For my undergraduate degree, I went to Letourneau University, a school nationally known for its engineering and aviation program. However, I spent most my time in the liberal arts building. I knew that I would eventually have to take a class in the math department, and many had warned me about the difficulty I would face.
As a college senior, I enrolled in statistics. I only had a few more classes before I could graduate. The desks that surrounded me were packed with underclassmen. The teacher, a mathematical genius type entered the room. The first words out of his mouth were, "open your books to page 115." His lecture began with words like axioms of probability, ecological correlation, and mean squared error. I realized quickly that I made a mean squared error by enrolling for the class. Why were we starting on page 115? Did the teacher think we already knew everything that happened from page 1-114? I looked around and realized that either my classmates were pretending to understand, or I was way behind. I should have raised my hand to get clarity; I should have stayed after class to figure out if I could pass. I should have spoken up, but instead, I stayed quiet. I was sure the teacher knew what he was talking about, but I doubted his ability to relay that information to me in any way that made sense. Immediately after the lecture I went to my academic advisor and dropped the class.
I walked the graduation stage a few months later with a special agreement from my university’s dean. I was allowed to be included in the graduation ceremony as long as I promised to finish up college statistics shortly thereafter. I could do it at the school of my choice as long as I got it done. Although I walked the stage, I wouldn't get my diploma until I completed the class. The next semester I moved to West Texas and enrolled in college statistics at Texas Tech, another school known for its technical programs.
The first day when the teacher walked in I knew I was in trouble. He was a graduate student from Beijing China who's English was very hard to understand. He tried to use the overhead projector but couldn't get the chord to reach the plug. So he opted for the chalk board. He spent the whole class breaking chalk and writing equations that looked like alphabet soup. Was I supposed to know what any of that meant? His terse explanations were with such broken English that I had no idea what was going on. This time at least I made an effort to get help. After class I went up to the front and tried to introduce myself. I intended to ask for some further explanation concerning the gibberish he had tirelessly scribbled on the board. I reached out and said my name but he wouldn't shake my hand. He held his in the air to show he was covered in chalk all the way up his forearm. Once again I found myself doubting that this teacher could get the job done. There was no doubt that he knew his stuff, but there was tremendous doubt that he would be able to communicate that stuff to me. I went to the nearest office straight away and dropped the class.
My third attempt was different. I finally landed at the community college in the town where I grew up. The difference was not necessarily that the teacher was any better or worse. It was that I was out of time. I had to get the class done or I would never get my diploma. Faced with the prospect of a wasted four years, I buckled in, listened hard, and earned a B average.
Jesus' students, from time to time, experienced a similar kind of doubt. It was pretty clear to them that Jesus was brilliant, but sometimes it seems as if the disciples are questioning Jesus' awareness of his student’s knowledge. It's the job of the teacher to know what the students know, and meet them where they are. A teacher who assumes his students know more than they do will likely teach them next to nothing. Thomas found himself in that exact situation, or so he thought.
We need to do some set up before we jump into this story of Thomas. In Chapter twelve John revealed how confused the people were about what Jesus was about to face, crucifixion. The confusion came largely from their faulty understand of the Messiah. They had not anticipated that the Messiah would be dying, leaving, and returning. We find this exchange in a previous chapter. Jesus said:
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. The people answered Him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’?1
The confusion experienced by the Judeans about Jesus’ leaving was to be expected. Their understanding of the Messiah was that he would stay forever. As Wilkin has said, "How can the Messiah leave? Did not the OT say “that the Christ remains forever”2 This notion of the Messiah remaining forever was supported by the prophet Daniel’s words when he said:
“I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed.3
That Daniel 7:13-14 speaks not of the first but the 2nd coming of Christ was lost on the original audience. When Jesus talked about his imminent death, it was confusing. They asked him about it, and theirs is a legitimate question. Though they were right to ask this question, Jesus did not answer it directly, nor did he offer any satisfying solution to their inquiry. This unanswered question still lingers in the air when Jesus, once again begins a conversation about his plans with his disciples in chapter 14.
"Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, also believe in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”4
The events that proceeded these words were tremendously troubling. The concerns that the disciples demonstrated in chapter eleven are coming to fruition. The disciples didn’t want to go to Judea because the authorities wanted to kill Jesus. In chapter twelve Jesus predicts that the authorities will kill Him. In the thirteenth chapter, Jesus predicts his death will come by betrayal. Troubling times had come upon Jesus’ followers and things were about to get a whole lot worse. In spite of all this Jesus says, "Let not your heart be troubled…" Even in his hour of turmoil, he is focused on comforting the disciples. Though, it seems that the disciples are having a hard time being comforted.
As often happens confusion leads to doubt, and this situation is no exception. As Jesus gives what should be comforting words he explains that he will (a) go to prepare a place, (b) return to receive them to Himself, and (c) the disciples already know where he is going and how to get there. These words, which would serve as a comfort later, would likely have just the opposite effect at this point in the story. That’s because these three revelations would have been met with more confusion than clarity.
To complicate the dynamics, Jesus approaches this confusing subject matter as if the disciples already have fully grasped the concept of Him leaving and returning. It seems that Thomas has reached his tipping point when Jesus claims, “And where I go you know, and the way you know.”5 Thomas finally speaks up at this.
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”6
What modern people may see as defiance on the part of Thomas should be viewed in light of the standard practice of Rabbis and disciples. It was customary for Rabbis to be questioned by their students.7 A Rabbi's teaching and interpretation were tested by questions from opponents and colleagues. This process bore a rough resemblance to the modern scholarly practice of peer-review and operated as a theological laboratory in first century Judaism. That is why Jesus is constantly bombarded by inquisitions from every side. A Jewish teacher’s own disciples were supposed to try to poke holes in his teaching. When the disciples, later in the Gospel of John, finally came to see the supremacy of Jesus’ teaching they said,
“Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God.”8
Many have complained about Thomas’ inability to trust Jesus’ claim here. However, since questioning a Rabbi was seen as a necessity we should put away our insults. Since it was part of the Jewish interpretational process for a Rabbi to be questioned Thomas should not be disparaged. He was doing his duty, playing a common role of questioner. It’s likely that all of Jesus’ disciples played this role from time to time even though we don’t have a record to prove it.
There is even a note of heroism in Thomas’ words. He is speaking for the other disciples when he says, “we do not know where You are going.” His question was posed on behalf of all those who were also confused around him; the other ten disciples who’s blank stares gaze from behind Thomas’ words. It is difficult to be the first student to ask a question, especially when the teacher has just claimed everyone should already know the material, though Thomas does.
It reminds me of a class I took in college, History of the Middle East. The teacher kept using a word that I didn’t know, but it was clear that he thought everyone knew the word. He never stopped to define it, but I had never heard it before. The word came up at least a few times every lecture, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that I needed to know what it meant. I was embarrassed to have to ask. Everyone else seemed to get it. Although it probably made me look like an idiot, I raised my hand after about two weeks of lectures and asked, “what does despot mean?” He explained, and I was glad I asked, since the history of the Middle East is basically a history of despots.
Thomas does a similar thing despite the potential for embarrassment. Thomas rushes in with an apparently insatiable desire to understand. After all, it was he who claimed he was willing to die alongside Christ only a few chapters earlier, should he not have the right to understand? His question is rewarded handsomely.
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.9
This is one of the greatest, if not the greatest statement of Christian exclusivity in the entire New Testament. The answer to Thomas’ question has remained a theological steak in the ground, a line in the sand, a pathway that many have traveled toward salvation throughout the centuries. Jesus uses Thomas as a foil to which he gives the most certain terms for the nature of saving faith. Thomas’ question offers Jesus reason to explain that belief in Christ for everlasting life is to the exclusion of belief in any other way to salvation. If one claims to believe in both Christ and another for salvation, they have not truly believed In Jesus.
In research for this book I asked around 350 church attenders if they recognized the verse above, John 14:8. Near 100% of those asked had heard those words of Jesus. I then inquired who had asked the question that prompted the verse. Not a single person surveyed recalled that Thomas’ request for clarity solicited this answer. This verse, which is a mainstay of theological discussions, was a result of a bold question by Thomas. At least to some extent, modern people know that Jesus is the way the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus because Thomas was willing to seek answers. I imagine that Thomas could wear that as a badge of honor for the rest of his days. “Hey, you know that famous verse, I asked the question that prompted it,” Thomas could say. It’s conceivable that Thomas would tell this story with warm recollection.
Though Thomas' reputation is often besmeared because of his ostensible lack of faith, there is little evidence from the text that proves him anything less than a faithful disciple who desperately wanted to understand the teachings of his Rabbi. Thomas’ actions, although born out of human limitation and doubt, look more like the work of a theological hero than a stubborn skeptic.
With Thomas as an example we get a powerful lesson on how to deal the death blow to doubt. I would propose the motto:
Doubts will swell if the doubter doesn’t tell.
So, when in doubt, speak out.
As pastors, counselors, and good friends know a doubter needs to process his or her negative thoughts and feelings. One of the best ways to do that is to talk about them. A few years ago I started a website called Questions From Atheists.10 Despite the word atheists being in the name, it’s primarily for believers who are dealing with doubts concerning Jesus and faith-related issues. We have tried to create a safe place for everyone to speak out about their sacred suspicion, faltering faith, and brittle belief. We’ve constructed this safe space because we believe that it’s one of the first steps on the road to belief recovery. It can be scary to voice your doubts for the first time, but once you do you will be amazed at the tension it releases.
I received a message from a teenager recently who feels bombarded by doubts on a constant basis. Many of his friends are atheists, and seem to constantly be attempting to dismantle his faith. He sent a message through our website about his doubts. We began a dialogue that continues even now. I have not thrown at him apologetics jargon, philosophical proofs, or a mountain of biblical references. I’ve given little more than casual reflection on what he has to say. The main thing I’m doing is listening relentlessly. It’s been about letting him speak out, and getting his doubts off his chest. I’m offering very few answers but plenty of friendship. He recently said this, “thank you so much for all your help, no one in the past has been able to help me the way that you have so I really appreciate it.”
Doubts are allowed to grow if we don’t let them show. Many people struggle with doubt not because of a lack of theological resources, but because they have no one to discuss their doubts with. Isolation and loneliness is the soil in which doubts grow the most rapidly.
If you are a person who struggles with doubt, it’s time that you begin to pray and seek people with whom you can share your doubts. If you’re a confident believer, the lesson is two fold. Seek out those who doubt. Listen to their concerns and misgivings. Doubts, if untended, will often lead a person to abandon the Christian lifestyle. About this James says,
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.11
Helping our Christian brothers and sisters deal with their doubt is serious business. When someone doubts to the point of wandering from the truth, there are huge consequences. In some cases a person can wander so far that they endanger their life. We must start by creating safe places for people to speak out their doubt. There must be no—judgment zones in our churches, our homes, and our friendships. If we can allow one another a space to begin the conversation about doubt, we’re on our way to a much better place.
Thomas’ story is not yet over. In the next few chapters we will investigate his final scene in the biblical narrative. His most famous doubts are still to come.
1 John 12:32-34
2 Wilkin, 435.
3 Daniel 7:13-14
4 John 14:1-6
5 John 14:1-6
6 John 14:7
7 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jn 14:5.
8 John 16:30
9 John 14:7-8
11 James 5:18-19 NIV