Believing Without Seeing = Blessedness
Here we are in the week between the first and second appearances of Christ to his gathered disciples. The first was on resurrection Sunday evening with Thomas absent; the second was one week later with Thomas present. In between, the other ten tried to persuade Thomas that Jesus really was alive and they really had seen and touched and talked with him. Thomas would have none of it: “I will not believe unless I see.” This is a biblical kind of Thomistic faith. He does believe, after all; Jesus says so (Jn. 20.29). But there is a more excellent kind of faith.
In reflecting on these events that bookend this week, I want to showcase a commentator who is not as widely known or used as he deserves to be: the 19th-century English evangelical Anglican bishop, J. C. Ryle. My pastor once gave his opinion that Ryle’s is “the best commentary on John for the preacher”—meaning, the one that most fed the pastor first. He did not offer that opinion lightly or ignorantly; his personal library of commentaries on John numbers over seventy volumes, and he himself has preached a multi-year expositional series through the entire Gospel of John. And Ryle is no scholarly lightweight. The preface to his Expository Thoughts on John lists over 80 commentaries on John that he used—from Patristics to Reformers to contemporaries, Protestant to Catholic, English to Scotch to German to Continental commentators.
What follows is drawn from his comments on John 20:25 and 29, with minor stylistic modifications and some ellipses.
John 20:25. Thomas refused to believe the testimony of ten competent witnesses who had seen Christ in the body with their own eyes. He refused to believe the testimony of ten true friends and brethren, who could have no object in deceiving him. He passionately declares that he will not believe unless he himself sees and touches the Lord’s body. He presumes to prescribe certain conditions which must be fulfilled before he can credit the report of his brethren. All of this was very sad and very sinful. Thomas might have remembered that at this rate nothing could ever be proved by witnesses; and that he himself as a teacher could never expect men to believe him.
The case of Thomas is not an uncommon one. Some people will believe nothing unless they can see it all and work it all out for themselves. They do not like to receive anything on trust, or from the testimony of others, and must always go over the ground for themselves. They entirely forget that the business of daily life could never go on if we were always doubting everything which we could not see for ourselves. Nevertheless, they exist in the Church, and always will exist; and the case of Thomas shows what trouble they bring on themselves.
John 20:29. This verse contains the grave and solemn rebuke to Thomas, and a warning to all who are disposed to demand an excessive amount of evidence before they believe. The whole sentence may be thus paraphrased and expounded: “Thomas, you have at last believed my resurrection because you have seen me with your own eyes. But it would have been far better if you had believed a week ago, on the testimony of your ten brethren, and not waited to see me. Remember that in my kingdom they are more blessed and honorable who believe on good testimony, without seeing, than those who insist on seeing first before they believe.”
Nothing is more common nowadays than to hear people say that they decline to believe things above their reason, that they cannot believe what they cannot entirely understand in religion, that they must see everything clearly before they can believe. It is a style of talking that shows a mind either proud, or foolish, or inconsistent.
In matters of science, we must begin by believing much which we do not understand, taking many positions on trust and accepting many things on the testimony of others. He that begins his studies by saying, “I shall not believe anything which I do not see clearly demonstrated from the very first,” will make very little progress.
In the daily business of life, we take many important steps on no other ground than the testimony of others. Probability, in fact, is the only guide to most parts of our life.
So where is the common sense of saying that in such a mysterious matter as the concern of our souls we ought to believe nothing that we do not see, and ought to receive nothing as true unless it is demonstrated to us? Christianity does not avoid appealing to our intellects, and does not require of us a blind, unreasoning faith. But Christianity does begin by asking us to believe [on sound testimony from first-hand witnesses] many things that are above our reason, and promises that if we do, we shall have more light. The modern would-be wise man says, “I distrust mystery. I must first see, and then I will believe.” Christianity replies, “You cannot avoid mystery unless you go out of the world. You are only asked to do with religion what you already do with the rest of life. Begin by believing, and then you will see.”
Thomas believed only because he saw. It’s fair to point out that the other disciples did not believe the initial reports they heard either (Luke 24:9-11). And even when Jesus initially showed himself to them, some of them still didn’t believe immediately (Luke 24:40-43).
But Jesus says that those who will believe without seeing for themselves will be uniquely blessed. Such belief is not foolish credulity or gullibility; God offers abundant evidence from multiple first-hand witnesses. In fact, he has preserved for us the same testimony from the same witnesses that Jesus faulted Thomas for not believing!
John 20:1-10, 20:11-18, and 20:24-29 are all unique to John’s Gospel, and form an intentional illustrative transition from the body of John’s Gospel record to his express statement of purpose (Jn 20:30-31). These incidents anticipate the reader’s potential skepticism to John’s testimony and message throughout the book without seeing these extraordinary events for themselves. The succession of these incidents, culminating with Thomas, conveys divine blessing on those who receive that divinely given testimony with a faith that honors God’s words (1 John 5:9-12).