Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601-02), Oil on Canvas, 42″ x 57″, Sanssouci, Potsdam
The theologian Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” John 20:19-31 tells the story of the Apostle Thomas, sometimes called doubting Thomas. He’s called doubting Thomas because he didn’t want to believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he saw the proof for himself. Thomas was what apologists call an “evidentialist”—someone who bases his faith on the reasonableness of the evidence. Thomas declared, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (25). There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se. He was only asking for the same proof the other disciples had been given. And Jesus even condescended to his request, showing him the proof and overcoming his doubts.
But Jesus also said there was a better way: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (29). There’s a faith that comes from seeing with physical eyes, then there’s a faith that comes from seeing with spiritual eyes. Jesus said those who experience the latter are “blessed.” The word means happy. It’s the same word Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, among other things, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
The Apostle John must have experienced this kind of happiness. At the empty tomb he believed before he saw the risen Lord, before he had any reasonable proof that the Jesus body had not simply been stolen (John 20:2-10).
Thomas’s faith was formed by evidence, John’s by love. Thomas saw in order to believe. John believed in order to see. Thomas’s proof was outward, sensory, and empirical. John’s was internal, emotional, and relational. Both are valid paths to faith, according to Jesus, but John’s was better.
According to church tradition St. Thomas took the gospel to India. The “Thomas Christians” of the Mar Thoma Church claim the apostle as their founder. There are various stories about what happened to St. John the Apostle. In most he outlives all of the other disciples. In the one favored by Catholics John takes care of Mary, Jesus’ mother, after the resurrection in a house near Ephesus—called today the “House of the Virgin.” Although none of these stories has historical value, they do tell us something important about how the church regarded these two important men: Thomas, the former doubter, who went abroad to evangelize in the East, and John, the beloved disciple, who stayed home to love and care for the woman who gave birth to God.
Whether the mission God gives us is to preach the gospel overseas or show love and compassion at home, we each have an important calling to bear witness to the resurrected and living Jesus.