The Gospel reading for this Sunday relates the story of Doubting Thomas, found only in John 20:19-31. The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell us nothing about this obscure apostle. I don’t really like the epithet “doubting” Thomas. I think a better one would be “honest” Thomas, because he admitted his doubts, or “believing” Thomas, since he came to believe. Church tradition tells us that after Pentecost he preached the Gospel in India. When the first European missionaries arrived on the Indian subcontinent in the sixteenth century, they were surprised to find thriving indigenous churches full of “Thomas Christians.” But before Thomas could be used so mightily by God, he had to overcome his doubts.
The central miracle of our Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the main theme of the apostles’ preaching in the book of Acts and is included in all Christian creeds and confessions. Paul even says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). But that doesn’t make it easy to believe. The idea of a bodily resurrection goes against all of our experience. Dead people stay dead.
We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with his fellow disciples when Jesus appeared to them postmortem, but we do know he wasn’t convinced by their story about seeing Jesus. He told them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas wanted proof, empirical proof, that it was really Jesus and not a ghost. And he got it. Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, but instead of rebuking Thomas for his unbelief, Jesus offered Thomas the tactile evidence he had demanded: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (20:27).
This offer for Thomas to touch Jesus is all the more surprising because just a few verses earlier Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father” (20:17). (The NRSV translates the command, “Do not hold on to me.”) Although Jesus forbids Mary to touch him in his resurrected state, he gives Thomas permission. Immediately upon seeing Jesus, however, the former doubter immediately blurts out, “My Lord and my God!” It was enough to see Jesus is his resurrected form. The Bible doesn’t say Thomas manually inspected the wounds as he had said he wanted to. This fact is all the more interesting since so many artistic interpretations, like Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (above), show the apostle inserting his finger in Jesus’ side. For Thomas and the other disciples seeing is believing.
The experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus was so important and exclusive that it became a prerequisite for apostleship. At least that’s how I read Paul’s statement, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). The rest of us don’t get to see the proof with our own eyes. We have to be satisfied with historical evidence: “These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Thankfully the Gospels give us reliable evidence based on eyewitness testimony. The lack of firsthand proof doesn’t make our faith weak or defective. In fact, Jesus praised those who believe without visual proof: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). The writer of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). For us seeing isn’t believing. For us believing is seeing.
Faith comes naturally to some but not to others. The story of Thomas—believing Thomas—teaches us that God can handle our doubts and wants to help us when we are struggling with our faith.