If there's one Biblical personality who get a bad rap, it's "Doubting Thomas." The Bible only has a few paragraphs about him, but the one line everyone sticks with is about how he had to see the nails scars in Jesus' hands before he would believe he rose from the dead. This is often interpreted as a lesson to all Christians - you need to just have "faith" in the Resurrection of Christ, without daring to ask to see the scars.
And I suppose there's a sliver of that in the narrative. Jesus does wrap it up with "Blessed are those who have not seen but still believe" (John 20:28). However, I think Jesus' statement wasn't a just rebuke to Thomas, but a message for the Christians who will come after him.
Let's take a minute to look at the other places Thomas shows up in the Gospels. If you search for him on Bible Gateway, his name comes up 11 times. First, he's chosen as one of the 12 disciples. We don't get much background on Thomas, although we learn he is also called "The Twin," but the narrative never says twin to who or what. The simplest guess is that he had a twin somewhere, but if he did, his brother (or sister, possibly) is never specifically named or mentioned by the Gospel writers.
Thomas gets the spotlight at three places in the Gospels. The first is found in John 11:16, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In the beginning of the narrative, Jesus and the disciples get news their friend Lazarus is very sick, but Jesus decides to linger a few towns over rather than rush to his bedside. Of course, the assumption among the group is that if Jesus showed up to Lazarus' side, he would make him well.
When Jesus finally decided to go to Judea, where Lazarus lives, his disciples expressed concern, saying, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?" (John 11:8). Jesus, naturally to the readers who know the end of the story, is unfazed by this. He gave one of his life-lesson sort of statements, and said they were going to Judea for the glory of God. Thomas, who, we must remember, was following Jesus without knowing what victory was going to look like in the end, replies, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16).
John, the writer of this Gospel, didn't clarify Thomas' tone. Was he saying it with a sigh of resignation to the inevitable, or with shrug of uncertainty, or as a rallying cry to motivate the other disciples to throw off worry for self and follow Jesus to the end?
We don't know, but the point is that Thomas was willing to die with his Rabbi.
The second time we hear Thomas speak, it's in John 14, when Jesus is giving the disciples his famous, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," talk. In fact, that famous phrase, on bumper stickers and billboards around the world in our day, was in reply to a question Thomas asked:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him" (John 14:1-7).
Now we can't chide Thomas for asking a question that seems silly to us with two thousand years of hindsight. These twelve guys were having the mysteries of heaven and earth revealed in front of their eyes, in the body of a carpenter that looked and talked like them. However, he wasn't like them. The disciples knew there was something very different and very strange about this Galilean rabbi, and they were left to watch the story unfold, without the spoilers we take for granted.
So when Thomas asked, "How can we know the way?" it's a safe bet he's asking because he's willing to follow Jesus anywhere, if Jesus would just give him the directions. You can't blame the guy for not immediately catching on and thinking "Okay, Jesus, your dad doesn't really have a big house somewhere around here for all of us to crash. It's OBVIOUSLY a metaphysical metaphor for eternity. Got it." We also need to note that as far as any of his contemporaries were concerned, Jesus' father was a guy named Joseph. Joseph didn't have a secret mansion, did he? The fact that Thomas didn't immediately discount this statement as ridiculous shows he was thinking outside the box and open to taking Jesus seriously as a spiritual leader.
So now we're up to his big moment in history. Thomas was devoted to his Rabbi wholeheartedly, only to see him brutally murdered. All his followers were devastated and left in chaos and confusion. However, after three days, really weird stuff started happening. Suddenly, Thomas' friends were saying that Jesus wasn't dead, that he came out of the grave. Thomas, who apparently missed the party where Jesus made his appearance, said his now infamous catchphrase, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe" (John 20:25).
Today, we read that with a "naughty boy, Thomas!" attitude, but really, why should he have believed them? This was insane!
So let's all ask ourselves an honest question. You have a tragic, brutal death in your circle of friends. A few days later, all your friends are gathered together and telling you that your friend, no joke, just climbed out of the grave. They saw him. I'm sure we would all be deeply hurt and devastated because everyone is apparently going nuts in the trauma. Dead people generally stay dead.
However, in Thomas' case, he saw Lazarus come out of the tomb. He saw Jesus perform all sort of incredible miracles. He heard his outlandish teachings. Could be possible...
But we can't blame him for refusing to harbor that hope based on hearsay. If anything, I think it can be argued that this came down to an issue of authority for Thomas. If Jesus did walk out of the tomb and was still alive, this changed history. Jesus wasn't just a brilliant teacher and a martyr, he was, well, as Thomas could have very likely thought as evidenced by his later statement - God himself. Can you blame the guy for being very hesitant to jump to that conclusion?
We can't pin down one black-and-white emotion Thomas felt. It was very likely a mix of grief and confusion, frustration and fear, and despair with a tiny, terrifying, gleam of hope. It's entirely possible he was past the denial stage of grief and had moved on to anger,and his sharp answer reflected that strong emotion. We also need to note that Thomas waited eight days after Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples before the famous scene in the upper room. Eight days. If Thomas did harbor any hope that maybe, Jesus was alive after all, it probably faded a little more as each day passed.
So let's take a look at Thomas in light of the story so far. He was fiercely loyal, he was thoughtful and wasn't afraid to ask questions. He didn't follow the crowd and take what people said at face value. The most important authority in his life was his Rabbi, Jesus, and that was the one who would have the final say on all issues and the only one who could settle his mind on this insane claim. He wasn't just going to take his buddy's word for it. He didn't have what the Christians he was paving the way for would have - The Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, tradition and historical accounts, the saints before us, the end of the his own story. He probably felt very alone.
If he did have that bit of hope, could he have also been a little hurt, wondering, "If Jesus came to Peter, and John, and Mary, why hasn't he shown himself to me yet?" That's speculation, of course, but we tend to overlook one fact we are given about Thomas' faith. As we see in John 20:26, after over a week without personally meeting Jesus, he was in a room with the other disciples. He wasn't at the tomb or the first meeting where Jesus appeared, but he didn't abandon his believing friends, although he was the only one who hadn't "seen the Lord."
So rather than "Thomas doubted" being the theme of the story, I think it's more fair to say, "Thomas struggled."
I think the biggest piece of evidence for this case is when Thomas finally meets his Rabbi, in the flesh:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-29)
His Rabbi had spoken! Jesus had reached out in compassion, right to him. That was all Thomas needed.
He was the first disciple to declare Jesus as not only the Son of God, but as God. Once he had the facts in front of him - that Jesus, had, in fact, overcome death itself, then he was back on board, never to look back again.
Therefore, when Jesus gives the gentle rebuke of, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29), it's not just a message for Thomas, but a message for his followers in the future - Thomas was blessed by being in the presence of God himself, but will the testimonies of Thomas and the other disciples be enough for future believers?
If anything, Thomas' story validates struggle and questioning as having a legitimate role in developing a sincere faith. However, once we have the answers to our questions in our own struggles, will we be as willing as Thomas to fall into the arms of Jesus?
This post is dedicated to my son, Thomas. May your struggles end in real faith, buddy.