“Doubting Thomas” tends to get a bad rap, but is that fair?
24Thomas (who was called The Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the others when Jesus came, 25so the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord,’ but he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26A week later His disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
On the day of His resurrection, Jesus came to visit the gathered disciples in a locked room in Jerusalem, but, for some reason, Thomas wasn’t with them. This one disciple had not returned to the room but might well have been planning for his return to his former life, now that his leader had been killed and buried, or been out getting some food for the gathered group. After all, a dead leader can’t lead, can he? Someone has to provide food and drink. When Thomas rejoined the group he was enthusiastically told that Jesus had been present in that room while he was absent. For Thomas, however, the reality was that Jesus had died on the Friday afternoon, and it was now Sunday evening.
Thomas’ absence was no accident. The lack of personal encounter with the risen Christ is something with which we are all too familiar. Like so many millions of people since, Thomas couldn’t come to grips with the idea that a man who had been killed on a Friday could walk into a room full of his followers on the following Sunday. He had one factor in his experience that we haven’t had: he had seen and heard the very human being who had been crucified, so to accept that his Lord and Master had appeared in real flesh and blood afterwards was something for which he needed more proof than the word of his friends.
Was there an expectation, among the disciples, that Jesus would make another appearance in that upper room the following Sunday, and so Thomas was determined not to miss out on meeting his Lord and Saviour if that were to happen? There is no parallel for this story, in the other gospels, so it is likely that John, writing more than a generation later, created this double encounter to help us with our belief struggles.
As soon as Jesus had greeted the other disciples once more He turned to Thomas, not in a highly critical way to chastise the errant one, but in love. “Come, Thomas, feel the wounds in my body; put your hand in my side, and believe.” Unlike when we encounter someone who will not believe what we have been saying, there is no judgement against Thomas. He needed a bit more help to come to a realisation that something which was hard to believe had happened had actually happened.
What this passage screams, for me at least, is Christ’s acceptance that some of us need to ask questions, and to get answers to those questions, in order that our experience of reality might be enhanced to include what happened at that time. If we have never seen someone who has risen from the dead, and our experience is that everyone dies, and that’s the end of that person’s life, how can we take on board not only that it is possible, but also that it happened to Jesus, whom we have never seen – or have we? I maintain that Christ couldn’t come, as He did 2000 years ago, in our time, because there would have been blanket media coverage and every word He said, and every deed He hid would have been recorded as set in concrete, giving us no space for our faith to grow, and the medical fraternity would have insisted on investigating how he managed to come back to life. Without questions our faith cannot grow, so it’s important that we ask questions and not just accept what has been offered by others. False prophets get into our minds by positing information which is wrong, but believable. Asking questions helps us separate the false from the true.
Faith isn’t about having evidence of something; it’s not even about believing in something; it’s about trusting and knowing that something exists or happened. We don’t learn to trust our senses without asking questions of them. In the same way, Jesus gave us permission to ask questions about Him and His earthly ministry in order that we might believe in Him, and spread the Good News. Thanks to the work of the disciples, who expressed their belief in the risen Lord, with whom they had walked and worked, the early church grew rapidly. Because of the belief of those close to Christ many who had not seen Him, or had a personal experience of His risen self, came to believe also. With attendances at churches in decline it’s worth asking ourselves if we have stopped believing as the original disciples believed, and thus our expressions of our faith are having less of an impact on the people around us? What can I do to help you believe as they did?
aAccoding to the lectionary published for Australian Anglicans the feast of Thomas can be celebrated on 4th July instead of 21st December. Some churches bring that forward to the Sunday in order to not miss the opportunity.