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“Are You a Doubting Thomas?”
John 20:19-31


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Second Sunday of Easter—April 7, 2013

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

About ten years ago a movement began in Britain and spread to the United States called the “new atheism.”  This movement is based on the idea that in the past atheists have been too polite, and because they didn’t want to offend people they have given in and tolerated religious expression.  The new atheists are instead supposed to be uncompromising, “in your face” with their hostility toward anything religious.  They are sometimes called “militant atheists,” or ironically even “fundamentalist atheists,” because they reject religion with a fundamentalist fervor.

For example, a few years ago, before the holiday season one new atheist leader advised that true atheists should not participate in any way in holiday festivities that have a religious element, such as a family Thanksgiving dinner where grace might be said, attending a Christmas program or concert, putting up decorations, exchanging gifts, or singing Christmas carols.  Another new atheist leader said that if you feel you must attend Thanksgiving dinner, you should use the opportunity to start a debate about religion with other family members.  Another thing new atheists have been advised against is attending weddings or funerals, even of close family members, if it will be a religious ceremony.

It’s probably not surprising that such off-putting, “in your face” tactics haven’t been very successful attracting and converting people to the new atheism.  If fact, a recent study showed that Christianity remains by far the largest religion in the world, and is growing faster than ever.  So, lately, the new atheist leaders have been trying a different approach. 

They boldly assert that it’s doubtful Jesus of Nazareth ever existed, even as a historical figure.  In a recent interview with an American magazine a British professor who is the most prominent new atheist asserted, “The evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky.” 

However, he is a biologist, not a historian.  Perhaps he should stick to biology, because from a historical standpoint the assertion that “the evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky” is ludicrous.

First of all, there is the overwhelming evidence of the New Testament manuscripts.  You may have heard of the famous fire which destroyed the ancient library at Alexandria, Egypt.  Because of such disasters we have very few copies of most ancient writings, and those we do have usually date from thousands of years later.  We have only seven copies of works by Plato, the oldest dating to 900 A.D., some 1,200 years after Plato; ten copies of works by Caesar, the oldest dating to 900 A.D., some 1,000 years after Caesar; 49 copies of works by Aristotle, the oldest dating to 1100 A.D., some 1,400 years after Aristotle; and it’s the same with most other ancient authors.  Yet no one doubts the historical existence of figures such as Plato, Caesar, or Aristotle, or says that the evidence they even existed is “surprisingly shaky.”

In contrast, museums and libraries around the world have tens of thousands of ancient, handwritten copies of portions of the New Testament.  The oldest is from the Gospel of John and dates to 120 A.D., only about 30 years the Apostle wrote his Gospel.  The New Testament, which tells the story of Jesus, is in fact the very best attested document from the ancient world.

There are also many ancient references to Christ and Christianity outside the Bible, by secular historians, and in Jewish writings.  Finally, there are numerous ancient inscriptions testifying to the early Christians, and their faith in Jesus.  In 1945 an undisturbed tomb was discovered near Jerusalem.  Coins found inside dated the burials to 50 A.D., less than 20 years after the events of the first Easter. Two of the stone caskets are decorated with Christian crosses and inscriptions, much like we put on tombstones today.  One inscription says “Jesus, help,” and the other “Jesus, let him arise.”  Jesus once said that the “stones will cry out” in testimony to him, and that’s exactly what’s happened with these stone caskets and many other ancient inscriptions.

“The evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky?”  What’s surprising is that an educated person would make such a ludicrous statement.

Well, it’s easy for us to stand back and look critically at such outlandish assertions as claiming that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.  But, it’s a lot harder for us to look critically at ourselves, and admit that like the Apostle Thomas in today’s Gospel Reading, we too have doubts.  “Are You a Doubting Thomas?”  Yes, at times you are a doubting Thomas, and at times I am a doubting Thomas.  For, we are sinners, and doubting and rejecting the Lord and his word is really the most basic sin.

That was actually the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, doubting and rejecting the Lord and his word.  And, just like with them, that one sin of doubting and rejecting the Lord and his word leads us into all sorts of other sins in our lives.

In Romans the Apostle Paul explains the real significance of the Easter holiday we just celebrated: “Jesus our Lord . . . was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”  On the cross Jesus suffered and died to atone, make amends, for your sins, and not only yours but also for the sins of the whole world.  The book of Acts says, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. . .  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”  “Therefore,” Paul continues in Romans, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That’s what it’s all about—that’s the real meaning of Easter, Christ, and Christianity: You are at peace with God through your Lord Jesus Christ.

Once a man came asking Jesus to heal his sick son.  “Lord, I believe,” he cried out.  “Help me to overcome my unbelief!”  Make that your prayer when you are tempted to be a doubting Thomas: “Lord, I believe; help me to overcome my unbelief!”

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’  Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’  Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Amen.

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