SISTER ALOYSIUS: Oh, Sister James!
SISTER JAMES: What is is, Sister?
SISTER ALOYSIUS: I have doubts! I have such doubts!
– Doubt, John Patrick Shanley
Sometimes I wonder about the apostle Thomas. His story has always struck me as a slightly melancholy one- of all the character traits he embodied, the one he is known for is his doubt. Certainly there were others in that dozen that experienced their own doubts at various points; yet they are not known as doubters, and he is Doubting Thomas. Christians through the ages have aspired to emulate the boldness of Peter, the tenacity of Luke, the faithfulness of John, but Thomas? Thomas is a warning, the man to whom a comparison would be a harbinger of weak and failing faith. As children, we are taught by Sunday school teachers who shake their heads solemnly and widen their eyes in warning as they tell us the tale of the one who dared to doubt. That message follows us into adulthood, wherein we shelter our doubts close to our hearts, doing everything we can to shield those dark corners from the scrutiny and shame of those more faithful.
But what if we misunderstand the story of our friend Thomas? And friend he most certainly is, for he is far more like us than most would care to imagine. The cracks in our faith are as jagged as his; it would be useless to pretend otherwise. The most profound difference between us is that Thomas spoke his doubts aloud, in front of ten of the world’s most faithful men and in front of the Messiah Himself.
With the risen Christ standing before him, how is it possible that Thomas would have any doubts? Jesus had come into a hidden room with a locked door, at the moment when the men He had chosen to journey with Him throughout His three years of ministry were in the direst need of His reassurance. Not only that, He had resurrected from the grave.
They watched his arrest.
They heard the crowds cheering his condemnation.
They saw the bloody footprints from His walk to Golgotha.
The saw Him stripped, beaten, bloodied, and nailed to a cross.
They heard His mother weep at the foot of His cross.
They saw the soldiers break the convicts’ legs and bring His lifeless body down.
They saw their Savior die, and they saw His empty tomb.
And now, they were seeing Him again.
It had to be the sort of moment that knocks the wind out of your lungs and pulls joyous tears from the dredges of a broken heart. It was the greatest miracle of eternity, it was too good to be true, some might describe it as unbelievable.
People wonder how Thomas could have doubted Christ’s resurrection after watching Him perform so many miracles during His ministry. If anyone was to be convinced of Christ’s Lordship and power over death, it was His twelve closest disciples. So why would Thomas doubt? How dare he doubt, after all he had witnessed before? Some Christians seem to take Thomas’ doubt nearly as a personal offense, incredulous at the fact that he would question the King of Heaven.
But if you have experienced a loved one leaving for the other side of eternity, you know what Thomas felt. You know the desperation of fresh grief, the what-ifs and the if-onlys and the oh-Gods. You know how it is in the days leading up to death, the hours spent pleading with the Giver of Life, begging and praying and bartering until sobs and breaths and prayers are mingled into one simple, incessant cry – “Please, God!” You know what it is like to hold onto hope when to do so feels like clutching barbed wire; stinging and raw, and the harder you hold on, the more it hurts. So you know, then, that if a man consumed by grief and fear and confusion hears whispers of wonder and hope and life, he has to make himself absolutely sure. Sorrow may take a man to rock-bottom, but false hope will be his undoing.
Can you blame Thomas? I cannot. He should have believed, he should have had that faith, he should have known. But survival and self-preservation are instincts bound into our being as humans, and pain – including grief like Thomas’ – brings those instincts to the forefront. After all, Thomas knew Who Jesus was. He’d watched Him heal blind beggars, he’d eaten bread that He made multiply, he’d seen Him storm the temple merchants, he’d heard lepers singing as they walked away from the Healer Who had dared to touch them. Thomas knew. But Thomas had also seen Jesus allow Himself to be arrested, beaten, tried, and crucified. He knew that Jesus didn’t always choose to heal, even though He always could. He had seen Jesus choose to give Himself up to the cross, and now the eyes that had wept over Christ’s death were telling Thomas that Christ Himself was standing before him. I’m not saying it is good that Thomas doubted…but can you blame him?
Maybe, just maybe, Thomas was not so skeptical as he was scared. Maybe he knew better than anyone just how high the stakes were. Maybe he knew that the most profound consequences for his life hinged upon this moment, and he wanted to be sure he understood correctly. Maybe he was so utterly devastated by his Savior’s death and the grief of three days without Him, that he didn’t dare believe his eyes for fear that they might deceive him. To believe Christ was standing there with him would change everything – his life, and the fate of creation, would never be the same. Can you blame him for wanting to be sure? Because if he was wrong, if it was literally too good to be true and Christ was not actually standing there, then to believe would mean losing his LORD and his hope once again. Others of the eleven shared the incredible claim that Jesus had triumphed over the grave, that He had walked with them, and even though these brothers insisted, Thomas doubted. Can you blame him? If he believed and he was wrong, it would have been his end. In that moment, Thomas may have been the boldest of them all. What others perhaps kept silent, he spoke out loud, determined to find the truth. His faith in his King was so sure that he did not dare to put his hope in anything but the nail-pierced hands of the risen Christ Himself…and Truth he found, indeed.
Perhaps the most profound problem with Thomas’ story is that we forget the greatest part. Thomas doubted, and Jesus’ response was to let him touch Him. The Messiah they had been waiting for, the One they had watched die for the sin of creation, the King Who had just conquered death stood before them…and when one of His closest followers dared to doubt, He held out His scarred hands for Thomas to touch. “Believe,” He said, in the gentlest of admonishments, “Stop being an unbeliever and believe.” Thomas’ doubt did not scare Him, nor did it keep Him away. Jesus met Thomas in his doubt. In the midst of all his messy, haphazard, grief-stricken, unmasked, doubt-filled brokenness, Jesus came to him and opened His arms. He made it clear that He wished Thomas would not have doubted – “You believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly happy” – but He also gave Thomas the proof he needed for his faith. Rather than rebuffing the man who doubted, Christ opened His arms and invited him closer.
I could be wrong. Perhaps Thomas was a cynical curmudgeon whose doubt was borne out of jadedness and shallow faith rather than the vulnerability of fresh grief. I could be wrong about all of that – I don’t think I am, but I know I’m no theologian. What I do know is that no matter the reasons behind Thomas’ doubt, Christ’s response remains. And His response is the same for those of us born two centuries later. Maybe we’re not asking to see His scars; some of us ask for the studies, some of us ask for the apologetics, some of us ask for explanations, some of us just ask where He is. No matter how great or how terrible one’s doubts, God’s response to the Thomases of today is still to draw near, to hold out His hands and say, “It is I. Here is the proof you asked for; now, believe. Let go of your doubts and take hold of My hands.”
And in spite of my doubts, I find it is Him, every time.
It is true. He is here. He is Truth.
“My LORD and my God!”
I’d know those hands anywhere.