Monday, April 28, 2014

That 'Doubting' Thomas: A Bum Wrap?

Just don't single him out as the 'doubting' one. That's all I ask.

OK, I grant you, Thomas refuses to believe the other ten apostles had seen the Lord: Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails.... (John 20:25).  But then, didn't those same ten apostles refuse to credit the witness of the women and Mary Magdalen who burst in with a report of resurrection: It seemed to them an idle tale (Luke 24:11).  They all doubted, if you want to use that word, not just Thomas.

I grant you, the risen Christ challenges "do not be unbelieving, but believing." But the word doubt can't be found in the resurrection story texts at all until we come to Matthew's account of Jesus' appearance, presumably to a larger group, on a mountain in Galilee: They all worshipped him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:17).

If we must use "doubt" as a label, let it be doubting Peter, doubting James and John, doubting Thaddeus, Nathaniel, Bartholomew and the rest before we get around to Thomas. Actually, the big words in the famous story is believe, not doubt:  "Be not unbelieving!"  The opposite of belief, biblically speaking, leans more in the direction of unfaithful or untrusting rather than doubt in some intellectual sense, the way we moderns, with our creedal, doctrinal questions tend to read it. 

Better labels

Call Thomas deeply committed before you start throwing 'doubting' at him. This apostle doesn't get many lines in the the Fourth Gospel's passion drama, but his one-liners sketch character forcefully. When Jesus stops marking time over across the Jordan and decides to go up to Jerusalem after Lazarus has died, who is it that voices the fear all the rest of them feel about walking into danger? After the others have grilled Jesus on why he would behave so recklessly, Thomas calls them to order bravely: Let us then go with him that we may die with him (John 11:16). He's bought the message and taken the man to his heart very deeply. Call him brave Thomas.

When Jesus speaks mystically about going before the apostles to "prepare a place" and tells them that they "know the Way" he goes, who speaks up his Master the mystic who has mystified them all more than once? "Master, we do not know way you are going. How can we know the way?" One can easily imagine this has been his role all along: to ask the questions when the others mumble confused assent and look uneasily at their feet when Jesus pulls one of his mind-boggling utterances. Call him inquiring Thomas, searching Thomas.

Only after exhausting these other descriptors is it fair to pull out the "doubting" bit.  And even then, as noted before, it's not quite right apt. "Belief" in John is pistis, deep personal trust far more than the cognitive assent "belief" conjures up in our mind. Thomas apparently walked into a sort of resurrection fever when he arrived at the upper room after missing Jesus' amazing appearance. He didn't trust this second hand experience. I think he was so deeply committed to Jesus and his Way, so shocked by Jesus' death, he needed to know this all was really true.

Jesus invites him to be more open to the witness of others, to give them more credit, perhaps to stop thinking he's the brightest one around. Or that questions are the only way to explore the Way, which can only be known fully by risking the act of trust that walking it involves.

After all that, it might be OK to call him doubting, along with the rest of us who hesitate from time to time as we follow a Master who keeps stretching us into challenging territory.


  1. Hi Bob, exactly my sermon last Sunday. Nice to be affirmed; felt like I was kinda out there, swinging by myself! Ahh the doubts!. EJO

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. We'll start a "Thomas defense fund" movement!