Like Thomas in the Bible, we tend to think that seeing is believing. Thomas insists, “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.” (John 20:25). We are often the same.
We live in a skeptical and cynical age. Few people tell the truth and fewer expect the truth to be told. Facebook is Fake News. Politicians lie. Everyone has an agenda. Truth simply doesn’t matter. And so, we are skeptical. Cynical. It’s hard to believe anything unless it’s staring us straight in the face. And in a culture like this—how could I possibly believe in a God I can’t see. He just sounds made up.
Our worldview doesn’t help, either. Most of us have grown up with materialism: the belief that nothing exists beyond the material world; that we live in a closed universe; that all reality is found within the four walls of the material realm and that anything outside of it is simply make-believe. This is the air we breathe. So how can we believe in an invisible God who is Spirit? We can’t see him—how can he be real?
We think seeing is believing—just like Thomas. But we’re also very different to Thomas. Because Thomas did get to see. He saw Jesus’ hands and feet. He touched Jesus’ side. He believed because he saw. But we can’t do that. None of us get to see Jesus today. I’m happy for Thomas that he believes when he sees—but how does that help me? How can I believe when I can’t see?
The apostle John was well aware of this dilemma when he wrote his gospel. He was writing to believers who never got to see what he saw. He was asking his first readers to do what we must do today—to believe without seeing. It sounds impossible. And so, John includes what Jesus says to Thomas after he believes:
Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)
What an incredible statement. Not only does Jesus make it clear that you can believe without seeing, but that you are blessed if you do! This seems so foreign from our expectations and experience and yet Jesus says that it’s true. Jesus promises us that we can believe without seeing. And He’s right. Here is why …
Seeing is not believing
First, we need to dispel the myth that seeing is believing. It isn’t and it never has been. The evidence for this is found in the people who did see Jesus. Many people have said to me before, “If I could just see Jesus I would believe in him.” In my braver moments I reply, “No you wouldn’t—if you saw Jesus, you would kill him!” Because that’s what people did. Thousands of people witnessed Jesus perform miracles impossible to man. And yet it was those same crowds that cried out for his crucifixion. Seeing is not believing: just look at those who saw Jesus and did not believe.
Jesus demonstrates this himself in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man descends into hell and pleads with Father Abraham to let him go back and warn his brothers, so that they will not end up there,
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to them, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:29-31)
In this parable, Jesus makes clear that someone could witness the resurrection and still not believe. Why? Because seeing is not believing.
The real reason
But this raises a question. If seeing is not believing—then what is the real reason why people don’t believe in God? And Jesus tells us: people don’t believe because they simply don’t want to believe.
In John 7, Jesus’ brothers urge him to “show himself to the world”. They thought that if people just saw Jesus—and in particular his miracles—they would believe and follow him. This is what we often think as well. But Jesus rebukes them: “the world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” (John 7:7)
Jesus knows that the world will not accept him and He knows that it has nothing to do with whether they see him and his miracles or not. The real reason that the world will not believe in Jesus is that it hates Jesus. If Jesus were to sing to the world’s tune, it would believe in him in a second. But because Jesus testifies that their works are evil, they hate him. And that is the real reason why they don’t believe in him. They don’t want to.
Later in the same chapter Jesus challenges the religious leaders with this truth:
My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. (John 7:16-17)
The person who wants to do God’s will believes in Jesus. The person who wants to live their own way won’t. And this is exactly what we see in the rest of the chapter. The Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus is shown to be completely unfounded. Even one of their own, Nicodemus, thinks they are being unfair. Despite all the evidence, they refuse to believe simply because they don’t want to believe. Their unbelief is not based on reason but rebellion. They want to live life their own way.
And this is true for our world today. You could see Jesus every day of your life and still not believe in him. The Pharisees didn’t. Jesus’ own brothers didn’t. The real reason why people don’t believe in Jesus is that they don’t want to.
Hearing is believing
So, if seeing is not believing, how can I believe in God?
One of the wonderful things about God is that he never leaves us in the dark. He doesn’t just tell us where to go but also how to get there. And the same is true for faith. Consistently throughout the bible, God teaches us that seeing is not believing: Hearing is believing. This is what Paul says:
Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 emphasis mine).
You could not get a more unambiguous verse about how to believe in God. God tells us plainly: Faith comes from hearing!
When we struggle with our faith, we can often forget that God instructs us in how to believe in him. And He teaches us that real faith comes from hearing the word of Christ. This doesn’t mean that all who hear will believe. Many heard Jesus’ words and still rejected him. But this is how the Holy Spirit brings people to faith and maintains our faith: Not by seeing Christ, but by hearing the word of Christ.
In John 4, we see a contrast between those who hear and those who see. An entire Samaritan village come to faith in Jesus, and they explain to the Samarian woman how this happened:
We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world. (John 4:42 emphasis mine).
Not one miracle is recorded while Jesus stayed in that village. And yet they believed in him when they heard the word of Christ for themselves. Hearing is believing. Contrast this with the Jewish village that Jesus visits next. An official begs Jesus to heal his son, and Jesus rebukes them: “Unless you people see signs and wonders … you will never believe”. (John 4:48 emphasis mine).
The Jewish town would not believe without seeing. But the Samaritans show us that faith comes through hearing. The organ of faith is not the eye, but the ears.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed
Jesus offers an incredible promise at the end of John’s gospel: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:21)
Do we really believe that? It is so easy to think that if I could just see God, that would solve all my problems. But it won’t. It won’t actually help you to believe in him. But hearing the word of Christ will. When we struggle to believe, we need to look to the bible and not to the heavens.
Immediately after Jesus’ words to Thomas, John explains that He wrote this gospel “…so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The gospel is what God has given us to believe. This is so liberating, because you have the gospel. You don’t need look anywhere else. You don’t need anything more. You can believe in God without seeing him. Faith comes through hearing. And those who hear and believe will be blessed.