If Jesus wanted to reveal Himself to you, how do you suppose He’d do it? A South Carolina couple is convinced that Jesus is blessing them by mysteriously superimposing His fuzzy image onto a Walmart receipt. If this is the best Jesus can do, the photographic equipment at the right hand of the Father leaves a bit to be desired.

It’s easy to make fun of people such as this — and I’m not discouraging that in this case — but there’s a more interesting point to be made. Most of the time, people see what they want (or need) to see. It’s a well-known phenomenon, although it goes by different names. (This article by Michael Shermer is a good overview of the science behind it, although I have to caution that I think Shermer has a history of being too quick to dismiss everything he can’t explain.)

I’ve seen this in my own life when somebody saw Jesus’ face in a door at a local hospital. (More about that in a moment.)

This tendency to find simplistic explanations for random events affects most people. When folks just see Jesus on their Walmart receipt, it’s not a big deal. But what about cases in which people start seeing irrational things in economics (“Imports are bad!”) and then insist that society be reordered to fit their prejudices? It can lead to the idiocy of the modern state’s economic policies. What about when people see conspiracies by racial or ethnic groups (“The Jews are out to get us!”) and start trying to destroy those people? It can lead to Nazi death camps.

When I was working at my very first newspaper job — at the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, Ala. — there was a big story when some people were claiming that they saw Jesus’ face in the wood grain of a door at the local hospital. I’d never heard of such a thing at the time, so I was eager to see it. When I finally got to see the door, I saw, well, nothing but wood grain. There was absolutely nothing of interest there. But some family member of someone in the hospital at the time had a great emotional need and saw something in the door that was comforting to him. For those who chose to believe it — for whatever their unconscious reasons — nothing could shake what they believed they saw.

When it comes to the case in South Carolina, I’d ask several questions:

  • What makes the couple believe this face is Jesus? It certainly looks quite a bit like a guy with a beard, but why Jesus? Why not a random brick mason from Romania instead? How would you know what Jesus looked like on Earth? And if Jesus had taken the trouble to reveal Himself to you, don’t you suppose He would make it clear what He meant?
  • Since we know that these thermal receipts are affected by heat, isn’t it more likely that some kind of image has been pressed on top of it in the summer heat? Wouldn’t you think that the receipt might have been pressed up against a hot Sunday school book with that image (or something like that) — and then the heat transferred the image? (That’s random speculation. There are dozens of possibilities.)
  • Why do people let “news” organizations get away with this garbage? I understand why the TV people do it. They do it because you watch. But why do people who watch it not call the station and say, “This isn’t news. Quit filling my time with banal junk.” (Read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” for an excellent look at why TV isn’t capable of doing serious news and will always eventually default to banalities such as this.)

I don’t have a clue what caused the image on the face on that Walmart receipt, but I’m confident that it’s not a message from Jesus. For me, it’s just a reminder that the people around us — including ourselves more often than we’d like to admit — are going to see things that aren’t really there and judge the world in irrational ways.

Remember that the next time you find yourself thinking that “the will of the people” is a good way to dictate how everybody has to live.

Note: This story comes via Radley Balko’s always-lively site, The Agitator. His site is on my daily “must read” list. I highly recommend it.