When I was in college, I got to know a young lady named Nancy who I liked very much. She was originally from Tegucigalpa Honduras but had moved to the States as a teenager. We spent as many hours together as our schedules would allow, and sometimes even when our schedules did not allow. That semester flew by much too quickly. I looked forward to each day on campus knowing that her bright eyes and warm smile would greet me.
It was April 8th at a little past 7 AM when I got a call from her best friend. She told me that Nancy had passed away early that morning. It was unexpected and devastating. The shock and denial that gripped me is hard to express. At the funeral, her college classmates gathered around her casket trying to understand. Nancy was a believer, and we were confident that we would see her once again, but it was hard to comprehend how something so seemingly meaningless could happen. Nancy had such an amazing vision for her future; a future in which she planned to work in a career helping orphans and homeless in Honduras. As what remained of her was lowered into the ground, those that survived couldn't help but ask, "why?”
For a year after her death, I would have dreams that she was still alive. In them, she had just left town, and a few days later showed up saying it was all a hoax. During class the next semester I would daydream that she had been part of a witness protection program and her cover had been blown, so she had to fake her death. Once on an international trip, I saw a young lady that looked very much like her. I imagined for a long moment that it was Nancy; I had found her in an airport during some coincidental layover in Hamburg Germany. Despite my dreams and imagination, I knew what death meant. It meant the end. Whatever we had was over. Whatever hopes of seeing her, at least in this life, were gone.
It's hard to fathom what the disciples must have been feeling after Jesus died. Though I think anyone who has lost a loved one has an idea. The disciples had placed the hope of the world on this man, who was flogged within an inch of his life and hung out to die. Those that had the stomach for it watched it happen. Those that didn't, skipped town, hid in an attic, or pretended they didn't know him. Though, none of that could stop the quick rolling thunder and flash of lightning that came with his death. The crushing weight of defeat must have been mountainous. And then, a rumor knocked on the door of their attic. He had died but was no longer dead.
I wonder if I would have believed if someone I trust told me a few days after her death, "Nancy came back to life." I'm nearly 100% certain that I would not believe that without airtight evidence. I would have to see her with my own eyes. As difficult as that situation would be, it's exactly what Thomas faced. Could someone whom he saw dead really be alive again? Let's find out how he dealt with that incredible revelation.
The ten disciples who saw Jesus living and breathing have just explained their experience to Thomas. Facing down ten convinced men Thomas says these bold words.
So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”1
Here, he lays out the evidence that he needs to see in order to be convinced. He’s made his hypothesis and wants to run the experiment. Thomas’ refusal to believe is expressed using the double negative (ou mē), showing he was adamant about this matter.2 His adamant demand is rounded out by what it is that he desires. He wishes to believe. The word “believe” has the sense of “persuasion” or to “think to be true.”3 There need not be some esoteric or ethereal meaning attached to the word. The conviction that he sought was not one of an abstract philosophical idea, but of concrete truth. He wanted to know whether or not Jesus had raised from the dead.
As he’s considering these things there is a load of peer-pressure on him. The others seem to expect him to bend to their expectations. They want him to admit belief in the resurrection as they had, yet they expect him to do so with only their word to serve as evidence, something they were previously unwilling to do. Even after they received the report from Mary, saw the empty tomb, and heard from those who met Jesus in Emmaus, they still didn’t believe. Despite the pressure, Thomas stands his ground and demands visual, and tactile evidence present in the body of Christ.
If Christ is truly raised, this should not be a difficult request to fulfill. Many have taken up the ten disciples cause and complained against Thomas' intentions here as if he should have believed without seeing. On this side of the debate, Matthew Henry wrote:
He did not pay a just deference to the testimony of his fellow-disciples… He knew them to be honest men… Thomas, one of their own fraternity, would not allow them to be competent witnesses, nor trust them further than he could see them.”4
Henry is not alone in his scathing review of Thomas’ conduct, but he holds an opinion that doesn’t make sense when taken to its logical end. Christ had called his apostles to be his witnesses.5 The idea that one of the appointed apostles should be expected to accept such a pivotal assertion on the word of others alone is absurd. As Gary Burge puts it, “seeing” forms the basis of the apostolic witness.6 Thomas was to be commissioned in the task of spreading the news about the risen Christ. If he did not see the proof with his own eyes, he would have been spreading hearsay and couldn’t be called a witness. Not directly witnessing the risen Jesus would have made Thomas’ ministry impossible.
If he never witnessed the risen Christ he would be forced to admit that he had only been told by others that Christ rose. If he was to do the work that Jesus had called him to, he had no choice but to insist that he be allowed to witness the living Lord. An engineer must do his own calculations. A scientist must do his own experiments. An apostle must witness the risen Christ. Twenty Centuries of men and woman have Thomas and the other disciples to thank for their ability to believe. Had they not been initially skeptical then we might have found it impossible to be convinced today.
Not only are Thomas’ doubts fundamental to securing his future work, but they are completely natural. In fact, he was not alone in doubting; he is simply singled out because of a potentially serendipitous circumstance, his absence at the first post-resurrection advent. At first reading it looks like Thomas was more unbelieving than the other disciples, but this was not necessarily the case.7 Although he carries the name of doubting Thomas, he was no more a doubter than the rest, since if he had been with them when Christ first appeared his doubts would have been removed at that point.8
It is possible that Thomas believed that the disciples saw something of Christ, but he seems particularly interested in getting evidence of a physical nature. Some scholars have claimed that, "Thomas does not doubt that his friends think they saw something; he doubts only the nature of their experience."9
To be sure, many skeptics have speculated that the disciples shared a hallucination to which their conviction was pinned. In this light, Thomas’ need for a second appearance becomes something of a safety net. The opponents of the faith might have been able to claim that the disciples were deceived if there had been only a single appearance of Christ for physical inspection. Because of Thomas' absence and need for proof, the ten disciples received not one opportunity but two, in which they closely investigated the body of Jesus. What may be reasonably sure on a single investigation becomes an absolute certainty in the dried concrete of a second and third.10 It was not only Thomas that may have needed this evidence alone since a second bodily appearance of Christ could only strengthen all the assurances of those involved. Though Thomas was the subject who solicited what follows, it is safe to say that the evidence Thomas received was for the benefit of all the apostles. The text continues with these words:
And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”11
Jesus, once again, arrives with the evidence that Thomas so boldly sought. It seems to be no chore or inconvenience for Christ to arrive. Even the shut and the presumably locked door did not keep the risen Lord at bay. Without being told, Jesus is aware of Thomas’ doubt and is ready to give his answer. As Jesus offers his body as proof, there is no scathing rebuke for Thomas’ lack of belief. There is only the instruction that Thomas should not be unbelieving, but believing.
Some translations, unfortunately, have rendered this phrase as "do not be faithless, but believing." This unfortunate rendition is faulty12 and makes it sound as if Thomas had completely jettisoned his faith. As many Greek scholars and commentators have pointed out, Jesus is not saying that Thomas is faithless in a general sense. He is highlighting the need to believe the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection would act as the final proof that Jesus is the Christ and therefore needed to be believed for Thomas to accomplish the work to which Jesus had appointed him.
Although plenty have seen Jesus’ words to Thomas as a rebuke, that position is unreasonable considering the need of Thomas to see the evidence as a commissioned witness of the Lord. A better reading concludes that Jesus, with this statement, is offering commentary on the natural conclusion that Thomas would reach when faced with the overwhelming evidence.
We learn a powerful lesson from Thomas. Though he could have joined the rank of convinced apostles he did not. He could have pretended as if he shared their new found conviction but he stood alone preferring true conviction of the truth over camaraderie. Many people have chosen the opposite by attending church for the fellowship while not believing the claims of preachers or the Bible. Many who don’t believe what the Bible says have attended Bible study for fear of being left out of the in crowd. Many attend a Christian university not because of their Christian faith but for the reputation of that university’s diploma. Loads of people play along as if they believe. At all of those institutions there are plenty who don’t rock the boat, but don’t believe either.
There is a difference between attending church and believing in Jesus. Thomas’ advice, it seems, would be to value the truth of Jesus above your loneliness. He was willing to stand apart from the beliefs of his friends until he was convinced. For us who long to be loved and included, we must remember what matters first.
It’s his faith that would eventually bind Thomas to his companions with chords stronger than any human connection. However, his first priority was to know the truth. When doubts nip at our heals, we must not stay quiet and blend into the crowd. We must be bold. That’s why I like this motto:
Doubts will grow if they don’t show.
So when in doubt, stand out.
Let us take our cue from Thomas, a man willing to stand out among his friends. He wanted to believe, but he was not willing to pretend. Be bold friends, it isn’t easy but it is worth it.
2 Kruse, 378.
3 Swanson, 4409.
4 Henry, 2054
5 Luke 21:13, Acts 1:8
6 Gary M. Burge, “John,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 877.
7 Colin G. Kruse, 378.
8 F.F. Bruce, 393
9 Craig S. Keener, Jn 20:24–25.
10 Thomas and the others get a third opportunity to see Christ in John 21:14.
11 John 20:26-27
12 Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 295.