Doubting the Traditional Take on Thomas
After Jesus rose from the dead, a disciple named Thomas would not believe it when others told him that they’d seen the Lord. They were thrilled, ecstatic. But Thomas wasn’t having it. The talk of Christ-sightings probably seemed crazy to Thomas, if not also cruel. Thomas was spent. Like the other disciples, his heart had been ripped out by the brutal death of his beloved master. Thomas said that unless he could see and feel the nail piercings in Jesus’ hands and the speared gash Jesus received in his side when Roman soldiers checked to see if he was really dead, the despondent disciple wouldn’t believe in the resurrection. Because of this, he’s often called “Doubting Thomas.” I think this moniker is mostly unfair. At the very least it’s uncharitable. It also overlooks vital lessons which Thomas’s faith can teach today’s beleaguered believers, and ironically misses perhaps the truest reason why Thomas does deserve (kindhearted) criticism.
We tend to forget that earlier on in Jesus’ ministry, Thomas led the other disciples in a willingness to die with and for him. As Jesus’s enemies were becoming murderous, the Lord was determined to go to Judea to visit the family of the Lazarus, whose grave illness he’d heard about two days prior and who had since died. The disciples thought their master was crazy, and tried to talk him out of it because it was now known that Jesus’s enemies wanted to stone him. Jesus insisted, and Thomas spoke up, urging the other disciples on to follow their Lord. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Some might read Thomas’s words as somewhat cynical, or at least sullenly resigned, but even if that was their true tone, his sentiments were no less sincere for it. Thomas teaches us that living faith does not require a lively personality. Sometimes the most buoyant expressions of faith are the ones which sink first beneath the trials which test them.
Thomas’s call to action was not Peter’s self-deceived (but also no doubt sincerely felt) protest to Jesus, when told his Lord that he would die for him (John 13:37), only to later deny him three times when interrogated. Jesus’s disciples come in all personality types. As James teaches us (James 2), it’s what we do in keeping with our professions of faith which reveal them as real. Thomas wasn’t boasting of his personal love and loyalty to the Lord; he was humbly, relatively quietly, and absolutely courageously calling his fellow disciples to follow their Lord to the death (John 11:1-16.)
Thomas’s words gave focus and fortitude to a group of disciples who were all over the place in their relationship to the Lord. His uncelebrated but laudable certainty that Jesus was worth dying for, and his bravery in leading that band of disciples into what for all they knew could very well have been martyrdom should inform and soften our judgment regarding the doubts he expressed after Jesus’s death. So, too, should the often unnoticed focal point of his doubt.
Jesus, of course, did not die upon going to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, his most dramatic confirmation yet that he was in fact the Christ. But that resurrection did set in motion the events that would lead to his crucifixion (John 11:53). And when Jesus did in fact die, Thomas was understandably undone. He and the other disciples hadn’t internalized what Jesus said would happen, and they didn’t know their Old Testaments well enough to expect God’s son to die and then to rise from the dead (Luke 24:25-27). But one day, in a closed-off room, Jesus appeared to the disciples. Thomas was among them. Jesus gave him the chance to touch his hands and his side, which still bore the scars of his suffering. We don’t know whether Thomas took him up on the offer. What we do know is what Thomas said in response, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Thomas doubted the testimony of his peers, and really, who could blame him? None of them were expecting the resurrection. Why would Thomas put stock in the testimony of similarly exhausted, traumatized people like him? But even as we soften in our view of Thomas, we should not blunt the edge in the Lord’s correction of him, especially because we stand in constant need of this correction, too. It’s one thing to doubt particular people’s testimonies about the Lord and what they’ve seen; it’s another to doubt the word of the Lord himself.
Jesus makes it clear that the disciples should have understood and trusted the written words God had breathed out so long before and over so many centuries, the words which Jesus had preached and lived out among them (2 Timothy 3:14-17.) Given John’s emphasis throughout his gospel on the Word and words of God (1:1-5; 2:17; 6:31,45,68; 12:14-15; 17:17), it seems that he tells us about Thomas not to tattle on his doubt, but to trumpet the trustworthiness and Christ-centeredness of the Scriptures.
May we take full advantage of the blessed era in which we live, the era of the completed written word of God and the power of the resurrected Christ tangibly seen and felt in the expansion of the gospel throughout the world, in lives and societies made new. Though we do not see our Lord, may we trust his written word to ever conduct our hearts to him, and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8), the joy befitting disciples who really know that their Lord is risen from the dead.