Doubting Thomas: Chapter 13

The following is an assignment I had for my ST102 class (Trinitarianism). It is a hypothetical 13th Chapter to the book “Doubting Thomas” by John Cobb. (The book is out of Print, but I have linked a pdf copy of it here.) I highly recommend not wasting your time reading it. It’s what I would classify as trashy liberal theology designed to prey on those who have not studied historic orthodox Christianity. The author specifically excludes the viewpoint of orthodoxy in this adventure of “christology in story form.”

The plot line is that Thomas, a young seminarian, runs into a conflict with his chaplain-ess Ms. Levovsky, who doesn’t believe Jesus was or is God in human flesh and doesn’t think that such a belief is necessary to be a Christian. Thomas then goes on a quest to figure out why it is necessary for Jesus to be fully God and ultimately concludes that it doesn’t REALLY matter if he’s not. What matters is how you live in response to his teachings. (Like I said, trashy liberal theology.)   

The assignment was to write ourselves into the story as a character who represents the historical orthodox Christological viewpoint. Three additional restrictions made this paper extremely hard to write. They were (1) “It must be scrupulously fair and gracious to the people and views in the book. The purpose is to assist Thomas, not “bash” the others.” (2) “Further, focus on the doctrine of Christ in this assignment. You might be tempted to try to help Thomas with other “problems,” such as the doctrines of Scripture. Although such a paper might be interesting and helpful, it is not the specific focus of this assignment.” and (3) It must be no longer than 7 pages. I found all three of these restrictions rather limiting to the effect that I didn’t get to write the paper I wanted to. 

Anyway, this is that 13th chapter. I encourage you to think through a better question than the one “Does Jesus have to be God in flesh?” Instead think through this one: “WAS (and is) Jesus God in human flesh?”


 

DOUBTING THOMAS: CHAPTER 13: AT HOME AND A BRUNCH

Thomas rolled over to Mary’s side of the bed and fumbled for the snooze button. The alarm made his head swell with pain at every ring. Mary was not in the bed, so Thomas staggered to the bedroom door and smelled coffee brewing in the den. A note from Mary was stuck to the fridge: “Thomas. Went to breakfast with Judy before she leaves town. Coffee is in the pot. Should be home around noon. Love, Mary”

As he read the note and drank the coffee Thomas began mulling over the previous night’s clarity in his mind. It had already begun to make less sense. What he thought had come as a revelation the night before seemed now to be another step in no direction. “Yes, Jesus Christ is my one Lord and Savior,” had seemed to provide such profound clarity when he told it to Mary before going to bed, but this morning, in the light of day, he saw that he still didn’t understand what that meant. It was oddly unsatisfying. He still didn’t have an answer to the question, “How is he my one Lord and Savior?”

He squirmed in his chair, the myriad of freeing and load-lightening, life-illuminating revelations from the night before fled from him. Last night he had felt inspired by the idea of being freed from believing a particular idea about Jesus’s nature, but now he wondered why he still felt obligated to following Jesus’s teachings. The terrifying doubts he had had just after meeting with the Buddhist students fled back to his consciousness. Maybe all this stuff about Jesus is just hocum, he thought again. One thing stuck in his mind from the night before: he wanted to believe the truth. But the question remained, “Where could he look for truth?” And in particular, “Where could he find the truth about Jesus and how could he be 100% sure it was the truth?”

Just then, the phone rang. He answered. It was Stephen Curto, one of the haughtier and more annoyingly combative characters at his seminary. Thomas had sat next to Stephen through a Saturday lecture a few months ago and regretted it ever since. Stephen was kind of rude and unnecessarily suspicious of the professors.

“Thomas! Hey man, I know this may seem weird, but I heard from a friend of a friend of Chan-Hei’s that you’ve been struggling with your Christology. Just thought you might like somebody to argue it out with to get your thoughts straight. I’m always here if you’re interested.”

Always straight to arguing, thought Thomas bitterly.

“Well actually Steve, I don’t know what arguing would do to—” he stopped midsentence. Stephen was one of the most theologically conservative people he had access to. If there was anyone who would vehemently defend the Chalcedonian Jesus, it was him. If he met up with Stephen and heard his arguments, maybe he’d know for sure if he should abandon his attempts at clinging to the creeds for answers about Jesus.

“Actually, yes, I’d love to meet up with you and talk it out. Are you free for lunch or brunch or something?” said Thomas.

“Sure thing. Let’s meet at the campus diner at 10:30.”

The diner was always empty. Most of the students went to the newer coffee shop café on the other side of the campus. Stephen was sitting in the booth closest to the bar, his Bible on the table in front of him.

“Hey Thomas. Good to see you buddy. Grab a seat. Got you a water but didn’t know what else you’d want.” An empty potato skin lay crumpled on the plate next to Stephen’s Bible.

“Thanks. I’m not hungry right now. I might order something later,” said Thomas.

“So, what have you been thinking about Jesus lately?” asked Stephen. He’s nothing if not direct, thought Thomas.

“Well, to be honest, I’ve been going through a sort of crisis of faith. It all started with chaplain Levovsky. She openly denies Jesus’s deity and calls the orthodox teachings of the church a stumbling block to true faith, as she defines it. But anyway, she got me thinking about Jesus and why he has to be divine. I had always believed he was, but I’ve never really been challenged on it til now. And this line of questioning has spread into a lot of other areas of my faith, too. Until recently Christian faith seemed to make sense of my community and give me the guidance I needed for life. But now everything is crashing down around me. It seems to center on the relation of faith in Christ and other religions. I’ve always believed that Jesus is the one way to salvation. That means we need to tell people that he’s the one way to salvation and the other ways are wrong. But now I just don’t know if I can do that in good conscience, or even if I should do that.”

“Why don’t you know?” asked Stephen simply.

Thomas was a bit shocked by the shortness of his reply. “Well I’m too confused by it. How can I tell others to believe it’s true, when I’m not 100% sure it is true?” he said hotly.

“If you follow that logic to its conclusion then you’d be forced never to say anything.”

“How so?” asked Thomas indignantly.

“If the possibility of being wrong means you shouldn’t state your beliefs, then there really is no point in communicating thoughts at all, or believing anything. You shouldn’t even communicate simple observations, because they might be wrong. Can you really know the sky is blue? Might you be wrong? Might we really be living in a matrix program and this whole world is a sham that’s been pulled over our eyes to deceive us? Then why would you run the risk of deluding someone into thinking the sky is blue. You should remain quiet. But you and I can both see that the sky is blue, and it’s pretty ridiculous to say we are living in a matrix program, so we have good reason to believe that the sky is blue. We might be wrong, but until someone gives me a red pill, pulls me out of the matrix, and shows me good reasons to believe that the sky is actually pink, or green, or yellow, I should go on believing that it is blue. You see the question isn’t, ‘Can I know this for certain?’ it’s ‘Do I have good reasons to believe this is true?’ That’s the question for every belief! From belief in Jesus to belief in the blueness of the sky.”

Thomas’s head was reeling from the flurry of statements Stephen had just thrown at him, but he had tracked along. Do I have good reasons to believe this is true? That question made much more sense.

“Okay, I think I agree with you. That takes some of the pressure off.”

“Yes, and it keeps the integrity of the existence of absolute truth, while admitting the inability of humans to conceive it fully,” Stephen added.

“Right.” Thomas was a little bit lost about how to proceed as he was still processing this revelation. Fortunately, Stephen didn’t need prompting now.

“Something you said earlier caught my ear though, Tom. You said ‘Christian faith seemed to make sense of my community and give me the guidance I needed for life.’ You do realize that’s not the goal or the point of Christianity, right? That may be a secondary result of Christianity, but its point is not to give you guidance for life right now; it’s about solving the problem of death forever.”

Thomas was suddenly reminded of his conversation with Professor Wilson about the goals of Christianity. “Wait a minute, I disagree. There are a lot of Christians who care more about what happens in this life than in the next. They’re more preoccupied with serving God than they are with being saved from hell.”

“Well they’re wrong.” “What?” said Thomas. “They’re wrong,” Stephen repeated.

“How can you just so flippantly dismiss a vast majority of Christians like that?”

“I have good reasons. You can’t serve God without being saved from hell, and if you think you are serving God without being concerned with salvation from hell, you’re not doing either! The Bible makes it pretty clear from start to finish that it’s dealing with the problem of sin in humanity, and the ultimate solution lies in the next life, not this one. Jesus came to tell people about how to get into the next life and what it will be like in the next life. You get it by believing that he is the Christ, the son of God, John 20:31. It’s all right there in the textbook. You just have to read it from start to finish,” said Stephen, patting his Bible. “Creation, fall, redemption, resurrection. If your Christianity primarily is about something else, then it’s not actually Christianity. It’s a cheap imitation and it can’t save. I’m not saying your Christian faith won’t inevitably change how you live now, I’m just saying that’s neither the starting nor finishing point of Christianity. That’s not the goal. The goal is to give eternal life to as many as possible before it’s too late. I have to wonder if that’s what your Christianity has actually been based on, or if it was built on the faulty foundation of ‘having a better life’ or ‘being a better person.’ Has Christianity really been to give you, in your words, ‘the guidance you needed in life’? If so, you started your building on level two and there’s no ground floor. Only you can answer that question though.”

Thomas thought the gospel had been his foundation. Only now did he realize how most of his Christian life had been built on a vague idea of salvation, but without a clear and present need for it.

“So you’re saying I haven’t been a Christian this whole time?”

“I would never presume to know that. I’m just saying that if you have been a Christian, you’ve had a dangerous misunderstanding about Christianity for quite a while, and that’s probably what’s led to this crisis of faith. You might have built the ground floor and then balanced the whole rest of your building on the far eastern ledge where a strong wind would knock it over. It’ll do no good to strengthen the structures in the fifteenth floor where complex theories of Christology live without re-centering the whole building on the foundation as well,” said Stephen.

“That helps with one question I had. Last night I was confident that Jesus is my one Lord and savior, but then I realized I didn’t know how he was.”

“Yes. Many people often forget that the word ‘savior’ nearly always implies the word ‘from.’”

“Okay, let’s keep moving then. I agree that Jesus is my one Lord and savior from sin and death. But does he have to be divine to do that? Could a non-divine human have saved us from sin and death?”

“I don’t know what could have happened. No one does. It’s completely nonsensical to ask what could have happened and if it had to have happened that way. It tells us no new information. Could blue ideas sleep faster than Tuesday? I don’t know or care. We should be concerned with what did happen, and we determine that by looking at the evidence and coming up with the best solution based on the evidence.” Stephen was being very flippant in his rejection of Thomas’s questions.

“Okay, so you affirm the Chalcedonian and Nicene definitions of Jesus, right?” said Thomas.

“Of course I do.”

“Well, why? On whose authority are those conceptions of Jesus better or worse than Arian, Eutychian, or Nestorian conceptions of Jesus?” asked Thomas.

“Based on the evidence. The Bible is our best source of evidence, I only agree with the Chalcedonian and Nicene definitions because they seem to accurately represent the biblical picture of Jesus. I could just as easily do without those definitions, but they offer a clear systemization of the biblical accounts, so they are helpful in that regard. Were you to isolate single passages from the Bible about Jesus, the ancient heresies seem to have biblical support. But when you take into account all the evidence concerning Jesus, the Chalcedonian and Nicene definitions come the closest to accurately representing the biblical Jesus and the ancient heresies fall woefully short. Arians have to simply ignore the rest of the book of John and camp out in chapter 1. If “Logos” were the only description of Jesus present in the Bible, they might have an argument. But if they were to get all the way to chapter 10 of John they’d see that the Jews outright accused him of being God and he didn’t deny it, and they’d have to abandon their belief system and start again.”

“So you believe Jesus had to be God in human flesh?”

“Yes. If it were as simple as, ‘He wasn’t actually claiming to be God,’ then there’s no good reason he died for the claim. He could have just told them, ‘no, you misunderstand. I’m not claiming equality with God,’ and saved himself a lot of trouble. But he didn’t. He obviously considered himself equal with God, the only question left is, ‘was he correct?’ Have you ever heard of the Lewis trilemma?”

“No,” said Thomas.

“C.S. Lewis said that once we look at the claims of Jesus, there are only three options left to us concerning his nature: a liar, a lunatic, or Lord (and “Lord” here means coequal with God, Yahweh). Jesus did a lot of things that wouldn’t make sense unless he thought that he was God, and in Mere Christianity Lewis lists some of the more obvious ones. He finishes his argument with what you can do with Jesus, once you look at the evidence. ‘You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’”[1]

Thomas sat there a little dumbfounded. He didn’t think Jesus was a lunatic (most of what he said was pretty coherent most of the time), which left him with liar or Lord. If he was a liar then he would have to abandon Christianity all together. There’s no point in following the teachings of a man who you believe to be an outright liar. And if he was Lord then he was back to where he started before this whole quest began with chaplain Levovsky.

Thomas was silent again for a long while. Then, “I’m going to have to mull all this over. I appreciate you talking with me Stephen, though I don’t know if I can agree with everything, or even anything you said. I have to think about it first.”

“Please do. I would never say that you should believe something because I said it; you should believe something because it’s true. I’m always here if you wanna argue it through again or hit different points,” said Stephen cheerily. Thomas didn’t feel so cheery.

“Yeah, I’ll probably do that. Thanks. It’s all kind of a blur right now.”

“No worries. Mind if we pray before you go?” said Stephen. “Sure,” replied Thomas.

“Father, I don’t know where You and Thomas stand right now. I pray that he come to fully grasp the love You displayed through Your Son’s sacrifice and that he would build his hope on the foundation of Your Son’s gospel. We ask that you would be pleased to clarify these thoughts in Thomas’s mind and that he would come to know You better and glorify You more as a result. It’s in your son Jesus’s name and by the power of the Holy Spirit that we pray these things. Amen.”

 

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Collier Books, 1952), 56.

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