Eight Days Later: The Great Faith of Doubting Thomas
“Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them” (Jn. 20:26). Thomas had not been with the others when they had seen the Lord, so when they came making such a claim, Thomas responded, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails and into his side, I will never believe” (Jn. 20:25).
2,000 years of shame has been hurled onto Thomas for this remark. What we know of Thomas we know from this statement. Thomas is a doubter, a skeptic, worse, a cynic. He embodies the pride within each of us that puts God on trial, that demands from God a sign, that requires that we see in order to believe. But see what? Believe what?
Thomas is despised because we assume that he could not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. How could Thomas, after seeing miracle after miracle, indeed, afterseeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, not believe that Jesus himself could be raised? How could Thomas not believe?
The problem becomes all the more confusing when we reflect on Thomas’ small role in the story of the disciples. This enigmatic character is hardly mentioned in the gospels, but he does have one quite dramatic, albeit ignored, line earlier in John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, we encounter Thomas just after the disciples hear news of Lazarus’ death. Jesus responds to the news by stating that they would return to Judea, a response which all the disciples resisted because “the Jews were…seeking to stone you” (Jn. 11:8), well…all but one. It was Thomas who impulsively blurted out, with a seemingly naïve confidence in his Master, “Let us go, that we may die with him!” (Jn. 11:16). Die with whom? What exactly did Thomas mean? Did he mean that they should go die with Lazarus, possibly reflecting his belief that Jesus could raise them all from the dead? Did he mean that they should go die with Jesus, possibly reflecting his belief in a coming holy war that would establish Israel’s kingdom? Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Thomas believed something. He was the only one at that point willing to die for Jesus, so he certainly believed that whoever Jesus was, whatever he was about, death was not too great a price to pay to follow this Jesus.
So eight days after the resurrection, when the disciples confronted Thomas with the news, what exactly did he doubt? “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails and into his side, I will never believe.” What exactly is it that the wounds of Jesus would prove to Thomas? When we consider our own doubts and the concern of the disiciples in the story about the empty tomb, it is quite easy for us to conclude that Thomas was doubting the resurrection. But while the other disciples and the rest of us are concerned with proof of the resurrection, Thomas and Jesus seem quite concerned with something else.
“Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”
Thomas and Jesus had spent every day together for three years. During this time, Jesus performed a number of miracles, one of which was raising a man from the dead. Then Jesus is arrested. It is rumored that he was crucified and soon after that he was raised from the dead. Eight days later, this same Jesus walks through a wall, stands among his best friends, and speaks. If there is one doubt I have about the common perception of Thomas at this point in the story, it is that he doubted that the person who stood before him was, in fact, Jesus. One’s inner circle of friends have a certain level of familiarity in voice and appearance that is quite unmistakable, so Jesus was unique to Thomas. He knew this was the living Jesus. And if he did have any doubts, they would have been easily dissolved when this familiar Jesus walked through the wall to greet him. Thomas believed that this was Jesus.
Jesus appears to his disciples to give them something to see and something to believe. For all but one of the disciples and the rest of us, we want to see the resurrected Jesus, the Jesus who lives, the one who can walk through walls, the one who can raise the dead. And, indeed, Jesus appears as such. So if that is the Jesus we seek to see and in whom we seek to believe, Jesus will appear to us as such, too. But we must realize that if he appears to us as such, he appears to us in passing. The risen Christ appears to us on his way to appear to another disciple, the disciple concerned to see and believe something else, something deeper, something quite severe, something quite impossible. Jesus passes by the disciples and the rest of us and immediately approaches Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (Jn. 20:27). And in this moment, as Thomas stretches out his hand, he discovers the very heart of God’s self-revelation by, quite literally, touching the heart of God. “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”
Could it be that Thomas had already concluded Jesus’ divine status from all the miracles and claims that he had witnessed? If so, Thomas would have no problem believing in the supernatural things of Jesus. It would be the natural things that were hard to swallow; not the empty tomb but the bleeding wounds. If so, Thomas would have an easier time dying for Jesus than believing that Jesus would die for him—Let us go, that we may die with him…Unless I see the wounds, I will never believe. If so–that is, if Thomas already believes what we already believe about Jesus–then he is no longer antagonistic to the story, but essential, because the story is no longer about Thomas coming to believe with a faith like ours but about us coming to believe with a faith like Thomas’s.
It is no surprise, therefore, that John gives us his purpose statement immediately after the story of Thomas, which ends by Jesus directing his wounded gaze to you, the reader, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Now Jesus did many things in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:29-31; cf. Jn. 1:12). The story of Thomas—the great faith of doubting Thomas—is included at the end of John’s Gospel to orient our faith to the wounds of God. One of the great misassumptions about the Christian faith is that the hardest thing for us to believe is the resurrection of Jesus. But I don’t wake up in the morning doubting the Creator’s ability to re-create. I wake up in the morning doubting the Creator’s love for me. The resurrection of Jesus is much easier to believe than the death of God. The resurrection of Jesus only proves God’s power. We all assume God’s power. But the death of God proves God’s love. None of us assume God’s love. Thomas is the first of all men to wrestle with and submit to the most unbelievable truth that the Bible has to offer: God loves me so much that he would die for me. “My Lord and My God!” We all believe that his tomb is empty, but who among us believes that his side is still pierced? Do you believe this? “Blessed are those who have not seen [what Thomas saw] and yet have believed [what Thomas believed]” (Jn. 20:28-29).
“God has proven his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).