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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

Re-Assessing Saint Thomas: A Process Model for Authentic Faith

A fresh perspective for considering the so-called "Doubting" Apostle, based in empathy for his situation and an understanding of the strength actually demonstrated in his way to faith.


This is an updated edition of a piece originally posted September 22, 2021 Audio Article option: Narrated by the author



I’ve always been irritated about the “Doubter” label, in reference to the great Apostle, Saint Thomas. In fact, I once challenged the nun teaching my grade school religion class, to the point of getting in trouble, that it just didn’t seem fair.


I still feel that way—more uncomfortable than ever about how St. Thomas is so often promoted as the great example of a weak faith.


To set a benchmark for how poorly this disciple has historically been caricatured, look no further than the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (d. 1564). He described Thomas as “downright obstinate,” “proud and insulting toward Christ,” and one who possessed stupidity that was both “astonishing and monstrous.”[1]


The ridiculous tone of such a description seems difficult to square with the portrait of Thomas seen in John chapter 11, where Thomas is willing to stand with Jesus, in spite of the consensus among his peers. In that passage, Jesus wanted to go to Bethany, a few days after hearing his friend Lazarus was ill. Remembering how the Jews in the area tried to stone their Master on a recent visit, the disciples were just fine letting Jesus go it alone. They were all concerned about their own well-being.


That is, except Thomas.


It was Thomas alone who defied the collective mind of his frightened companions, stating, “If Jesus goes, then WE GO. And if he dies, then let us DIE WITH HIM.”


 

The tag “Doubting Thomas” comes, of course, from the scene narrated later in John, chapter 20. The Apostles were gathered in a room with its door bolted shut. They were in great fear that those who killed Jesus were currently pursuing them.


St. Thomas was not among them, however.


It is reasonable to think he was the one who drew the short straw for gathering supplies, food, maybe even intel on what the authorities were up to. Yet, in light of the prior passage, it is perhaps more credible to see him as the only one courageous enough to step out and tend to those things.


And that is precisely when Christ first appeared to the Apostles … each of them … BUT Thomas.


So then, Thomas was not afforded the revelation the rest were privileged with. Thus, is it any wonder why he was unable to embrace their stunning report?


For certain, there would have been plenty of dialogue among them over the matter, which would have included Thomas’ questions and suspicions, along with their excited testimonies and attempts to persuade him that, “we really did see the Lord.”


At some point, Thomas stated, “Enough you guys! Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger where they were, and put my hand to his side, I’m not buying it.”


Many see only doubt in that declaration, and little else. In an effort to color Thomas and his uncertainty in a shade that will best “preach,” I can’t recall a sermon that ever noted the genuine hurt expressed in what Thomas was saying here.


It is so easy to overlook, when seeking to land on a point far from which this article will, that Thomas was in mourning. His Master and dear friend, Jesus, whom he faithfully loved and followed, was unfairly tried, and brutally murdered, just days prior.

We should then be able to appreciate that Thomas was, like the rest of them, scared. Probably deprived of sleep, under immense anxiety, and with deep sorrow. His grief would have been measurably confounded by the seemingly out-of-left-field peace his peers had suddenly come to enjoy.


When we forget that, we are prone to examine Thomas via a lens that is blind to how his loneliness and pain would have been so greatly amplified by their sudden, confusing, jubilee.


In a way, Thomas must have felt such complete isolation, on top of the grief and fear, that it almost seems cruel. As inconvenient as it may be for “that’ll preach,” the man's doubt was well-warranted.


Yet, beyond this, we see Thomas had a process for believing. He didn’t just snap to it and align his mind to the pattern of belief offered in the others. How could he?


His faith was not able to be conformed to what others said, merely because they said it. How could it?


This clearly carries forward that sense of St. Thomas that John’s gospel was intentional about giving his readers in chapter 11. And despite what the likes of Calvin may say, Thomas was not an obstinate thinker … but an independent one.


When Thomas is at last confronted by the risen Lord, Christ says to him, “Stop doubting and believe.”


While those who presuppose his weakness read this as a rebuke, a more proper rendering (according to D. A. Carson) is, “Do not be unbelieving ... but believing.”[2]


In other words, it's as if Jesus, assuring his friend, said, “Thomas, do not remain in unbelief, it is safe now to believe.” And without a moment's hesitation, Thomas leapt all in. He responded to Jesus with an historical declaration, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).


Did you know that this was the first proclamation of anyone in history to acknowledge Jesus as God?

That was one bold statement.


The point with Thomas is that the process of his coming to belief examples for us just how much greater one’s faith is made through the fires of very natural doubt and the questions that it makes us confront. Thomas’ path to belief shows us that revelation is often sweeter when it’s not built upon a blindly assumed sort of faith; the sort that just melds with the prevailing winds, as opposed to that come by through a crucible of doubt and that learns to coexist with uncertainty.


Such can sometimes be difficult, especially in the community of faith. Because in a setting where “taking doubts captive” means shoving them in a closet and not dealing with them, it is often claimed that a faith which is wrestling, is a faith that is weaker.


Nevertheless, the irony of such an idea, it would seem, is readily apparent to those with even the least sense of how well-conditioned and formidably strong those on the wrestling team are.

 

I’m of the view that when we look to the Greatest Commandment, the imperatives to love God are clearly meant as personal ones.[3] Therefore, loving God with all our mind involves the challenging, persistent, and intentional work of cultivating strong independently conditioned intellects, more so than it does simply adopting a “hive mind.” A New Testament theology of mind teaches us as much.


There are a few occasions in the gospels where we see Jesus himself wanting to distinguish where particular thought is rooted. It is as if he’s asking, “Is what I am hearing from you the ‘hive mind’ speaking, or what you really think?”


During the Passion of Our Lord, Pilate (the Roman governor of Judaea) was questioning Jesus. He asked Christ if he was indeed the king of the Jews.[4] Of course, knowing he was not, the Roman was probably asking the question incredulously, if not facetiously.


Aware of this, Jesus’ response is telling. He was more concerned with making a distinction: “Is that your own idea, or are you buying in on what the Jewish accusers have already settled in their minds?” It was a way to impress upon Pilate the value of making his own conclusion, and not just assuming what the Sanhedrin already had.


A more famous instance of this, recorded in other gospel narratives, is where Jesus asks his Apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” However, after they answer him, we see that Jesus was not necessarily interested in what the broader sphere thought. His follow-up inquiry cracks at the most vital aspect of the passage … “But what about you? Who do YOU say that I am?”[5]


Clearly, Jesus sought to discern if their belief in him was based in the revelation of God, or where they stalled in the confines of group think?


 

In this respect, I think that Christ’s decisions to appear to the disciples, knowing St. Thomas was not among them, may have been for a divine purpose that only Thomas was process oriented enough to work through.


And if I am correct in that belief, perhaps that purpose was not to paint Thomas as Christianity’s ultimate doubter, but to showcase him as something far greater.


In an era of American Christianity, where “strong faith” is largely seen as blindly adopting various propositions and defending them as certainty, without nary a thought, I wonder if Christ was giving the rest of the disciples, and us, an example in Thomas. An example of what the process of greater revelation and stronger faith looks like.


And I wonder if that example was ultimately to tell us that real faith is not a race to see who can most swiftly claim certainty.


Thomas, like the other Apostles, was with Jesus for three years or so, but he was the very last to see him risen.


Thomas, like the other Apostles, was used to calling Christ “lord” (a title that in those days was not a statement of divine recognition, but of fealty) ... but he was the first among them to refer to Jesus as GOD!


This juxtaposition is incredibly significant, but almost always overlooked, when “Doubting Thomas” is preached. It is also why it is so common to hear Jesus’ final words in this sequence interpreted as a rebuke of Thomas, for the sake of calling us to a “leap before you look” brand of faith.


However, when Jesus tells Thomas, “Because you have seen, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed,” he is not admonishing the Saint.


He recognizes that Thomas’ declaration demonstrates that his faith has yielded an understanding of who he (Jesus) truly is, that now exceeds that of the other disciples. Because his was a faith arrived at through the trial of doubt, and not derailed by the siren song of “just accept what we believe,” when he was holding out for divine revelation.


“Because you have seen, you have believed.”


Believed what? “That I am God.”


Remember, upon seeing Jesus, “… the other disciples told [Thomas], ‘We have seen the Lord!’”[6] They confessed that they saw the Lord alive. Only Thomas confessed that he was seeing God.


Whereas seeing Jesus was not enough to elicit such a declaration from the others, something about Thomas’ path to this revelation is informative for us.


Because Jesus appears to be referencing Thomas’ process of faith in a way that anticipates the Ascension. He uses Thomas’ faith to point beyond. An example for all those who will NOT even have the luxury that Thomas did, and yet will come to accept, as a process of faith, that Jesus is God.[7]


As the author of Hebrews would later define faith, Thomas’ was based on “substance” and “evidence,” not groupthink. As much as he probably wanted all of it to be true, he didn’t let that persuasion define the reality he was relegated to.


That we so commonly assume this be to be a weakness in Thomas, as opposed to a strength, defies the nature of faith, as defined by the author of Hebrews.


So, before we get too harsh on Thomas, let’s not forget this fact. He was NOT doubting Jesus. Not at all. He was doubting what he was being told.


Thomas was apparently not a “leap before looking” sort of guy.

For this, St. Thomas should stand out among the disciples for the deeper revelation his process for faith afforded him alone, and how it was intended to stand as something greater for the early Christians who would never lay eyes on Christ, like he had.


 

NOTES

[1] John Calvin, “Commentary on John—Vol. II,” at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.html#formats. Calvin’s specific statement is, “The stupidity of Thomas was astonishing and monstrous; for he was not satisfied with merely beholding Christ but wished to have his hands also as witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Thus he was not only obstinate, but also proud and contemptuous.” [2] D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary—John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 656. [3] Matthew: 22:37. [4] John 18:33. [5] Matthew 16:13–16; Mark 8:27–29; Luke 9:18–20. [6] John 20:25. [7] Carson, John, 659.

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