It’s Easter Sunday! Today, millions of Christians around the world will be celebrating the resurrection of their Lord Jesus. Christians don’t worship the memory of a great-but-dead leader – we follow a living Saviour. A Saviour who has conquered sin and death, and who can offer hope in this life and after this life.
My good friends Nay and Jon gave me a book for my birthday called, “Resurrection,” part of the Truth and the Christian Imagination series by Alister McGrath. In each book, McGrath takes a theme of Christian truth and brings together truth and imagination to explore it helpfully and deeply. Resurrection examines some of the details of the resurrection using art, poetry and prose.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter called “too good to be true?” based on The Incredulity of St Thomas (1621) by the Italian painter Guercino. I think the story of Doubting Thomas has inspired people over the years because he expresses doubts that all of us feel from time to time. Once the initial excitement of the news of the resurrections has subsided slightly, Thomas stops and expresses just how unlikely the notion of resurrection was. (We often think that Jesus’ followers must have been more prepared to believe in the idea of resurrection than we are, but to a Jewish mind the idea of present, bodily resurrection would have been proposterous – they would probably have been less inclined to believe it than we are).
In the picture, Jesus appears to the disciples, holding a banner representing his victory over death. Guernico captures the moment after Thomas has declared that he won’t believe in the risen Christ until he has touched his wounds for himself (see John 20v24-29). Jesus invites Thomas to do that, urging him to believe. In the Biblical account, Thomas doesn’t touch the wounds – the invitation is enough. But Guernico imagines Thomas reaching out to touch Jesus, in line with the tradition in many similar paintings.
There are several things I love about this painting. One of the disciples, standing behind Jesus, looks shocked at the impertinence of Thomas as he approaches Jesus. The shocked disciple seems to capture the shock that many of us feel at the expression of doubt, for whatever reason, whether that’s out of respect or out of the fear of the possibility of being wrong. And yet he’s standing behind the action…
As Thomas gingerly reaches out to touch his friend, other disciples look on intently to see what will happen. Could it be that Thomas is expressing niggling doubts that they had too?
But the real focus of the painting is the point where Thomas’ trembling fingers touch Jesus’ wound. The way he grips his robes and stares intently, he seems to know that this will change everything. Is this really Jesus, the one he’d followed, come back to life? Are all of the things he said fulfilled right here in this living flesh-and-blood Messiah? And Jesus stand open-armed and allows it to happen.
Maybe Thomas touched his Lord, maybe he didn’t. But I think Guernico captured something important in The Incredulity of Thomas. The truth of the resurrection isn’t just a nice story. It changes everything. The Apostle Paul said that if there’s no resurrection, the whole of the Christian faith is pointless (and Christians are to be pitied above anyone for believing the lie). This changes everything and it demands a response. As we focus on the resurrection again on this Easter Sunday, the challenge is the same. In the words of Jesus, “stop doubting and believe.”
People sometimes express pity for Thomas, that his expression of doubt has been cemented for all time in the Bible. Almost as if it’s some kind of punishment for Thomas’ lack of faith. But I think it’s there for a different reason. Thomas expresses his doubts, but he does something about them! And Jesus deals with him gently and graciously, and Thomas acknowledges Jesus as his risen Lord.
How do you respond to the news of the resurrection? It’s glorious, universe-changing, life-promising news which deserves a response. What’s yours?