Thomas is my middle name – not after the Apostle, but after my maternal grandfather, whom I never knew, because he died ten months before I was born. Mind you, I do feel something of an affinity with the Apostle, not just because of his name, but, more significantly, because of what we read of him in the Gospels. He is, of course, often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’, which seems to cast a bit of a slur on this important witness to the resurrection. It is as if the rest of the apostles were somehow ahead of him, with all the right answers, and their theological examinations suitably passed, leaving Thomas behind on the slow track. As is often the case, though, the truth is more subtle.
Although Thomas appears in lists of the disciples’ names in all the Gospels, it is in the fourth Gospel that we find his personal development carefully worked out, and it is centred on four significant passages. First, when Jesus receives the news that Lazarus has died, and says that he is glad, so that people can believe, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Thomas shows that he is impulsive. He wants to go with Jesus on the journey, but he thinks it will end in his death. Secondly, in the upper room after the foot washing, when Jesus has said to his disciples that they know where he is going, it is Thomas who says, ‘Lord we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?’ Thomas is cautious: he probably feels that he has already made a fool of himself and he wants to have a precise map before he starts the journey, a perfectly reasonable stance. Thirdly, there is the resurrection scene, when he arrives after the others, and insists that he must see for himself the print of the nails and be able to touch Jesus’ wounds. Eight days later, Thomas is with the other disciples, when through a closed door Jesus appears, and speaks directly to him, knowing his state of mind. Jesus is ready for Thomas to touch the wounds and that is enough in itself for Thomas to proclaim: ‘My Lord and my God.’ Thomas is first sceptical, then believing. Finally, Thomas is to be found among the group of disciples ready to go fishing, when once again they see Jesus. So, Thomas, by the end of John’s Gospel, is firmly part of the group of committed disciples.
Each stage is important: from impulsiveness, to caution, to deep scepticism, to belief. Thomas’s personality, his temperament, makes him ask questions that others are not prepared to ask. This is not an impulsiveness to do things like that we see in Peter, but an impulsiveness to get at the truth. Thomas’s forthright questioning certainly resonates with me. His journey to that dramatic fishing expedition at the end of John’s Gospel was neither straightforward nor easy, and his journey didn’t end there, either.
The concept of doubting Thomas taps into a current of questioning which runs throughout the Bible. Doubt lurks in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent raises questions in Eve’s mind about what God had said to her. Abraham, Jeremiah, the psalmist and Job are just a few among many key figures, who raise doubts and questions about God. Indeed, in Job’s story, it is only his so-called ‘comforters’, gathered at his bedside, preaching their sugary certainties, who have no doubts. Doubt is in the bloodstream of the Hebrew Scriptures. And as we move into the NT, yes, Thomas certainly has doubts, but he was in very good company. Jesus doubts whether he can put up with his disciples much longer. He wonders whether his own mission will make any lasting impact. And, most remarkably, according to the earliest account we have of his death, Jesus’ last word is a cry of despair. Thomas’s doubts and uncertainties serve as a spur to his discipleship and so, I would suggest, it is with us. The story of Thomas indicates that doubt and uncertainty add crucial authenticity to whatever stage we may have reached on our own spiritual path, and also validity to the questions we want to ask.
I tend to think of so-called doubting Thomas more as a teacher of faith. Because he was apparently full of doubts and questions, he could not just accept the opinion of others. There is something very human, genuine and modern in this attitude. I honour him today because of his honesty, his critical approach to the stories about Jesus (and those seemingly impossible rumours of resurrection), and because of his willingness to modify his own views. Thomas values his own experience more than the accepted opinions of his religious establishment. After all, there was no belief in resurrection in the Hebrew tradition. Who had heard of a resurrected Abraham or Moses? The concept simply didn’t exist. Thomas is not one to follow the crowd, or conventional wisdom. He does not believe in blind faith, or leaping into the unknown, and he does not accept the truth merely because other people say that it is the truth. He needs to verify the core of his faith to check whether this is something worth adhering to, dedicating your life to, and proclaiming to others as a worthwhile way to live your life.
When it comes to the resurrection, Thomas’s doubt is salutary. It strikes me that it says a great deal about the danger we are in if we allow ourselves to come too easily
to conclusions about what the resurrection means. Back in the mid-1980s, the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, got himself into hot water making the same point, when he asserted that the resurrection is more than a conjuring trick with bones. He was roundly denounced and ridiculed by many church people, politicians and the media, but his critics routinely forgot to mention that Bishop Jenkins still said that the resurrection was real. If it takes what appears to be doubt in order to return us to the significance of Jesus’ triumph over death, perhaps we need more of it, not less.
When we domesticate Jesus’ rising again, when we reduce it to an argument about what we can and can’t prove, we utterly rob it of its potential wonder. Wittingly and
unwittingly, we spend so much time attempting to confine and constrain God in what we say about him, trying to tidy him up into neat formulae, that we find ourselves missing out on the imaginative potential of the resurrection for our own lives. Perversely, it can sometimes feel safer to stay in our metaphorical Gethsemanes and Golgothas and avoid altogether the rolling away of the stone. And this is where I feel today’s strident atheists and secularists misconstrue Christianity. For they seem to lack imagination just as much as the equally irritating Christian fundamentalists who think they have it all sewn up. Thomas discovered through his doubts and questions that, somehow, the Jesus story had not ended. And here we are today, because it still hasn’t.