Thursday, October 19, 2006

Faith and Doubt, Part Two: Disappointed Thomas

The apostle Thomas had the opportunity to be the first person to believe the gospel by faith. Instead, he became the 15th or so to believe the gospel based on sight.

Here’s how the story goes. Jesus appeared to several women, and to ten apostles, after his resurrection. But Thomas wasn’t around. Then we read:

So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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."

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!"

Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:24-29)

Notice how strongly Thomas expressed his doubt: “Unless I see…I will never believe!” Rather than Doubting Thomas it would be more accurately to speak of Unbelieving Thomas.

What do you think led to Thomas’ disbelief? There are a variety of possibilities. Perhaps he was simply a skeptic, the sort we encounter in our culture regularly – someone who believed only what his eyes could see. Yet this seems the least likely option considering that he was born into a long tradition of monotheism, had witnessed firsthand the miracles of Jesus, and had confessed his faith in God in the past. Thomas is probably not the patron saint of skepticism – if skeptics have need of such patronage.

Another option is that Thomas was unwilling to quickly adopt a belief that would so radically change his life. To believe in Jesus’ resurrection would affect his understanding of the resurrection - first century Jews believed the righteous would rise someday, but not now. More significantly, such a belief would radicalize his understanding of Jesus and of himself as Jesus’ disciple and spokesperson. I know that many people are hesitant to truly give Jesus a chance because they don’t want their life changed too dramatically.

But I think the strongest option is that Thomas had been deeply and painfully affected by Jesus’ death. Having followed Jesus for years, he had grown to like him, believe him, and hope in him. To see him violently executed was too much to bear. For a million personal, emotional, and religious reasons, he no doubt found himself saying to God: “Why? Why? Why?”

After all, isn’t disappointment often the birthplace of doubt? Although doubt sometimes creeps into our intellect, it can also burst onto the scene when suffering or pain explodes our expectations of what God “should” be and do.

Do you believe, or does personal pain, disappointment, or perhaps the fear of a changed life keep you from faith? Or for you is it something else?

The gospel of Thomas is that Jesus does not leave Thomas to die in (and for) his unbelief. He mercifully appears to Thomas, taking him up on his challenge. Thomas, however, simply worships – we don’t read that he ever put his fingers in Jesus’ wounds. And he gave a great confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus, after taking Thomas up on his challenge, then leaves us with a challenge: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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