Is Seeing Believing?

In a large lecture hall at a university, 400 students waited for their psychology professor to begin teaching. Suddenly, a dark-haired man in a flannel shirt ran into the room, stole a student’s backpack, and ran out. The students were shocked by what they had just witnessed as the professor turned on the microphone and explained the situation.

“Don’t worry, everyone! We have everything under control. We just caught the backpack thief running outside the building, but we need your help to properly identify him.”

Then, the professor brought four men into the room from a side door, and they stood in a line on the stage. Each had dark hair and was wearing a flannel shirt. One shirt was blue, another green, one was red, and a fourth was brown. The professor asked the class which man had taken the backpack.

A few students thought it was the man in the blue shirt. Several more thought it was either the men in the green or red shirt. But by far, most of the students were convinced it was the man in the brown shirt.

“Well, you’re all wrong!” the professor revealed. Then he said, “Come out, Johnny!”

Suddenly, a fifth dark-haired man emerged from the side door. He was wearing an orange flannel and holding the student’s backpack.

The professor had arranged this demonstration to show students how faulty memories can be. Humans are actually very good at piecing together puzzles, but we don’t always remember things perfectly. Additionally, we are quick to trust people when they offer us certainty. The students believed that one of the first four men was a backpack thief because they trusted the professor. However, their instructor had intentionally withheld the full truth from them to teach them a lesson about the limitations of perception and memory.

In the four Gospels of the Bible — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — there are four “different” accounts of how the disciples came to know about the empty tomb. Matthew reports that “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled away the stone, and then sat on it” (Matthew 28:2 BSB). After this, the angel spoke to two women, instructing them to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. One of those two women was Mary Magdalene.

In Luke, we are told that the women gave this report to the disciples, but “their words seemed like nonsense to [the men], and they did not believe the women” (Luke 24:11 BSB). Immediately, Peter got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself if what they had said was true. However, even seeing the empty tomb did not convince Peter. Instead, Luke reports that “after bending down and seeing only the linen cloths, [Peter] went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:12 BSB).

Just imagine how these women must have felt. It is likely that they began to doubt themselves. Had they really seen an angel, or were they crazy? Perhaps their emotions were just out of control. After all, they had been through a lot recently. It must have been traumatizing to see their beloved friend Jesus whipped, crucified, and stabbed in the side with a spear just a few days ago. Women get hysterical, right?

John explains that Mary followed Peter to the place where Jesus had been buried. After Peter left, she remained in the garden, weeping outside the tomb. Again, Mary was greeted by angels who were sitting inside the tomb, who asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:15 BSB). Mary replied, in tears, “Because they have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put Him!”

Consider how Mary must have been feeling. When she had first come to the tomb earlier that morning, she expected to find Jesus’ dead body. Instead, she found that the tomb was empty, and an angel told her that Jesus had risen from the dead. Filled with excitement, she went to tell the disciples, but when they did not believe her, she began to doubt herself. After accompanying Peter to the empty tomb, she must have looked like a crazy person, and the other disciples had told her that what she had said was nonsense. Surely she must have felt hopeless, depressed, defeated . . . even crazy.

Finally, a man appeared behind Mary, and she thought he was what the Bible calls “the gardener.” To use a modern-day example, he might have been like the man who mows the cemetery lawn. Mary spoke to this “gardener,” saying, “Sir, if you have carried Him off, tell me where you have put Him, and I will get Him” (John 20:15 BSB).

Finally, Jesus spoke to her, saying, “Mary.” It was then that Mary looked up and saw that Jesus was standing before her, alive — not the gardener!

Eventually, Jesus did appear to the other disciples — including Peter. However, not everyone was immediately convinced of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, even though Thomas has a reputation for being the disciple who would not believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he was able to place his fingers in the nail holes, the truth is that none of the disciples believed Jesus had risen from the dead until they had seen him face-to-face.

There are many times in life when we have reasons to doubt what we have seen, heard, and experienced. Sometimes, things happen to us that other people will never believe — at least not until they experience the same things themselves. At such times we can feel alone, ridiculed, and insane.

Remember the story at the beginning of this article? It is true that the classroom full of students was not able to correctly identify the backpack thief, and this example is often provided to teach us not to trust what we see with our own eyes. However, we are seldom told to pay attention to the most important character in this anecdote: The lying professor.

You see, the instructor knew that he was lying to his classroom, but they had no reason to doubt that he was telling the truth. He had built their trust during the semester, and he was speaking with authority as their teacher. Using that established trust, he told them that the thief had been apprehended, but he intentionally withheld important information from them so that they would doubt their own eyes. In a word, he deceived them.

Despite this, the entire classroom really did know the truth of what had happened. They saw that a thief had stolen a backpack. The professor’s deceitfulness was used to cause them to doubt themselves. With his lying tongue, the professor was trying to convince them not to trust what they had seen and heard.

It’s important to trust your experiences. We don’t always remember everything perfectly, but God has given us eyes, ears, and a brain so that we can see, hear, and remember. Often, people will not believe us. Sometimes, people will even try to deceive us. At these times, we may even question our own memories, and this can make us feel crazy — like we aren’t even allowed to trust our own experiences.

The term gaslighting is used to describe when people intentionally dismiss our memories of what has happened. Often, this term is used to explain how evil people manipulate the memories of others for selfish reasons. However, gaslighting is not always intentional. Sometimes people “gaslight” us about our memories simply because they don’t believe that something we experienced really happened. Sometimes people don’t believe us because they don’t want to accept the truth of what we have said.

Mary’s example teaches us that well-meaning people — including Peter the Apostle chosen by Jesus — can treat us badly when they do not believe us. Our friends, family, and church communities sometimes have difficulty accepting what we say. Instead, we hear things like this:

That didn’t happen.

You’re imagining things.

That was just your perception.

Unfortunately, it is all too common that we have to experience isolation, disbelief, and rejection from our closest friends before Jesus appears to us, face-to-face. Although we walk in the shadows of uncertainty about what we have seen and heard in this life, there will come a day when we, like Mary, will see our Lord standing before our very eyes. On that day, we will know that everything we have experienced has served one purpose: to draw us closer to him.


[Do you need to talk with someone about things you have experienced that are difficult for others to believe? People may not believe you, but it is very important to trust your inner voice. If you need support, click here to set up an appointment with a Christian counselor].

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