Mercy to believe
Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday), April 19
Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 118:2-4,13-15,22-24; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31
“Famous atheist now believes in God” was the headline of a Dec. 9, 2004, Associated Press story about the conversion of an Oxford professor, Anthony Flew, from atheism to the belief that God exists. More recently, Flew described the reasons for his conversion in a book titled, “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.”
For more than 50 years, Flew publicly championed the cause of atheism. Just what prompted him to change his mind? Flew says that he simply “had to go where the evidence leads.” He now believes “that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence . . . that the universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God . . . [and] that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.”
While Flew has not yet embraced Christianity, he has written that “the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored. . . . If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat. . . . I would say the claim concerning the resurrection is more impressive than any of the religious competition.”
What is it that keeps Flew from becoming a Christian? He doesn’t like the fact that the eyewitness evidence for the resurrection wasn’t immediately written down, that their testimonies were for some 30 years passed on orally by the apostolic guardians of the Christian tradition. In his hesitancy to believe, Flew resembles St. Thomas in this week’s Gospel reading from John.
On the evening of the very first Easter, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, most likely in the upper room. They feared that, like Jesus, they would be arrested and killed.
All of a sudden, without a knock or even the opening of a door, Jesus “came and stood in their midst.” The disciples were so incredulous that Jesus felt compelled to prove his identity, showing them “his hands and his side.” Only then did the disciples rejoice.
John reports that “Thomas, called Didymus [the Twin], one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” Imagine how Thomas must have felt when told, upon his return, “Thomas, we have seen the risen Lord!”
Thomas’ skeptical response is now infamous: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe!”
Thomas often gets a bad rap as “the Doubter.” John records, however, that when Jesus had resolved to return to Jerusalem, it was Thomas who encouraged the disciples to follow him, “that we may die with him.” Later, after Jesus affirmed his return to the Father and that the disciples knew where he was going, Thomas responded, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas was no doubter. He was a principled and committed disciple who simply wanted his faith to be well-founded on the facts.
Thomas, as we know, was privileged to encounter the risen Christ — and he consequently believed. As to the rest of us (including the distinguished Professor Flew), we have received the written Gospels. John informs us of their purpose: “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”
Jesus himself pronounced a special blessing on those who “have not seen and have believed.”
Just as flesh and blood did not reveal Jesus’ identity to St. Peter, those who place their faith in Christ do so because of divine mercy. As St. Faustina reminded us, Jesus’ heart “overflows with great mercy for souls, and especially for poor sinners.” We must remember to pray for all those, like Flew, who have not yet experienced the fullness of that mercy.
Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline and assistant director of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria.