanted is ‘blessed’. Jesus makes that very clear in verse 29. And so we, as readers, are not encouraged to seek to ‘see and touch’ Jesus in the way Thomas did, but rather to believe without that. This right observation about the passage has caused some to say this means faith is supposed to be apart from evidence.

But just as the first reading, because it didn’t take the context into account, was true but not the whole truth, so too is this second reading. Because when you read more carefully, this passage is encouraging you to believe on the basis of evidence – just a different sort of evidence.

Immediately after Jesus’ words to Thomas about believing without seeing, come these words:

30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

This is a sort of ‘purpose statement’ for the whole of John’s Gospel. And it comes right on the back of the Doubting Thomas episode. The point being, this and all the rest of the Gospel is written so that people will believe that Jesus is the Christ. But again, to understand this, you need to understand it in the light of a couple of other statements in the Gospel. One, in chapter 19:35, claims that the person telling the story (the crucifixion of Jesus) saw what was happening first-hand, and that they have given testimony about it. The other statement, John 21:24-25, again speaks of testimony, and is a claim that a disciple can testify to the things he has seen and has written them down. If you read these two statements alongside John 20:30-31, they overlap a lot, and seem to be together making a clear claim that the Gospel is based on testimony, which is given ‘so that you may believe’ in Jesus.[1]

So, when we read John chapter 20, and Jesus’ words about not seeing and yet believing, we are given the clear picture that believing is above all based on what others have testified about Jesus – what they have seen and passed on to us through this Gospel. Whether we will believe the evidence of testimony is another thing, but it is evidence that we are having put in front of us.

Each of these three levels of reading John 20 have a certain truth to them. But they sort of expand out – the more we read, and the more carefully we read, the more we understand of what the author of the Gospel is saying to us. Such deep and powerful works of literature definitely demand careful and deep reading, and an openness to hear what they are saying to us. And if they happen to be, as they claim, God’s way of revealing himself to us, how much more do they require us to read carefully?