“Doubting” Thomas? (part 3)

Over the last two posts, I’ve been arguing that the nickname “Doubting Thomas” is unfair to Thomas. The unfortunate moniker, of course, derives not only from what Thomas said to the disciples, but from what Jesus eventually said to Thomas:

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (John 20:27-29, NRSV)

The word “doubt” here doesn’t mean skepticism in the normal sense. It’s potentially worse than that. A more literal translation might be “faithless” or “unbelieving” — a word that could actually apply to an unbeliever (e.g., 2 Cor 6:15). And when Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed, it sounds like a rebuke.

But again, consider the context. How have the other disciples responded to the resurrection of Jesus?

As we saw in the previous post, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples in Luke, they were terrified, and Jesus asked why they doubted. There, the word for “doubt” (Luke 24:38) is different from the one John uses; the word actually suggests people having an internal argument with themselves. Note that these disciples have actually seen the risen Jesus in the flesh, while Thomas’ so-called “doubts” are in response to a mere verbal report. So yes, Jesus questions Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” But he could easily have questioned the other disciples as well: “You see me, so why don’t you believe?”

Again, according to John, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Jesus. But she didn’t recognize him (and mistook him for the gardener), and she wasn’t alone in this. Luke tells us that the Emmaus disciples spent hours talking with Jesus about…Jesus. And still they didn’t realize who he was until the last possible second. To be fair, as many have suggested, it may be because Jesus looked different in some way. But the point of all this is that, if seeing is believing, then there was a lot of the first going on without the second.

What about believing without seeing? When Mary Magdalene and her companions reported what they had seen and heard at the empty tomb, Luke says that the others didn’t believe them, because their words “seemed to them an idle tale” (24:11). Their report, in other words, was dismissed as nothing more than the ramblings of a bunch of distraught women.

And when Peter then investigated for himself, it’s not clear what he made of the empty tomb. In Luke 24:12, he saw the burial cloths lying empty by themselves and still seemed confused. In John 20, we’re not told how he responded. But John seems to contrast Peter’s response to that of the beloved disciple, who saw the linens (not Jesus himself) and believed on the spot. The beloved disciple, in other words, was the only one who believed immediately without having to see the risen Jesus, while others failed to believe even when they saw him.

Thus, if Jesus was indeed rebuking Thomas for his lack of faith, he had a lot more rebuking to do.

It makes more sense, I think, to see Jesus as being unfailingly gracious in encouraging his disciples to believe. In inviting Thomas to explore the scars of crucifixion, Jesus was giving Thomas the same opportunity he had already given everyone else.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1603)

Did Thomas actually do it? Did he, as is portrayed here in the classic work by Caravaggio, actually put his finger into the holes left by the nails?

We’re not told. But I doubt it. Thomas’ “skeptical” response to the other disciples, I think, was not simply the expression of his hard-headedness but also of his longing to see Jesus as the others had. When at last he did see Jesus, and received a gracious invitation to lay all his questions to rest, it was enough to wrest from him a spontaneous and stunning confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

That’s saying a heck of a lot more than just, “Hey, Jesus, it really is you!”

More on that in the next post.