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Easter [1999]: Dealing With Doubt (John 20:1-31)

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April 4, 1999

Easter Sunday

Every thinking person sometimes wrestles with doubt. That’s true not only for thinking Christians, but also for atheists and agnostics. They sometimes wonder, “What if I’m wrong and Christianity is true?” And every thinking Christian sometimes wonders, “What if I’m wrong and Christianity is not true?” For some, the bouts with doubt are short and relatively minor. For others, the doubts are deep and disturbing. But wherever you’re at on the spectrum, if you’ve been a Christian for very long, you have gone through times when believing isn’t easy.

The sources of my struggles with doubt vary. Sometimes it stems from wrestling with certain troublesome theological issues. At other times the problem of unanswered prayer has tripped me up. And I’ve had to face doubts related to the age-old problem of suffering, especially when it hits home with people I know and love: Why would a good and all-powerful God allow His servants, who are already too few, to be struck down in the prime of life, while the wicked prosper?

While there are satisfactory biblical answers to all of these sources of doubt, there is one answer that undergirds them all. I usually come back to it when I’m struggling with doubt. The apostle Paul said that the entire Christian faith rests on one foundation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Cor. 15:13-19). If that fact of history is true, then our faith has a solid footing in spite of matters of doubt which we cannot, perhaps ever in this life, fully resolve. On the other hand, if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, then the strongest faith in the world is useless, because it rests on a faulty object.

The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a solid footing in times of doubt.

If you want to examine a subject, it’s best to go to an expert. The most famous expert on doubt is a fellow whose name is always linked with it: Doubting Thomas. His story is told in John 20:24-29. Thomas was what I would call a sincere doubter. Not all doubters are sincere. Some use their doubts as a smoke screen to hide behind their pride, rebellion, or other sin, which is the real issue. If one area of doubt is cleared up, they will quickly duck behind another, because they don’t want to submit to the Lord. These people do not need more evidence to believe; they need to turn from their sin.

But some doubts are sincere. The sincere doubter is truly a believer in Christ and he doesn’t want to doubt, but he is plagued by honest questions. He is submissive to God and wants to do His will, but he can’t just close his eyes and take a leap of faith. He needs evidence to clear up the doubts. Thomas was that kind of sincere doubter. I maintain that …

1. All thinking people go through times of sincere doubt.

There are many causes of doubt. I am going to limit myself to exploring some of the causes of Thomas’ doubts. I can relate personally to some, but not all, of them. Perhaps you will relate to them also.

Some Reasons For Thomas’ Doubts:

A. Personal failure coupled with Thomas’ personality.

All of the disciples had failed Jesus on the night of His arrest and trial. Most notorious was Peter, who denied the Lord three times. All of the eleven had promised Jesus their loyalty, but they all deserted Him when He was arrested.

Thomas, along with Peter, had been outspoken in his loyalty to Jesus before the crucifixion. In John 11:16, when Jesus wanted to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples objected that it was too dangerous. But Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” He may have been a pessimist, but at least he was loyal to the point of challenging the others to be committed to the point of death. But then he had joined the others in running away when Jesus was arrested. That failure led Thomas into depression and doubt.

It wasn’t just Thomas’ failure, but failure coupled with his personality, that led him into deep doubts. Peter had failed in a big way, too. But Peter was a buoyant, optimistic sort who felt badly about his mistakes, but who could shrug it off and bounce back more quickly. But Thomas was a conscientious, loyal, but gloomy type who did not commit himself to something lightly. To commit himself to Jesus and then go back on his word affected Thomas much more deeply than Peter’s failure affected him.

We’re all wired differently and so it’s important to know yourself so that you can be on guard against your areas of weakness. Usually, by the way, our areas of greatest strength are also our areas of greatest weakness. A man like Thomas, who is loyal and conscientious, who takes commitments seriously, is also more prone to depression and doubt when he fails.

B. A lack of understanding.

Thomas lacked understanding with regard to the Lord’s departure (see John 14:5). On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them and that He would come again to take them to be with Him. He told them that they knew the way where He was going. But Thomas wasn’t the type to keep quiet if he didn’t understand. So he blurted out, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”

I’m glad he asked because Jesus’ reply was, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (14:6). But if you put yourself back into that situation, with all of the confused emotions of that night, and with the disciples’ still limited insight into Jesus’ death and resurrection, you can see how Thomas would still be confused about what Jesus had meant. He lacked understanding, which led to doubt.

Some of my times of doubt have been due to a lack of understanding on doctrinal matters. I’m not going to share specifics, because if it’s not a problem for you, I don’t want to lead you into doubt by bringing it up! But, frankly, there are many hard teachings in Scripture, some of which we won’t resolve until we are with the Lord. We have to trust God, even when we don’t understand.

In John 6:60, many of those who had followed Jesus turned away when He taught some hard things. Jesus even asked the twelve if they would turn away also. Peter gave the great answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). I have come back to that answer many times when I have struggled with doubt due to a lack of understanding. Where else can I go?

C. Deep disappointment and shock over suffering.

A third factor that caused Thomas such deep doubts was the disappointment and shock he felt as he watched Jesus die. Even though Jesus repeatedly told the disciples in advance that He would be crucified, it didn’t sink in. When Thomas saw the badly mangled body of Jesus on the cross, it sent him into shock. His emphasis on the wounds of Jesus (John 20:25) shows how deeply it affected him. The bloody holes in Jesus’ hands and feet, the gory spear wound in His side, and Jesus’ disfigurement from the scourging and the crown of thorns, haunted Thomas in the week after the crucifixion and fed his doubts.

In the same way, whenever we face deep disappointment and shock because of some tragedy or something that doesn’t go as we had expected, we’re vulnerable to doubts. A few years ago, a pastor friend who was my age was struck down with cancer. As I stood by his bedside the night he died, along with his grieving wife and two sons, I couldn’t help wondering, “Why, Lord? This is one of Your servants. He still has many good years left. His family is young. Why should he die so young, when so many wicked people live long, healthy lives?” Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one or faced a personal tragedy. It’s a short step from there to being right where Thomas was, to doubting the Lord: “If God really exists and is a God of love, then why is this happening?”

D. Isolation from fellow believers.

A fourth reason for Thomas’ doubts was his isolation from other believers. We don’t know for certain why Thomas was absent from the other disciples that first Sunday when Jesus appeared to them. But a likely reason was his morose disposition. The last thing he wanted at a time like that was to be around other people. So he wandered off by himself to brood over the horrible events of the previous few days.

Then to add to his misery, when he finally did see the others, they told him that they had seen the risen Lord! How would you feel if you missed church because you were depressed and doubting and we all told you, “Hey, you really missed a blessing! Jesus appeared to us last Sunday!” Great! That really encourages you, doesn’t it! But even though we often are bugged by other believers, the fact is, we need them. Whenever we separate ourselves from the fellowship, we make ourselves vulnerable to doubt.

I’ve not covered all the causes we have for doubting God or the Bible. Perhaps you have other things that have shaken your faith. But whatever the source of your doubts, the solution is the same: to come back to the basic fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that is true, then even though you may not understand everything, you still, with Thomas, must bow and acknowledge Jesus to be your Lord and God.

2. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is solid.

I can’t give all the evidence for the resurrection in one message. Many books have been written on the subject. But there are five reasons in John 20 alone which prove Christ’s resurrection to be true history, not a myth or wishful thinking:

A. The empty tomb substantiates Jesus’ resurrection.

One incontrovertible fact, with which both the disciples and the Jews agreed, is that the tomb was empty. If not, when the disciples began proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus a few weeks later (which was the central point of their preaching), the Jewish leaders could have simply marched to the tomb, produced the dead body of Jesus, and the disciples would have been laughed out of town. But clearly they couldn’t do it because the tomb was empty.

There are several ways to account for the empty tomb. Jesus’ enemies could have stolen the body. But they had no motive for taking His body. It was to their advantage to leave it right where it was, which is why they had Pilate put the Roman guard and seal on the tomb. If they knew where the body was, they could have produced it and silenced the disciples’ preaching.

Another possibility is that the Roman guards stole the body. But again, they had no motive to do so. They weren’t concerned about this Jewish religious trial. The Jewish leaders, who were scrambling for ways to explain away the resurrection, didn’t accuse the soldiers of taking the body or of allowing it to be stolen.

A third possibility is that the disciples stole the body. This was the theory the Jewish leaders tried to promote by bribing the Roman soldiers (Matt. 28:11-15). But there are many reasons the disciples could not have moved Jesus’ body. The tomb was as secure as the Roman guard could make it. The soldiers wouldn’t have fallen asleep on the watch, because the penalty was death. The stone at the tomb was large and heavy. Even if the soldiers had been sleeping, the noise of a group of men moving the stone would have awakened them. Besides, the disciples were too depressed and confused to try anything like grave robbery in front of a Roman guard. Even if, through bribery, they had managed to remove Jesus’ body, they would not later have risked their lives to preach the resurrection.

Nor would they have suffered beatings and threats if it had been confirmed that someone else had taken Jesus’ body, which was the first thought of the women who visited the tomb early that morning (John 20:2, 15). All we know of the character of the witnesses as well as the fact that they did not yet understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise again from the dead (John 20:9) militates against them knowingly promoting a hoax. The empty tomb is a solid piece of evidence that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead.

B. The grave clothes substantiate Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary Magdalene didn’t look very carefully when she first came to the tomb. She saw the stone removed and assumed that Jesus was gone. So she ran to tell Peter and John, who ran to the tomb. John got there first and stood at the entrance looking in. Peter, in his usual blustery manner, went right in and saw (20:6, Greek = “to gaze upon”) the grave clothes. Then John entered, saw (Greek = “to see with understanding”) and believed.

The presence of the grave clothes proves that the body was not stolen. In their haste, grave robbers would have taken the body, grave clothes and all. If for some reason they had wanted to strip the body, they would have left the clothes strewn all over the tomb. But Peter and John saw them left in an orderly fashion, as if Jesus had passed right through them. Remember, these weren’t men who wished so much for a resurrection that they perhaps saw what they wanted to see. These were men who did not understand or believe at first. The evidence convinced them, even as their testimony of the evidence should convince us.

C. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus substantiate His resurrection.

John lists four post-resurrection appearances of Jesus: To Mary Magdalene (20:11-18); to the disciples except Thomas (20:19-23); to the disciples, including Thomas (20:24-31); and, to seven of the disciples, by the Sea of Galilee (21:1-25). Paul mentions several other situations, including one appearance to over 500 at one time (1 Cor. 15:6-8). J. N. D. Anderson, formerly Professor of Oriental Laws and Director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London, wrote (Christianity Today [3/29/68], pp. 5, 6.),

The most drastic way of dismissing the evidence would be to say that these stories were mere fabrications, that they were pure lies. But, so far as I know, not a single critic today would take such an attitude. In fact, it would really be an impossible position. Think of the number of witnesses, over 500. Think of the character of the witnesses, men and women who gave the world the highest ethical teaching it has ever known, and who even on the testimony of their enemies lived it out in their lives. Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence—and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication they were trying to foist upon the world. That simply wouldn’t make sense.

The varied circumstances of the appearances and the different personalities of the witnesses militate against hallucinations or visions. Whether Thomas actually put his hand in Jesus’ wounds is not stated, but Jesus made the offer and Thomas was convinced (John 20:27). The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are a strong evidence of His bodily resurrection.

D. The changed lives of the witnesses substantiate Jesus’ resurrection.

As already mentioned, John calls attention to the fact that none of the witnesses was expecting a resurrection. Mary Magdalene thought that someone had taken Jesus’ body (20:2, 15). The disciples were fearful and confused. Thomas was depressed and doubting. But all were transformed into the bold witnesses of the Book of Acts because they became convinced that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. They were so convinced that the resurrection was true that many of them went on to martyrs’ deaths.

E. The unique person of Jesus Christ substantiates His resurrection.

Study the Gospel accounts of who Jesus was, of what He taught, of the miracles He performed, of the prophecies He fulfilled. On more than one occasion He predicted His own death and resurrection (John 2:19-22; Luke 9:22). His encounter with doubting Thomas shows that His purpose was to bring Thomas into a place of full faith in His deity (20:27). When Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus did not rebuke or correct him for overstating things. Rather, Jesus commended Thomas’ correct perception and faith (20:28-29).

A merely good teacher, especially a devout Jewish rabbi, would never accept such worship from a follower. Everything in the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ person and teaching militates against His being a charlatan or lunatic. The only sensible option is that He is who He claimed to be, the Lord God in human flesh, the Christ of Israel, the eternal Son of God. He offered Himself for our sins and God raised Him bodily from the dead.

Conclusion

In Loving God ([Zondervan], pp. 61-70) Charles Colson has an interesting chapter titled, “Watergate and the Resurrection.” He makes the point that with the most powerful office in the world at stake, with all of the privileges of power, with the threat of imprisonment, ten men in the White House could not hold together a conspiracy for more than two weeks. He then applies his experience in the Watergate cover-up to modern criticism of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection—that the disciples were mistaken, that it was only a myth or that Jesus’ followers conceived a plot to cover up His death. He concludes:

Is it really likely, then, that a deliberate cover-up, a plot to perpetuate a lie about the Resurrection, could have survived the violent persecution of the apostles, the scrutiny of early church councils, the horrendous purge of the first-century believers who were cast by the thousands to the lions for refusing to renounce the Lordship of Christ? Is it not probable that at least one of the apostles would have renounced Christ before being beheaded or stoned? Is it not likely that some “smoking gun” document might have been produced exposing the “Passover plot”? Surely one of the conspirators would have made a deal with the authorities (government and Sanhedrin probably would have welcomed such a soul with open arms and pocketbooks!)....

Take it from one who was inside the Watergate web looking out, who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is: Nothing less than a witness as awesome as the resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and Lord (p. 69).

Does the evidence about Jesus’ resurrection clear up all our doubts about God and the Bible? No, nothing this side of heaven will do that. But it does provide a solid basis for intelligent faith in those times when we struggle with doubt. To whom else will you go? Jesus alone is the risen Savior. His desire for each of us who have not seen Him is that, like Thomas, we would be believing, not unbelieving. He wants each of us to recognize that He, our Lord and God, died in our place, taking the penalty we deserved for our sin. He wants us to join Thomas in believing worship, proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

If you wait to trust in Christ until all of your doubts are cleared up, you will go to your death alienated from the Savior. There is more than adequate evidence to support a reasonable faith that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior. The question is, Will you lay aside your doubts, which serve only as excuses, and trust in Jesus as your Savior and Lord?

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person know whether his doubts are sincere or whether they are just an excuse? Are sincere doubts sin?
  2. Is biblical faith a “blind leap”? If not, how does it differ?
  3. Is it possible to live without faith in something? Are materialistic humanists purely rational? How can we witness to them?
  4. Why is it crucial to base our faith in the fact of Christ’s resurrection rather than on our personal religious experience?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1999, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Assurance, Discipleship, Easter, Empower, Spiritual Life