Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Walking through walls

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn 20:19-29).

Here's an issue I come back to every so often because it's crucial to the integrity of the Resurrection. 

1. Many readers take this to mean Jesus could walk through solid walls. And certainly that's a logically possible inference or possible interpretation of the text, considered in isolation, although it reflects a lack of imagination to think that's the only explanation. 

2. However, that, in itself, isn't the nub of the issue. It wouldn't surprise me if Jesus can walk through walls, just as it doesn't surprise me that he can walk on water. He's omnipotent. He performs nature miracles. He made the world!

Usually, the interpretation goes beyond the bare claim that Jesus passed right through a solid wall or door. Rather, it's the additional claim that he could do so by virtue of his glorified body. That the Resurrection conferred properties on his body which transcend normal physical limits, so that solid walls and doors pose no barrier to his body. 

One problem with that explanation is Jesus walking on water. That was prior to the Resurrection. So if you chalk that up to something special about his body, then it's not because the Resurrection enhanced his body to perform these paranormal feats. 

3. But in addition to that is a contextual issue specific to the Resurrection appearance. In my experience, readers who think this means Jesus, by virtue of the Resurrection, now had a special kind of body, stop at that. They use that to explain his access to the Upper Room, but theythat don't take it to the next logical step as we move further into the narrative.  

In the account, Thomas is incredulous when the disciples relate the Resurrection. The claim is so stupendous that he can't take their word for it. He can't believe a secondhand report. No, he has to see Jesus for himself. Not just see him but test his tangibility. Prove that he's not a ghost. That he has a fleshly body which still bears the imprint of his crucifixion wounds. 

When, however, Jesus appears to him in person and calls his bluff, Thomas is so overwhelmed that he declines to take him up on the offer. His original challenge was bravado. Now he's seen enough.

But suppose Thomas had taken Jesus up on his offer. And suppose Jesus has the kind of body that can pass through solid objects. 

When Thomas tries to feel the wounds, his hand passes right through the hand and side of Jesus. Isn't that what we'd expect given the logic of the interpretation under review? Normally, one solid body can't pass through another solid body. If they have similar density, they block each other. 

What's the difference between Jesus passing through a solid object and a solid object passing through Jesus? If the body of Jesus can pass through a door, won't the hand of Thomas pass through the body of Jesus?

I'm not being rationalistic. I'm taking the interpretation to a logical conclusion. I'm applying the principle consistently. 

But if the hand of Thomas passed right through the body of Jesus, like thin air, that would sabotage the demonstration of the Resurrection. That would mean Jesus is indistinguishable from a ghost. Which is surely the polar opposite of what the account is meant to demonstrate. 

So the popular interpretation, however well-meaning, is short-sighted and self-defeating. You can only defend that interpretation if you think the narrator invented a story that's incoherent and counterproductive. 


  1. My first impression, and my default since then, was that he teleported from somewhere else, not that he phased through the wall. It seems to me that the account intends for us to regard the doors as constantly locked, but if not, then I suppose he just knocked on the door, they opened it, and he came in and theh locked it again.

    1. Yeah. Me too.

      Before the resurrection Jesus is with the disciples 24/7. He ages. He hungers. He feels pain.

      After the ressurection, Jesus almost immediately ascends to Heaven. The post ressurection appearances are strictly "fly in - fly out" visits from Heaven.

    2. Another option is like Peter's jailbreak where locked doors/gates miraculously open.

  2. Jesus did not ascend to heaven until 40 days after his resurrection. Acts 1 makes this quite clear, and the fact that he was with them so often in the meanwhile allowed him to show by "many infallible proofs" that he was risen. It is actually an important part of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection that it be distinguished rather sharply from the ascension. The ascension is a kind of corollary of the bodily resurrection--*since* Jesus was raised in a literal body that ate, drank, and walked around on earth, he *had to* ascend into heaven as a separate event in order to explain the fact that he is *not around* in a literal, bodily sense in the rest of the book of Acts. The fact that he comes and goes much more abruptly and does not appear to be with his disciples as often after his resurrection doesn't mean that he had already ascended.

    1. I disagree Lydia. In John 20:17 Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him as he has not yet ascended to the Father. But later the disciples are able to touch him. In between, he has ascended to the Father.

      I agree with the commentators who say the Ascension was so the post Resurrection appearances didn't just fizzle out.

    2. I very strongly disagree. That comment to Mary has been, of course, discussed by commentators repeatedly, but I can't see any reason to think that he means that people in general aren't supposed to touch him until after he ascends. If anything, the fact that the disciples are later invited to touch him argues against that interpretation of the statement to Mary! Scripture should interpret Scripture. The wording of Acts 1 also argues against it: "all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. 3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God."

      The scriptural references to the ascension consistently portray it as a single event happening at a single point in space-time and present Jesus as in an important sense present on earth *until* the ascension.

      Of course Jesus' words to Mary about not touching him are cryptic. No one denies that. But to interpret them as you do requires quite implausible interpretations of other Scriptures. One interpretation that does not seem improbable to me is that he tells her to stop clinging to him rather than just not to touch him at all. (That is in fact a legitimate translation of the Greek phrase.) While one might still wonder why he would relate the command not to cling to him to the prophecy of his ascension, it does mean that there was not a general taboo on touching him prior to the ascension, which would prima facie contradict the later injunction to the disciples to touch him. The Greek word in Luke 24:39 is a completely different term from that in the prohibition to Mary. And the injunctions to Thomas in John 20 are very specific--put your finger here, etc.