I’ve wondered from time to time what it must have been like on that first evening when Jesus, raised from the dead, appeared in the house where his followers were gathered. More particularly, what it was like a week later when he appeared again, this time to invite sceptical Thomas personally to examine his wounds.
I like Thomas. He was an honest sceptic. He wasn’t going to be taken in. He wanted to believe but he wanted some evidence to give him a sound reason for believing that Jesus was indeed risen.
These stories raise the question of faith – is faith a blind leap or an expression of ignorance and stupidity, or of evil intention? Recent writers among the New Atheists have stridently proclaimed Christian faith to be all these and more; something quite poisonous. Or, is it really something much more reasonable, noble and sensible than that?
Alister McGrath is an Irishman, currently Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London and head of its Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture. He’s a Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Until 2008, he was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. And to that imposing CV can be added an equally impressive list of books that deal with Science and Religion.
One of his books, “Surprised by Meaning: science, faith, and how we make meaning of things”, published in 2011, tells something of his own journey to faith in God. As well, it offers both a critique of the factual foundations and arguments of some of the most prominent New Atheists and thoughtful arguments for the reasonableness of Christian faith.
In a Chapter titled “Musings of a Lapsed Atheist” he tells how he shared the mood of the late 1960s when “a surge of secularist euphoria swept across Western Europe and North America”. Sociologists were predicting that belief in God would disappear and be replaced by secular ways of thinking and living. Science would explain everything. McGrath says he enthusiastically shared that prospect.
As a young man he won a scholarship to study Chemistry at Oxford. In preparation for going up to the university he began to read works dealing with the history and philosophy of science. The result was that seeds of doubt were planted in his mind as to the nature of his Atheism. He began to think that perhaps he had misunderstood the nature of the claims of science. By 1971 he was convinced that the case for atheism was less substantial than he had believed. He writes “Finally I realised that atheism was actually a belief system, although I had assumed it to be a factual statement about reality. In the end, I turned my back on one faith an embraced another. I turned away from one belief system that tried to deny it was anything of the sort, and accepted another which was quite open and honest about its status. My conversion was an act of free-thinking. I believed that I had found the best way of making sense of things.” “Science”, he says, “cannot deal with questions of meaning or value: it can only deal with matters of fact”.
On that momentous evening when Thomas stood before the man with whom he had been an intimate friend and whom he knew had been put to death by Roman crucifixion, he was experiencing those things that are the subject of the scientific endeavour: he was seeing, touching, hearing, and interacting with Jesus. He was verifying the fact that he was alive. But then came the next step, what was the meaning of this presence, and what should he do in the light of the information his senses were gathering? That next step is expressed in his memorable words: “my Lord and my God”.
As a simple illustration of the situation that mere facts only take us part of the way McGrath gives, as an example, the nature of water. The chemical formula for water is H2O. That is true, but it does not give us a reason for living or, for that matter, for drinking water.
He recalls a conversation with an atheist after a debate, He says: “He was a very courteous and gracious person, who explained to me that he did not believe in God and did not believe he needed to believe in God. What gave his life purpose …was the goodness of human nature. Without this philosophical and moral lodestar, his life would have no purpose. I told him my belief in God was a bit like that. He smiled and shook his head. “I have no need of faith”, he told me. I pointed out, in what I hope was a gracious and kindly manner, that as a matter of fact he did have faith. Whether he liked it or not, he had faith in the goodness of human nature. I explained that it was not a faith that I felt I could share with him. And I told him why. I spoke of the profound ambiguity of human nature and the horrors that human beings inflict on each other. I spoke of Auschwitz and nuclear weapons. I just couldn’t share his faith. Maybe we are capable of doing good; but we also seem to be capable of doing evil. I couldn’t share his belief in the goodness of human nature. It didn’t square with the evidence.
“I pointed out how I and many others believed that democracy was better than fascism, that liberty was better than oppression. These were passionate and deeply moral beliefs. Yet they could not be proved to be true. So, I asked my friend, was I wrong to hold them? “No”, he replied, adding that he believed these things himself…. I left him with the thought that the things that really matter in life are ultimately matters of faith. They can’t be proved but we continue to believe in them and are justified in doing so… His final words to me as we parted were simple: “I’ve got some thinking to do.””
Karl Marx famously announced that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature… It is the opium of the people”. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 knew from experience what it was to be stifled intellectually by Nazism and Stalinism. He wrote “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged”. Does this best accord with our innate moral sense or must we reluctantly admit that a final accountability to Someone beyond ourselves is the only thing that keeps us from the practice of evil on the widest scale? Are the New Atheists in fact the sellers opium of a particularly powerful kind to our generation?
There are many who see the deep human desire for something better than the prospects of a meaningless, painful and ruthless world as something more than that – a signal, in fact, about something that lies beyond us. Does our longing for significance speak of being created for something better than we know now? The resurrected Jesus who stood before Thomas was displaying fresh possibilities that lie before all humans who will turn back to the One from whom they have strayed and open themselves up to His promise of a new life and a new heaven and earth.
McGrath argues that in the end all the really important issues about life and meaning are ‘faith-based’. They cannot be proved like 2+2=4. One must take the evidence that life presents and seek to discover what makes the greatest sense of all the clues.
And what are some of those clues? That the cosmos is considered to have had a definite beginning, that the universe appears to have been shaped to allow for the development of human life, that we carry an innate sense of a difference between right and wrong, and that our minds comprehend the mathematics that seem to lie at the heart of reality.
As we see Thomas engaging with Jesus, we see a human being becoming involved in a relationship which would change him and his world forever. Millions after him who would not have the same experience he had that night, have never the less discovered the reality of the same risen Lord in their lives.
C. S. Lewis, once an atheist himself said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
The most important things in life are not open to the sort of proof that we rightly look for in issues of science. I know my wife loves me, not by some mathematical formula, but by a myriad of actions and attitudes, which theoretically could be designed to deceive me, but which I choose to accept by faith because of her character and life pattern.
The conviction expressed by Thomas opens a way of approaching life that gives a meaningful and satisfying framework to understand, and perhaps better still, to live with all the realities of life.