He gets a rum deal I think, does Thomas – everyone knows him as ‘Doubting Thomas,’ thanks to the story in John’s gospel. I don’t think it’s very fair; another disciple gets told off for doubting when he sinks in to the water and yet we don’t call him ‘Doubting Peter’ do we? And, when it comes down to it, we don’t call the disciples the ‘Doubting Disciples’ after they’ve yet again not understood what Jesus is doing when He curses a fig tree. To be fair, calling them the ‘Resolutely Dim Disciples’ may well be an accurate assessment given the number of times they’re shown asking for clarification or explanations. I find that immensely comforting … if this motley bunch didn’t always understand what Jesus was up to when he was living in their midst, I don’t feel too bad about the number of times I don’t get it either …
But, back to Thomas.
I really like this guy. He’s only mentioned a few times in the Scriptures (and four of those, he’s just a name in the list of the disciples); he’s mostly in John’s gospel, and he seems to be a fairly straightforward bloke. Perhaps he’s a little fatalistic when he says that the gang should accompany Jesus back to Judea so that “we can die with him” just before the raising of Lazarus, and yes he’s probably a little peeved and fed up of the analogies when he more or less tells Jesus to speak plainly for a change when he’s going on about ‘many rooms in my father’s house,’ but I don’t think that makes him a sceptic or a ‘serial doubter.’ I just think Thomas gets a bad press for one incident and even then, I think people don’t look at the whole incident.
Thomas refuses to take the word of the other disciples when they say they’ve met with Jesus, that he’s back from the dead, that he’s real and alive again. Good on him, I say – they were just the same with the women when they came back from the garden (according to Luke, the disciples thought the women’s story was ‘nonsense’) or the two disciples walking in the country in Mark’s account!
So when he wishes he could see the marks and the wounds, it isn’t to satisfy some rational literalist leanings or to belittle the experience of the other disciples; I believe he wants it to be true, I think he’s desperate for it to be true … but he’s scared of it not being true, he’s scared his hope won’t be raised to life again, that it won’t make it back from the death of the cross, that he’ll have to face the future without Jesus …
I don’t think Thomas is after empirical proof when he says ,”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 it.” Thomas had seen enough in the way of miracles and wonders around Jesus that part of him must have reckoned what they were saying was entirely possible, probable even. My feeling is that Thomas just couldn’t take it if it wasn’t real – he, like the others, had followed Jesus and believed that in some way he was the Messiah, the leader promised to Israel, and he, like the others, had seen that hope wrecked. I just don’t think he could face the idea of having his hopes raised to see them dashed again.
I don’t think that’s doubt … I think it’s a desperate and wounded hope that he’s trying to protect. He can’t just take someone else’s word – because what if they’re mistaken? He can’t risk having his hopes shattered again, so he won’t let anyone else build them up for him. He just couldn’t take it … not again.
So, when Jesus does turn up in front of him, I’m not certain I can go with the generally accepted notion that there’s rebuke in his voice when he says, “Stop doubting and believe.” For me, I think it’s Jesus giving life to Thomas’ faltering hopes, saying in effect, “It’s okay to believe! It really is real! Look, touch me and see – I’m not a ghost, I’m not a hallucination, I’m not you trying to tell yourself it’ll all be alright! It’s true! Believe it!”
And, when he finally accepts it, when he sees Jesus face to face, Thomas’ response is incredible. He’s the first to say, “My Lord, and my God!” I’d bet that somewhere in Thomas’ own Jewish roots a voice would have been screaming ‘But that’s blasphemy!’ but those cultural concerns are bulldozed out of the way as he sees Jesus as He really is. Good old ‘Doubting Thomas’ is the first to actually see it.
“My Lord, and my God!”
Yes, Peter had already been commended for identifying Jesus as the promised Messiah much earlier on in the whole piece, but the notion of Messiah/Christ had so many connotations within the contemporary Jewish religious, social, cultural and political life that I’m honestly not convinced Peter understood the full extent of what was revealed to him.
Thomas, however, got it one hundred percent.
In facing Jesus for himself, not relying on the hearsay of others; in reaching out to touch a real, physically present, wounded and living body; in looking past his own worries that everything he believed hung on a knife-edge of doubt, Thomas really, really gets it. This is the place where he sees Jesus for who He is. God.
There’s always a point for people of faith (whatever that faith may be) where it has to stop being something that is second-hand, or belief-by-proxy; there needs to be a time and place where your belief/faith/hope or however you want to frame it stretches past the experiences of others and becomes truly yours. For me, maybe a little like Thomas, it was when I looked past my preconceptions, my doubts and my fears to actually look at the Jesus presented in Scripture. I found out he wasn’t just a ‘moral teacher’ or some peace-mongering Robert Powell lookalike – I suddenly found there was someone who I could, and should, follow. And now, twenty-one years after making that decision, I still find myself stepping back into Thomas’ shoes (or is that sandals?) every now and then. Not in the sense that I doubt who Jesus is but rather in the sense that when I look carefully at Jesus again, when I see Him as He really is – that wounded, risen, present, encouraging Jesus –I find my understanding, my faith, my belief is expanded by the incredible magnitude of who Jesus is.
In looking at Jesus I can’t do anything else but strip away my own half-remembered Catholicism, my own ‘mix-and-match’ approach to belief, my own ‘pocket god’ concepts, my own theology and dogma, and say with Thomas – wonderful, real, human, searching, hopeful, ‘doubting’ Thomas – “My Lord and my God!”