Countless sermons over two thousand years of Christian history have done a great disservice to Thomas Didymus, otherwise known as “Doubting Thomas.” I believe it’s high time we repair his image. If you are a natural skeptic like me, I’m sure you agree—in as much as a skeptic can agree with anything.
Thomas, who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, is of course most known for his response to hearing that the recently crucified Jesus had risen from the dead and miraculously appeared to his disciples—who, by the way, were hiding for fear of their lives in a locked house. According to John 20, Thomas refused to believe any of this unless he himself saw Jesus and touched his wounds. Eight days later Jesus did just that. Thomas believed, and Jesus noted that, while Thomas saw and believed, blessed were those who believed without seeing.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (public domain image)
A common interpretation of this story focuses on Thomas’s journey from doubt to belief, where Thomas is faulted for being unable to believe without seeing. I’d like to suggest that there’s more to the story.
For starters, what Thomas is asking for isn’t entirely unreasonable. Jesus was dead. Not just mostly dead, but all dead. And, while Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, who resurrects the resurrector? Let’s also consider that people huddled together in fearful anticipation of imminent death by crucifixion are not the best source of rational information of any kind, let alone details about dead people coming alive.
The disciples came to believe Jesus had risen from the dead because he appeared to them and showed his hands and his side. Thomas conditions belief on experiencing the very same thing.
Second, despite his skepticism, Thomas remains in community with the disciples. For me, this is the most significant part of the story. If setting conditions for his acceptance of the resurrection are an act of doubt, it is all the more an extraordinary act of faith that he remains part of the disciple community over the eight days before Jesus appears to him.
If Thomas had believed the other disciples were delusional, he could have certainly disassociated himself with them, or perhaps done as Judas had: collaborate with the Pharisees, saving his own neck and somewhat restoring his place in the community. Yet he chose to remain in danger. What matters more: the ideas one holds, or the beliefs they demonstrate through their actions?
Third, John may not be telling a cautionary tale of doubt as much as he is preparing a church transitioning from a generation of eyewitnesses (or those who personally knew eyewitnesses) to Jesus’ ministry, to a generation sixty or more years removed from the events of the gospels. Authored sometime in the late first or early second century, John was the last of the four canonical gospels to be written. Immediately following Thomas’ confession of faith, Jesus blesses those who have believed but not seen. The conclusion of John’s gospel, which immediately follows this blessing, says its purpose is so the audience (who has almost certainly not seen) may believe.
The eight days that elapsed between Thomas’s incredulity and Jesus’ appearance to him would have been symbolically significant for John’s Jewish audience. In Judaism, the number eight signifies something that is beyond nature, or a departure from nature, or humanity’s ability to transcend its nature—a symbol with relevance to the resurrection story and the faith of those who believed without having seen.
Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Thomas is presented as a follower who is unafraid to confront his reality and ask honest questions. I love his gallows humor about the danger of going with Jesus into the outskirts of Jerusalem to visit Lazarus’s tomb. As with the resurrection story, Thomas’s skepticism also speaks to his faithfulness. At the Last Supper, Thomas’s willingness to ask the uncomfortable question led to one of Jesus’s greatest statements about his identity: “I am the way, the truth, the life; no one comes to the Father but through me”.
Doubt is a normal, even healthy part of life, yet we sometimes think about our faith as being centered on a series of ideas we intellectually assent to. Not only can this result in a life very different than the one God wants for us, but it makes doubt an enemy to be vanquished. This can be terrifying and harmful. Thomas resonates with me because his skepticism does not seem to question his belonging to Jesus or his fellowship in the early church. His doubt is not a threat to his faith; rather, it is part of his spiritual formation.
Perhaps instead of “Doubting Thomas,” we could more appropriately call him “Thomas the Faithful Skeptic,” or “Thomas the Brave,” or even “Thomas the ‘Hey, Thanks for Saying That Because I Was Thinking That too But I Didn’t Have the Guts To Say It.’”
Either way, let’s give the guy a break.
Armed with an undergraduate education in history, church ministry, and biblical literature, Brian White decided he was best suited to serve others and work toward justice through the mission field of public education, where he has been a special education teacher, program specialist, and school administrator. Brian is married to the winsome Andrea, and together they have two terribly cute children, Emmaline and Elliott. Brian and Andrea have been part of The River since July 2014.