The doubting disciple

Posted in Features


In one of the most striking of the resurrection stories in the four Gospels, the disciple Thomas refuses to believe Jesus has risen ‘unless I put my finger in the mark of his nails’. For this, he has been known in the English-speaking world for centuries as Doubting Thomas. Andrew Walker, whose book, Notes from a Wayward Son, is out in a new and updated edition, takes a fresh look at Thomas, a man who liked to get his facts straight.

The story of Thomas is seared in our brain because he represents to us a failure of discipleship: perhaps he is too much like us for comfort? Familiarity, goes the old adage, breeds contempt. This well-known saying certainly fits our view of St Thomas, whom we have belittled over the years as a man without faith.

In the resurrection story involving Thomas (John 20:24–29) we learn that he does not believe Christ is risen from the dead as the other disciples, who were gathered together without Thomas, claimed. Then to confirm our view of Thomas’ faithlessness we interpret the Lord Jesus’ attitude during a second appearance among the disciples, this time with Thomas present, as a put down of the apostle. He says to Thomas ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ and then goes on to bless those who come to believe without seeing (see Heb 11:1). In fact, so sure are we that Thomas is not really worthy of Christ that his name is always coupled in our mind with doubt. He is not St Thomas the apostle, martyr, or confessor but Doubting Thomas. For centuries churches have defined Thomas as a ‘doubter’ personified and he is dismissed with disdain by many a preacher and printed tract.

But we have had a very one-sided view of Thomas and our view of Jesus’ response to Thomas is, in my opinion, misleading and ungracious. In order to think differently about Thomas, and Jesus’ reaction to him, we have some further textual information about Thomas in John’s Gospel that, when inwardly digested—to use an archaic but compelling phrase—will lead us to change our minds.

But first we need to remind ourselves that the appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples and followers—attested to, though with variations, in all four Gospels—is strictly speaking still part of the Easter story: the appearances are evidence that Jesus has risen from the dead and left the tomb where he was interred by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy admirer and friend of Jesus. The resurrected Christ is not a phantom or a disembodied spirit. In Luke 24, Jesus appears to his disciples, who are frightened of him because they think he is a ghost. To convince them otherwise he shows them his crucifixion wounds and invites them to touch him so they can see he is made of flesh and bones. He also asks if they have any food and they give him some broiled fish which he took and ate before them.

In his final appearance to his disciples before his ascension into heaven (according to John’s Gospel, chapter 21), he is standing on the beach of Lake Tiberias and is preparing breakfast. The sharing of the bread and fish with the disciples not only reminds us of the paschal meal but it demonstrates (like Luke’s account) that the risen Christ was still a man of flesh and blood, not a disembodied spirit.

Yet Jesus was different in some ways after his resurrection. Until he called the disciples to eat on the shore, for example, they did not recognize him. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus meets two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, a village a few miles from Jerusalem. Even though he expounded the Scriptures (OT) to them concerning himself as the Messiah, they did not recognize him either. It was only when he accepted their invitation to stay the night with them and blessed and broke bread—handing it to them—that they realized who he was; Jesus then, according to Luke, mysteriously vanishes (Luke 24: 31).

On Easter Sunday itself, early in the morning when it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the new tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. Thinking that someone had stolen the body she hurried to the disciples and, weeping, told them the body had gone. Simon Peter and John ran to see for themselves and seeing the neatly folded and empty funeral cloths believed that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. But Mary was so distraught that she stayed near the tomb and after a brief encounter with two angels, who ask her why she is crying, she turns around and sees Jesus standing there but she does not recognize him and mistakes him for the gardener. She begs him to tell her where he had taken her Lord.

Then Jesus simply calls her name, ‘Mary’ and she instantly recognizes him and replies ‘Rabbouni’ (an ancient Hebrew version of Rabbi, or Teacher). Jesus shows that he is still coming to terms with his new status for he tells Mary not to cling to him because he was not yet ascended to his Father. He tells her to go and tell the disciples that he will be ascending to God. Mary hurries back to the disciples with his instructions and announces, ‘I have seen the Lord’.

On the evening of that same day, Easter Sunday, the disciples are secretly hiding behind locked doors for fear of their lives when Jesus appears in their midst and pronounces God’s shalom, ‘Peace be with you.’ At these words and after he had shown them his wounded hands and side, the disciples rejoiced and realized that Mary and others were right: Christ had risen from the dead. It seems certain that this first appearance to the disciples is the same event as recorded in Luke 24, but Luke like the rest of the so-called Synoptic Gospels gives no information about Thomas other than he is mentioned as one of the twelve apostles.

So it is exclusively in John’s Gospel that we learn about Thomas. And it contains a mystery. John tells us that when Jesus first visited the disciples, Thomas was not there, but he does not tell us why. It is left for us to surmise why this was so, or offer what CS Lewis called a supposal. Supposals are logical or rational outcomes of premises which offer an alternative view of reality; they are not arbitrary outcomes. Aslan, in the Narnia chronicles, was believable if you could accept that God could have visited other planets and taken a body as Jesus took human form in the incarnation. If I want to think of Doubting Thomas as not doubting I have to have a premise which stands up to scrutiny. In fact, I am not arguing that Thomas did not have doubts, I am arguing that doubts are a consequence of a broken heart, and not an inability to believe.

Even without any further textual evidence about Thomas we can tell from his negative reaction to the disciples’ exciting news, that they knew Christ was risen because they had seen him, that he has a skeptical attitude to reality: he wants the real Jesus, nothing less. Thomas was obviously not given to fantasies or empirical inexactitudes. We could see this as an entirely rational view. We can learn something that will confirm our view of Thomas’ hardheaded approach to reality by reading the second piece of narrative in John’s Gospel that tells us about this man. And it is to be found in chapter 14.

Jesus was telling his disciples of the reality of heaven as the Jewish festival of Passover approached and he was but a short way to his death on the cross. In the narrative Jesus was telling the disciples that his Father’s house had many dwelling places and that he would prepare a place for them so they could be together. And he said that they knew the way to the place he was going. Thomas interrupts him with a question. He said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?’ There is no indication in the text that Thomas was out of order or disrespectful to Jesus but it is clear that he liked to get his facts straight. Jesus is not put out by Thomas’ intervention and answers him with one of the most memorable texts of the New Testament. He turns to Thomas and says, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6).

But the game changer that can really convince us that there is much more to Thomas than a skeptical frame of mind and a doubting heart is to be found in John’s first narrative involving Thomas. While in Galilee with his disciples, Jesus had received news that Lazarus, the much-loved brother of Mary and Martha, had died (John 11). He tells his disciples that they needed to go to Bethany (a small village in Judea near Jerusalem) where the two sisters and Lazarus lived. The disciples warned Jesus that it was only recently that the Jews had tried to stone him to death. Thomas says to his fellow apostles they must follow Jesus to Judea where death awaits them. ‘Let us go with him,’ he insists, ‘that we might die with him’ (John 11:16).

Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany where Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. But a short while after this astounding miracle, events unfolded that were to lead to Christ’s death and dereliction on the cross. And here comes my supposal. Jesus died leaving Thomas alive but left behind; the Messiah dead, all hope gone, this man of courage did not want to be with the others; the saying ‘misery loves company’ did not apply to Thomas: he was grief stricken, shattered, broken hearted, beyond consolation. When a heart is broken in pieces there is nothing from within to reach out, so God has to reach in and draw us to himself. This is exactly what Jesus does for Thomas: he comes to him as a ‘man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.’ But he was also the risen Lord, the mender of broken hearts, the one who brings balm from Gilead (see Jeremiah 8:22) and heals the sin-sick soul.

But in order for my supposal to be more than wish fulfillment or fanciful exegesis there is textual evidence that Thomas’ love and bravery was recognized as the essence of the man, not his doubts. This man of courage whose broken heart had drained away every vestige of faith and hope was granted an insight that no one else in the New Testament is given. Thomas is the only person in the New Testament, other than Jesus himself, to call Jesus God. Others sported titles such as Son of God, Teacher, or even Messiah (honourable titles, which in themselves don’t necessarily infer divinity)—but ‘my Lord and my God’ (the Greek is ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou—the literal translation reads: the Lord of me and the God of me) is spoken only by Thomas.

Kyrios is a divine title that was used by some Roman emperors to describe their own divinity (dominus is the Latin form); in Hebrew the closest equivalent of Kyrios would be Adonai, but it was used by Christians to mean Jesus is Lord. (Paul’s epistle to the Philippians says of the man from Nazareth ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’)—though St Paul also tells us elsewhere that no one can make this claim except by the Holy Spirit. But to use the word theos is to call Jesus God himself.

Having established how unique and inspired Thomas is in his encounter with the risen Christ, in the light of Jesus’ earlier visit to the disciples who had to be convinced that he was not a ghost, we should change the tone of Jesus’ words to Thomas so that his criticisms lose their negative connotations. When he makes his second visit to the disciples, when Thomas was present, after his shalom he turns to Thomas and gently says to him (in effect): ‘It’s alright Thomas, I am here now: as you can see, I am alive.’ And as he had already done with the other disciples, he told Thomas he could reach out and touch him. In fact, the text does not say whether Thomas does or not, but I think it unlikely (though early icons suggest he did): he was overcome with awe in the presence of the resurrected Christ, and with faith and hope restored his only possible response was to fall on his knees and worship Jesus as Lord and God.

Jesus, again gently I suggest, says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me [and if my supposal is right] ‘blessed are those who have not seen me and have come to believe’ is not aimed at Thomas in particular but is a comment meant for all who desire to follow him.

Thomas was a man of considerable courage whose broken heart was the result of pain beyond endurance that was eventually bound up by Jesus. (Doubt was dispelled by the divine illumination of his mended heart and Thomas was enabled by the Holy Spirit to confess that he was in the presence of the living God.)

Confessor was a title used in the early church to designate men and women who upheld the true faith. It is a badge of honour usually accorded to theologians who stood for the true faith in opposition to those who would distort it. St Maximus (sixth century) was usually known as Maximus the Confessor because he upheld the view of the early church since the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD that as Christ had two natures he must have had two wills—human and divine.

The church tried to make a distinction between martyrs who died for the faith and confessors who spoke up for the faith (Edward I of England was—after his death—renamed Edward the Confessor because of his piety and celibate lifestyle. There was, however, an earlier King Edward whom we know as St Edward the Martyr. He was murdered after a short reign, AD 995-98).

In practice, however, confessors often became martyrs. This, according to Indian tradition, was what happened to Thomas. In Kerala, South India, today there are a number of similar Oriental Orthodox Christian denominations (Syriac Orthodox Church and the Malankarar Syriac Orthodox Church, for example) who claim that they were evangelized by the apostle Thomas, who was martyred in India by a man thrusting a spear in his side, but they still view him today as a confessor for he alone, as we have seen, was granted the grace to declare who Jesus really was when his status was not clearly understood even by the disciples themselves.

In conclusion, I think Thomas’ story is good news for people who have lost their faith, or never had faith; maybe they are suffering from grief, broken relationships, or simply the vicissitudes of everyday life, but it will not seem as such good news by Christians who insist that salvation and eternal life are the results of following formulas; even sola fidei (Luther’s justification by faith alone) can become a slogan divorced from the reality of real life.

God’s love is capable of overriding slogans and faulty formulas. But then God’s love is not predicated on human response: it is a strong, unconditional and tough love that is so often unrequited. I think we can see God’s love as an overflow of his own nature; so catch it if you can. And if you can’t, God’s love is patient and longsuffering, and he is still waiting for you.

Andrew Walker is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College, London, and the author of many books, including Restoring the Kingdom and Telling the Story. The second edition of Notes from a Wayward Son, which includes essays and articles ranging across Charismatic Renewal, Eastern Orthodoxy, CS Lewis, the impact of modernity on the church, and mission in the West today, is published by James Clarke.

Main image: Museo del Prado/Wikimedia

Ship of Fools feature

Ship of Fools feature

© Ship of Fools