Eastertide: ‘Doubting Thomas’ gets a bad rap
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I think the historical treatment of Thomas is a bit unfair. He has forever been characterised as the doubter, but there was nothing particularly pronounced about the doubt of Thomas - he just didn’t happen to be there when his friends saw Jesus a week earlier, and he was so traumatised by recent events that he found their story hard to believe (and understandably so!) But the author of John’s gospel includes this story of Thomas for those who, much later on, will similarly struggle to trust in this curious and provocative story of a risen Christ. And it contains some insightful reflections on the relationship between doubt and faith that I think can be helpful to us.
Firstly, the doubt of Thomas didn’t stop him from gathering with the disciples; his doubt didn’t lead to exclusion. In this story, doubt is not seen as an enemy of faith that means you can’t be a part of the community of faithful followers. Church communities don’t have to be places where everyone appears to have all the answers to all the things. Thomas didn’t know if he could believe the story of the disciples, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a valid and active member of their community.
We all have doubts, whether we acknowledge them or not. The journey of faith does not build on a foundation of certainty. There is an invitation to trust and to believe, but to trust and believe goes hand in hand with moments of doubt and uncertainty. The idea of trust actually requires doubt and uncertainty, otherwise you don’t need to trust, because you know!
In this story we find one of the most marvellous contrasts, because in this passage we read a story of doubt and simultaneously of the highest claim to Christ’s identity found in any of the gospel stories. Thomas is the only one in all of the gospels to use the Old Testament terminology for YHWH found in the Jewish Shema …”Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one” in reference to Jesus. Doubt and faith are caught up together in this story. The doubt of Thomas becomes the pathway to this great moment of insight and revelation. And this is often the case for us too.
And if we try to push down all of our doubts and pretend we don’t have them, they can end up emerging in less healthy ways. The aggression that often comes with certain defences of the gospel, is often an indication that there are unacknowledged doubts sitting beneath the surface. Instead of pushing the doubt down, we are better to acknowledge those doubts and bring them to the surface, so that we can move into a healthier form of spirituality.
The second thing to notice in this passage, is that Jesus says to ‘stop doubting and believe’. And so although doubt is a part of the journey of faith, this story reminds us not to glorify our doubts. In the West in the 21st century we live in a disenchanted world; we’ve found ways to take the mystery, spirituality and meaning out of everything. And while one response to this might be a defensive spirituality, the other response can be to wallow in our doubts and deconstruction, and never allow ourselves to trust, rebuild, or to open ourselves up to mystery and beauty.
And so the reminder from Jesus here is that there comes an invitation not to live captive to cynical scepticism – but to enter into places of trust. To allow ourselves to acknowledge doubt – yes – and sometimes for that acknowledgement to mean that our faith is reconfigured – yes – but also to allow ourselves to open up to something new, and for our curiosity to be fostered by the possibility of wonder, surprise and unexpected joy.