I have a close friend who fought a decade long war against doubt. His retrospective honesty sheds a fascinating light on at least one way that a Christian can suffer a defeat to doubt. He grew up in a Christian family and found himself in church every Sunday. He believed in Jesus as a boy and enjoyed living out his faith for years. When he was a young adult, he worked as an intern for a local church youth group. During that time, someone spotted him at a party while he was terribly drunk. He was kicked out of the ministry, and publicly embarrassed. For a while, he quit drinking and made a public commitment to live a more calm lifestyle.
The next semester he went off to college and tried to stick with his conviction. His first two weeks on campus were marked with awful loneliness. His solitude convinced him to bend his personal commitment, and he accepted an invitation to attend a party at a local fraternity. It wasn't long before he was drinking heavily and was involved in the party life style.
He was too embarrassed to go to church after that. He felt guilty for his lifestyle and was convinced he would not be accepted. He had no intention of changing his habits, so he avoided those who he thought would challenge him to do so.
As a result, he began looking for something, a worldview that would not make him feel guilty about his daily choices. The Christian perspective in which he was raised continued to play like background music on an elevator, but its beckon call was growing ever fainter. He became open to ideas previously prohibited by his conservative upbringing. He explained to me once that he was searching for something that gave him the freedom to do what he wanted and didn't make him feel bad about it.
The internet provided what he was looking for in a steady stream of nicely wrapped one-megabyte packages. He would spend a portion of his free time cruising a website called stumble upon. This site takes note of personal interests, predicts what kind of other content you would enjoy, and then shows you an endless feed of your new favorite things. My friend showed a mild interest in atheism, just a click here and there at first. The brilliant algorithm that runs the site got a whiff of this budding curiosity and followed it with the tenacity of a hound dog. Before long his feed was inundated with atheist memes, vitriolic diatribes railing against the absurdity of an all knowing being in the sky. He would peruse anti-religion graphics, absorbing them little by little. He didn't intentionally decide to become an atheist, but he didn't do anything to stifle the slow roll of change. He found something appealing in the atheist message. Later he identified that the attraction had to do with freedom to party without feeling guilty.
One day, while looking at a meme with a George Carlin quote he realized and then said to himself, "I don't believe there is a God." The transformation was complete. Over a period of about ten years, the gravity of his chosen lifestyle and the pressure to be free of the guilt it caused had chewed up his conviction and spit him out faithless.
This story is not uncommon. In fact, you probably know someone who has experienced something similar. It's happening all around us every minute of the day. Somewhere right now, someone is saying to themselves for the first time, "I no longer believe in Jesus." Although the rate at which it is occurring may be increasing, this is no new phenomenon. Since the dawn of history men and women have been faced with the call to believe the plan of salvation set out by their maker. Thomas was at a similar fork in the road. Like my friend, Thomas had come to consider his previous set of beliefs false. His conviction that Jesus was the Christ had fallen into complete disrepair. Thomas was faced with a difficult decision. If he didn't get his doubts answered would he leave the other disciples behind? What would he do with himself if he didn't get a chance to see the risen Christ? He had to be considering his options, but then Jesus appeared to him. All of that changed in a second.
The sudden utterance of Thomas which followed Christ’s appearance shows how quickly his doubt dissolved. When comparing Thomas’ reaction against the other ten apostles, it is Thomas who more quickly became convinced in a situation that was nearly identical. The other disciples heard multiple reports, saw the empty tomb, saw Jesus appear, touched Him, and watch Him eat before they fully could believe it. The text implies that Thomas only saw and believed. This speedy conviction is expressed in Thomas’ own words :
And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”1
Thomas’ affirmation—“My Lord and my God!”—is one of the most dramatic and powerful statements in all of Scripture about Jesus’ deity.2 Jesus had thus far made very strong allusions to His imminent membership in the Godhead, but it seems that of the apostles it is first Thomas who concludes that Jesus is God. What a tremendous privilege to see and express so clearly Christ's divinity before anyone else had. Is it possible that Thomas was the first human to fully understand who Jesus was? His statement remains a cornerstone of any debate concerning the deity of Christ.
Thomas’ declaration of Christ’s divinity comes as the last of a series of eight confessions about Jesus in the Gospel of John. Here are the confessions that preceded it.
1. John the Baptist: Jesus is Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and the Son of God. (John 1:29, 34)
2. Nathaniel: Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel. (John 1:49),
3. Samaritans: Jesus is the Christ, and Savior of the world. (John 4:42),
4. Peter: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. (John 6:69)
5. Blind man: Jesus is the Son of Man. (John 9:33, 35–38),
6. Martha: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. (John 11:27),
7. The disciples: Jesus is all knowing and comes from God. (John 16:30)
8. Thomas: Jesus is lord and God. (John 20:28)3
Thomas’ place in this line of witnesses stands as the capstone testimony. John’s purpose in the Gospel of John is to convince his readers that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. By believing that, John’s readers can have eternal life.4 To accomplish this John includes eight miraculous signs performed by Jesus, and eight confessions of which Thomas’ is the last and most profound. Thomas takes a prominent place in John’s Gospel precisely because his expression of worship fits with what John is trying to accomplish through his writing.
The words “My Lord and my God,” are significant for yet another reason. The Roman emperor Caligula was the first to demand worship, however, by the time John was writing his Gospel the title, “Lord and God,” (Dominus et Deus) had been applied to the Roman emperor Domitian.5 Therefore, it was expected that his subject worship him as such. These words of Thomas are a dangerous political statement. By including them, John is reminding the reader that Jesus is the one to be worshiped, not the Emperor. Once again Thomas is found discovering the exclusivity of Christ. True worship of Christ as God is to the exclusion of any other. Jesus’ response to Thomas’ words is incredible.
Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”6
Jesus does not correct any error in Thomas’ words. Thomas connected the practical evidence with the correct theological truth, and Jesus acknowledges his statement by affirming his belief. He then compares Thomas' experience with those who would not have the luxury of seeing the evidence with their own eyes. That brings into focus why it was so important for Thomas to receive the evidence that he sought.
The very people that Thomas would share the gospel with would have the ability to believe it, even though they had not seen Christ in his risen state. That is because Thomas' story, as with the other disciples, would be so compelling and irrefutable that among those who heard him tell it there would be many who believed. This truth holds faithful even today as the story of Thomas continues to be recounted.
Immediately following these verses John puts a pause on the narrative to give a short parenthetical statement. These words act as the purpose statement for the entire Gospel of John. It is important to see the connection between John's purpose statement and the experience of Thomas.
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.7
John uses Thomas’ persuasion as the exemplary experience to which he explains his purpose for writing his gospel. Jesus’ mention of those who do not see but believe spurs John to explain that his entire Gospel’s mission is to duplicate the conversion from unbelieving to believing in a similar fashion to what Thomas experienced. With the caveat that this conversion will exist apart from seeing Christ in his resurrected state, John points unbelievers to the example of Thomas. The idea that salvation comes by belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God links so tightly with what Thomas just experienced and expressed that we should not disconnect the two. To his unconverted readers, John is saying this: You did not see any of this, but I did. You are blessed if you believe. And what is that blessing? John 20:30-31 expresses it—the blessing is eternal life!8
So what is the lesson. It’s simple, Scripture, and especially the Gospel of John, is written to help individuals believe. For those who have believed in the past, but lost their confidence it serves to help them overcome their unbelief. It sounds to simple to be true, but the primary answer for overcoming any doubts about Jesus is found in reading the Gospel of John.
For those who have already decided that they will not believe, this answer is probably dissatisfying, but for those who don’t refuse, this simple method will help immeasurably. There is no greater method to overcome doubt than reading Scripture with an open mind.
I have seen this to be true in actual practice as well. I was recently having a conversation with a young lady about doubts. She told me that after she got married, she and her husband were not involved with a church. She was not reading her Bible. Her faith drifted like an untied boat for sometime before she even noticed that something inside her had changed. When she heard people talk about the Bible it filled her with doubts. After trying to understand her situation, she realized that nearly everything she believed about the Bible was just something someone else told her to believe. The majority of her faith did not come from personally interacting with Scripture but by listening to others who had. Her parents, her pastor, her youth minister, her friends had all been committed believers all her life. She relied on them for her spiritual confidence. When she got married, she was sucked out of that nurturing environment, and it left her with little to lean on. She said that if her husband had become an atheist, she likely would have too. "There is only one thing that drives the doubt away," she explained. I had to know! "What is it?" I said.
"I realized at some point that when I read the Bible for myself, I have zero doubts about it.” She went on to explain that it's when she is only listening to others teach about the Bible her faith is wobbly and easy to topple. Even when the teaching is good, she still needs to spend time on her own reading Scripture, or she is in danger of those doubts returning. In the last few years, as a means of spiritual survival, she's developed personal habits in which she reads her Bible on a regular basis. It's been quite a while since she's felt the depth of doubt that she did in those years. Now when she feels doubt, she knows what to do. She goes to the word, often the Gospel of John. After all, that's the purpose for which John wrote.
God not only wants all people to believe in his Son in order to have eternal life, he also wants all who believe to grow in their faith. The confidence that we can find in Christ may not always be easy to come by, but it is worth it. As we’ve seen a number of times, the writer of Hebrews said, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded."9 I hope you have believed in Jesus for eternal life, and I hope you are also walking with him on a daily basis. If you seek these things, the best way to maintain your confidence is by spending time in Scripture. It’s not a new idea, but it is among the most important habits a disciple can undertake.
1 John 20:28
3 Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 379.
4 John 20:20-31
5 Andreas J. Köstenberger, 175.
6 John 20:29
7 John 20:30-31
8 Hodges, 27
9 Hebrews 10:35