Thomas: Dealing With Doubt
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So 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.”
26 A 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.” 27 Then 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas will always be known this side of heaven as “doubting Thomas”. There are apocryphal books that were written in the 2nd century that tell us that Thomas went to India as a missionary, but throughout his life he was of the same temperament as he was on that resurrection week. Always slow to believe. And yet in spite of his doubt, the record shows that he did a great work in India, and there are still churches in India that trace their origin back to Thomas.
On that resurrection day Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room. There were only 10 there. Judas had taken his own life, and Thomas was absent.
When Thomas came back the other disciples told Thomas what had happened. Jesus was risen from the dead! He didn’t believe them. He couldn’t believe them. Why? Why could he not believe! I think there are several reasons.
The other disciples had not believed either. Why was the resurrection so hard to believe for those early disciples? Because every one of them was a skeptic. Every one of them was as hard headed as Thomas is reputed to have been. These were not gullible men who believed easily anything told them. They had listened to enough fishermen’s stories over the years to have developed a critical mind. These men had minds that worked well! They knew that you can want a thing so bad, that you can believe too easily. They were even suspicious of their own perceptions.
They were also honest men. They couldn’t pretend to themselves that they believed, when they didn’t. They were aware of smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. They knew of conjurers and pseudo-magicians who could make things appear and disappear. They were not prepared to suspend reason for the sake of belief. They couldn’t believe just because they wanted to. And even after they had received evidence, they were prepared to question it to make sure it was authentic.
They doubted because the questioning mind is a gift from God. A mind that is critical is not an affront to God. Jesus is not offended by their disinclination to believe. We are not supposed to check our brains with our hats at the door of religion. Gullibility and naiveté are not Christian virtues. God gave us brains with which to weigh everything we encounter in life. St. John tells us that we are even to test the spirits to see if they are of God.
The source of Thomas’ doubt
But Thomas’ problem was increased by his normal approach to life. His was a questioning, searching life. Thomas and Peter were so different. Peter was not in the habit of asking questions. He didn’t ask questions he gave declarations. He shot from the lip time and again without thinking. He would say the first thing that came to mind. There are a lot of people that operate this way. They don’t have problems with doubt like others. All of their decisions are made quickly and they are carried along with first impressions. And let me say in some sense this is good. Faith comes a lot easier to this kind of person. Trust is a much quicker thing, and joy is much more a part of their lives because of this ability.
People like Thomas go much slower, and go head first, and have to wade through a lot of doubts before they are convinced.
Just take a look with me at other pictures we have of Thomas in the Gospels. In John 11:7-16, Jesus had just heard that Lazarus is sick and he tells his disciples that he is going back to Judea. In verse 8 they say, “Master, the Jews of late tried to stone you, you aren’t going back there again are you?” When Jesus lets them know that this is his intention, look at Thomas’ reply, Then Thomas, who is called The Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”
Thomas is the pessimist. He doubted if they could make it out of Judea alive. But notice where his commitment is. It is with Jesus. If he is going to die, then Thomas, though he may disagree with Jesus going to Judea, will go with him to the death. Here is where we need to underline the difference between disbelief and unbelief.
There are those that doubt, but do not want to doubt. They regret their inability to believe easily. They are uncertain about many things, and that makes them hesitate.
On the other hand, there are doubters who revel in their scepticisms. They love to be unorthodox, and they raise their doubts to public view, only to be heard by others, but not to get answers. All their questions are hollow in that they don’t care to get an answer. Pilate was such a man. When he had Jesus on trial he asked Jesus, “What is truth?” then turned around and left because he wasn’t interested in an answer. The same is true of Herod. “He questioned Jesus with many words” but he wasn’t interested in truth, he was there to be entertained, and to hear the sound of his own voice.
There is a doubt that is honest that seeks to have questions answered. Then there is that doubt that proceeds from the determination to remain unbelieving. There is a doubt that is honest that seeks truth, and there is unbelief that refuses to listen to any alternative. That is willful unbelief, not grieving disbelief.
Thomas was not an unbeliever. He had committed his life to Christ and he intended to follow him even to the point of death.
In John 14 there is another incident in Thomas’ life that is revealing. It is Jesus last night with the 12 before his death the next day. Jesus says “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God believe also in me.” Then he tells them of his going away, but that soon they will meet again. Jesus continues, “Where I am going you know, and the way you know.”
Thomas is honest. He stops his master and says “We don’t!” “Lord we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Now the rest of the disciples were just as much in the fog as Thomas, but they said nothing. The gospel record often shows us a puzzled group of disciples who were confused by what their teacher said, but who didn’t ask him to clarify what he meant. Thomas apparently wasn’t like that. He voiced his doubts. He refused to say that he believed when he didn’t. He refused to say he understood when he didn’t. He wouldn’t still his doubts by pretending they didn’t exist. He wasn’t the kind of man to rattle off his acquiescence without understanding what it was all about. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote about such people when he wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
Thomas wasn’t going to announce he believe, without an clear conviction that he did so. I think I’m safe in saying this, that those who think deeply about life will have to wrestle with their doubts. Those who go through life light-heartedly and flippantly, will evade this problem. But as I have read the biographies of people that shaped their world, most of God’s great saints and great workers have gone thru doubt and disbelief.
We can go through the Bible and find some of God’s greatest servants had their times of doubt. Look at Gideon. He had more doubts per square inch than Thomas did. He put out his fleece twice and asked God to prove himself numerous times before he would take God at his word. He argued with God until there was nothing else to say. And yet he was used of God because once he believed he obeyed putting his life on the line.
Elijah was the same way. Look at him under the juniper tree. He says in effect, “Lord take away my life! This attempt at turning people back to you is a losing battle. Lord you’ve failed and I’m the only one left following you.” For 40 days or more Elijah wrestled with doubts. Yet, upon hearing God speak out of the silence, he returned to finishing the work God had given him to do.
Then there is the prophet Habakkuk. He is a chronic doubter. His entire book is a complaint that God is not running this world right. But in the end he speaks some of the Bible’s best words about faith.
And there is Jeremiah, who comes before God in weakness and exposes all of his doubts and questions God over and over, and yet his words gave courage and hope to those in exile,
John the Baptist had problems too. When in jail he sent to Jesus asking “Are you he that should come or do we seek for another.” Yet Jesus can say about this man “Among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
If we are going to think deeply, as we must, there is the constant danger of running into doubt.
I have been saying that Thomas had honest doubt. Do you know why I think that? Jesus 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.” And what was Thomas reply? Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” He was not swearing when he said that.
As soon as he received the evidence, he went all the way. When he knew that Christ was risen, he not only accepted him as the risen Jesus of Nazareth, but confessed a much deeper truth that Christ was Lord and God. He was making one of the greatest declarations that the New Testament holds. When our beliefs have been arrived at in this fashion, they will be deep and abiding.
Thomas reminds me of another man. In the earlier ministry of Jesus, a man whose son was epileptic brought him to the disciples for them to heal him. The disciples had been unable to help. Then Jesus arrived and met with the father of the child. Jesus says to him, “If you are able. All things are possible to those who believe.” The distraught father answers back with tears, “I do believe, but help my unbelief.”
There is a man in two minds. He believes and he doesn’t, but honest enough to admit his doubt. Some of us find ourselves also caught between belief and disbelief. His prayer sounds like one good enough for us to pray when we struggle to rediscover our faith in God.