Call Peter your favorite all you want; Thomas is my favorite disciple in the New Testament! He’s gotten a bad rap as the doubter, but I think a better word for him is skeptic. He is optimistic about one thing: pessimism. I find his complaints familiar and comical. The Gospel of John brings these out twice, probably because the writer is arguing for belief more than anything else (Jn. 20:30-31)
Exhibit A (Jn. 11): Jesus heard that his good friend Lazarus was dying, so he made the peculiar decision not to hurry to his side. He waited until Lazarus died so that he could resurrect him, stimulating faith in his disciples (vv. 14-15). The folks in Lazarus’ town have murderous plans for Jesus and his disciples; so the move doesn’t make any sense to them, and Thomas is the only one who voices his sarcastic complaint: “We’re making this trip to see a dead guy? Fine, let’s all go so we can be dead too!” Now, I’m sure this wasn’t all he said. Narrators always cut material to make things work–that’s just good storytelling. So I’ll wager Thomas grumbled a lot on the way.
“This is nuts. We left our careers for this?”
“The guy is already dead. What’s the point of all this?”
“You know, we could have gone to visit him a long time ago.”
“This has become a ministry of death, not of life.”
I also wonder if he was behind this statement uttered later: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (Jn. 11:37)
But Jesus bore with Thomas, and Thomas stayed nonetheless. In return, Thomas saw one of the greatest miracles reported in the New Testament, the resurrection of a dead man.
Exhibit B (Jn. 20): Thomas was not with the other disciples when the resurrected Jesus appeared. We’re not sure what this means. Maybe he had abandoned all hope in Jesus’ ministry and separated himself from the other disciples. At the very least, his separation suggests disbelief. But when the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was truly resurrected, he demanded concrete evidence. “Unless I see him for myself, and see the marks of crucifixion–unless I see hard evidence, I won’t believe it” (v.24). But there must have been some sibilance of hope within him, because Thomas went with the other disciples to the room where they saw Jesus before (v. 26). There, Jesus had special dialogue with Thomas, offering him the evidence he needed to believe (vv. 26-27). Maybe Thomas should have believed all along. Maybe he was too pessimistic. In fact, Jesus chides him a little for needing so much evidence (v. 29). Earlier, in fact, Jesus criticized the people for their need of signs to believe (Jn. 4:48). But he did provide signs, and provided the direct evidence Thomas needed.
There are some important lessons here:
Skepticism is not a sin. Some Christians are afraid to voice their concerns and questions about life, about Christ, about the Bible for fear that they will be condemned and cast out of the Christian community. It’s true, Jesus called for faith, but he did not demand a naïve belief. In reality, all Christians believe because they are convinced that they have seen the hand of God move in their lives. Some people require more “evidence” than others. That doesn’t make anyone better or worse, it just means that they are built differently. And if the Christian is to love God with all his mind (Mk 12:30), then his objections and questions should be taken seriously and not simply waved off as “disbelief.”
Skepticism can be arrogant, but so can piety. I hope to be a humble skeptic, the kind of guy that respects the positions of others and admires the kind of faith that others can have so easily demonstrate. Some of the godliest people I have ever met have shared matters of doubt and struggle with me (they were wonderful conversations, I might add). Yet I know some skeptics who think they are the epitome of wisdom and knowledge. We don’t see that kind of arrogance in Thomas. Instead, we see honest concerns and fears voiced in inquiry and frustration. He didn’t have all the answers, but he was looking. Truthfully, I see more arrogance in the most pious of disciples: Peter. Peter’s radical trust is admirable, but he was a little too sure of himself more than once. It was Peter’s misled enthusiasm that drove him to attack those who came to arrest Jesus (Jn. 18:10-11). Peter insisted that his faithfulness to Christ was superior to the other disciples, yet he proved to be just as weak as the rest (Matt. 26:33; 26:69-75). And let’s not forget how Peter actually rebuked Jesus, which drew Jesus’ harshest criticism: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). Arrogance is simply not limited to the skeptic.
Skeptics in church are skeptics in church. It’s important to recognize that Thomas participated with the disciples despite his skepticism. He went to Lazarus’ tomb despite the danger and joined the disciples when they gathered in the locked room to see the resurrected Christ. He could have left at any time. He could have blown them off. If he was such a skeptic and such a doubter, why did he stay with the disciples? I think it is because he had hope in Christ and his ministry. He had a measure of faith already; otherwise, why would he waste his time? There are many skeptics in church because they have hope in the Christian message. They may not believe everything you do, and they might even be a little rough around the edges; but they are there for a reason. If you condemn them for asking honest questions or having legitimate concerns about the Bible or beliefs in the church, you’re not helping them. Instead they will learn that church members get defensive when they are challenged instead of answering honestly. Jesus let the skeptics stay in his group; maybe the church should follow his example.
Christ didn’t drive the skeptic away. Thomas could be a pain in the rear. But Christ did not chase him away like some churches do. Ultimately, Christ broke through the biggest barriers that kept Thomas from a fulfilled faith. It took time. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that Thomas grew into his faith. Jesus had a longsuffering for him that resulted in Thomas’ triumphal cry: “My Lord and my God!”
The skeptic is not bad. He has honest questions and struggles that he hopes God can address. I pray that our churches will remain a place where skeptics can voice their genuine questions without feeling threatened or condemned.