I feel sorry for Thomas. Time and again he has had a bad press for being slow to believe that his friend Jesus had risen from the dead. However, his fellow disciples did not seem to have believed Mary Magdalene when she said she had seen the Lord (John 20.18) . It was not until Jesus appeared to them that they were filled with joy (John 20.20).
Although I have not gone through periods of significant doubt, I recognise that some people do find believing an issue. That is just the way they seem to be made. Furthermore, doubt can often be the route to genuine faith. Indeed, the American writer Philip Yancey has said:
I’m an advocate of doubt, because that’s why I became a Christian in the first place. I started doubting some crazy things my church taught me when I was growing up… I want to encourage those who doubt, and also encourage the church to be a place that rewards rather than punishes honesty.
Yancey went on to say that the danger of a church which punishes honesty is that “by saying ’Don’t doubt, just believe’, you don’t really resolve the doubts. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form. Inquisitiveness and questioning are inevitable parts of the life of faith. Where there is certainty there is no room for faith.”
So in this season of Easter let’s look again at Thomas. For some reason or another he was absent when the Risen Lord appeared to his disciples. After the traumatic experience of Good Friday, it is perhaps understandable that Thomas wanted to grieve the loss of his friend Jesus. I like the suggestion that Thomas was indulging in the luxury of solitary sadness to which the melancholic are prone!
I can understand too Thomas saying, “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” (John 20.25). As a rule, people do not rise from the dead. Once you are dead, you are dead. The initial failure of Thomas to disbelieve the women and their tale of an empty tomb, as also to disbelieve the testimony of his fellow disciples, makes sense to me.
Thankfully, however, the story does not end with doubt. On the first Sunday after Easter Day Jesus appeared again to his disciples, and this time Thomas was present. Jesus turned to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands; and reach out your hand and put it in my side; Do not doubt but believe” (John 20.27). But there was no need for Thomas to touch Jesus in order to believe. Suddenly, his doubts were removed, and he became convinced of the resurrection of Jesus, for he too had seen the Lord. In a wonderful act of surrender Thomas cried out: “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28). Indeed, it was more than an act of surrender – it is an act of worship. From the furnace of Thomas’ doubt emerged the finest confession of faith found in the New Testament.
To return to my theme: there is nothing wrong in doubting. For many, doubt is the pathway to belief. Indeed, Thomas Merton, the American contemplative monk, wrote: “Faith means doubt, it is not the suppression of doubt. You overcome doubt by going through it.” Indeed, he went so far as to say that “the man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith”. I don’t agree with him there. There are some who believe whose life has never been complicated by unbelief. On the other hand, there are many others whose path to faith is tortuous.
For those who do struggle with faith, Thomas can be a sign of hope. Even the most perplexed of unbelievers can becomes the most exultant Christian of all. Indeed, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, declared: “It is not as a boy I believe in Christ. My hosanna has passed through a great furnace of doubts.” The good news is that doubts can be overcome – they can turn to faith.