Through a Tortilla Darkly
by Patrick Lafferty
Jesus said to [Thomas], “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Quick—What do these all have in common: a potato chip, an iron, a block of plywood, a tortilla, a frying pan, a rotting banana, and a Cheeto? Each have been found sporting an unexpected, uncontrived image of Jesus, or so some have claimed. To be sure, most of these alleged apparitions seem more like fortuitous smudges than divine signs. Score one for Rohrshach’s theory of how the mind interprets random phenomena? You decide, though coloring yourself incredulous would not make you a cynic.
We can all relate to the disciple Thomas’s incredulity when he hears of the resurrection, and yet disbelieves the account. Claims of unprecedented occurrences naturally provoke skepticism, particularly if the claim calls for us to risk something important in response.
What the other disciples who had seen the risen Jesus were asking Thomas to believe entailed more than mental assent—nothing so inconsequential as believing that in fact Jesus’ face had miraculously appeared on a tortilla. This belief would compel Thomas to make good on an earlier demonstration of apparent faith: “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” said Thomas in response to Jesus’ willingness to risk confrontation back in Judea (Jn 11:16). Now, something more than bravado would have to compel his commitment.
If Jesus had indeed risen, then the world had indeed changed. Sin had been forgiven. Now death had been overturned. A new era had begun. Former allegiances would now have to become subservient to submission to the only One who had followed through on His promise to rise from the dead. One doesn’t conceal the report of resurrection, and especially if belief in the One who rose afforded new, true, and eternal life in communion with the God who authored life. Belief in His resurrection would compel Thomas (and us!) to give testimony to its truth and imitate the life of the One who was raised.
Still, John includes Thomas’s disbelief in the account for a reason, and not primarily to throw Thomas under the bus. For Jesus isn’t against validation of extraordinary claims. If He were, why appear at all after His resurrection to the women, the disciples, the pair on the Emmaus road, the nearly 500 Paul mentions? Why voluntarily show the disciples His hands and His side—the very thing Thomas insisted upon later—if He were entirely opposed to substantiating claims with evidence?
Jesus isn’t against evidence, but He’s also for belief on the basis of what we cannot entirely see or verify. In fact, He says we’re blessed if we do not see and yet believe. There’s the nub: why are we blessed who have not seen, yet believe? We understand that we must believe without seeing to have life in His name (John 20:31), but why is it profitable to do so?
Chrysostom argued the reward for faith is inversely proportional to the amount of evidence provided. Augustine seconded that notion, saying that confidence in God may be just as powerfully wrought in those who have not seen as in those who had. Calvin suggested that belief by faith demonstrated a better form of trust in certain matters because it bases its confidence, not on one’s own frail faculties, but on the very Word of God. (Eve’s fundamental error was in trusting her own senses more than God’s instruction.)
All these reflections posit the profitability of faith. I’d like to posit another reason for faith’s goodness—a reason derived from our earthy world of Cheetos and frying pans, potato chips and rotting bananas.
You will never walk down a nuptial aisle, nor cradle a newborn child, nor befriend a quirky neighbor, nor pull off to aid a stranded driver, nor send a son or daughter off into the big, wide world unless you believe in what you cannot see, unless you trust that doing so isn’t worthless. Each of those moments requires love because each demands risk. You cannot see the outcome of your actions. So waiting for complete knowledge before you participate precludes participation. It precludes love. Such is the nature of love—normal, everyday expressions of love.
So what Jesus asks of us is not as foreign to normal life as you might think. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe, because only then may they engage in love—what love requires and what love can, so to speak, deliver. If God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and for love God sent His Son (Jn 3:16), then only by the faith that love demands can you begin to understand God. Only then can you begin to know what it means to commune with Him. You can never love if you make perfect insight your criteria for expressing love. You can never know God if you make perfect insight your criteria for life (Heb 11:1,6).
What must you believe Him for at this hour? What struggle, what choice, what lingering thought calls for you to believe God has done magnificently for you and whose love is enough for you? You cannot now see Him as He sees you, but it is not unreasonable—not abnormal—to trust in His love which is believed by faith.
We reasonably smirk at the attempts to see Jesus in a tortilla. But dare we dismiss the idea of believing Jesus by faith in light of what we know of love?