READING: John 20: 19-31
The story of “Doubting Thomas”, so familiar to many of us. And that phrase – Doubting Thomas – we tend to use it to heap scorn on anyone who questions some truth that is obvious to others. Poor Thomas! Do we do him a disservice every time we use that phrase? Let’s see..
Tradition has it that Thomas eventually makes his way as a missionary, first to Persia and then on to South India where he is eventually martyred. The mark of one perpetually paralyzed by doubt?
As John tells it, after all Thomas is entitled to his doubts in that, unlike the other disciples, he has not already seen the risen Christ.
Doubt can be corrosive, of course, but here Thomas uses his doubts in a constructive manner. His requirement of not believing in the risen Christ unless he meets Jesus in the flesh is portrayed by John as a test by a doubter – and yet John leaves us wondering how what Thomas discovers is enough to inspire him to become a missionary. Could this be a case of doubt and firm faith solidly linked?
Why despise Thomas for his initial doubts? If we put ourselves in Thomas’s place, doubting might seem more rational than credulity. The equivalent for us today might be watching a good friend die – then later going to the funeral home to pay our respects, only to be met by a stranger telling us “Sorry, he’s gone. He came back to life and he is out there somewhere.” Be honest. Would you accept that without question? And even more to the point, would Thomas have been wise to accept such an outrageous claim without question? Are those claims not still outrageous?
It is true that Thomas’s doubts do not seem to have been remembered with affection by Christians through the centuries, yet we might wonder if this has its root in the gospel writers’ respective theological differences. The Gospel to which the name of Thomas is attached predates the other New Testament gospels. It interweaves mystical traditions with teachings of Jesus used by the other gospel writers. That may help explain why his gospel was voted out of the final collection of books we know as the New Testament.
In terms of objectivity the gospel attributed to Thomas consists mainly of sayings of Jesus and is clearly less mystical and more down to earth than a good part of the Gospel of John. Some scholars have even suggested John’s version of Thomas as a doubter was added later to undermine Thomas’s credentials as a rival gospel author.
One set of traditions claim Thomas was not only sometimes known as Didymus (the Greek for the twin -and the Aramaic for Thomas also means twin) but some have gone further and claimed that Thomas’s twin was no less than Jesus himself. This raises all kinds of interesting possibilities. Were there two babies in the crib at Bethlehem..? The notion of Jesus being uniquely born of a virgin suddenly becomes the subject of more doubt – if doubt about that did not exist already…
As always, there is a health warning here… Doubts about the literal truth of some of the events and stories associated with Thomas – as with much of the Biblical narrative – do not mean the stories have no value. All significant figures in history have a degree of accompanying mythology and, like Jesus’s parables, the deep truths that emerge from the stories are where their real worth may lie.
Not so long ago, during the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, a church in the town took it upon itself to stage a creationist festival on the beach to proclaim the earth is 6,000 years old – during the Fossil Festival… The United Reformed Church has contributed a nicely subtle counter-narrative in that our old church in Lyme Regis is now a dinosaur museum…
Yes, there are still people who dare not question lest they find that their comfortable certainties are threatened. Let us not be among them but give thanks for everyone who continues to use their doubts to help sort out their thinking and who insists that all assumptions are tested. They are a blessing. Are we brave enough to do our own testing and allow it to extend the horizons of our own faith? Thomas did – and we are still talking about him today!
Revd Iain McDonald