Thomas, the skeptic
I need to do some fact-checking
I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding. A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives. How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous? (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)
We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears. The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective. The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective. One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump. Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)! We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle. Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.
Here’s a little game. Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer? Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)
Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create? We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used. So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation. I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.
Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers. In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname. I would say his “unfortunate” nickname. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).
Maybe we should first take a step backwards. We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors. It appears they have good reason to do so. However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence. We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.
It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on. It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur. In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame. Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans? Was it Judas’ fault? Those are pretty easy guesses. However, perhaps something more was happening. Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings? There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.
Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after. That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.
Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas. It’s not like the others really got it themselves. For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid. No, I’m just kidding! Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).
In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.
[Photo of the author, quite confused. He needed to consult the dearly departed Duncan.]
Could we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking? Jesus agrees to it. “Do you want to see my hands and side? Well, here they are. Check it out.” Thomas is convinced. Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29). Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?
We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea. The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face. Still, Jesus is determined. It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.
Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false… Thomas needed to touch in order to believe. He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.” He needed to “see” for himself.
I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt. That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt. I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment. Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead. The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.
On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (vv. 30-31). These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”
We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism. Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject. “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology. It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail. On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.” [Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3)]
Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic. I asked him if he had read the Bible. ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe it.’ This is not skepticism. This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”
Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith. How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”? On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck! Faith has its own evidence. Faith has its own eyes. Faith does its own fact-checking. In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).
Buchanan gives Thomas credit. “Thomas was a true skeptic. He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief. He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.” He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”
For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.
That becomes true for all of them. Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen. First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb. She mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15). Put your tears away.
In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21). And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).
How is that a word of comfort and strength? What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness? Would that be a word of comfort for us? Remember earlier. In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?” What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us. There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others. Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!
Doubting Thomas. One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries. What have we been at our worst? What have we been at our most embarrassing? What have we been at the time we most want to take back? (I can think of plenty more than one.) Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are. From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.
[Tradition holds that Thomas traveled to India, bringing the gospel.]
How often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?
Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst. Actually, God does that very thing! Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).
Of that, it is okay to be skeptical! It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply. It is okay to take God seriously. (Yes, it is okay!) It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”
* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake