Sunday, April 26, 2020

Lessons From Doubting Thomas

It's amazing how one moment in history or one exchange of words between two people and a person is labeled forever. Everyone of us knows that we all have our bad days, our bad moments as well as those stunning moments where we just don't know how to respond to a specific situation. In most cases the people who have labeled us have seen the way we usually act so while we expect them to be surprised we should also assume that they would be the first to offer us the benefit of the doubt.

Then there are those whose actions are misinterpreted but still, once they are labeled then such an identity sticks with them. In most cases many see them in a negative light because the person doesn't just accept what they are told but ask questions to better understand what is going on around them. It should be easy for us to understand that we all see things a certain way and/or that some people need more time to understand the situation around them. Still, when we don't want to take the time to address such concerns we find it easier to label the person who doesn't go along with the rest of us. 

This exists in all communities including the Church and as we will see it goes back to the very beginning, specifically when it comes to St. Thomas who is also known as Doubting Thomas. However, it is my hope that after this discussion we will remove all negatives from the word Doubting in this case and realize that his doubts were based on his desire to have a truly authentic faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The Gospels 

Thomas is only cited in the Synoptic Gospels when the authors list the names of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19 & Luke 6:14-16). This alone is very important because of the role that the apostles played in comparison to just the regular disciples of Jesus. According to John McKenzie, the word apostle is defined as to send forth and The Twelve that Jesus chose were, His constant companions and given full instruction of the truths which He proclaims.

The Gospel of John though gives us a better glimpse of Thomas the follower of Jesus. During the Raising of Lazarus we see Thomas' zeal for his Master to the point where he is willing to accept death if he were to accompany Jesus back to Judea, which is there the Jews had threatened to stone Him (John 11:1-8). Thomas' reply according to John 11:16: So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go to die with Him." 

Does this sound like a man who doubted who Jesus was? He is openly saying that he will go and die with Jesus not because of what Jesus was about to do but because of who Jesus is. Thomas is already a man of deep faith. In the words of C. Bernard Ruffin: It was only Thomas who showed no reluctance to go. It was he who rallied the other apostles. 

Of course the moment in question that gave the apostle the Doubting label is from John 20:24-29. At the beginning of this passage it said that Thomas was not with the other apostles when Jesus had appeared to them. His response to them in verse 25 after they had informed that they had seen the Lord was: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in  the nail marks and put my hand into His side, I will not believe. 

Imagine the complexity of emotions that Thomas must have been feeling at that moment. First, he and the other apostles are already frightened because they are in hiding (John 20:19). Then he hears that the other apostles have seen the Risen Lord? There certainly must have been a sense of joy that he didn't expect at that moment but it shouldn't surprise us if he also felt a certain amount of anger considering the fact that the last time he and the other apostles were in danger that he was the one who spoke out in terms of his willingness to die with Jesus....and now it is the other apostles who have seen Him again?

Let us also consider the following points:
  • Jesus was executed in a most horrific way and Thomas knew of the likelihood of his Master being dead and buried for good, just like all of the other Messianic leaders who were executed before Him. But, if Thomas were to see the wounds that he knew would come from someone that was crucified he would be able to believe in this miracle with a greater faith than when he saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. Keep in mind that Thomas was not told about Lazarus coming out of the tomb: he was there and witnessed it with his own eyes! This is why it is fair to consider these words from Ruffin: The incident involved Thomas'  doubting shows him a practical man of common sense who demanded empirical proof.
  • Like the other apostles, Thomas was a first century Jew and such people had to see a physical body in order to believe that someone had been raised from the dead.  Of course after Jesus' appearance had convinced the now eleven apostles that He had indeed been raised from the dead the Lord interacted with them in ways that demonstrated it was Him in the flesh, in His glorified body and that it was in fact a human body before them and not a ghost or an hallucination. Even to this day such an idea sounds far fetched, which is why Ruffin said the following about Thomas' condition for believing that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead: Thomas' reaction was eminently reasonable. He knew as well as anybody else that people who were really and truly dead did not come to life again.
  • Thomas was an apostle and if that meant that he was supposed to be given full truths from Jesus that he should have a full vision of the Lord as the others had? Therefore, could it be argued that he should also have the right to see the Risen Jesus since the Lord had in fact called him to be in the same role as the other apostles who had already seen the Risen Lord?  Even St. Paul, who was not one of the original twelve but is still regarded as an apostle saw the Risen Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1). In the words of Ruffin: He wanted to have the same experience that his colleagues had in order to prove to himself that the Resurrection was physical and material, rather than intellectual.
Meanwhile, the whole Doubting Thomas title seems to go deeper for some other than a man who simply wanted the proper evidence to justify his faith. Take for example this movie clip from the 1999 movie Jesus and the way Thomas is portrayed starting at 5:07:

The questions he asks Mary Magdalene was fair but when he mentioned Jesus speaking of false prophets while also stating that something else is going on here it almost seems to suggest that the issue for Thomas was not that the other apostles had already seen the Lord (in this film version they had yet to see Him) but that he didn't really believe in Jesus because he was still not fully convinced of who Jesus really was. That is unfortunately the portrayal that many have of Thomas even to this day.

When the Lord finally did appear to the apostles again and this time when Thomas was also in their presence He approached Thomas directly and invited him to do exactly what Thomas said he would have to do in order to believe (John 20:27).  The Gospel never says if Thomas in fact did do these things. It simply has Thomas reply with his famous words, My Lord and my God! Would a skeptic be so easily convinced if it was in his nature to question everything around him? Would seeing the actual wounds really convinced such a person that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead or would they at least wonder, even for a brief moment, if there was some way that Jesus could have possibly made Himself appear in this way?

Let me offer a few other observations:
  • First, if Thomas was such a skeptic why isn't he portrayed in questioning the things that Jesus did during other moments of His ministry, especially when they were all among those in the crowd who expressed their doubts and/or lack of belief. 
  • Second, when Jesus told the apostles prior to their arrival in Bethany that Lazarus had died one would think that Thomas would find good reason to stop the Master and ask how He could bring someone back from the dead. Instead, he continued to focus on the threat that Jesus had already faced and then he stated his willingness to die with Jesus if that was in fact what needed to happen. 
  • Finally, Thomas never said that Jesus had obviously failed in His mission following his crucifixion. He simply said that he wanted to see the same evidence as the other apostles so he too could believe. In other words, there is a difference between saying the words I will not believe instead of  I do not believe. In other words, if one looks carefully at John 20:25 Thomas was not convinced that Jesus would fail him, which is why he responded with the words My Lord and my God once he had finally had the same experience as the other apostles.
It's amazing that Thomas has been criticized for his lack of faith for simply wanting to have the same experience as the other apostles when we see in John 20:14 that Mary of Magdala saw the Risen Jesus but did not recognize Him. The same thing happened to seven disciples in John 21:4 and this was after they had already seen Him risen from the dead. We see a similar account in Luke 24:16 but none of these other disciples are criticized for their lack of faith the same way as Thomas.

Consider the words of Jack Zavada in this matter: All of the disciples, except John, deserted Jesus at the cross. They misunderstood and doubted Jesus, but the Apostle Thomas is singled out in the gospels because he put his doubt into words. It is worth noting that Jesus did not scold Thomas for his doubt. Instead of rebuking Thomas, he had compassion for his human struggle with doubt. In fact, Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds and see for himself. Jesus understands our battles with doubt and invites us to come near and believe.

The Beginning of the Church 

The book of Acts of the Apostles begins with Jesus continuing to appear before His apostles for 40 days while continuing His instruction about the Kingdom of God. In Acts 1:8 the Lord states: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After that the Lord made His Ascension into heaven and it was time for the apostles to get to work.

Yes, they had seen the Lord raised from the dead. Yes, they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit who would remind them of all that Jesus taught while empowering the apostles with a grace to allow these simple men to share the Good News with everyone that they encountered. This would have to do because only the Holy Spirit could carry such a message in a world that would certainly demand various forms of proof in order to believe many of the claims that would be made by the apostles.

Still, there would be those who would follow them and for the apostles to be proper witnesses of the faith it would include the following from Acts of the Apostles:
  • 2:42- Teaching their faith community
  • 4:33- Bearing witness to the Resurrection of Jesus
  • 4:34-37- Providing for the needs of the less fortunate 
  • 5:12- Performed signs & wonders among the people
  • 6:2-6- Created the ministry of the Diaconate
  • 15:1-29- Called and ruled over the Council of Jerusalem

All of this occurred after facing threats from the same Sanhedrin that arrested Jesus before handing Him over to Pontius Pilate in order to be crucified (Acts 4:1-22). Thomas was a part of this leadership that was obedient to Jesus to the point where Acts 4:33 tells us that they received great favor for their efforts.  

Thomistic Traditions 

Traditions tell us that Thomas took his ministry outside of his native country even though the story of Thomas visiting India is met with skepticism. This is because the earliest claims come from the Acts of Thomas, which was written in the second century. The stories in this account between Thomas and an Indian king named Gundaphor seem to be legendary tales that cause great suspicion among historians.

There were those who even questioned the existence of Gundaphor until 1834 when ancient coins were discovered in the Kabul Valley of Afghanistan that bore the pictures and names of forgotten kings, which included Gundaphor. Later discoveries would soon follow as more coins were found from Bactria to Punjab. Research on these coins dated them from the first century AD.

As the 19th century drew to a close a stone tablet was discovered in ruins near Peshawar that, according to Samuel Hugh Moffett: not only named King Gundaphor, it dated him squarely in the early first century AD, making him a contemporary of the apostle Thomas just as the much maligned Acts of Thomas had described him. Further deciphering of the tablet sets, the inception of Gundaphor's reign in AD 19. He would still have been ruling, therefore, in 45 or 46, very near to the traditional date of the arrival of Thomas to India.

Prior to his supposed time in India Thomas is said to have ministered in Osroene, which was located in Upper Mesopotamia. Thomistic traditions claim that Thomas returned from Osroene to Jerusalem in 49 AD, perhaps for the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29), which is also the time where it was said that the apostle met a Jewish Christian named Abban who was the royal trade commissioner for King Gundaphor.

While the Thomistic traditions remained unsolved we cannot totally dismiss the possibility that Thomas did in fact preach the Gospel in India due to the fact that this was also stated by the early Church Fathers and, as Moffett says: Travel back and forth between India and the Roman Empire was far more commonplace in the first century than some earlier skeptics had once thought possible.  Evaluating both the Thomistic traditions as well as the complex travel routes is quite extensive so I would suggest anyone interested in such things to see pgs. 29-36 in Moffett's The History of Christianity in Asia Volume I. 

There are also varying accounts of Thomas' death but in each case he died a martyr's death. Therefore, let us be reminded that he not only lived the life of a devoted follower of Jesus both before and after he encountered the Risen Lord while also showing his love for the Lord by offering his life for his Christian mission. 

Following Thomas' Lead 

Earlier in this discussion we saw why Thomas approached Jesus' Resurrection the way he did and there is so much we can learn from that in today's world.

First, in regards to a life of faith: prayer is such an important way for us to know our Lord and we are asked in faith to receive all of the graces that He has to offer us. But we cannot forget that part of being a good believer is to take the time to learn more about our faith. There are certainly times when we have to stay the course and be patient in terms of understanding the purpose of the things that happen in our lives. But there are other parts of our faith that require us to use our intellect to better understand such things. As teachers of the faith we have to deliver such truths to our brethren whether it comes from us or another resource that may be better informed on the topic in question. In other words, allow the person who is searching to ask for the evidence that they need in the same way as our apostolic father Thomas did as such insight may also allow them to show the same devotion to our Lord as Thomas did once he received the answers that he needed at that important moment of his life.

Second, today's world is filled with too much information and in many cases that's not a good thing. Although there are some who will ask, what is the source of your story? that is still not happening enough. Meanwhile, we know that there are too many times when a news outlet purposely misleads the public in order to promote their own agenda or political bias. Sadly, too many people still take what was reported as truth and then the war of words begins.

We don't necessarily have to imitate the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates whose Socratic method, according to John Chaffee, used a dynamic approach of questioning and intellectual analysis to draw answers out of people rather than lecture them, but it sure wouldn't hurt considering all of the lies that are being perpetuated in so many ways.

Therefore, don't be afraid to ask questions. It doesn't matter if it's that inquisitive five year old, a customer who wants more detail about a product that is on sale that they are being pressured to purchase or the information that is being shared both on cable news or on the internet. Most importantly, we should also be asking questions when it comes to our faith. Such skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the person accepts the truth once it is before them, which will in turn bring them peace. As teachers we have to accept the fact that we may never see that moment but we must do all that we can to make sure we either offer the right information to the person asking or at least point them in the right direction.

This is the great lesson from St.Thomas the Apostle. So let us find the answers to our faith that we seek and then once we take them in let us share them with the rest of the world, regardless of the trials and tribulations that we will encounter along the way.   

Prayers to St. Thomas the Apostle:

Carlos Solorzano 
BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach 
Certified Through the Theology of the Body Institute 
Co-Founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate

  • New American Bible 
  • Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia Volume I Orbis Book Maryknoll, NY October 2001 (pgs. 29 & 31) 
  • Ruffin, C. Bernard. The Twelve: The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Huntington, IN 1997 (pgs. 121-123, 125 , 128) 
  • Chaffee, John. The Philosopher's Way. Thinking Critically About Profound Ideas Upper Saddle River New Jersey 2005 (pgs. 48, 52-53)
  • Mckenzie, John L. Dictionary of the Bible MacMillan Publishing Inc. NY 1965 ( pgs. 46-47)