Evidence and presence
On resurrection morning Mary had met the risen Lord, the other women had met him that morning too. There was so much to think and talk about that day, but the disciples had other more pressing concerns. The absence of a body put them in considerable danger: the Pharisees already saw them as enemies and would not hesitate to attempt to have them ‘removed’ if they were likely to attempt to make claims about a risen Lord.
- Another appearance
On the evening of resurrection day, the disciples were together in a locked room; they really did fear the Jewish leaders. John simply records that ‘Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘peace be with you.’’ What a remarkable event! Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side – these were the places of significant injury following the crucifixion. Neither John nor any of the other gospel writers actually say that Jesus still bore the marks of the nails in his hands and the spear in his side, but it seems most likely that he was indeed showing them his scars. In fact Luke (chapter 24) records that Jesus invited them to examine his feet too. This was physical proof of his identity and of his suffering. Luke records that when Jesus appeared to the disciples, they were initially fearful, but when realization came, they were overjoyed! We should note that he appeared with them in spite of locked doors – in his risen form he was not bound by the normal physical dimensions we live within (see below for more on this). Likewise, when Jesus spent time with the two men travelling on the Emmaus road, he revealed his identity to them and afterwards, Luke records that he ‘disappeared’ from their sight.
What now? There was work to do: ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ Jesus was sent by the father to preach the gospel of the kingdom to Israel. Now the work would continue: the disciples would also be sent. It’s worth noting here that the commission given to the disciples bears some connection to the work we are asked to do too, but there are differences. We discover (in Acts, Matthew and Mark) that the disciples were asked to start their preaching in Jerusalem, they were to baptize and their work was to be accompanied by miraculous signs. This indeed did happen, but the outcome in Jerusalem was not at all positive: the Jews once again rejected the message. After Stephen addressed the Sanhedrin he was murdered. It seems that at this point, things took a new turn: the apostle Paul was converted and he specifically stated that his ministry was to Gentiles, he also specifically stated that he was not sent to baptize. Whilst some miraculous events took place in Paul’s day, the pattern was of progressively fewer miracles as Paul’s work amongst Gentiles proceeded.
Having told the disciples about their new work, John records the following: ‘22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’’ We know that the disciples were informed later (see Acts 1 and 2) that although John baptized with water they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. For now however, the disciples were to receive the Holy Spirit, perhaps in preparation for the work they were to do once Jesus had returned to heaven. There was also some sort of authority imparted to the disciples to forgive sin. It’s not entirely clear what this means, but perhaps it is related to the initial ministry of the disciples to Israel, you may recall Peter’s message to the Jews at Pentecost: ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
- Doubting Thomas
The disciples had met the Lord, no doubt about that! However, one of their number had been absent from the group on that evening of resurrection day: Thomas. On hearing the reports of the other disciples, Thomas was unimpressed: ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ Thomas has been much criticized for his lack of faith and doubt, but I find myself having some sympathy for him. He simply wanted to be convinced. Some Christians seem to think that there is something laudable to in faith exercised in the absence of evidence and reason. I think this is quite wrong! Faith rests on evidence and reason. If there is no evidence that a person in whom we put our faith is trustworthy and reliable then there are no grounds for faith.
A week later, the disciples were together again. Thomas was present this time and once again the doors were locked – the threat from the religious authorities remained. Again, and in spite of locked doors, John records that ‘Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’’ Now you can imagine how Thomas felt when Jesus looked straight at him and said, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Gulp! There is certainly a gentle rebuke here, but there is also an invitation to examine the evidence. Come on says Jesus, check out the evidence, you wanted to check for yourself now be my guest! I believe that in a sense we too are invited to examine the evidence – and quite right too! Those who honestly seek the truth will not be disappointed! Thomas did not need to touch the hands and side of the Lord – the evidence was clear enough!
Thomas’ response is of some importance, he simply says ‘My Lord and my God!’ A lot of people have struggled with the idea that Jesus is man and God, and his position within the Godhead as son has made some people feel that he is not God, but here are the words of a doubter who comes face to face with the risen Lord – ‘My Lord and my God!’ Did Jesus tell him off for this statement – not a bit of it! There can be absolutely no doubt that Jesus is God.
- Locked doors
You will have noted that Jesus appeared to the disciples in a room, which had the doors locked. John specifically mentions this on both occasions. Jesus appeared amongst the disciples in spite of the locked doors and seemed to depart in the same way he came! In addition, we note that when Jesus met the two on the Emmaus road that he ‘disappeared’ from them. Why did John feel the need to mention this and what could be its significance?
A parable will help to throw some light on these strange events (with acknowledgments to the late Prof AE Wilder-Smith*).
Flatland is a place of just two dimensions, length and breadth – there is nothing of what we know in our world as height or depth. The flatlanders move freely around their land within the boundaries ABCD as depicted in Figure 1.
Wilder-Smith in his original (and much more extensive) story notes with some amusement that the female inhabitants of Flatland are characterised by acute angles and the males by obtuse angles. As you can see, the flatlanders may move freely around their country in any direction but not upwards or downwards, as their world exists in only two dimensions. Flatland is flat!
Now imagine for a moment that a barrier is constructed in Flatland as depicted by the line EF shown in Figure 2.
It becomes immediately clear that the Flatlanders bounded by the AEFC area are unable to have anything to do with those bounded by the EBDF area. Why? Because they can neither step over the barrier nor burrow underneath it – they are restricted to Flatland in which height and depth do not exist. Wilder-Smith describes this as an ‘event horizon’ – nothing can be exchanged across the event horizon and indeed, it is almost as though those one side of the event horizon are effectively dead to the other side: they can neither see nor communicate with those on the other side of the event horizon.
At this stage, a strange phenomenon occurs in Flatland (see Figure 3).
Two objects appear! The remarkable thing about these objects is that they appear to have arrived in Flatland independent of any agency in Flatland. The Flatlanders consider the appearance of these two objects to be ‘acausal.’ Just as the two objects appeared acausally, the Flatlanders were equally astounded when the two objects disappeared apparently acausally too! Being a highly ‘scientific’ group of people, the Flatlanders find this phenomenon highly strange! Moreover, since they are materialistic scientists (restricting the scope of their enquiries and source of explanation to their Flatland world) they are confident that given the right opportunity, they are adequately equipped to engage in a scientific enquiry to enable a rational explanation to be found for the appearance and disappearance of these two strange objects.
Fortunately, just such an opportunity arises as the two objects suddenly reappear in Flatland. The Flatlanders appoint two of their best scientists and equip them with the best scientific instruments available. They then seal the Flatland scientists inside a specially prepared event horizon – in fact, a double event horizon (Figure 4) – to ensure that the objects have no means escape. The Flatlanders give the scientists one week to complete their studies after which they will open up the seal and all will be revealed.
After precisely one week, the double seal is broken to reveal two mystified scientists! They report that just a few moments after they are sealed-in, the two objects disappeared and did not return! In spite of their scientific instruments, they were unable to make any meaningful assessments of the two objects and they report that the objects appeared and disappeared acausally! Wilder-Smith’s parable is completed when a wise semi-retired scientist offers an explanation that is at first ridiculed by the Flatlander scientist community. He offers the explanation that outside of Flatland there exists a world with, what he calls ‘altitudo’ – depth and height to us. He explains that from a Flatland perspective the objects appear and disappear acausally but in fact in the world normally inhabited by the objects there is simply no mystery at all. The point is that from a Flatland scientific perspective, the objects appeared without a cause, but only because the Flatlanders were restricted in both their thinking and their scientific method (restricted to two dimensions).
I hope that the application of Wilder-Smith’s parable is quite evident to you by now. Materialistic scientists a priori limit the scope of their investigations to the dimensions we inhabit. They deny any possibility of a creator agency who is outside the scope of our dimensions. Thus, in spite of the impossibility of self-assembly of atoms and molecules to form complex biological systems, they say biology has happened and must happen by the application of time, energy and chance on matter. Biological systems and organisms simply sprout from matter – it has to be this way, as their assumptions prohibit the possibility of an external agency (outside of our dimensions). This is not only dumb, but it leads to some of the bizarre assertions that there simply must be life ‘out there’ and the even more bizarre spending of billions of pounds on efforts to contact the little green men!
For those who have recognised the possibility of other dimensions and the truth of a creator God, the parable of the Flatlanders serves as a helpful explanation of the phenomena observed by the disciples as they met in that room with the doors locked. The appearance of the risen Lord in the room, in spite of the locked doors is not so surprising. The Lord simply stepped from one unseen dimension into our observed dimensions. He did this more than once and indeed, the bible contains many examples of interventions by the creator of the world we inhabit.
What about now? If Jesus could step into the world of the disciples and appear before them, it seems to me that there is no limitation on him being as near to you now as a person sitting next to you! He has chosen not to revel himself just yet, but his presence is near. Shouldn’t this thought not only alter our perceptions of God and Jesus, but also change the way think and live too?