23rd March 2008
Rarely an Easter season comes and goes without a sermon on — or at least some sort of reference to — “Doubting Thomas.” I think, quite frankly, that Thomas has got a bum-wrap for his nickname as it suggests that there was something wrong about his doubts. But nicknames stick. I was surprised even to find an entry under “doubting Thomas” in Webster’s dictionary. There it reads: “Doubting Thomas, a person who refuses to believe without proof; skeptic.” And then it refers to John 20:14-31.
There are only three vignettes of Thomas in the Scriptures, including John 20. In contrast, there are numerous extra-biblical works attributed to him, including a Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, an Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an Apocalypse of Thomas, and an Acts of Thomas (these works are typically dated from the 2nd to 5th centuries CE/AD). These extra-biblical stories aside, the first place we meet Thomas in John’s gospel is in chapter 11. Jesus wants to go to Bethany because Lazarus has died, but his disciples try to dissuade him for fear that he’ll be killed if he goes near Jerusalem. Here Thomas encourages the other disciples that they should go and die with Jesus. The next time we meet Thomas is in chap. 14, where Jesus comforts his disciples that he is going away to prepare a place in his Father’s house and then come back for them. As many of Jesus’ teachings, this totally confuses the disciples, but it is Thomas who is honest enough to admit that he didn’t have the slightest idea what Jesus was talking about. He says: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (14:5). (Imagine, a MAN who admits he needs directions!)
The picture that emerges of Thomas from these two passages is someone who was honest — he didn’t pretend to know more than he did. He also seemed to be a bit of a pessimist (or a realist) assuming the worst if Jesus was to go near Jerusalem, but he was willing to follow Jesus anywhere — even to his own death.
We get substantially the same picture of Thomas in John 20. He’s somewhat pessimistic, brash, but also up front and honest. He put his cards right on the table: “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!” (20:25). When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how seriously we’re to take his request to “put his hands where the nails were” or to “put his hand into Jesus’ side.” The text later says that Thomas believed because he had seen Jesus, not that he believed after touching him. Also, the week before, when Jesus appeared to the others, it says that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side” (v. 20). So, one way of looking at it, he just wanted the same opportunity that the other disciples had. (Furthermore, while we don’t get this impression in John’s gospel, other accounts present many of the disciples as filled with doubt. E.g., in Luke 24:36-43 when Jesus appeared to the disciples, they didn’t believe that it was really him until he ate some broiled fish; see also Mark 16:11 and Matt 28:17.)
Faith didn’t come easy to Thomas, but nore did it come easy to any of the disciples. So let’s not be too hard on the poor fellow! At least the picture of Thomas we get in the gospel portrays him as honest and up front about his doubts. What is more, once Thomas believed, he uttered one of the greatest Christological confessions in the Bible: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). This was both a profoundly theological confession as well as a profoundly personal one.
So perhaps we would do well to remember Thomas by his great confession, rather than his initial doubts. Just a thought. Happy Easter.