By Paul Brand with Philip Yancey | posted 4/18/00
Isaac Newton said, "In the absence of any other proof, the
thumb alone would convince me of God's existence." After 40
years as a surgeon specializing in hands, I am tempted to
agree. Nothing in all nature rivals the hand's combination of
strength and agility, tolerance and sensitivity. We use our
hands for the most wonderful activities: art, music, writing,
Some people go to concerts and athletic events to watch the
performance; I go to watch hands. For me, a piano performance
is a ballet of fingers—a glorious flourish of ligaments and
joints, tendons, nerves, and muscles. I try to sit near the
stage to watch the movements.
Unless you have tried to reproduce just one small twitch of
the hand mechanically, you cannot fully appreciate its
movements. Often I have stood before a group of medical
students or surgeons to analyze the motion of one finger. I
hold before them a dissected cadaver hand, with its trailing
strands of sinew, and announce that I will move the tip of the
To do so, I must place the hand on a table and spend about
four minutes sorting through the tangle of tendons and
muscles. Seventy separate muscles contribute to hand
movements. But in order to allow dexterity and slimness for
actions such as piano playing, the finger has no muscle in
itself; tendons transfer the force from muscles higher in the
arm. (Body-builders should be grateful: imagine the
limitations on finger movement if the fingers had muscles that
could grow large and bulky.)
Finally, after I have arranged at
least a dozen muscles correctly, I can maneuver them to make
the little finger move. Usually, I give this demonstration to
illustrate a way to repair the hand surgically. In 40 years of
surgery, I have personally operated on perhaps 10,000 hands. I
could fill a room with surgery manuals suggesting various ways
to repair injured hands. But in those years I have never found
a single technique to improve a normal, healthy hand. That is
why I am tempted to agree with Isaac Newton.
I have seen artificial hands developed by scientists and
engineers in facilities that produce radioactive materials.
With great pride an engineer demonstrated for me the
sophisticated machines that protect workers from exposure to
radiation. By adjusting knobs and levers he controlled an
electronic hand whose wrist supinated and revolved. High-tech
models, he said, even possess an opposable thumb, an advanced
feature reserved for primates in nature. The engineer, smiling
like a proud father, wiggled the mechanical thumb for me.
I nodded approval and complimented him on the mechanical
hand's wide range of motion. But he knew, as I did, that
compared to a human thumb his atomic-age hand is clumsy and
limited, even pathetic—a child's Play Doh sculpture compared
to a Michelangelo masterpiece.
I work with the marvels of the hand nearly every day. But one
time of year holds special meaning for me as a Christian;
then, too, my thoughts turn to the human hand. When the world
observes Passion Week, the most solemn week of Christendom, I
reflect on the hands of Jesus.
Just as painters throughout history have attempted to
visualize the face of Jesus Christ, I try to visualize his
hands. I imagine them through the various stages of his life.
When God's Son entered the world in the form of a human body,
what were his hands like?
I can hardly conceive of God taking on the form of an infant,
but our faith declares that he once had the tiny, jerky hands
of a newborn. G. K. Chesterton expressed the paradox this way,
'The hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to
reach the huge heads of the cattle." And too small to change
his own clothes or put food in his mouth. Like every baby, he
had miniature fingernails and wrinkles around the knuckles,
and soft skin that had never known abrasion or roughness.
God's Son experienced infant helplessness.
Since I once apprenticed as a carpenter, I can easily imagine
the adolescent hands of Jesus, who learned the trade in his
father's shop. His skin must have developed many calluses and
And then came the hands of Christ the physician. The Bible
tells us strength flowed from them when he healed people. He
preferred to perform miracles not en masse, but rather one by
one, touching each person he healed.
When Jesus touched eyes that had dried out, they suddenly
admitted light and color again. Once, he touched a woman who
suffered with a hemorrhage, knowing that by Jewish law she
would make him unclean. He touched those with leprosy—people
no one else would touch. In small and personal ways, his hands
set right what had been disrupted in Creation.
The most important scene in Jesus' life—the one we memorialize
during Passion Week—also involved his hands. Then those hands
that had done so much good were taken, one at a time, and
pierced through with a thick spike. My mind balks at
In surgery I cut delicately, using scalpel blades that slice
through one layer of tissue at a time, to expose the
intricacies of nerves and blood vessels and tiny bones and
tendons and muscles inside. I know well what crucifixion must
have done to a human hand.
Roman executioners drove their spikes through the wrist, right
through the carpal tunnel that houses finger-controlling
tendons and the median nerve. It is impossible to force a
spike there without maiming the hand into a claw shape. And
Jesus had no anesthetic as his hands were marred and
Later, his weight hung from them, tearing more tissue,
releasing more blood. Has there ever been a more helpless
image than that of the Son of God hanging paralyzed from a
tree? The disciples, who had hoped he was the Messiah, cowered
in the darkness or drifted away.
But that is not the last glimpse in the New Testament of
Jesus' hands. He appeared again, in a closed room, just as one
of his disciples was disputing the unlikely story he thought
his friends had concocted. People do not rise from the dead,
Thomas scoffed. They must have seen a ghost, or an illusion.
At that moment, Jesus appeared and held up those unmistakable
hands. The scars gave proof that they belonged to him, the
same one who had died on the cross. Although the body had
changed in certain ways, the scars remained. Jesus invited
Thomas to come and trace them with his own fingers.
Thomas responded simply, "My Lord and my God!" It is the first
recorded time that one of Jesus' disciples directly addressed
him as God. Significantly the assertion came in response to
Jesus wounds. Jesus' hands.
Throughout all of history, people of faith have clung to the
belief that there is a God who understands the human dilemma.
That the pains we endure on Earth are not meaningless. That
our prayers are heard. In Passion, we Christians focus on the
supreme event when God demonstrated for all time that he knows
For a reminder of his time here, Jesus chose scars in each
hand. That is why I believe God hears and understands our
pain, and even absorbs it into himself—because he kept those
scars as a lasting image of wounded humanity. He knows what
life on earth is like, because he has been here. His hands
This article originally appeared in the April 5, 1985 issue of
Christianity Today. Paul Brand served for 18 years at the
this article headed rehabilitation at the U.S. Public Health
Service leprosy hospital in
Yancey, who was then (as now) Editor at Large of Christianity
Today, the two coauthored Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In
His Image, and The Gift of Pain.