Some of the long soliloquies of Jesus in the Gospel of John are admittedly complex. For example, the farewell discourse and priestly prayer of Jesus spanning over four chapters (John 14 to 17) has many layers and moving parts. The Gospel from today’s Mass (Thursday of the fourth week of Lent), in which Jesus rebukes the unbelief of many ancient Jews, also features many aspects and layers that can overwhelm us, especially if we are unfamiliar with higher forms of rhetorical argumentation.
With these concerns in mind, it seems important to spend a little time pondering what Jesus teaches in this passage, since it can seem complex to us. I will provide a two-sentence summary, then a three-paragraph summary, and finally I will focus on a particular problem that Jesus raises about the suspicious quality of our unbelief. You can read the full passage, which I merely summarize, by clicking here: Jesus Rebukes our Unbelief (John 5:31-47).
Two-sentence summary: Jesus addresses himself to our human tendency to refuse to believe in God. While it is true that some struggle to believe, and reasonably seek some degree of evidence, there comes a point at which it becomes clear that, no matter how much evidence is presented, a person simply and sinfully refuses to believe in God.
Three-Paragraph summary: Jesus rebukes the unbelievers before him by saying in effect:
Although you say you love God and have God for your Father, and you cherish the word of God and the Law of Moses, none of this is really true. For if it were true, you would listen to my Father who is speaking in the depths of your heart about me. And if it really were true that you cherished the word of God and the Law of Moses you claim to know so well, then you would see how dramatically I fulfill all that it says the Messiah and Savior would do.
Your unbelief is simply sinful stubbornness, for I have given you at least four lines of proof that demonstrate that I am both Savior and Lord. First, my Father is speaking to you in the depths of your heart, and giving you the grace to believe. Secondly I have fulfilled countless scriptures which demonstrate that I am the Messiah who was said to come. Thirdly I have worked many, many miracles in your sight that were both prophesied and are proof that I am who I say I am. Fourthly, the most credible prophet of your day, whose holiness and credibility you cannot deny, pointed to me and said I am Messiah and Lord.
Therefore, your refusal to believe in me can only be described as sinfully stubborn; as an example of hardness of heart, and that you do not have the love of God in you, neither do you trust in his word. In the end all your claims to having a special relationship with God, and love for Moses and the word will only serve to condemn you more severely. For you who should know better, simply refuse to believe. You will ultimately be held accountable for your sinful refusal to believe that I am both Savior and Lord.
Now we ought to heed well these words that are addressed not only to ancient peoples, but also to us in our current world. Though it may be true that some in our time do struggle to believe, it is even more often the case that many simply refuse to believe.
While there are many facets to this modern problem of unbelief, let’s look at one line in particular that the Lord speaks, and see how it applies in our own times. Jesus says,
I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me; yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another, and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:43-44)
Yes, here is a problem quite common today. We easily believe and accept what mere (and fallible) human beings say, but “cop an attitude” when God summons us to believe.
Consider that although we live in times in which many pride themselves on intellectual rigor, urban myths and foolish rumors are easily accepted and bandied about. There is often great credence and legitimacy given to things said by newscasters, certain populist scientists and scientific programs, and even to lesser sources such as Hollywood stars and other popular figures. So easily and quickly do many people believe almost anything said by these sources. Many assertions go almost unquestioned, especially those made by popular scientists and shows on the Science Channel and the History Channel.
Now there are facts that science legitimately presents to us that are supported by large amounts of evidence, and that ought to command some reasonable degree of acceptance from us. Yet even in the physical sciences, many theories that have had widespread acceptance in the past have come to be either significantly altered or entirely set aside. For example, even in my own brief lifetime of 53 years there have been some dramatic shifts in the sciences. When I was a child, I was taught that the universe was in a steady state. There was a theory proposed by a Catholic Priest and scientist named George Lemaitre SJ, that the universe was in fact expanding. Many ridiculed it as the “Big Bang.” By the time I was in high school, the Big Bang Theory was accepted by almost every scientist! Within the span of ten short years, a fundamental scientific premise had gone from being called ludicrous, to being called orthodoxy, and settled science.
Other basic theories and rules have also been called into question with the emergence of quantum theory. Basic axioms of Newtonian physics and even aspects of the Theory of Relativity now have more questions associated with them.
So even the physical sciences, though quite reliable in many ways, often present a moving target for some of the truths they proclaim. And yet, so easily do we simply accept as absolutely and always true whatever certain popular scientists say. Many good and thoughtful scientists are often more careful in the way they express their theories. Unfortunately, many presentations of science are flawed in that they present as certain that which is only theory and even under debate. The Science Channel and the History Channel often present scientists and theories that are more populist than true science. They speak of theories as if they were absolute facts. Thus, we are told that billions of years ago, comets rained down and filled our oceans with water; the Science Channel then obliges by showing us graphics and animated depictions of this as if it were absolutely true beyond any shadow of a doubt. We are then told that all the continents once made up one large continent call Pangaea; once again, the History Channel obliges by showing us an actual depiction of what this continent looked like, as if one could actually know its exact shape and size! The impression is thereby given that this is simply an irrefutable fact.
But the real problem isn’t the populist scientists, or the channels that want to sell ads and keep our attention. The problem is that so many of us looking at this stuff just say, “Oh, I guess that’s how it was. Look it’s right there on TV… look, the scientists are saying so.” And thus we just accept it as true, almost without question. Seldom do we pause and say, “Really? Are they that sure? What is the evidence? How certain is it?”
The same is true with so many things we hear on the news or read on the Internet. We say, “Look, it must be so; it says so right here!”
The point is, we accept so easily what is presented to us. And even if there are often good reasons to do so, because the evidence seems substantial, isn’t it interesting how quickly we “cop an attitude” when it comes to the truths of faith, and what Scripture says and reports, and what our ancient venerable faith reports as true. Suddenly, a lot of people who easily believe almost anything they see or read get skeptical and cynical and say, “Oh, no! You’re going to have to present me all kind of evidence for that! If I can’t see with my own eyes, I won’t accept it!”
Never mind that there’s lots of evidence for the truth of the Scriptures, or that creation shouts, “I was designed, I was designed!” Never mind that there are many miracles such as the Shroud of Turin, or the blood sample from Januarius the Martyr, which liquefies and boils every year on his feast day; or that there are healings, and even more exotic things like weeping statues. Never mind all that. Never mind too, that the ancient wisdom of the Church has stood the test of time as nations have come and gone. Empires have risen and fallen, political and scientific theories have come and gone, fads have become popular and then passé. “No! No matter what you tell me, I’m going to need a lot more evidence than that!”
And this suddenly cynical attitude stands in great contrast to the rather easy-going credulity that we have for things reported from far less substantial, reputable, or lasting sources.
Consider too, that the Holy Scriptures are one of the most numerous and consistent texts from antiquity. Far more ancient copies of it exist than of almost any other ancient document about any ancient historical period or person. The sources in Scripture are remarkably consistent and credible compared to those of other ancient documents. Yet look at the amount of dubious criticism and parsing of every small detail. Look at the dismissal of the Scriptures as being credible or accurate. There is more evidence by far of the existence of Jesus than of any other figure of antiquity. Yet notice that no one doubts the existence of Julius Caesar. But many simply dismiss out of hand any reference to Jesus. Many doubt that what is written of what Jesus said and did is factual; they even doubt that he existed at all. No other ancient figure or document must withstand the kind of scrutiny that Jesus and the Scriptures do. Why is this?
Yes, some of the same human beings who are so gullible that urban myths easily proliferate suddenly become hostile, prosecuting attorneys, debating every fact when it comes to believing in God.
This is what Jesus means when he rebukes us for so easily believing what someone says simply in his own name, but when God and the things of faith are involved, suddenly we are doubtful, cynical, hostile, and rejecting of evidence no matter how varied and numerous.
Jesus is pointing to the strange, obtuse, and mysterious stubbornness of the human heart. It somehow just doesn’t want to believe! So many who easily believe almost anything suddenly dig in their heels when it comes to believing in God!
Jesus is surely on point when he says to us that the problem of faith is not a lack of evidence from the outside, it is a problem on the inside. It is a problem of the human heart; it is the resistance of the flesh.
Pray for faith, pray for the grace to believe and see your faith increased day by day. Be sober that there is a strange stubbornness in the human heart towards believing in God.
Jesus directs our attention inward to our stubborn, impenitent, and unbelieving hearts, and urges us to pray. In the words of the Apostles, “Lord increase our faith!” or those of the Centurion, “I do believe Lord; help my unbelief.”
This song celebrates how creation shouts the existence of God.