What Does It Mean When the Scriptures Say That the Apostles Worshiped the Risen Jesus but That Some Doubted?

There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that can seem puzzling:

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted (Matt 28:16-17).

What is this doubt to which the text refers? It is all the more perplexing if we recall that this is not the first time the apostles had encountered the Risen Lord. There are almost a dozen other documented appearances (in Scripture) of Jesus to some or all of the disciples before this final one, which takes place just before His ascension. Why do they still doubt?

The Greek word translated as “doubted” sheds more light on the meaning: it is distázō, which more richly means to “waver” (from dís, (two) + stásis, (stance)). So, the Greek describes having two different stances or vacillating between two positions. Thus, the apostles are not necessarily being described as stubbornly doubting or refusing to believe. It is more likely that they are struggling to believe or understand.

But the question remains, why?

Perhaps we ought to remember that we have the advantage of two millennia of reflection on Christ’s resurrection. For the apostles, the resurrection challenged everything they knew and had experienced. There is a scene in Mark’s Gospel that points to this:

As they were coming down the mountain [of the Transfiguration], Jesus admonished them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this matter to themselves, questioning what it meant to rise from the dead (Mark 9:9-10).

It certainly helped that they had seen both Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain raised from the dead, but those were different; this was Jesus rising by His own power.

Further, the resurrection narratives indicate that there was something mysterious and supernatural in the manifestation of Jesus’ glorified body. Some don’t recognize Him at first. He is not a ghost or an apparition because they can touch Him, and He eats and drinks with them. However, He can appear and then disappear suddenly. So, He is among them, but sporadically and mysteriously.

Thus, there is something quite human in the apostles’ response. How does one get his mind and heart around so startling a mystery? Consider what questions must have been in the mind of each of them: Who is this? Is Jesus a ghost? No, because I can touch Him. It is clearly Jesus, but something seems different about Him. Am I really sure it’s Jesus? Am I dreaming? I can’t just go and see Him now on my own terms, as I did before, because He appears and disappears at will. What does all this mean for me? He keeps saying that He will send the Spirit, who will explain everything. When? How?

Thus, what we are reading is a portrait of quite human apostles, who are trying to process an astonishing event that was previously unimaginable. So remarkable is it that they vacillate, even after having seen Him. At one point, Peter even ponders returning to fishing (See John 21:3).

Jesus does not seem troubled by their “doubt” or wavering; He gives them the great commission anyway:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20).

Jesus knows that their doubts will be clarified soon enough, when He sends the Holy Spirit to remind them of everything He said (John 14:26), glorify Him in their minds (John 16:14), and lead them to all truth (John 16:13).

Indeed, after Pentecost, the apostles are changed men; they show no wavering or doubt. As we make our way on our journey, the Holy Spirit confirms our faltering faith and makes it more steady, strong, and sure. It is for us to continue to grow and to allow the Holy Spirit to quicken our faith. It is crucial, for the great commission is still upon the Church.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does It Mean When the Scriptures Say That the Apostles Worshiped the Risen Jesus but That Some Doubted?

A Powerful Parable Against the Premises of Unbelief

blog 062115There are many reasons for the unbelief rampant in our times. Among them is the claim by some that because they do not see or hear evidence of God or an afterlife, our belief in these is just wishful thinking on our part so as to avoid the conclusion that everything ends with our death, that this world is all there is.

A parable currently circulating on the Internet addresses this sort of unbelief. A Facebook friend (Vicki) called it to my attention. I have adapted a bit and will present it to you here. Some sites indicate that the original author is Útmutató a Léleknek, while other sites are silent as to the source. I am only adapting it here because I have seen various forms of it and am not sure of the original. Nevertheless it is an effective parable in its essence.

Prior to having you read it please recall the nature of an analogy or a parable. An analogy presents a thing or a scenario that is “like” another one, but not exactly the same. The word parable comes from the Greek word para (alongside) + bole (to throw). Thus a parable is something that is expressed in terms of something else. It is “thrown alongside” in the sense that it is not exactly the same, but similar to what is described. The comparison discloses both the strengths and weakness of what is compared.

Many today misunderstand this and so when an analogy or parable is presented, dismiss it since it is not an exact fit. But as we’ve seen, an analogy or parable is not intended to be a perfect fit; it is intended to compare things that are merely similar.  In the story that follows, we who live in the world are compared to two babies in the womb of their mother. The babies debate whether there really is anything or anyone outside the womb.

Now it is true that this world is “like” a womb, but not identical to it. Further, God is not a mother gestating us in her womb. He is Father and Creator, raising His children. But the story you are about to read is not about the nature of God per se, but about the argument that God and life after death do not exist merely because we cannot see them or because no one has verifiably claimed to have returned from Heaven to tell us all about it. So the analogy is about the argument over the existence of God and the afterlife, not about the nature of God.

So please consider this before commenting (in the comment box) that God is Father, not mother. Whether the original author meant this or not, I do not mean it in presenting the story.

With all that in mind, I present the story. The paragraphs are numbered for reference.

  1. In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other, “Do you believe in life after delivery?”
  2. The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. It seems we are obviously here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later and that we have capacities that are meant for something greater than here.”
  3. “Nonsense!” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What makes you think there is?”
  4. The second said, “Well, I am going to suppose that since we have eyes and legs and mouths that there is a world outside that has more light than here so that we can see, and where will walk about with our legs, and eat with our mouths. I mean, why would we have legs if we weren’t ever going to walk, or eyes if we weren’t ever going to have light and see?  Maybe there will be many other things that we can’t understand now.”
  5. The first replied, “That is absurd. Your are just engaging in wishful thinking and hoping that things will get better. This is all there is. Who needs to walk? And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. And since the umbilical cord is so short, life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
  6. The second insisted, “Well I think there is something more than this, outside and beyond this womb. Some sort of longing is in my heart to see and walk freely and to eat and enjoy things. I mean, why would we have these legs and eyes and mouth and hands? And where did we get the longing to use them if we weren’t meant for something more? Indeed, maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
  7. The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
  8. “No,” said the second, “Surely we will meet our mother and she will take care of us.”
  9. The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in a mother? That’s laughable. If a mother exists then where is she now?”
  10. The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are from her and it is in her that we now live. Without her this world we are in now would not exist.”
  11. Said the first, “Well I don’t see her, so it is only logical that she doesn’t exist.”
  12. To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when I am in silence and I focus and really listen, I can perceive her presence, and hear her loving voice, calling down from above.”

Not a bad analogy in parable form (remember, no analogy is perfect)! Here are a few thoughts on how to apply it more specifically to our situation.

In sentence #2 the believing infant says, It seems we are obviously here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later and that we have capacities that are meant for something greater than here. This translates to the fact that, as Scripture says, God has put the timeless in our heart (Eccles 3:10). In other words, we can universally imagine concepts outside of the physical word and our experience, such as the timeless, and the concept of perfection is an indication that we are called to know, see, experience, and “walk” in these one day. The infants in the womb have eyes that are made for the light, but they cannot see while in the womb. But their eyes point to the purpose for which eyes are made. Their legs are made to walk, and thought they cannot walk now, their legs point to the reality for which they are made. That our desire is infinite points to the fact that there is some One who exists to fill that desire. This logic of a capacity pointing to a fulfilment of its object is taken up in sentences #4 and #6 as well.

Sentence #5 addresses the “wishful thinking” charge. The fact is that so-called “wishful thinking” imposes demands that move beyond merely trying to please myself with wishful thoughts. Thus, if I have legs and can one day walk, I must develop that skill and then take the risk of walking. If I can see, then I must accept the responsibility of one who sees and make changes in my life based upon it. Thus the Christian vision of eternal life and a higher call are not just wishful thoughts; they are demanding thoughts. They impose on us a requirement to prepare for and strive for higher things.

Sentences #9 and #11 take up the argument that if I can’t see something with my physical eyes or weigh it on a scale then it doesn’t exist. But of course many things exist that cannot be seen. I cannot see my thoughts per se. Neither can I see justice with my eyes. I can see their effects, but I cannot see them. It is like this with God. His effects are everywhere evident in what He has made, as is the intelligence and reason with which He made them. That things work predictably and in an orderly way is the basis of the scientific method. Some intelligence ordered all this with logic and suffused it with an intelligence that is intelligible. So I do not see God, but I see His effects, just as I do not see my intelligence or thoughts but do see their effects.

Sentence #10 reminds us of the fundamental question that most materialists and atheists refuse to answer: Why is there anything at all? We argue that things exist as coming from the One who is Existence Itself. But how does an atheist argue the effect of existence? Whence its cause?

Sentence #12 reminds every believer that he must be able to render an account for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Indeed, I will testify that when I still my soul, I do hear God’s heartbeat. I see Him in what He has made. And when I pray, I am heard. He is changing my life and I cannot account for the new man I am except that God lives and is changing me, molding and fashioning me into the man He has made me to be. I have tested His word and found it to be true. He lives and so I live!

How say you?