Thomas, the skeptic

I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding.  A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives.  How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous?  (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)

We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears.  The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump.  Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)!  We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle.  Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.

Here’s a little game.  Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer?  Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)

1 jn

Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create?  We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used.  So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation.  I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.

Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers.  In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname.  I would say his “unfortunate” nickname.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

Maybe we should first take a step backwards.  We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors.  It appears they have good reason to do so.  However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence.  We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.

It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on.  It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur.  In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame.  Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans?  Was it Judas’ fault?  Those are pretty easy guesses.  However, perhaps something more was happening.  Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings?  There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.

Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after.  That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.

Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas.  It’s not like the others really got it themselves.  For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid.  No, I’m just kidding!  Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).

In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.

2 jnCould we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking?  Jesus agrees to it.  “Do you want to see my hands and side?  Well, here they are.  Check it out.”  Thomas is convinced.  Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?

We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea.  The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face.  Still, Jesus is determined.  It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).  Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.

Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false…  Thomas needed to touch in order to believe.  He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.”  He needed to “see” for himself.

I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt.  That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt.  I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment.  Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead.  The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.

On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these 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” (vv. 30-31).  These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”

We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism.  Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject.  “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology.  It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail.  On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.”[1]

Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic.  I asked him if he had read the Bible.  ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic.  I don’t believe it.’  This is not skepticism.  This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

3 jn

Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith.  How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”?  On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck!  Faith has its own evidence.  Faith has its own eyes.  Faith does its own fact-checking.  In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

Buchanan gives Thomas credit.  “Thomas was a true skeptic.  He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief.  He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.”  He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[2]

For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.

That becomes true for all of them.  Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen.  First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb.  She mistakes him for the gardener.  Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15).  Put your tears away.

In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21).  And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).

How is that a word of comfort and strength?  What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness?  Would that be a word of comfort for us?  Remember earlier.  In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?”  What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us.  There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others.  Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!

Doubting Thomas.  One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries.  What have we been at our worst?  What have we been at our most embarrassing?  What have we been at the time we most want to take back?  (I can think of plenty more than one.)  Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are.  From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.

4 jnHow often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?

Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst.  Actually, God does that very thing!  Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).

Of that, it is okay to be skeptical!  It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply.  It is okay to take God seriously.  (Yes, it is okay!)  It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”


[1] Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3), 64.

[2] Buchanan, 67.

* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake

Thomas, the daring doubter

A couple of years ago, I led a discussion of a book by church consultant Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.[1]  We were talking about the ability to keep one’s head when emotions might overwhelm.  At one point, the discussion took a rather strange turn.  I will admit that I was responsible for that strange turn!

I mentioned the movie World War Z.  It’s about zombies taking over the planet.  It stars Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, who works with the UN.

He hears about a wall that the Israelis have built to keep out the zombies.  So he boards one of the few planes left flying and goes to Israel, to check it out.  Upon arrival, Gerry meets Jurgen Warmbrunn, an Israeli official, and asks how they could have known to build a wall.  He responds, saying they intercepted a message from an Indian general who said they were fighting “the Rakshasha.  Translation, zombies.”  (And yes, I did consult the internet for lines that I had forgotten!)

Gerry looks at him in disbelief.  “Jurgen Warmbrunn,” he says, “high-ranking official in the Mossad.  Described as sober, efficient, not terribly imaginative.  And yet, you build a wall because you read a communiqué that mentions the word ‘zombie.’”

Warmbrunn sympathizes with his disbelief.  Then he talks about events in which the Jews thought they were safe:  concentration camps in the 30s, the ‘72 Olympics, and war in 1973.  People doubted the danger until it was too late.

“So,” he says, “we decided to make a change.  The tenth man.  If nine of us look at the exact same information and arrive at the same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree.  No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start digging on the assumption that the other nine are wrong.”

Gerry asks, “You were that tenth man?”

He replies, “Precisely.  Since everyone assumed that this talk of ‘zombies’ was cover for something else, I began my investigation on the assumption that when they said ‘zombies,’ they meant zombies.”

Unfortunately for them, the wall doesn’t protect them very long.  Some refugees are singing loudly, and the zombies outside are drawn to the noise.  They climb the wall, with the humans trapped inside.  Like fish in a barrel, they quickly become dinner.  Of course, Brad Pitt escapes!

What I found interesting was the concept of the “tenth man (or woman),” one who disagrees with the others, no matter how unlikely their position might be.

In John 20, I wonder if we can see Thomas, in a way, playing the role of the tenth man.  Going back to my original comment, can we possibly see him as the one who keeps his head when emotions might overwhelm?  I’ll admit that would give his nickname “doubting Thomas” a certain wisdom and awareness of his role!

image from

I think St. Thomas has been unfairly portrayed.  It’s not like he’s the only one who doubts that Jesus has been raised from the dead!  Maybe the reason he gets singled out is because he’s the only one absent on that first Easter evening.  Being the odd one out is always a tricky situation.

Here’s a quick side note.  On that evening, the scripture says the disciples were behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (v. 19).  John wrote his gospel in the 90s, near the end of the first century.  By that time, the split between Judaism and Christianity was a couple of decades old, and there was some Jewish persecution of the church.  Still, the reference to “the Jews” is unfortunate.  Throughout history, not understanding the context, people have targeted the Jews as bad guys.  That’s always been a grave injustice.

Now, back to Thomas.  Not everyone has given him grief.  Like the other apostles, who took the gospel to different places, Thomas went on a trip of his own.  Tradition says he headed to the east, eventually arriving in India.  That’s also where he was martyred.  There is a branch of the church known as the St. Thomas Christians.  They still exist, and they trace their history back to the apostle.

Having said that, we still have to acknowledge that Thomas does doubt.  So what about it?  Nancy Rockwell, in her blog “The Bite in the Apple,” has some thoughts about that.[2]

“Like a breath of fresh air, Doubting Thomas enters the over-lilyed atmosphere of Easter.  He’s reliably among us on the Sunday after Easter—and on every Sunday.  He’s part of us, steadily, reassuringly.  He anchors us.”  She admits that believing someone has come back from the grave can be a bit much!

Again, Thomas isn’t the only one in his group who doubts.  He is, however, the only one who gives full voice to it; he’s the only one who states it plainly.  Rockwell draws a parallel between his situation and the ones we find ourselves in.

Doubting Thomas, she says, “belonged to the group, those who believed, those who said they did but didn’t, and those who had questions but were afraid to pipe up.”  She continues, with a comment we might find surprising, “Churches are not communities of believers, but communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.”

I don’t know about you, but I have been in churches where you dare not ask any questions.  Not swallowing everything hook, line, and sinker, is considered to be a no-no, even sinful.  There’s a saying that goes, you are supposed to check your brain at the door.

I’m not sure what they do with Jesus saying to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).

Questions are good.  I have questions, and I also have doubts.  Kids have questions, and they also have doubts.  When they come to us with them, it’s okay to say, “I don’t have all the answers,” rather than giving some rehearsed response.  It’s okay to say that to each other.

It’s a good thing when we’re a community that welcomes questions, especially the question, “Why?”  That’s a nice one!  It can also drive you crazy.

Earlier in John’s gospel, there’s an episode that I think shows the courage of Thomas.  (That explains the word “daring” in the title!)

In chapter 11, Jesus gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is at death’s door.  He doesn’t immediately take off, but when he says it’s time to go, his disciples remind him that he’s a wanted man.  If the authorities hear he’s back in town, there’s a jail cell with his name on it!  And there might be something worse with his name on it.

Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (v. 16).  Some might claim that he’s being a naysayer.  Some would chastise him for sending out negative vibes.  Some might say, “Where’s your faith, Thomas?”

Maybe those are fair complaints.  But it seems to me that we can also see him demonstrating not only courage, but loyalty.  It looks like he’s ready to die with Jesus.  And when his doubts are answered in chapter 20, with Jesus appearing before him, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).  For many people, this is the highlight of the story—when Thomas finally believes.

Our friend Nancy has a slightly different spin.  Three different times Jesus says, “Peace be with you” to these “emotionally exhausted people” (vv. 19, 21, 26).

She says, “The peace of Christ is given to all of them, including Thomas in his doubting.  This peace Christ gives is not just for believers, and it does not separate believers from unbelievers.  The peace of Christ does not separate.  Everything about Christ joins people together, across all the separations:  sin, judgment, defeat; gender, culture, faith.”

There is immense power in the peace of Christ.  It is indeed extended to all, even to those of us who sometimes doubt, whether that doubt is daring or not!  That’s what our liturgical use of it in worship is all about.  Passing the peace of Christ isn’t a matter of chit-chat, of catching up on current events.  It is a matter of binding ourselves together in the bond of peace.  Or better, recognizing and embracing the bond of peace that’s already there.

It might seem like having doubts and the peace of Christ contradict each other.  But God comes to us in the contradictions of our lives.

About these contradictions, Henri Nouwen mentions, “being home while feeling homeless…being popular while feeling lonely, being believers while feeling many doubts.”  These contradictions “can frustrate, irritate, and even discourage us.”[3]  Can any of us relate to this?  Can any of us relate to the father who, upon bringing his child to Jesus for healing, said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”? (Mk 9:24).

We need not be defeated or paralyzed.  “These same contradictions can bring us into touch with a deeper longing, for the fulfillment of a desire that lives beneath all desires and that only God can satisfy.  Contradictions, thus understood, create the friction that can help us move toward God.”

That’s the gift that Thomas discovers.  On the other side of his questions—and even his doubt—he finds God.

I wonder, is it possible to admit that it’s necessary to question, even to doubt?  Is it necessary to do that in order to love our Lord with heart, soul, and mind?  I don’t have the final answer on that.  As I like to do, I am posing the question!

Still, after Thomas’ eyes are opened, Jesus gives him this to chew on.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).

Who are these blessed “who have not seen and yet have come to believe”?  To begin with, there are the people who first hear John’s gospel; they live near the end of the 1st century.  This includes Christians one, two, even three generations after Jesus.  And it includes those down through the centuries, leading to us today.

So I think I’m safe in saying:  take heart.  Remember, churches are more than communities of believers; they are communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.  And thanks be to God, our Lord is faithful and patient with us.  Our Lord extends peace and pronounces us blessed when we come to believe, no matter how long it takes.  That’s what it means to be the people of the risen Christ.

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).