By Jeremy Worthen
Thomas – hero or villain? I seem to recall that a politician recently got himself into trouble when answering a similar question about Winston Churchill. It is, of course, a rather blunt way of putting things, when reality is usually just a little bit more complicated. In the real world as opposed to fiction and myth, few people play the part of the hero or the villain continuously for their entire lives. And of course, what counts as heroic or villainous rather depends on one’s perspective.
The perspective of John’s gospel is perhaps best summed up in the final verse of chapter 20, from which we just read: “these [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Believing in Jesus is the way to life, life in God forever; refusing to believe leads to judgment and destruction.
From this perspective, the heroes of the Gospel are those who come to believe in Jesus, such as the enigmatic figure of “the [anonymous] disciple whom Jesus loved,” whose faith is so great and so direct that as soon as he enters the empty tomb, ‘He saw and believed’ (20:8), even without meeting the risen Christ.
And from that perspective, Thomas’s behaviour in this passage seems to cast him in the role of a villain, one who won’t believe and, crucially, won’t accept the testimony of the eye-witnesses to the resurrection, which is, after all, the basis on which the Church through the ages proclaims the good news that Christ is risen. Criticism of those who will only believe in response to miraculous happenings has been a consistent theme in the gospel (so e.g., 4:48). Hence, then, Jesus’ sharp rebuke to Thomas at the end of verse 27: “Stop doubting and believe.”
And yet, at this very point, Thomas becomes something of a hero in the story that John is telling us. He doesn’t just say: “Oh, sorry everyone, you were right, Jesus is alive after all” and disappear into the background to digest a large helping of humble pie. Instead, he makes a confession of faith in Jesus that is also a recognition of who Jesus is: “My Lord and my God!” Now, there have been several such confessions of faith in the first part of the gospel, before the account of Jesus’ suffering and death. Back in chapter 1, John the Baptist says “Look, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). After the feeding of the 5000, Peter speaks on behalf of the twelve when he affirms, “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). Martha confesses to Jesus in the midst of her grief for her brother Lazarus that “you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (11.27).
Thomas’s words, however, take us beyond these previous parallels. He becomes the first person to confess that Jesus is God, an insight that takes us back to the very first verse of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is the point to which John’s gospel has been seeking to lead us — to a belief in Jesus as Lord and Messiah that recognizes him as divine, as worthy of our worship and as the only-begotten Son of God, with the Father from the beginning, from before all time; and to a belief in Jesus as my Lord and my God, the one for whom I live and the one who ever lives for me, the one in whom I live and the one who ever lives in me. Thomas’s confession at verse 28, “My Lord and my God!”, is at one level the climax of the whole Gospel — after it we still have the coda of chapter 21, the encounter with the risen Christ back in Galilee, but this is the high point. And it is Thomas who reaches it. It is Thomas who gets there.
So was Thomas really wrong to be “doubting” when the other disciples first told him what they had experienced while he was unaccountably absent? I’m not sure that’s a question that has a straightforward answer.
What we see in John’s Gospel is that encountering Jesus leads people to ask questions; or, to put it another way, it makes them stop and think. Asking questions can lead people towards faith in Jesus, as it does with Nathanael in chapter 1, Nicodemus in chapter 3, and the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4. But asking questions can also end with people turning away from Jesus, as with many of those who had been his disciples in Galilee at the end of chapter 6, sympathizers in Jerusalem in the section of chapter 8 beginning at verse 31, and then in the dramatic scene with Pontius Pilate in chapter 18.
And one of the reasons people ask questions when they meet Jesus is the way that he keeps challenging them, keeps saying things they are bound to find hard to accept or puzzling to understand, keeps trying to show them that there is so much more to who he is and so much more to what he has to give than they have begun to imagine. Jesus doesn’t let people stand still: he calls them to follow him, further and deeper, and people are bound to wonder where this journey will be taking them.
Of course, Thomas is different in that his questions come from not meeting Jesus — from not being there when he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. But maybe that’s too simplistic. His questions come because he had met Jesus, because he had chosen to follow Jesus, because he had decided to believe in Jesus. Indeed, when Jesus heads back to the vicinity of Jerusalem for the final time, with the disciples fully aware of how dangerous this journey could be for them all, it is Thomas who says to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). When Jesus tells the disciples at the last supper that he is going away from them but that they know the way, it is Thomas who voices their anxiety: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (14:5).
You see, there is doubt that comes from faith and leads to deeper faith, and there is doubt that tries to stop faith taking root or that blights it once it has. Thomas is, it seems to me, devastated by Jesus’ death: he believed in him, he trusted him, he loved him. The cross appeared to have destroyed all that and made it utterly worthless.
So when the other disciples tell him Jesus is risen, of course he wants to believe it. But to believe it would be such an utterly world-changing thing — it would mean he, Thomas, coming back to life when he has gone dead inside. And he can’t see how to get across the bridge from this inner death to being raised to life with the risen Christ without seeing the risen Christ, without knowing his presence, hearing his voice and being restored to relationship with him.
Because he believes in him, because he loves him, he wants to know him. And therefore, he hesitates. Therefore, he resists a second-hand kind of faith. He will wait until Jesus comes to him and shows himself to him. And Jesus does, and Thomas is able to say, clearly and simply, for the very first time the truth that the disciples have been struggling to bring into focus since their first encounter with Jesus: my Lord and my God.
It seems to me to be important for us to remember that in our encounter with Jesus, serious questions and hesitations can be an important moment, they can open up a space for us to go deeper into the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God than we have ever done before. And we need to hold onto that, because those moments that are part of the incredible, destabilising adventure of following Jesus can look like something else, something that is not life-giving in the same way. As I said just now, there is also questioning and doubt that tries to stop faith taking root or that blights it once it has.
I have lived most of my life in a household of Christians, and I work at the moment in a wonderful team of people whose Christian faith buoys up my own in all kinds of ways day by day. But I know that’s not how it is for most of you, and that’s not how it is for most Christians in our society or indeed in most places in the world today.
Some people will see it as cool and clever to make fun of what they see as the stupidity of faith by asking believers questions in whose answers they have no real interest at all. Questioning faith without engaging in serious dialogue only has the aim of affirming security in unbelief while unsettling the faith of believers. For other people, there will be a much deeper sense that Christianity fails to answer their questions: questioning faith for them has led to the end of faith, not to its growth. So given that we know how questioning can pull people away from faith, it’s easy, when questions and hesitations and doubts spring up for us, to feel that we are being gripped by a dangerous current that is bound to drag us away from Christ, and that we must resist it all costs; that we must immediately locate the answer that settles the questions, gain the assurance that drives away doubt, or we will be lost.
Sometimes, that may be the right response, but we need to be careful. I suspect that for many of us, at some point in our Christian lives, there will be a time – perhaps more than one – when we feel, like Thomas did, that we are not sure how to go on in faith and discipleship. We thought we knew the route, we thought we were making decent progress, but now we’re not so sure.
It may be because we hear a talk, read a book, make new friends, who bring a different perspective on things, one that seems interesting and attractive but also appears to contradict what we thought we were sure about. It may be because something happens to us that makes it suddenly hard to trust in God’s love for us and in God’s purpose for our lives — catastrophic illness or injury for ourselves or someone we love, the discovery that someone we looked up to as a person of great faith had feet of clay or worse, the untimely death of a person very close to us. Or it may be that we just wake up one day after decades of being a Christian and find ourselves thinking: is this enough? Does this make sense? Have I been following the herd without really being sure for myself, without really knowing Jesus for myself?
So yes, I imagine that for many of us there will be times when we are with Thomas in his questioning and hesitation to press ahead in faith, and when we need an encounter with Jesus like the encounter he had, in which we recognise him again and know him in a new and deeper way than ever before. But it’s hard to be with Thomas. It’s hard to feel that everyone else is in on something that you’ve been shut out from. It’s hard to think that everyone else is fine in their faith, everyone else just basks in the presence of God, and you alone are fumbling around in the dark.
Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas in that place forever — though he doesn’t immediately pull him out of it either. For Thomas, it lasts a week; for us, it may be longer. But I think it’s important that Jesus doesn’t meet him alone. Jesus meets him with his friends. And Thomas needs his friends, and perhaps we can say that his friends need Thomas too. Ultimately, he will help them to see the full truth of who Jesus is. But he needs them, and he meets Jesus with them.
He doesn’t shut himself away from them, he doesn’t cut himself off from them. He’s still present with them behind the same locked doors a week later. He’s hanging on in there, and he doesn’t give up. For we cannot meet Christ without encountering the body of Christ, the church. There’s no private viewing. We cannot know Christ more deeply without being drawn more deeply into the reality of belonging to his bride, his people, his fellowship. Doubting becomes dangerous when it cuts us off from fellowship, when it is mixed up with the lie that this is something we have to sort out all by ourselves.
I guess there will be some people here tonight who identify with Thomas in this passage, and who long for an encounter with Jesus that will bring light in the darkness of their questioning and enable them to go forward on the way of faith. But they’re probably in a minority.
And to the rest of you, I want to say two things. First, look out for the Christians around you who may be with Thomas. Look out for them, pray for them, listen to them, and don’t be frightened of letting them talk about their doubts and fears. They need you, and they need you to help them stay connected, knitted into the body of Christ during this time.
And second, one day, you might find yourself in that place too. Don’t go looking for it, but don’t be afraid of it either. The light shines in the darkness, John tells us, and the darkness has not overcome it. If you keep looking for Jesus, and keep seeking his face, you will always find him, and that is all we will ever need.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Jeremy Worthen is team rector of Ashton Town Parish (Church of England) in Kent, England.