Doubting Thomas

In my favorite version of The King and I (the one with the shiny-headed Yul Brynner), the courtly children respond in disbelief to the very idea of frozen precipitation. The blustery king is disappointed. He has seen a picture of the Swiss Alps; of course there is such a thing as snow! Anna, the British teacher, is a little more forgiving. The children live in tropical Bangkok; they’ve never seen snow for themselves. “Never seen!” the king retorts, “If they believe only what they see, why do they have schoolroom?”

The King of Siam has entered into a longstanding debate over the value of testimony. The basic question is this: Is testimony a legitimate source of knowledge? At one extreme, there are people who believe almost anything. We call them gullible or naïve. At the other extreme, skeptics like David Hume have cast a dark pall over testimony of any kind at all.[1] According to Hume, the reports we hear from others should go into a kind of mental holding bin. We are permitted, he thinks, to adopt a piece of testimony as “proof” only when we have considered the reliability of the witness and have weighed the report against our own experiences and observations. A reliable witness is not enough. To make his point, Hume invokes an old Roman proverb: “I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato.” This would be Cato the Younger, the “Honest Abe” of his day. If Hume is right, testimony serves only to confirm what we think we already know.

Hume wields this argument in his attack on the miracles of Christ. He knows the evidence rests on the eyewitness reports of the apostles, whom he quickly penalizes for their lack of education and for living in a remote time and place. Besides, Hume has no personal experience of the dead rising from the grave, and so he has to reject the apostles’ testimony, regardless of their reputations.

Hume’s hyper-skepticism faces two critical problems. First, testimony permeates every part of social discourse. This led Thomas Reid, a contemporary critic of Hume, to uphold the role of testimony.[2] According to Reid, human communication comes to a screeching halt unless we assume that people are predisposed both to tell the truth and believe what they are told. There are liars, to be sure, and over time we may grow less dependent on what others tell us. But practically speaking, life would be very hard if we had to rely solely on our own stock of empirical observations.

Second, Hume cannot escape the clutches of testimony, even as he tears it down. (a) When he brings up Cato, he relies on the records of Plutarch, the Roman historian. Why should we trust Plutarch? (b) Hume judges the reliability of witnesses, in part, on the basis of character references. But why should we trust the people giving the character references? (c) Hume rejects the reports of miracles coming from “ignorant and barbarous nations.” But how does Hume presume to know so much about these other times and places, unless he relies on the reports of others?  And (d), Hume presumes to know that dead men have never come to life, “because that has never been observed in any age or country.” Well, actually, it was observed in Jerusalem of the 1st century. There were over 500 witnesses of the event, all of whom were available for cross-examination and background checks (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; also see Acts 26:26).

So what about those witnesses? Hume assumes they were ignorant and easily duped. A more recent skeptic, Hugh Schonfield, implicates the disciples in a cover-up conspiracy.[3] Modernist theologians reduce their post-crucifixion experiences to an existential crisis: the apostles saw Christ only through the “eyes of faith.”[4] And yet the disciples were the first to doubt. They failed to appreciate the relevant Messianic prophecies and the teaching of Jesus Himself (Luke 24:13-48). What could have changed their minds and the minds of hostile witnesses (e.g., Saul, Acts 9:3-22) other than an empty tomb and the reality of a risen Christ?

Thomas’ failing was to dismiss the testimony of his fellow disciples. He was not being asked to lie or pretend. He was not being asked to take a “leap of faith.” Of course it went beyond the pale of Thomas’ personal experiences, but he had every reason to accept the word of Peter and the others. Let me put it this way: for Thomas to reject their testimony required a bias against the truth. Not much has changed in two thousand years. Hume’s own prejudices led him to disbelief as well. And yet to doubt the resurrection of Christ is to show disregard the impeccable witness of the New Testament record.

[A shorter version of this article appeared as “Can I Get a Witness?,” in Think, March 2009, p. 39.]

[1] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, Oxford: Oxford University Press, sect. 10, part 1

[2] Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, ed. Derek R. Brooks, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1997, chap. 6, sect. 24.

[3] Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot: New Light on the History of Jesus. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

[4] Rudolf Bultmann, “Theology as Science,” in The New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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