Thomas first appears in the New Testament at the calling of Jesus’s disciples (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15). Like many of the other Apostles, we know very little about Thomas’s past. While John’s gospel refers to him as “Didymos” (Gr: twin) alluding that he had a twin brother or sister (John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2), other personal details about Thomas are lost to history.
Thomas next appears in the New Testament story in John 11, the chapter famous for Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Before leaving for Judea to do so however, Jesus’s disciples remind Him, “Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest though thither again” (John 11:8)? They then propose that Lazarus might merely be sleeping in order to obviate their dangerous Judean journey. Jesus answers their argument rather directly. “Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14). Upon hearing this, it is Thomas who responds, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
From this passage, I can’t help but think that Thomas was thoroughly committed to Jesus and His message. We have evidence that prior to the Resurrection, the Twelve did not fully comprehend Jesus’s mortal mission, but Thomas at least seemed willing to go and suffer with Jesus wherever He went. If hesitancy is an indication of doubt, the pre-Resurrection Thomas certainly does not deserve his post-Resurrection moniker. He either believed that Jesus couldn’t have been killed and would keep Thomas and his fellow Apostles safe, or that dying with Jesus was a sure way to be with God. Thomas was all-in with Jesus.
Thomas is next directly referred to at the Last Supper. There, Jesus instructed the Apostles that He would soon leave “to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know” (John 14:2-4).
In another bold move, Thomas contradicts Jesus and responds, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way” (John 14:5)? To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
This is the last we hear of Thomas until after the Resurrection. Because of the scant documentary evidence, I am left to my own devices to reconstruct what Thomas may have been thinking and feeling during this pivotal time. In doing so, I am completely self-aware that what I offer next will probably be more autobiographical than historical.
That said, my interpretation could still be very well true.
What may Thomas have been thinking when Jesus was taken at Gethsemane? He may have tried to join Peter’s defense of Jesus had Jesus not restrained Peter and healed his accoster’s ear. Remember that Thomas was entirely willing to “die with him” (John 11:16). Martyrdom can seem a noble fate for the loyal and watching Jesus’s eventual death may have seemed a kind of betrayal to Thomas. He was supposed to die with Jesus, not be left without Him. Such desires, however, may reveal an immaturity to Thomas’s understanding of Jesus’s life and mission.
Truth is difficult to discern. Like John Godfrey Saxe’s blind men of Indostan, we all go about clutching a portion of the truth, but never quite come to observe it in totality. If not careful, the part of truth that we do come to understand becomes a caricature of itself and can become our very own self-destructive petard. For the religious, it’s revealed truth. For the secular, it’s reasoned truth.
For Thomas, it was Jesus.
He had found the Promised Messiah and knew that following Him was how he would find salvation. For Jesus to die without him then, was not what Thomas expected. Could Thomas have been guilty of believing in a Levantine prosperity gospel? Did Thomas expect his loyalty in Jesus to guarantee success?
If so, Thomas’s reversal may seem more justified. It has been my experience that religious believers who espouse a therapeutic kind of belief, are often those most susceptible to losing that exact faith. It’s as if their faith only runs at one speed and if their faith in one god/worldview/religion/philosophy betrays them, then another is adopted with the same alacrity of their recently abandoned one.
Apologists make the best atheists and former atheists the best apologists.
In a way, they’re two sides of the same coin.
For whatever reason, Thomas was not with his fellow believers when Jesus appeared. Could Thomas have removed himself from their company because the wound was still too fresh, the existential whiplash still too jarring?
When the other disciples caught up with Thomas they said unto him, “We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Why didn’t Thomas believe? Could it have been that in the thousands of years of recorded history, no viable account of resurrection had ever been produced? Was he in the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” camp? Perhaps the news was too good and Thomas didn’t want to be guilty of credulity again.
Did Thomas replace his loyalty to Jesus for loyalty to not being wrong?
We’ll never know, but in a way, we’re all Thomas now. We find our loyalties conflicted.
As products of modernism, we try and place the world into neatly defined spaces: secular vs. religious, immanent vs. transcendent, rational vs. intuitive, etc. There are those who advocate for these ideologies maintaining their own exclusive spaces, but our lived experience tells us that the situation is much messier. Philosopher James K.A. Smith points out that such distinctions,
“provide maps that are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we find ourselves. They give us a world of geometric precision that doesn’t map onto the world of our lived experience where these matters are much fuzzier, much more intertwined – where the “secular” and “the religious” haunt each other in a mutual dance of displacement and decentering.”
James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, pg. 2.
While with Jesus, Thomas did not have to make a decision between the immanent and the transcendent, the material and the immaterial. He was able to walk, talk, and observe the transcendence of Jesus. After His death however, Thomas found himself at the same place that moderns find themselves, stuck somewhere between the two.
With this in mind, Jesus response to Thomas’s doubt is fascinating.
“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:26-27).
Notice the charge placed at Thomas’s feat. Jesus doesn’t mention doubt, he mentions faithlessness. The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is not having faith. In the Greek New Testament, the word translated as “faithless” is apistos, which literally means “without belief.”
If Thomas deserved the title of “doubting,” I’m sure the rest of those in the room did as well. The absence of faith is not doubt. Instead, doubt and faith occupy the same space as we decide who/what we believe and who/what we choose to worship. This is true for the religious as well as the secular. We don’t believe in our particular worldview because we don’t have any doubts, but instead believe in it while managing our doubts.
That said, doubt is not a virtue to be worshipped.
For a lot of contemporary religious groups, doubt translates into a trendy characteristic that is unfortunately wielded like a moustache or skinny jeans. Celebrating one’s doubt signals to the rest of the group that an individual is not a part of camp credulity but is actually working through their (usually) inherited belief system. When done genuinely, doubt is a natural part of belief. Belief doesn’t need manufactured doubt. Doubt has its way of cutting its own path through each of our beliefs, especially in a world with imbued skepticism. Manufactured doubt reaches beyond healthy skepticism and quickly devolves into unreachable cynicism. That’s not a good place to be.
I don’t think Thomas was cynical. I think he was guarded. His God had died once, and he didn’t want to see his faith die again unless it was planted in something worthier of his worship.
But wasn’t Thomas’s faith placed in Jesus?
Yes, but in a caricature of Him.
That caricature would only be replaced once Thomas was able to see that the resurrected transcendent Jesus had conquered the caricatured immanent one. The text does not reveal of Thomas actually put forth his finger and reached out his hand to touch Jesus, but his reaction to Jesus invitation was, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
It is with this scene that the Gospel of John concludes. Thomas’s faith has matured and Jesus instructs Him that seeing is not the only pathway for such a maturation to take root. He says, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
With Jesus’s death and resurrection came a profound shift in religious ideology. As ancient religions were want to play the “My god is stronger than your god” game, Jesus came and upended the entire paradigm. He showed that He was willing to suffer more than any other god and as a result transcend the entire contest.
He asks us to do the same.
His way was not one of blind obedience (credulity) or measured utility (rationality), but one of relationality. To meet the resurrected Jesus is to let die the caricature. Those who are unable to do so watch their faith die as well. Faith is only faith when it is placed in something that is true. To meet Jesus usually comes at the end of a long, cathartic road. Unfortunately, that road is littered with religious signage, ethical propaganda, secular cartographers, and would-be messiahs. As He told Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
I strongly believe that more people are walking toward Jesus than we give credit. He knows the way is fraught, but amidst the distracting guides, made the way straight and narrow. I wonder if those of us who seem to be at odds are actually walking in the same direction, but like any family trip, argue the whole way there.
Those of us in the modern world have opportunity to believe not only without seeing, but also amidst a chorus of doubting. To find viable faith in such a cacophony is not for the faint of heart. It may require a Thomas like experience; an experience crafted by God Himself.