In each of the scenes of resurrection notice the role of belief and sight in the realization of resurrection. As they believe they see what is in front of them. For Thomas, Mary, and John, in John 20, belief dawns gradually as they acquire the eyes of faith. So too with the two on the road to Emmaus: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:26-27). The story ends in a Eucharistic like revealing of Christ as they recognize the suffering, resurrected Christ in the breaking of bread. The eyes of faith have enabled them to see what is in front of them.
Gotthold Lessing, one of the fathers of modernity, asked why he should be asked to believe something which he has not seen. What we see from the resurrection accounts is that seeing is itself subject to belief. Seeing alone is not believing but the resurrection requires the eyes of faith.
As is obvious in the case of David Friedrich Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann their belief in autonomous human reason, a closed Universe, did not allow for belief in the resurrection. If the universe is a closed continuum of events in which everything is explained by cause and effect – this rules out resurrection and miracle while it establishes autonomous human reason. Belief in the resurrection will turn this sort of world upside down.
But this is not simply true of modernity – it is true of every worldview – the resurrected Jesus changes up everything. Even in the lives of the Apostles belief in the resurrection changes everything and they do not get to this belief on the basis of their former understanding. James thought Jesus was insane, Paul persecuted Christians, Peter denied Jesus. Each was changed by his belief in the resurrection.
The claim to behold Jesus’ “glory” (1:14) in the events of Jesus historical ministry is theological as it already entails the vision of belief. John refers not to a single, visible transfiguration such as appears in the Synoptics, but overall to Jesus’ ministry. The same event (miracle or sign) falls either on blind eyes or on those eyes that can see the glory of God. And so it is in the resurrection appearances, belief brings about recognition of Jesus, and not the other way round.
While experience (firsthand vision) speaks of knowing, belief is the only means of appropriating the Word of God even when the living word stands before you. A common characteristic of the proto-Gnostic groups John is writing to combat was the teaching that the realization of gnosis (esoteric or intuitive knowledge) is the way to salvation of the soul from the material world. Knowing is the means to escape death and the material world. The proto-Gnostics would know, while Jesus in John counters this knowing with belief and through belief an alternative knowing arises. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (Jn 5:24).
There is an incapacity to hear where there is an insistence on sight (the auditory is displaced by the visual in priority as in Gen. 3) while the capacity to see Jesus in his resurrection glory is enabled not directly by sight but by hearing and belief. (Mary does not recognize Jesus until she hears him speak her name. Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (Jn 20:16).) John’s vision is a reversal of pagan vision in that the locus of this vision is on one in this world seen rightly, while pagan vision entails seeing beyond this world – a certain blindness to this world.
John is distinctive not for advocating knowing or seeing God but rather for claiming that the locus of revelation is in Jesus. The theme of seeing the divine was pervasive in Greek and Hellenistic Jewish spirituality. For example, Middle Platonists such as Philo of Alexandria and later Maximus of Tyre emphasized the soul’s vision of the divine, an experience of the divine that increasingly divinized the soul. In contrast, the eyes of the disciples have been prepared by the incarnation to see the resurrected Jesus. The beatific vision of God was one that some ancient thinkers associated with the time of death or the end of time. The defining point for John is in fact when they see God in Jesus who had come in the flesh (1 John 4:2).
Depicted in John is the ongoing battle between knowing, seeing, believing and the darkness and the light. The darkness constitutes the cosmos of man without God and the light of Christ is penetrating this darkness and yet the darkness has not “comprehended” or overtaken it. By the end of the Gospel the light is firmly established. In I John 2:8 he proclaims that “the darkness is passing by and the true light is already shining.”