In the previous post, we raised the question of whether it’s fair to Thomas to single him out as the one who “doubted” the resurrection of Jesus. Thomas has that reputation because of his seemingly skeptical response to the joyous announcement of the other disciples that they had seen Jesus: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe” (John 20:25, CEB).
Eewww, Thomas, the others might have said, that’s disgusting. Taken at face value, though, Thomas’ words do make him sound like a hard-nosed empiricist, or at least someone from Missouri: “Yeah? Show me.”
But let’s put those words in context. In this post, we’ll draw on a story from the gospel of Luke; in the next, we’ll compare Thomas’ response to the responses of the other disciples.
Luke 24 tells us that Mary Magdalene and her companions went to the tomb on Easter morning, encountered an angel, and reported back to the other disciples. In a separate story, Luke tells of Jesus appearing to two disciples walking to Emmaus. They did not recognize him at first, and when they finally did, they ran back to Jerusalem to find the others and report what they had seen.
Thus, when Jesus appears in their midst in vs. 36, the group includes not only what’s left of Jesus’ original band of twelve, but the Emmaus disciples and others (cf. vs. 33). And if this is the same episode that John describes as Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples in a locked room (John 20:19-20), then Thomas isn’t there.
Luke says that the disciples’ first response is terror: they think they’re seeing a ghost. Thus, Jesus reassures them: “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have” (Luke 24:38-39). That calms them down a bit — but he also eats a piece of fish in front of them to dispel any further doubts.
Notice two things about that passage.
First, if Thomas is indeed absent, then it’s everyone else whom Jesus describes as having doubts.
And second, the command to “look” and “touch” is his idea, long before Thomas makes his famous pronouncement of “doubt” in the gospel of John.
So let’s reimagine the scene in John. Thomas returned — perhaps with an armload of groceries? — to where the disciples were meeting. They excitedly announced that they had seen the Lord.
But it’s likely that they would have said more about the encounter, possibly with several people talking at once. “We thought it was a ghost! But then he showed us the wounds in his hands and feet — he even let us touch him to be sure it was really him!”
In other words, Thomas’ pronouncement in John didn’t just arise out of thin air. It was in response to all the excited words being thrown his way. It wasn’t simply, “Unless I get to see and touch, I refuse to believe.” It was, “Unless I get to see and touch like you say you did, I refuse to believe.”
That’s not doubt. That’s a loyal and loving disciple who longed to see Jesus and felt like he’d been left out of the party.
And if anything, Jesus’ response to Thomas when they are reunited a week later should reinforce the point. More on that in the next post.