Saving Thomas

Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed.
Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed." (John 20:29)

I have processed this story in the past and arrived at similar conclusions, yet I want to revisit this again to explore it a bit deeper. In brief, I feel that the reputation of Thomas 'the doubter' has gotten not only a lot of very undeserved bad press, but that we are still missing some really good news in this story. Maybe this is partly due to our penchant for projecting our own faults onto others instead of accepting responsibility for our own indulgence in the very things we accuse others of doing wrong. But this is a rather precarious path to follow.

Therefore you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judge. For in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things. (Romans 2:1)

Did Thomas indulge in doubt about the veracity of the witness from his fellow disciples? I do not deny that at all. However, contrary to what is usually assumed, that Thomas was somehow a worse doubter than the average disciple, I would like to point out the fact that Thomas was, in fact, no different than either the other male disciples who resisted believing the truth about the resurrection of Jesus, but also not much different from the women who were also grieving nearly uncontrollably until they personally encountered supernatural beings involved in this event or Jesus Himself.

We tend to want to assign relative levels of respect and admiration to the people involved in this story, seeking to set up some sort of hierarchy of value (something Jesus expressly forbid us to do) and then expostulating on the relative worth of each category, leaving Thomas somewhere near the bottom of our pile just inside the envelope of followers of Jesus. Yet I believe this is a tragic mistake and overlooks some obvious facts that contradict this assumption.

As I said, according to the record, not one disciple – male or female – seemed willing to believe the truth that Jesus was alive until they each had personal 'proof' sufficient to convince them. Notwithstanding repeated attempts by Jesus and angels to spread the good word through the testimony of their friends, each person held back, clinging to their own fears and/or grief until enough evidence was presented to finally conquer their resistance to embracing the truth.

I can't help but imagine that this must have deeply grieved the heart of Jesus and maybe even the angels involved. How could Jesus entrust the spreading of the gospel through this group of people to the entire world after He left this earth? What kind of example were they setting, what precedent were they creating that might give credence to their own testimony passed on to many others who were not privileged to encounter Jesus in bodily form?

Another factor that plays large in this saga that I don't want to overlook is the repeated mention of the testimony of Scripture. If taken seriously, this could have been a large mitigating factor in the way each person chose to relate to the growing chorus of witnesses. Again and again we see this mentioned in the story starting with John's testimony about his own reaction upon discovering that the tomb where Jesus had been was empty. Upon noticing the curious evidence sitting around that something profound had taken place, he makes the interesting claim (evidently in contrast to what he thought about his friend Peter who was with him) that upon viewing this evidence he then believed.

So then the other disciple [John] who came first to the tomb also entered in, and he saw and believed. For as yet they didn't know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:8-9)

This is a rather curious twist on words that is not easy to understand plainly. What was it that John actually claimed to have believed? Did he believe Jesus was alive? Did he believe Jesus just sneaked off and slipped out the back door to return to His Father as He had discussed only a couple days previous with His disciples? Just what was it that changed in John that he identified as belief?

Whatever it was that John thought differently from before he poked his head tentatively inside the tomb after Peter had bolted in, he felt compelled to add a caveat about not knowing the Scripture related to Jesus rising from the dead. Why did John feel compelled to mention that? What is it about belief and Scripture that John felt urgent to link together in the minds of his readers? Evidently, whatever it was that changed in his thinking, it did not go as far as he felt was needed or else he would not have included this mention of the witness of Scripture. We will find this showing up in other parts of the story related to the resurrection and its involvement in bringing others to believe.

Then there were the two disciples who received the wonderful privilege of an exhaustive Bible study from the anonymous Jesus masquerading as a stranger with them on their trip home. John had no such insights in his exposure to the scant evidence that affected him in some significant way. It is almost like John is admitting that he too, struggled to move to the level of faith that he longs for all of us to experience based on the testimony of first-hand witnesses like himself. But in the future it would be necessary for all to believe based primarily on the written testimony provided by inspiration of heaven, whether from Old Testament writings or those from personal witnesses who were with Jesus.

Notice too that John admits that it was not until he himself 'saw' something out of the ordinary that his own thinking began to change. He too had doubted and discounted, along with all the other men, the enthusiastic witness of women who had already testified about His resurrection, even though Jesus sent the women specifically to tell them, along with a personal note for Peter. It appears that John believes, from his view of the story, that Scripture should play a significant role to bring people to belief without a requirement to encounter Jesus physically firsthand like His original disciples insisted on doing.

As I review this story I first see women coming to the tomb immersed in deep grief because they assume, like all the other disciples, that the One they invested their lives with, the One they had been loved by so deeply and that had aroused such hope and passion in their lives like no one had ever done in the past – this One and only friend who had no reservations about unconditionally loving anyone, was now dead. As a result they were struggling to find reason or sense in life and had little clue as to what to do next. They were numbed with grief, and for some, especially the men involved, there was an added pressure of fear on top of their grief along with remorse for the timorous way they had responded during the traumatic events of the past couple days.

What seems clear is that all of these intense emotions experienced by every one of Jesus' friends seemed to severely limit their capacity to think objectively enough to recall what Jesus had tried to convey to them repeatedly about this very situation. Even Mary, the one who Jesus complimented while anointing His feet as taking His words seriously and was presenting His burial perfume to Him as a gift of love while He was still alive to enjoy it – even Mary found herself so deeply engrossed in abject sadness and depression that she could hardly think enough to even walk a straight line, much less notice who might be standing right in front of her.

We like to honor the women who were the first to believe and who were the first apostles of the gospel of the resurrection. We sometimes contrast that with the unbelief of the men they were sent to, yet overlooking the fact that the women themselves had not believed until they personally encountered supernatural beings displaying enough evidence to break past the darkness of their internal torment to get their attention and think along different lines. We like to honor Mary as being the first to personally encounter Jesus and we dwell on the passion she displayed after her own belief finally broke out of the barriers of her dark grief, yet only after repeated attempts by both angels and Jesus personally to get her to get past her obsession with weeping. Yet we skip over the fact that even Mary resisted belief even with Jesus standing in front of her, until she finally recognized her name spoken with the unique accent of her beloved Friend that finally shattered her paradigm of reality.

So far we have Mary, the first to personally encounter Jesus, trapped in unbelief until Jesus, after repeated and increasingly persistent attempts finally gets through to her who He is and she finally reacts with overwhelming joy, nearly causing Him to miss an urgent appointment back at headquarters.

We have the other unnamed women who likewise resist believing until they encounter supernatural angels, have discussions with them and see the various pieces of evidence in and around the empty tomb that finally convinces them to go to try to share the good news with the men.

The men now get involved with their own unbelief, reinforced by fear, remorse over the exposure of their cowardly characters and now terrified that they might be next in line to suffer similar violence at the hands of the diabolical schemes of the religious leadership. These fears were not unfounded as we find later in the story as unpacked in the book of Acts.

We then have Peter, the disciple who now seriously doubts his status as even being a disciple any longer and possibly on the verge of suicide as a result of his deep remorse over his denial of Jesus. Peter received a personalized message via the women that Jesus had not forgotten or abandoned him like he had done to Jesus. Then we have John, a good friend of Peter, who outruns him to the tomb but is too hesitant to peer into the dark recesses until after Peter arrives panting, and desperate to find any shred of evidence that might support what he has heard reported by the women. I sense that Peter would be hoping to find anything to give him reason to believe, anything that might add credibility at all to the glimmer of hope that has invaded his deep darkness of depression. But evidently this evidence was not sufficient to give Peter the paradigm shift he needed at that time.

Next we hear of two more disciples, one unnamed for interesting reasons but the other identified, walking home in abject despair trying to make sense out of all the very confusing events that have just shattered all the scenarios the disciples had invested their lives into seeing come true. Popular beliefs that nearly everyone shared in their nation about a Messiah coming to deliver His people from the horrors of occupying forces and to make their nation great again had all crashed when the Messiah they had hitched their future to had been betrayed by the very men entrusted with leadership of their country. With such leaders in power willing to stop at nothing to maintain their power, even to assassinate their opposition, any Messiah unwilling to resort to force or violence to defend Himself or His faithful followers had little hope to rescue anyone, much less the world.

Interestingly, Jesus used a different approach with these two than with all the others up to this point. Instead of providing physical evidence up front as to the truth of His resurrection like all the others had encountered, Jesus chose to start with history, prophecy and the writings of Moses to lay a foundation upon which a new paradigm of reality could be built more securely before introducing the supernatural element. It is like a progression of method on the part of Jesus and His assisting angels where they are now changing their tactics to arouse a new kind of faith in the hearts of people they have worked with so long, leading them to believe based on more than just what is in front of them.

With these two men, Jesus seeks to awaken faith from the inside before outside evidence is provided, and the result is encouraging. Their hearts 'burn' with passion and excitement neutralizes fear, shame and grief that had been suffocating them. When at last they are privileged to see physical evidence of Jesus firsthand, their immediate reaction is not just joy as he vanishes out of sight, but a realization of the fact that their faith had already birthed from an awareness of something more than simply an encounter with the supernatural.

Jesus allows this new element for belief to be brought to the other disciples who are still wallowing in fear and self-loathing, maybe hoping that a new foundation for belief might begin to take root in more minds. When they return, they find an element of excitement already beginning to dispel the darkness that had pervaded their souls as they reported that Jesus had personally visited Peter. Because Peter was a male, maybe this carried more credibility with the others than the testimony of the women. Of course it was also on top of the testimony of the women, so we should be cautious as to how we criticize them too harshly as we may not respond much better, male or female. The fact was that the weight of evidence from witnesses was piling up to increasingly overcome the resistance of doubt that had kept everyone trapped in unbelief to this point.

After these things he was revealed in another form to two of them, as they walked, on their way into the country. They went away and told it to the rest. They didn't believe them, either. Afterward he was revealed to the eleven themselves as they sat at the table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they didn't believe those who had seen him after he had risen. (Mark 16:12-14)

Continue to note the progression and the pattern developing here. Jesus starts with some women, the least credible among anyone He could have chosen, and He did that deliberately so as to initiate a new community of faith in the good news about God that Jesus came to establish. Likely He chose women in order to re-elevate them closer to their proper place as equals with men as they had been originally designed to enjoy from the beginning of the creation order. It was a hard sell, but Jesus was up to it.

Next He enticed a couple men to run to the tomb to investigate reports by the women and look for evidence that might soften their resistance and prepare them to embrace the truth without having to encounter Him personally. Then He reveals Himself to a couple men, but this time chooses to use a Bible study to lay a foundation before allowing them to experience exposure to the supernatural visibly. I believe He hoped this new paradigm could take root and that He might encourage someone to take the initiative to choose to believe without demanding to see Him in person.

Note in this next passage the many references related to feelings, attitudes and evidence.

They rose up that very hour, returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and those who were with them, saying, "The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" They related the things that happened along the way, and how he was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. As they said these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, "Peace be to you." But they were terrified and filled with fear, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. He said to them, "Why are you troubled? Why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is truly me. Touch me and see, for a spirit doesn't have flesh and bones, as you see that I have." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they still didn't believe for joy, and wondered, he said to them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. He took them, and ate in front of them.
He said to them, "This is what I told you, while I was still with you, that all things which are written in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures. He said to them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:33-48)

I see here an increasing emphasis by Jesus on a need to understand Scriptures and not just rely on supernatural revelation or physical evidence to support belief in Him. This is vital to have in their thinking as early as possible, for it will not be long until this way of believing will become the main option for others to come to trust in Him. Yet Jesus wants to find someone early on to set an example to inspire others to believe without need for 'proof' like we are so prone to demand.

Mark in particular points out that Jesus rebuked His disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they didn't believe those who had seen him after he had risen. This was not just a passing comment but is at the very heart of the problem Jesus seeks to resolve, not only with His disciples but with everyone to the end of time. I find it compelling that hardness of heart is not just a matter of struggling to believe that Jesus is alive again after being dead, but actually has much deeper roots that I suspect also fueled the doubts and fears of those disciples.

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for [in] yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. (Romans 2:4-5 NAS95)

At the very core of all disciple's struggle with doubt and unbelief is the dark views of God that still pervade so much of our thinking. Jesus came to challenge everyone's opinions and fears and suspicions about God, and He made some progress while here on earth. Yet the events of the past few days for these disciples exposed that there were still large pockets of resistance in them to His revelation of God, and Jesus was keen to root it all out even more and to replace those lies with the real truth about His kindness and goodness. As Paul notes, it is our unwillingness to embrace the truth about God's kindness and goodness that causes our hardness of heart and blocks us from entering into the rest of simple trust in the love of our heavenly Father.

The disciples of Jesus were being nudged to go deeper and challenge their notions about how God felt about them, especially after their dismal performance during the events of Jesus trial and execution. Yet they were still measuring themselves based on their performance instead of how Jesus saw them, and as a result they not only felt abject despair at the cowardice that had been exposed in them during those events, but they now may well have had a growing premonition that if in fact Jesus was alive again, He just might be coming back to 'get even' and do who knows what in retaliation for how they had betrayed and abandoned Him over the past few days.

When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were locked where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be to you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus therefore said to them again, "Peace be to you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." (John 20:19-21)

Luke puts it much more bluntly.

But they were terrified and filled with fear, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. He said to them, "Why are you troubled? Why do doubts arise in your hearts? (Luke 24:37-38)

I suspect that the doubts arising in their hearts and the troubled feelings they were experiencing were not just from shock over seeing someone alive that they had watched die a couple days previous. At a much deeper level, their views of a vengeful God that had not yet been cleared out of their belief system could have initiated scenarios that could have been racing through their imaginations filling them with terror, wondering what God in the flesh might have in mind after all the ways they had acted. From this perspective I find it completely understandable why Jesus would have to repeatedly assure them with the words like, 'Peace be to you.'

These words, found over and over in Jesus' encounters with His followers, and other assurances like 'Don't be afraid' often cited by angels and Jesus alike, expose the fact that humans are predisposed to assuming that whenever God or His supernatural agents show up that humans must be in trouble. This is one of the most fundamental fears that God is seeking to redress and one of the main reasons He sent Jesus to be born as a lovable, helpless baby on this earth – so we could begin to repent of our thinking about how God feels about us and stop being afraid He is out to hurt us.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, wasn't with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."
After eight days again his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace be to you." Then he said to Thomas, "Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don't be unbelieving, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed." (John 20:24-29)

Personally I no longer believe it was a coincidence that Thomas was not present the first time Jesus revealed Himself to the other ten disciples. Given the progressive pattern of revelation pointed out above, I tend to think that maybe Jesus was running out of options for a disciple to use as an example of belief in Him based solely on the testimony of other witnesses instead of clinging to unbelief and doubt until a personal encounter with Him was experienced. Jesus, in my opinion, was looking to find at least one disciple who could ever after be associated in the minds of people with a willing belief without demanding hard evidence or proof. This would prove to be an enormous and powerfully effective witness to so millions of future believers who could have an example to emulate. From this viewpoint, the absence of Thomas that first weekend was no stroke of bad luck but could have been divine providence setting him up to be an example of a champion of faith who surpassed the tepid example of all the others.

Imagine that every time the name Thomas came to mind, people would instantly think of the word 'faith' and how wonderful it was that this disciples had been the first to believe the truth about Jesus based on the words of his friends, or the witness of the many women eager to share what they had experienced, or maybe even more encouraging, the recounting of the new revelations of the true meaning of Scriptures recently learned from those who had listened to Jesus explain it to them the previous week. What if Thomas had been willing to take seriously all this growing evidence being eagerly offered him during that week from so many sources? What if he had actually chosen to move over into faith instead of nursing his wounded pride and like a little child demanding a personal chance to audaciously poke his fingers into Jesus wounds before he would trust His heart?

I am convinced that Jesus was offering Thomas a position of honor, but Thomas bypassed the chance. Yet before we rush in with our sorry jokes about 'doubting Thomas,' do not overlook the fact that he had acted no differently from any of the others who refused to believe until they had encountered supernatural evidence personally, excepting maybe the two disciples from Emmaus. They had had their emerging faith confirmed through a personal exposure to Jesus, but only after they had already begun to believe based on the testimony from the written word.

Thomas I am sure, may well have had a chance to experience something similar and possibly even more spectacular if he had responded positively to the promptings of the Spirit in his heart. Instead, during that lonely week when everyone else was celebrating, he found himself in a deep pity party, sulking in self-pity in spite of the numerous times others must have attempted to break through the hard shell he had erected around his heart and draw him out to believe without having 'proof.'

My own heart resonates with many of the feelings he must have experienced during that week, feeling alienated from all around him who are free to rejoice while he is trapped in unbelief and the resultant misery of self-pity. The longer he dug in his heels to bolster his unbelief, the more miserable he would have felt until Jesus finally arrived to set him free from his self-imposed prison of doubt.

Obviously Thomas passed on the opportunity offered him to become the poster child of faith. Yet again, before we get too critical and pious in wanting to put him down, take note that Thomas is the very first disciple to publicly confess Jesus as God and embrace Him as his personal God. No other disciple had to this point moved to the place of viewing Jesus as God, not just the Son of God. Thomas may have missed a grand opportunity to step beyond the pattern of all the others and simply remained just an 'average' believer like the rest, but after he repented he went further than any other and gave himself over fully to believing not only that Jesus was alive but that Jesus was also God Himself.

This actually gives me hope as well. I was told many years ago that I was a Thomas, that I was a doubter, partly because I often challenged everything and asked too many questions that sometimes disturbed those in authority. I am actually glad now that God made me this way, for it has been my incessant penchant to ask for more clarity and pursue deeper truth that has been the means to lead me to a deeper appreciation of the real truth about God and reality than many of my friends have found. I have long been unwilling to settle for religious clich├ęs that fall short of providing plausible explanations or that contradict each other. As a result I have in recent years felt privileged to sense a a growing awareness of truth that is much clearer and far more life-giving than anything I have every been offered in the past.

Yet the burden of questioning and doubting has taken its toll as well in that I have long struggled to be able to enter into the kind of joy that I witness others experiencing and that frankly often makes me jealous. I can really resonate with the misery that Thomas must have increasingly felt that long, lonely week as he felt ostracized by his own stubborn heart, all because his level of willingness to accept what could not be proven could not be satisfied. They had all encountered better evidence to convince them and give them assurance while he had not been given anything equivalent. How can that be fair on God's part? Why would God give everyone else overwhelming proof of the living Christ while one person was left out of the loop? How could that be an expression of kindness on the part of God?

In looking back after the fact, it becomes clear that Thomas was in fact being offered something superior to what everyone else had received. He had been given the chance to be the poster example of a kind of faith that would be needed by nearly everyone for the coming history of the spread of Christianity. This was no small offer, and how he must have regretted missing out on such a wonderful offer. Yet in spite of his choice to hold onto unbelief and doubt because he thought he had been snubbed by his best Friend, he still was able to break a barrier of faith that no one else had passed through to up to that point. Thomas went from stubborn resistance to "My Lord and my God!"

A few minutes ago someone handed me a poster with a quotation on it that seems very relevant to what I am discovering here. This is how it begins.

Faith will increase if, when brought in conflict with doubts and obstacles, it overcomes them.

I think this may well sum up the opportunity that Thomas missed. Yet it is still available to every one of us if we are willing to lay aside our resistance and to allow the kindness of God to lead us to change our mind about how He feels about us.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.


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