What the Disciples’ Doubt about the Resurrection Teaches Us

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith.

St. Paul writes, “If Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” As the catechism explains,

The Resurrection above all constitutes the confirmation of all Christ’s works and teachings. All truths, even those most inaccessible to human reason, find their justification if Christ by his Resurrection has given the definitive proof of his divine authority, which he had promised.

The catechism sums it up this way: “The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ.”

 

And yet, the initial response of the disciples in the gospels was not faith, but doubt.

In the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene reports her encounter with the empty tomb and the risen Christ. The disciples heard and ‘they did not believe’ (Mark 16:11). Later, two disciples who had met Jesus on a country walk corroborated her report ‘but they did not believe them either’ (Mark 16:13).

Luke likewise records that the story of Mary Magdalene and the other women is initially received with skepticism, adding this detail: ‘but their story seemed like nonsense’ (Luke 24:11). The two followers on the road to Emmaus were rebuked for being ‘slow of heart to believe’ (Luke 24:25). And even when Jesus appeared in person to the disciples they still question what they are seeing (Luke 24:38).

The pattern persists in Matthew. The Eleven go to a mountain to which Jesus has ‘ordered’ them and He appears to them in his resurrected body. “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

The most famous story of post-resurrection doubt, of course, is that of Doubting Thomas in John 20. But rather than seeming an exception to the rule, a close reading of the other gospels suggests that Thomas’ response reflects the norm.

These accounts of doubt serve an important purpose for believers today: they legitimize the experience of doubt that most, if not all of us, have at some point in our faith journey. It is normal to doubt. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger notes in his book, Introduction to Christianity:

[T]he believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him (Introduction to Christianity, 42).

Ratzinger gives the example of St. Therese of Lisieux who confessed in her writings that “I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism.” If such a great saint as St. Therese can be assailed by doubt and if the disciples can doubt even when in the presence of the resurrected Lord in the flesh-and-blood, then, in some sense, it must be OK to occasionally experience doubt.

In fact, to the extent that doubt leads us to explore our faith further, it can end up strengthening it. In a way, this is what we see in the resurrection narratives of the gospels. Yes, the disciples are initially skeptical, but, in the end, they come to faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Authentic Christian faith is not to be confused with simpleminded gullibility, an easy credulity, or instantaneous trust. It is hard-worn, the product of long seeking with the heart and mind. That is what the resurrection narratives teach us.

And the disciples show us the path from doubt to faith:

Repeated encounters with Christ. The first thing to note is that the disciples had repeated encounters with the resurrected Christ. In John, they see him no less than three times over the course of the last two chapters. Each of those episodes is often complex and drawn-out. In Luke 24, Jesus does not simply manifest Himself to them—He instructs them in the Scriptures and eats a meal with them. In John 21, He calls out to them from the shore, gives them guidance on fishing and then has breakfast with them.

Faith needs love. At the end of John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him three times, to which Peter responds in the affirmative, thereby undoing his three-time denial before the crucifixion. Faith needs love like our bodies need oxygen. It cannot live, work, or grow without it.

Searching the Scriptures. Another common theme is Jesus’ exposition of the Scriptures. It happens on the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24, and later with the disciples (verses 44 to 47). It might seem strange: Jesus is right there, so why does He turn to Scripture to demonstrate who He is? The answer is twofold. First, ‘faith comes by hearing’ (Romans 10:17). It is not a function of sight. In order to see Jesus with the ‘eyes of faith’ the disciples needed the lens of Scripture. Second, the emphasis on Scripture makes these encounters accessible to us. If Scripture is the key to seeing Christ then we too can see Him since we certainly have the Scriptures.

The Eucharist. Jesus is constantly inviting the disciples to share in a meal. These scenes are highly suggestive of the Eucharist. It is hard to not read them that way. Jesus in His glorified body had no need of food and there are other ways He could have spent time with the disciples. Though Jesus is not present in visible bodily form we can eat the same meal. Such is the power of God that we can still taste the fullness of His presence in this way.

 

image: National Library of Wales [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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