In John’s gospel Thomas is absent from the larger group of disciples when Jesus makes His first appearance to them. As a result of this absence, Thomas does not see Jesus, and when the other disciples tell him what has transpired, he refuses to believe. In our day Thomas has been given the label “doubting” because of his lack of faith that Jesus had really risen from the dead. I would like to suggest that this label is misleading, over-simplistic, and ultimately unhelpful. Thomas has gotten a bad reputation in the church today for his doubt, but what if doubt wasn’t really the problem at all?
The name “Thomas” occurs 11 times in the NT; once each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, seven times in John, and once in Acts. I want to talk about these passages quickly, because I think it will help us better understand how Thomas operated. In the synoptic gospels the name is used only within lists of the twelve disciples of Jesus; always in immediate proximity to Matthew the tax collector. In John’s gospel there are three other passages that give us insight into the life of this disciple.
First, in John 11:16 Jesus determined to wait until Lazarus has died to go and visit Bethany in Judea. It is clear that in Judea the Jews wanted to put Jesus to death for His teaching that He and the Father were one (John 10:30). Upon Jesus’ insistence that they return to Judea, Thomas said in John 11:16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” For Thomas, a return to Judea meant Jesus’ inevitable death. There was no other way he could see the situation playing out. I’m sure he had worried about it ever since they had fled Judea at the end of John 10. So in one sense this statement betrays a lack of understanding of the power that Jesus possessed, and who it actually was that stood in the midst of Thomas and the other disciples. Yet from another perspective Thomas’ statement also shows a deep commitment and faithfulness to Jesus, even in the face of what he considered to be certain death.
In John 14:5 Jesus had been comforting His disciples in the face of His imminent crucifixion and death. He had told them that He was going to prepare a place for them and would return to take them to Himself. He told them that they knew the way to where He was going. Thomas then asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus’ response to Thomas is wonderful: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through Me,” (John 14:6). Thomas was concerned that he did not know the way to the place Jesus was going. Again this shows a devotion to Jesus and desire to be where He was, in His presence.
In John 21:2 we see Thomas joining Peter and several others on a fishing trip at night, during which they caught nothing only to be amazed when Jesus’ advise to cast their nets on the other side yielded great rewards.
These three passages can give us at least two insights into Thomas’ personality. First, Thomas was a team player. He encouraged his fellow disciples to accompany Jesus in John 11. In his response to Jesus in John 14 he spoke for the group as one of the group using the plural “we” instead of a self-focused “I.” In John 21 he fished in a group that joins Peter. He was a team player, so being absent from the group in John 20:24 was significant. It was not normal for Thomas to be alone.
Second, Thomas was strongly devoted and faithfully loyal to Jesus. He was willing to go back to Judea and face death in John 11. He was concerned to be where Jesus was in John 14. Personality-wise, Thomas seems to be a golden retriever: a friendly, loyal comrade who will stay by your side as long as you live.
Thomas’ Core Issue
Because Thomas had not been present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared, they attempted to convince him. Thomas, in spite of his friend’s apologetic efforts and reasonable evidences, determined that he would not believe unless three things happened: (1) he must see the imprint of the nails in Jesus’ hands, (2) he must put his finger into the mark made by the nails, and (3) he must put his hand into Jesus’ side. If these three things did not happen, Thomas said, “I will not believe.” This is much stronger in the Greek than the English translations. The particular construction here (οὐ μὴ πιστεύσω) shows that Thomas had determined that if these things did not occur, he would never ever believe. Not a chance.
It didn’t matter what kind of evidence his fellow disciples put forth. It didn’t matter that they all saw Jesus, or that the tomb was empty, or the guards had fled, or the stone rolled away, or Mary’s testimony, or the logical arguments. None of it mattered, because for Thomas it wasn’t about logic. His response was not a logical, rational response. I would suggest it was an emotional, broken-hearted, tear filled response.
Remember, Thomas is a golden retriever: loyal, faithful, a true friend, not matter what until the day you die. But Jesus did die. How would you feel if you lost the one person your life revolved around? Thomas, along with the others, had given up everything to follow Jesus. When Jesus died a part of Thomas died as well, and in place of what had been there was now only pain, suffering, sorrow, and hurt. It’s likely Thomas was not present with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them because he was grieving.
Everyone grieves in different ways. Many need and seek the support of family and friends. A shoulder to cry on can be of great value. Others need time to think, to process, to be alone. When I’m grieving, I usually want to be alone, at least at first. Now imagine Thomas, grieving the loss of his best friend, suddenly overwhelmed by the disciples swearing they had seen Jesus alive again. Would you dare believe it to be true? In your intense pain, would you risk hoping beyond hope that Jesus had risen?
This is the fallacy with labeling Thomas as a “doubter.” Doubt was not the underlying problem. It was only a nasty symptom of a much deeper issue: the problem of pain. It is one of the greatest hurdles that many face in their journey of coming to faith in Christ. This hindrance to faith takes on many forms. Thomas had been a devout followed and adamant believer in Jesus prior to his death, but after his death refused to believe without conclusive evidence. For him the hurt of loss was too painful to risk believing in something that he was not 100% sure about. There are many who question their faith as a result of a catastrophic event in their life. For others, sorrow and loss prevent them from ever putting their trust in Christ in the first place. In both cases, doubt is not the core issue, but grief and pain are at the heart of the problem.
Thomas’ Encounter with Christ
Eight days pass. Eight days of reasoning, rationalizing, attempting to help Thomas understand the reality that was the resurrection. The disciples were once again inside, just as they had been previously in v. 19 of this chapter. The remarkable thing now is that Thomas was with them! Remember, he had flat out said “I am not believing until I see and touch the man Jesus Himself.” Yet the disciples hadn’t given up on Thomas! They didn’t leave him to his disbelief, but lovingly bore with him for eight days, telling him about their experience seeing the risen Christ.
Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, entering through shut doors. Verse 27 is such a beautiful verse to read. What is especially striking is that Jesus does not condemn Thomas for his unbelief, but neither does he condone it. Instead, he corrects it, lovingly, patiently allowing Thomas to see and touch for himself. The prophet Isaiah had predicted of the Messiah, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out,” (Isa. 42:3). Thomas was a grief-stricken bruised reed, and Jesus meets Thomas right where he’s at, gently answering his doubts and driving away all of his fears.
Jesus provides evidence for Thomas that corresponded exactly with what Thomas had asked in v. 25: seeing the nail imprints, touching the nail imprints, and putting his hand in Jesus’ side, allowing him to see and feel the reality of the resurrection. When Jesus said, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing,” it seems many take it as Jesus rebuking Thomas for his unbelief. In light of Thomas’ struggle with grief, this may rather have been a plea from Jesus to Thomas to accept all the evidence that Jesus really had risen and believe.
Thomas saw Jesus’ hands with the mark of the nails. He put his finger into those marks. He saw the place in Jesus’ side that had been speared, and put his hand into Jesus’ side. Jesus gave him everything he had said that he wanted to see, and upon seeing Jesus Thomas made a confession and declaration of his faith in the risen Christ.
Overcoming Grief, Pain, and Doubt
Pain and sorrow are often major barriers to faith in Christ, leading to lasting doubts and skepticism about Jesus and the Christian faith. But they are not impossible to overcome. In the presence of Jesus Thomas’ doubts and fears, and also his pain and sorrow, turn into belief and joy. The only remedy for disbelief caused by grief and loss is the experience of the presence of Jesus Christ Himself. No amount of apologetic argumentation can take the place of an introduction to the Savior Himself. When we encounter those who are struggling with grief and pain we must find ways to direct them to the Savior and His love.