We are no less in Christ when we doubt than when our faith seems strong; and we are no weaker when we doubt, because it was never about our strength anyway. Christ has risen from the dead by the power of his Holy Spirit, and he has breathed his Holy Spirit into us—the Spirit of resurrection, who makes the dead ones live and the dry bones dance. The power is not in our faith, but in the one in whom we put our faith; and he holds our faith firm even when we can’t. He holds us together even when we can’t. He has given us his life, which has overcome death. No matter how dark things may seem, he will bring us through, and in the end, we will see the Son rise.
Thomas has gotten a raw deal from the church over the years. For centuries, in the Western church, he’s been remembered not as an apostle of stubborn faith and the man who first preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to India, but as “Doubting Thomas.” For centuries, that phrase has been a byword for a skeptic, and particularly a foolishly unreasonable one. He doesn’t deserve that. The fact that we so often read John’s account as if he did says more about us than it does about either Thomas or John.
We don’t see a lot of Thomas in the gospels (only a few brief appearances in John), but I think we get a picture of an introverted man of deep emotions, with a definite pessimistic streak—perhaps the sort who used pessimism to protect himself against hope. In John 11, when Jesus tells his disciples he’s going back to Jerusalem, they try to talk him out of it; when Jesus persists, Thomas says, “Let’s go with him so that we may die with him.” Here, we’re not told why Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the group on the day of the resurrection, but I have a hunch he was off by himself trying to come to terms with the disaster of the crucifixion. You may know people like that—when they’re hurting, they shut everyone out and process it by themselves, until they feel ready to deal with other people again. I suspect that was Thomas all over.
As readers, we have the advantage of a bird’s-eye view of the events that followed Jesus’ resurrection. We know the whole story, and we can see where everyone is and what they’re doing. The disciples didn’t have that. They hadn’t read the end of the book—they were living the story and trying to make sense of it. We see this in John 20. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, finds it open, and comes running to Peter and John to tell them someone’s stolen Jesus’ body. They go running, look in the empty tomb, and think—what? John tells us that “he saw and believed,” but in the next breath he says, “They still didn’t understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” So what, exactly, did John believe?
Then that evening, the disciples are all gathered—with the doors locked, because they’re afraid the Jewish leaders might come after them next. Then, suddenly—there’s Jesus. Never mind locked doors, never mind walls, there he is. They’ve been telling each other he’s alive, but when he actually shows up, they think he’s a ghost. That sounds bad, but we shouldn’t be too hard on them. After all, it was one thing to believe that Jesus had come back to life; that was hard enough. To have expected him to defy the laws of physics by suddenly appearing in locked rooms would have been quite something else again. What else would you call someone who walks through walls, but a ghost?
Jesus doesn’t condemn them. He gives them his peace, to calm their fear, and then he invites them to touch him and to see his wounds. He even goes so far as to eat a piece of fish in their presence before they believe it’s really him; only then do they begin to rejoice. They’ve been told Jesus is alive, and they say they believe it—but when he actually shows up, they need proof.
Then Thomas rejoins the group, having started to come to terms with Jesus’ death, no doubt expecting to spend some time mourning with his friends—and instead, he gets a cockeyed story about Jesus raised from the dead. Put yourself in his place: what would you have thought? Yeah, you’d have thought they’d all cracked under the emotional strain and taken a group vacation from reality. Thomas understandably refuses to believe a word of it unless—notice this—he gets the same proofs Jesus gave them.
The next Sunday, they’re all together again behind locked doors, and once again Jesus just shows up in the room. Once again, he gives them his peace, and then he turns to Thomas and says, “Here I am, and here are my wounds; touch me, and believe.” But Thomas doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need to watch Jesus eat lunch. He looks at Jesus and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
This is the central confession of this gospel, the point to which the whole book builds, because Thomas goes farther than any of the other disciples ever had. To avoid accidentally taking God’s name in vain, no observant Jew would ever, or will ever, say it. Instead, they substitute the word “Lord.” For Thomas to call Jesus “My Lord and my God” can only mean one thing: he understands that Jesus is the one true God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Notice how Jesus responds to Thomas’ great confession of faith. He doesn’t praise Thomas for it, as he had earlier when Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”; nor does he chastise Thomas for his doubt. Instead, he prods him a little. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus says. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” He’s not comparing Thomas to the other disciples here—they had all had to see Jesus before they believed, and the others had had to see rather more of him. He’s pointing Thomas beyond himself and beyond his own situation, to days yet to come.
It would not be long before Thomas would be proclaiming the news he had at first refused to believe—Jesus who was crucified has risen from the dead!—to people who wouldn’t see Jesus come popping in to prove it. The Lord is pointing Thomas to those of us who would come later, who would have no choice but to believe without having the evidence right in front of us; and he’s speaking to us. From the first readers of this gospel down to the present day, we’ve all believed in Jesus without seeing or touching him. We’ve known doubt, just as Thomas did, but unlike him, we’ve had to go forward by faith; we haven’t been able to rest on personal proof the way he did.
When we dismiss Thomas as a doubter, we read this passage as if we stood above him, as if his doubt were somehow exceptional. When we do that, we cut ourselves off from the comfort Jesus offers here. We need to come into the story at Thomas’s level and stand beside him, as people who also have times when we struggle to believe, and maybe even are afraid to. It can be hard to believe in Jesus. We haven’t seen him, and we haven’t seen anyone who was embalmed and buried come alive again. I suspect that many of us have wished once or twice that we could just see Jesus, and touch him, and have him tell us we’re doing okay. The thing is, in his words to Thomas, we have his assurance that he knowshow hard it is. That’s why he pronounced a special blessing on us, and on our faith; and that’s why he sent us the Holy Spirit, to carry us through.
That’s also why John wrote this gospel, to carry that blessing. He wrote to give us reason to overcome our doubt and fear and believe in Jesus Christ—and that isn’t a once-for-all struggle that we leave behind once we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. At least, for most of us it isn’t, and so we need John’s witness, we need to hear the promises Jesus made to all who follow him. And we need the reassurance that in the times that we doubt, Jesus does not condemn us; rather, he comes gently to us as he did to Thomas and restores our faith, so that we can say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”