The Rabbit and the Duck
"Because you have seen me, you believe.
Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe" (John 20.19-31).
These words of Jesus to Thomas can easily be taken as a kind of
accusation that seeing is easy but believing is difficult. And that
doubting Thomas has let the side down by not believing the hard way -
that is, without seeing.
That is certainly a possible interpretation of the passage from
John's Gospel. But it is one that does not bear scrutiny.
To start with, Thomas is never a doubter. He is always totally
confident of his position. At first he is a totally confident sceptic:
"Unless I see � unless I touch � I shall not believe." Then he is the
totally confident believer: "My Lord and my God!" That is the only place
in the whole of the Bible where Jesus is unambiguously proclaimed to be
God - and it is Thomas who says it.
Confident Thomas. Never a moment�s doubt.
Far more damaging to this interpretation, however, are the problems
faced by any claim that "seeing is easy" and that somehow seeing robs
faith of its saving power.
Seeing is not easy. Indeed, the evidence both of the gospels
themselves and of modern scientific study is that "seeing" is a highly
complex and difficult thing. You might even say it requires faith.
Consider first the gospels themselves, and in particular their
accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. Time and again his
disciples simply do not see him. Mary Magdalen thinks he is the
gardener, until he speaks her name. Cleopas and his companion on the
road to Emmaus think he is a complete stranger, until he breaks bread at
And even when they do see, that does not automatically mean they
According to Luke, when Jesus appeared to the eleven on the first
Easter evening they were terrified and thought he was a ghost. Even
after he had spoken to them, and showed them his hands and feet, and
told them to touch him, they were still disbelieving. And Matthew tells
us that even when Jesus met with the eleven by appointment on the
mountain in Galilee, and they saw him and worshipped him, "some
So for Thomas to see and believe immediately, all in one go, was a
remarkable act of faith even by the disciples� own standards. And as I
have said, this close link between seeing and believing is reinforced by
modern scientific study.
We are inclined to have a rather mechanical idea of how human seeing
works. We imagine ourselves to be like a camera, the passive recipients
of images of external objects. If the camera is pointing at X, then X
will appear on the photo. And likewise if our open eyes are turned
towards X, we will see X.
But that is not what actually happens. We in fact see very
little of what our eyes are pointing towards, and what we do see depends
as much on ourselves as on what is objectively out there.
This has been shown in a variety of experiments. For instance, if
they have been told to concentrate on something else, people with
perfectly good vision will completely fail to see objects displayed on a
screen - even though they are looking straight at them. And people shown
two pictures in quick succession, pictures identical except for one
major change, will as often as not fail to notice the change, even when
they are looking for it.
In one such experiment, I myself completely failed to notice that the
cliff behind a boat at sea had disappeared, and that in a view from the
driver�s seat of a car, the white line in the middle of the road - very
prominent in one picture - was missing from the other, although it was
shown only a split second later.
The relevant point here is that what we "see" is not the sum total of
what is in front of our eyes but a picture that we ourselves construct
from among the visual cues we receive.
I have given examples where the external stimulus changes and we fail
to notice it. Perhaps even more striking is the opposite case, where the
picture stays the same but we "see" it differently. In one such famous
example of such an ambiguous picture, we sometimes see a cartoon duck
looking to the left and sometimes we see a cartoon rabbit looking to the
right. Once we have "seen" both images, we can choose at will which to
"see", but nothing in the picture itself changes as we flip from one
image to the other.
We make the change. We make what we see.
I want to suggest that this kind of ambiguous picture offers us an
important insight into the relationship between seeing and believing in
the risen Jesus. The stranger on the road and Jesus breaking the bread;
the gardener by the tomb and the Lord saying "Mary"; the cartoon duck
and the cartoon rabbit.
Nothing external changes. It is what happens inside that
determines what we, or Mary, or Cleopas, "see". Call that something that
happens inside "faith". Thomas had it, and he "saw and believed".
So what of us? What does it mean for us to see and believe in the
I suggest that it is not a once-for-all act but an ongoing attitude
to the whole of life. We can see a pattern of words on the page or we
can see the Word of the Lord; we can see our lives as a random series of
events or we can see the guidance of the Holy Spirit; we can see a
spontaneous remission from cancer or we can see an answer to prayer for
healing; we can see a wasteful death or we can see a life breaking the
bonds of time and space; we can see a stranger in the town or we can see
the risen Christ.