“You can’t have faith without doubt.”
That statement ought to get you thinking. I know it did me. I first heard it from our senior pastor, when our little church was embarking on an incredibly optimistic faith journey a few years back. I grew up with the impression that doubt was a bad thing; a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith. How could I not think that, when the church had branded one of Jesus’s closest companions as “doubting Thomas”–a branding so successful that the term is used in popular culture even by those who probably couldn’t tell you who Thomas was, or what heinous act he committed to be viewed with such disdain. So, when this wise older scholar made the statement, I had to take some time to consider the thought.
First, Thomas got a bad rap. If you’re not familiar with it, Thomas’s story is told in John 20:19-29. Unfortunately for most Christians, we’ve read and heard the story so many times that we don’t really read it anymore, we skim it, and jump straight to the anticipated ending, along with all the afore-learned stereotypes. In studying up on doubt, I took time to really savor this story, reading it as if for the first time, trying to witness it as if I’d never heard it before.
I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the political and cultural climate of the story; suffice it to say that a full understanding of the climate makes the story much more powerful. The over-simplified version is this: Jesus’s closest followers were gathered together on Sunday evening. Jesus had been crucified three days earlier. They were afraid for their lives, and had every reason to be. There were a few in their group who were claiming that they’d seen Jesus alive earlier that day–but people just don’t come back to life after they die. But then again, some of this very same group had witnessed Lazarus come back to life (at Jesus’s command, no less!) after he’d been dead for four days.
A worthwhile detour with respect to the character of Thomas: In the story of Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus declares that he’s going back to Judea to Lazarus’s family. He’d left Judea earlier to escape the religious leaders who were out to kill him. His disciples (names aren’t given, but the plural is used, so one would assume this was a group consensus) try to dissuade him because people will try to kill him. When Jesus makes it clear that his purpose is in Judea, Thomas is recorded as saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Essentially, Thomas tells the group that he’s committed enough to Jesus that if Jesus is going to do something that will likely get him killed, so be it, Thomas will be right there with him. Hardly the words one would expect from the weak-minded stereotypical Thomas many of us were taught.
Back to Easter Sunday–that evening, the disciples were hiding together in a locked room. These are not courageous men of faith; they’re not expecting a resurrected Jesus (realistically, you only can understand his teachings about his resurrection in the Gospels once you know that he rose from the grave. The disciples didn’t get it until after it had happened, and only fully comprehended it after years of living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit). If anything, they’re expecting a knock on the door, or a crash at the door, from the Temple guards or the Roman centurions, taking them all to their own cross. Suddenly, in their midst (without anyone opening the door), Jesus appears and greets them.
Verse 20 has to be one of the most ignored verses in Scripture. “After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” I’m reading a little into the text based solely on the sequencing of the phrasing, but I’m guessing that if they were convinced he was the Lord as soon as he appeared, there would have been little need for him to show his scars. I read this passage to indicate that he showed him his hands and side, then the disciples were overjoyed, because they then saw the Lord. Even if my interpretation is inaccurate, the wording clearly indicates that Jesus showed his scars.
In verse 24, Thomas shows up (there has been much speculation throughout history has to why Thomas wasn’t there–most of it seems to be influenced by the underserved slam on his character. Scripture indicates that the disciples came together that evening, meaning they hadn’t been together all day long. Bottom line is we can’t read what isn’t there, and it’s inaccurate to judge Thomas negatively based on assumptions). Jesus has departed prior to Thomas’s arrival, and Thomas walks into what must have been an incomprehensible scene: His closest companions–all of them–are excitedly talking over one another insisting that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, had just been in their midst, very much alive, on Sunday night. Here’s where Thomas’s story heads downhill in the minds of most: His response to this excited gaggle’s claim “We have seen the Lord!”: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
Oh, “Doubting Thomas.” Your friends have told you that the impossible has just happened. Why don’t you believe them at their word? Why do you insist on seeing the evidence… that they saw? Wait… read that again. Jesus showed up, and displayed his scars, and the disciples recognized him and were overjoyed. Thomas walks into this scene of overjoyed-ness (I can only imagine the pandemonium). Could it be that the author of the Gospel left out some of the dialogue between the group’s claim, and Thomas’s response? Could someone in the group (whom I imagine were all talking at once, sharing their radically excited, overjoyed news with their recently arrived friend) have said, “He showed us his hands and his side!” prior to Thomas’s recorded response? While that is sheer speculation on my part, the record is very clear: Thomas simply asked for the same evidence that the clamoring disciples had already seen for themselves. And for that, we’ve impugned his character forever.
Thomas wasn’t some sort of faithless, spineless loser. He was bold, and he was honest. Sure, the witnesses were his friends, but their claim was incomprehensible and unprecedented (there are differences between Jesus’s resurrection and Lazarus’s–namely, Jesus commanded Lazarus’s resurrection–he couldn’t very well command his own, since he was the one that was dead!). Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough for Thomas to “believe.” As I discussed in my post “Contemplating Doubt,” the word translated as “believe” has a lot more depth to it than just agreement that a fact is true. It means committing and acting on the basis of that truth, to the point that if in fact it’s not true, you are going to suffer significant consequences. We’ve already seen that Thomas isn’t afraid to stake his very life on something that he truly believes. Here, he just says, in essence, “I’m not convinced enough to be fully committed.”
Folks, that’s not a sin. That’s wisdom. A friend recently called it “intellectual integrity.” That means that Thomas wasn’t putting on some sort of bogus religious mask to hide what he truly thought and felt, trying to appear all “churchy.” Thomas didn’t say he refused to believe. He didn’t say he believed the story was not true. He just said what was truly on his mind–he wasn’t there yet.
We’ve all been in situations of doubt, and will be there again. Doubt is real, it’s important, and it’s often mishandled by people who mean to help. Instead of condemning doubt, either in the church, or in society at large, we need to be open about it. This is contrary to what many of us have experienced in church, and it’s contrary to what is rewarded in our American culture. But if “you can’t have faith without doubt,” and faith is a good thing, then isn’t doubt a good thing, a necessary thing?