Jesus on Faith – Part 4

Stig Martinsen made a plausible objection to my argument for the idea that Jesus viewed giving EVIDENCE and ARGUMENTS as compatible with promoting FAITH:


I have seen the story of doubting Thomas in John 20 interpreted as an example of Jesus endorsing faith as opposed to belief grounded in evidence. I.e. 20:29:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.

Though other interpretations are possible, this is related to the distinction McCormick is making. Though Jesus here isn’t even content to add faith on top of the evidence; he elevates faith above belief grounded in evidence, and denigrates Thomas for seeking more evidence. I wonder what W.K. Clifford thought of this passage! (Of course John is very likely a later and more theologically elaborated gospel than the synoptics, but modern believers are no less likely to quote from it for all that).


I have three concessions to make to Stig Martinsen, and then three points in reply to his objection.

First, I admit that the Gospel of John is near and dear to many Christian believers, especially to Evangelical Christians. So, John Chapter 20 is at least as important to sincere Christian believers as is Luke Chapter 24.

Second, since I do not believe the N.T. to be the inspired Word of God, I do NOT assume that there is just one single conception of “faith” that is consistently held and promoted by the various authors of the N.T. So, the Gospel of John might well present a different conception of “faith” than what we find in the Synoptic Gospels. This is probably in fact the case, since (a) the word “faith” is found in a number of the sayings and comments of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, but NEVER occurs in the Gospel of John, except in the NIV translation of John 12:42, where the narrator (not Jesus) uses the word, and (b) In The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, the article on “Faith” is divided into two parts:        1. Faith in the Synoptic Gospels and 2. Faith in the Gospel of John.

Third, some Christians do interpret John 20:29 as portraying Jesus as scolding or chiding Thomas for demanding extra evidence of Jesus’ resurrection and that Jesus is praising others who will believe in the resurrection without such evidence.  This includes the great N.T. scholar, and expert on the Gospel of John, Raymond Brown.

In my view Jesus did not appear to his disciples on Easter Sunday, not even in visions or dreams or hallucinations. The stories of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in Luke 24 and in John 20 are fiction, and thus neither passage provides factual data about the historical Jesus, assuming that there was such a person. However, what is most important here is NOT what the historical Jesus believed and taught, but the influence of the representations of Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels on shaping Christian thinking about “faith”.

I have three counter points to make in response to the reference to John 20:29:

  • The Role of Signs in the Gospel of John in General
  • The Role of Evidence in the Faith of the Disciples in John 20
  • An Alternative Interpretation of John 20:29

1. The Role of Signs in the Gospel of John in General

John 20:29 needs to be understood and interpreted in relation to the context of this verse.  The basic context is the whole Gospel of John, and, interestingly enough, the purpose of this Gospel is stated immediately after John 20:29, in verses 30 and 31 at the very end of Chapter 20 (New American Standard Bible, EMPHASIS added):

30 Many other SIGNS therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.

31  but THESE have been written THAT you may BELIEVE that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that BELIEVING you may have life in His name.

As mentioned above, the word “faith” never occurs in the Gospel of John, at least not on the lips of Jesus.  Instead, the central word is “believe”.  The purpose of the Gospel of John is to promote the belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”.  In other words, the purpose of this Gospel is to promote FAITH in Jesus.

How does the Gospel of John attempt to bring about this FAITH?  What is the method or strategy used?  Verse 31 tells us that “these have been written that you may believe…”  To what does the pronoun “these” refer?  It clearly refers back to the “signs…Jesus…performed in the presence of the disciples” in verse 30.

What is a “sign”?  The word “sign” like the word “believe” is a key word in this Gospel, and a key theme of this Gospel is the description and presentation of “signs” Jesus performed.  Nearly all of the “signs” described in the Gospel of John are MIRACLES.  Thus the word “signs” appears to be a shortened form of the O.T. expression used of the miracles of Moses:  “signs and wonders” (compare John 4:47-49 with Deuteronomy 4:33-35, 6:21-23, 26:7-9, 29:2-4, and 34:10-12).

There are seven key miracles described in this Gospel in Chapters 2 through 11, which cover Jesus’ ministry.  These miracles are called “signs” by Jesus, by other Jews, and by the author (or narrator) of the Gospel of John:

1.  Turning Water into Wine (2:1-11)

2.  A Nobleman’s Son Healed (4:46-54)

3.  Healing at Bethesda (5:1-20)

4.  Five Thousand Fed (6:1-14)

5.  Jesus Walks on Water (6:16-21)

6. The Blind Man Healed (9:1-17)

7. Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead (11:38-48)

So, let’s summarize the purpose of the Gospel of John, in accordance with the stated purpose in verses 30 and 31 at the end of Chapter 20:

To persuade and encourage readers to have FAITH in Jesus (i.e. to “believe” that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God) by describing and presenting reports of MIRACLES (i.e. “signs”) performed by Jesus in the presence of his disciples.

In other words, the Gospel of John is basically a very early attempt at Christian Apologetics!  It is an attempt to present EVIDENCE in order to create  or encourage FAITH in Jesus.  Thus, the very purpose and strategy of the author of the Gospel of John runs contrary to the definition of “faith” suggested by Russell (firm belief for which one has no evidence) and contrary to the definition suggested by Grayling (belief that is in the face of contrary evidence).

This understanding of the purpose and strategy of the Gospel of John is supported by the way that “signs” (i.e. miracles) performed by Jesus are repeatedly presented as evoking “belief” (i.e. faith in Jesus).  After the story of Jesus turning water into wine, the author/narrator says (EMPHASIS added):

11 This beginning of His SIGNS Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and MANIFESTED His glory, and His disciples BELIEVED in Him.  (John 2:11,  NASB)

The story of the second great miracle by Jesus reported in the Gospel of John ends this way (EMPHASIS added):

53  SO THE FATHER KNEW that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives”; and he himself BELIEVED and his whole household.

54 This is again a second SIGN that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.(John 4:53 & 54, NASB)

Jesus comments on his third miracle (the healing at Bethesda), again indicating a connection between the miracles and belief (EMPHASIS added):

20: For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and GREATER WORKS than these will He show Him, THAT YOU MAY MARVEL. (John 5:20, NASB)

A few verses later, Jesus makes another similar comment (EMPHASIS added):

36 But the TESTIMONY which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the WORKS which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very WORKS that I do—TESTIFY ABOUT ME, that the Father has sent Me.  (John 5:36, NASB)

The story of Jesus feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread ends with this comment (EMPHASIS added):

14 Therefore WHEN the people SAW the SIGN which He had performed, they said, “THIS IS TRULY THE PROPHET who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14, NASB)

While the word “belief” is not used here, we are given the expression of belief (or faith) by some of the people who (allegedly) witnessed this miracle.

Later, Jesus is speaking to some of the people who witnessed this miracle and he urges them to believe in him (EMPHASIS added):

26 Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw SIGNS, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.

27 Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”

28 Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”

29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you BELIEVE in Him whom He has sent.”

30 So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a SIGN, so that we may see, and BELIEVE You? What work do You perform?  (John 6:26-30, NASB)

There is no miracle reported in Chapter 7, but we do find another mention of the connection between “signs” (miracles) and “belief” (faith):

31 But many of the crowd BELIEVED in Him; and they were saying, “When the Christ comes, He will not perform more SIGNS than those which this man has, will He?”   (John 7:31, NASB, EMPHASIS added)

In the story of the man who was blind from birth who was healed by Jesus, we are again reminded of the connection between miracles and faith in Jesus:

15 Then the Pharisees also were asking him again how he received his sight. And he said to them, “He applied clay to my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”

16 Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such SIGNS?” And there was a DIVISION among them.

17 So they *said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him, since He opened your eyes?” And he said, “HE IS A PROPHET.” (John 9:15-17, NASB)

The Pharisees say that Jesus is “not from God” but others, including the healed man, conclude that Jesus is from God, based on the “signs” or miracles Jesus has performed.  The Pharisees later interrogate the healed man a second time, and he re-states the reasoning about why he and others believe that Jesus was from God:

30 The man answered and said to them, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes.

31 We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him.

32 Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.

33 If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33, NASB)

This man is “put out” of the synagogue because of his faith or belief in Jesus, which is clearly based on an alleged miracle.  Jesus hears about the man being kicked out, and returns to clinch the deal (EMPHASIS Added):

35 Jesus heard that they had put him out, and finding him, He said, “Do you BELIEVE in the Son of Man?”

36 He answered, “Who is He, Lord, that I may BELIEVE in Him?”

37 Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.”

38 And he said, “Lord, I BELIEVE.” And he worshiped Him. (John 9:35-38, NASB)

So, yet again, the author of the Gospel of John points out a connection between “signs” (miracles) in verse 9:16, and the result that people “believe in” (have faith in) Jesus in verses 9:16-17 and 9:35-38.

The final great miracle of Jesus’ ministry that is reported in the Gospel of John is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  It is this miracle, according to the Gospel of John, that leads to the decision of Jewish leaders to have Jesus killed. In the midst of performing this miracle, Jesus himself points to the connection between miracles and faith in Jesus (EMPHASIS added):

41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.

42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, SO THAT they may BELIEVE that You sent Me.”

43 When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” (John 11:41-43, NASB)

This connection between miracles (“signs”) and faith in Jesus (“believe in Him”) is reinforced by the discussion of the Jewish leaders in making the decision to seek to have Jesus killed (EMPHASIS added):

45 Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary, and SAW what He had done, BELIEVED in Him.

46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done.

47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many SIGNS.

48 If we let Him go on like this, all men will BELIEVE IN HIM, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:45-48, NASB)

Thus, not only is it the explicitly stated purpose of the Gospel of John to present reports of Jesus’ miracles in order to promote FAITH (belief) in Jesus, but the power of Jesus’ miracles to persuade people to have FAITH in Jesus, to believe in Jesus, to believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, is emphasized over and over again in Chapters 2 through 11, which cover the ministry of Jesus.

In short, the context of Chapter 20 verse 29 is that the bulk of the Gospel of John is basically a presentation of EVIDENCE for the divinity of Jesus, EVIDENCE in the form or miracle reports that are intended and expected to persuade people to believe in Jesus, to have FAITH in Jesus.  Therefore, the idea that there is something wrong or shameful  about asking for EVIDENCE in order to believe in Jesus or have FAITH in Jesus runs contrary to the basic purpose and strategy of the whole Gospel of John, and to the repeated theme emphasizing that the miracles of Jesus were intended to evoke faith, and often succeeded in doing so.

To be continued…