Welcome to my Atheist Parables series. In the tradition of Plato, Jesus, and Aesop, I will use stories and allegory to examine issues of faith, reality and reason.
This is a parable based on the story of Thomas, from John 20. Thomas didn’t see Jesus the first time he appeared to the disciples, so he didn’t believe at first that Jesus came back from the dead. But Jesus was kind and helped him believe. What if Jesus had acted like this instead?
Jesus appeared to the disciples behind locked doors on Monday. He told them to receive the holy spirit and that he was sending them into the world. But Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus again came and stood among them.
Peter and Thomas were alone in one room of the house, when Jesus came in. Peter was overjoyed to see his friend, the Messiah, and he cried, “My Lord!”
“Peace be with you,” said Jesus. “The holy spirit is upon you.”
“Who are you talking to?” said Thomas. “There’s nobody there!”
“What?” said Peter. “Are you crazy? It’s Jesus! He’s right here!”
Thomas had a rather pained look on his face. “Peter, there’s nobody there. You’re talking to an empty room.”
“Oh, come on!” Peter cried. “Jesus, what is going on here? Tell Thomas to cut that out!”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” said Jesus. “Thomas has chosen not to believe in me, and now he can’t see me.”
“What? But Lord, you’re right here!” Peter stepped towards Jesus and took his hand, and looked at the deep scar from the nail. “Just let him put his finger in the hole in your arm, and he will believe in you and confess you as the Christ!”
“Peter, you are freaking me out,” said Thomas.
“You are one of my true disciples, because you love me and you believe in me,” Jesus told Peter. “You cannot see me and love me unless you believe in me. Thomas can make his own choice; no one can force him to believe.”
“Peter, listen,” said Thomas. “I understand you think Jesus is right here talking to you, but do you know how much stress you’ve been under these past few days? I’m afraid you need some medical help, you are getting delusional. If Jesus was really here, I would be able to see him too, right?”
“Come on!” said Peter. “Jesus, tell me something only you would know! Tell me what Thomas had for breakfast, or where he’s been today, like when you did that with Nathanael and the fig tree! Or, here, just go behind him…We’ll have him hold his hands behind his back, and you can tell me how many fingers he’s got up!”
“You have your faith, Peter; now remain in the faith.” Jesus began to grow hazy, like a picture going out of focus. “Remain in me, as I remain in you, and you will bear much fruit. And know that I am always with you, even when you don’t see.”
“Wait!” cried Peter, but Jesus had vanished.
“Peter, where is he now?” said Thomas.
“He’s gone,” Peter moaned. “He just vanished into thin air.”
“Like a spirit, huh? Or an apparition.”
“Thomas, what’s your problem? He was right here, and he talked to me!”
“And then he vanished,” said Thomas.
“He says you can’t see him because you don’t believe,” Peter insisted. “Why don’t you believe me?”
“What else did he say to you?”
“He said he loved me…he said I was his true disciple, and that I should remain in him.”
“So he was echoing what he’s already told you before.” Thomas tenderly put his arm on Peter’s shoulder. “Peter, this has been a hard time for all of us. Don’t you think I want him to be back also? But you’ve got to face reality. There was no one there talking to you just now. Your mind is inventing things to try to help you cope with the loss.
“Didn’t you notice how everything you thought that he said was things you wanted to hear from him, things you knew he was likely to say? Peter, this isn’t going to help you. We can’t just imagine that we see him to help us through this time. Jesus is dead; and we have to learn to deal with that.”
“He was here,” said Peter, and he strode purposefully out of the room to rejoin the other disciples. “Hey guys, was Jesus just in here? Alive, in the flesh, and talking to you?”
“Yeah!” “Yep, he sure was!” “We saw the Lord!”
“See?” said Peter. “They all saw him.”
Thomas sighed. “What did he say to you guys?”
“He said not to be afraid, and that he loves us!” said three or four of the disciples.
“Is that all?”
“He said ‘Peace be with you,’” said Andrew.
“I thought he said, ‘You will be my peace,’” said Phillip.
“No, he didn’t say that,” said Andrew.
“He told us to go forth into the world and make more disciples!” said Simon.
“No, he told us to wait here until he sends his Holy Spirit,” said Matthew.
“He said that whole nations would turn to Him at our preaching!” said James.
“No, he said that we would be persecuted and hated, and only a few would be saved,” said John.
“He told us to feed the poor and await his coming,” said the other James.
“He told us to take back the nation in the name of the Lord!” said Bartholomew.
“Well, anyway, he was here!” said John. “We all saw him. He says he loves us, and we will be blessed.”
Thomas shook his head. “Don’t you see what you are doing? You say he was here not five minutes ago, but not one of you can agree on what he said! The only thing you agree on is an echo of the things he already told you when he was alive! Did he eat any bread while he was here?”
No one answered. A few of the disciples looked down.
“Did any of you touch him at all? Or ask him a specific question that got an answer besides ‘I love you’?”
A few disciples shuffled their feet.
“You see? You are imagining things. This is dangerous, my friends. We have to accept the truth, or we will all end up getting hurt. Why can’t you understand?”
And so, Thomas was never able to see the risen Lord because he didn’t believe in him; and he never came to believe in the risen Lord because he never saw him.
Now, the Bible story is a lot different from the story I just told. Specifically, Jesus let Thomas see him even though he doubted. He says, “Come put your hands in the nail marks and feel my side.” Jesus does, in fact, carry out conversations with the disciples where they all can agree on what he says. He even eats with them. He does everything they could possibly want to prove he’s not a hallucination.
But today, Jesus does none of those things. We’re told by Christians the evidence for God is all around us, but we have to believe it before we can see it. We’re told that if you say you can’t hear God, it’s just because you’re not listening or because you’re letting doubts cloud your mind. In other words, the Jesus whom Christians worship today is very different from the Jesus who “proved” his divinity in the Bible.