Faithful Doubt

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Try to forget, for a moment, everything you thought you knew about Thomas. Notice that I didn’t say “Doubting Thomas,” as this nickname is the first thing we need to forget. So…forget that somewhere along the way you came to believe that Thomas’ primary attribute is doubt. Forget that you still think of him as a slightly inferior disciple. Forget that you’re pretty sure Jesus rebukes him for his lack of faith. Forget all of that. Why? Because in each case the opposite is true.

First, Thomas is not anywhere in John’s Gospel — the only gospel where he has his own scene, lines, or characterization — described as “the doubter.” Rather, he is “the Twin,” a name most of us have long forgotten. Further, when Jesus has declared his intention to return to Judea — and the other disciples try to dissuade him because they know it will mean his death — it is Thomas to urges the others to follow Jesus “so that we may die with him” (11:16). Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist, and a few days earlier he’d encountered reality like never before as he saw his friend and lord nailed to the cross and die. Now, when his friends tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he reacts with a realist’s skepticism, kind of like a terminally ill patient who has accepted his fate might react to news of a new “miracle cure.”

Second, did you ever notice that what Thomas asked for was exactly what all the other disciples got? When Jesus appeared to the other disciples he showed them his hands and his side and only then, John records, did the disciples rejoice “because they saw the Lord” (20:20). One conclusion we might draw is that, despite his bad rap, Thomas is no worse than the other disciples. More importantly, however, perhaps we’ve actually misunderstood the nature of faith altogether, assuming that the “more” faith we have the fewer questions we’ll ask. But the Bible offers a different picture of faith, one in which faith and doubt are woven much closer together than we might imagine. Faith, after all, isn’t knowledge but instead “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews: 11:1).

Third, Jesus’ words at the end of this scene aren’t, I think, really about Thomas. After all, who are “those who have believed and not seen”? Well, it starts with the members of the early Christian community to whom John writes…and continues to include all of us. That’s right: Jesus isn’t so much rebuking Thomas as he is blessing us.

Looked at this way, far from standing as the inferior doubter that Jesus rebuked, Thomas emerges as a model disciple in John’s gospel. Or, more accurately, he’s the model of how one becomes a disciple. Thomas is no fool, but rather comes at things realistically and counts the cost. Once he has encountered Jesus, his faith is as realistic as was his skepticism, as he doesn’t merely believe but also makes the chief confession in John’s gospel, acclaiming Jesus not only as “my Lord” — the title reserved for Caesar in the first century — but also “my God,” the highest praise of Jesus made in the New Testament and an echo of the opening line of John’s Gospel.

Little wonder that John follow this scene with his own two-sentence purpose statement: “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” (John 20:30-31). In other words, what happens to Thomas is exactly what John hopes will happen to each of us when we read his story.

So I wonder, Working Preacher, how many of our hearers imagine this to be true: that doubt is not the opposite of faith but an essential ingredient? That hardboiled realism is an asset to vibrant faith? That they can bring their questions and skepticism, as well as their insights and trust, to their Christian lives? That they are among those blessed by Jesus for believing without seeing? And what difference would it make if they knew this? If they saw themselves, that is, like Thomas, as model disciples prepared and blessed for faithful mission in the world?

In weeks past I’ve tried to think of various ways by which to make the stories we preach on more concrete, vivid, and accessible. Ways by which our people can take these stories with them out into their lives and in this way participate in the story and make it their own. This week’s story seems rife with potential for doing the same. But rather than me suggest one more strategy for doing this, I’d invite you to. If, as you read and think and pray on this story of Thomas, you can imagine a way by which send it out into the world with our people, please share it in the comments. Perhaps we can in this way we can form a community of “participatory preachers” that our people may hear, see, live, and come to believe the good news…and believing have life in his name.

Thanks be to God for you, Working Preacher, and for your regular and faithful proclamation of the life-giving word of the gospel.

Yours in Christ,