Written by Aimee Niles – Truelight Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
It was dark, dreary, dismal.
With his eyes, he saw the sun. He watched others bathe in the warm glow, turn their faces towards the sky, and soak in the rays. For him, the light and the heat did not exist. The light was gone.
He walked the streets in a daze, not watching where he was going. People shouted angrily at him as he walked over the edge of their cloaks, or knocked fruit from their stands. He did not notice. He kept his eyes on the dust of the road and ignored everyone around him.
He didn’t know why he was outside. After Friday, he locked himself in a windowless room and curled up in a corner. He replayed the images over and over again in his mind. He saw every blow of the whip; he heard every rasping, wracking breath. His hands ached from clenching them, imagining the unbearable pain of the nails being driven through them. The skin on his forehead felt pinched as he thought about the thorns… He replayed every painful picture over… and over… and over. He wept.
He should have been there. He should have felt the whip’s bite in his own flesh. His breath should have been torn from his body. He should have been hung there beside him. He should have shared every single drop of blood; shared every shed tear; shared every insult and abuse. He didn’t. He ran away.
He allowed his fear to overcome him and he fled. When he was needed most; when his loyalty was to be tested; when his love was to be proven… He deserted him.
So, he wept. He laid in a heap on the floor: body untouched by thirst, or hunger, or heat, or cold. He lay remembering, and when his eyes could not cry anymore, he turned onto his side, eyes half open, staring at, but not seeing the tiny room. He lay and stared into misery. Into guilt. Into darkness. Into death. Into pain. Into his own deep, unreachable grief and shame.
He didn’t know how long he stayed in that room. What day was it? Did it really matter? No… no it didn’t… and then he continued to walk, unaware of where his feet were carrying him.
Soon, he reached a house. Going up the steps, he reached a door. He raised his fist and pounded. He knew this house. He knew these stairs. He knew this door. He knew who was behind it. He knew that the face that would opened the door would look like his—empty, pale, fearful, tear-stained. He continued to stare at his feet. He heard the door unlock and open quickly.
“Thomas!” a voice said loudly. He slowly raised his head. The tone of that voice was wrong. It was too… happy, cheerful, unafraid. His eyes found the face of a man unencumbered by pain and grief. This man’s face was creased with lines of…joy. With lines of hope!
Anger flared in him. It took him a second to recognize the feeling: for his soul was numb to any emotion except pain. Anger rose greater within him. Didn’t they know?! Didn’t they know what had happened?! They must have heard about the death of their master.
The man standing in the doorway clapped him on the shoulder. “It is good to see you, Thomas!”
“How dare you…” he whispered. Rage filled him: he pushed past the man at the door and entered the room. His eyes darted about. Every face was full of happiness… and smiles. Why?
“How dare you all! Sitting here, eating and laughing when our master was buried just days ago! When our master was beaten, tortured, and murdered! How dare you sit here like nothing has happened!”
“Thomas…” A second man stood up, hands held in front of him, as if trying to calm him. “Thomas, you don’t understand. He isn’t dead!”
“Isn’t dead?” he laughed bitterly. “Isn’t dead? The Romans aren’t good for much, but when they kill you, they do it right.”
“No, he is alive!” More voices called out, more voices reciting words that he knew to be a lie.
“Alive? No… NO! I saw him die. I saw him. I saw what they did to him. I saw him beaten… and brutalized… I saw the Romans gamble for his clothes… I heard the crowd call him the King of the Jews! I saw his mother weeping at his feet, her clothes stained with the blood of his wounds!”
He felt himself growing more and more angry. He was screaming now.
“I heard them! I heard the crowds beg for him to be crucified! I heard him call for wine, and I heard his final words…” Breathing heavily, tears running down his face, he quieted his angry voice.
“It. . . is. . . finished,’ he said…I watched his head fall. I watched his last breath leave his body. I watched them stab him. I watched – as he remained still…. I watched it all… and I did nothing…nothing.” He crumpled in the middle of the room. He fell to his knees and felt the pain and guilt overwhelm him again.
In his anguish, he didn’t hear the movement in the room. He didn’t hear the scraping of chairs as the others got up from their seats and gathered around him. He felt a warm hand lift his face from the floor.
“Thomas,” the voice was gentle, but firm. “Thomas, all that you say is true. He was dead. Thomas – he has risen! He appeared to us in this very room. This very day! He came to us! Not a ghost or a vision, but a man of flesh and blood. Death could not keep him, He has returned! We have seen the Lord”
Thomas shook his head slowly back and forth. He could not listen to this. He could not bear to raise his hopes and believe what they said to be true. It was too much. He could not survive the hope that they offered.
“Unless I see the mark …” he whispered. His voice broke. He cleared his throat before going on, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, no, unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side…I will not believe.”
The following days tormented him. He retreated away from the others. He took refuge in his grief and ignored any who came to speak with him. He mourned his master and wished the others would as well.
At meals, he ate alone in silence, eyes fixed on the food. He chewed automatically, not really tasting what he ate. The others talked and laughed, but he refused to join in.
“Peace be with you!” A voice suddenly cut through the air. The voice wasn’t one of the disciples. This was a new voice. A different voice. A … familiar voice? He slowly turned his head to the door. A man was standing there. Thomas blinked. He blinked harder and rubbed his eyes. Surely he could not be seeing what he thought he was seeing…
“Thomas, come here.” The man motioned Thomas to him. Thomas stood, knees shaking, and slowly made his way across the silent room. Thomas stared at the man in front of him. He knew this man! He recognized the lines in the corner of his eyes, and the beard covering his chin. He recognized the lips ready to break into a smile at the slightest excuse.
This was the man he’d seen arrested . . . beaten…. killed…. and buried. This was Jesus.
“See my hands, Thomas. . .” he said as he held out his right hand. “. . . put your finger here.” Thomas slowly reached toward him… he pulled aside his robe and exposed torn flesh. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Thomas stopped his hand before touching the man. He did not need to feel the flesh to know that his master stood before him. Not dead in the grave, but alive and in the room. Thomas fell to his knees.
“My Lord and my God!”
Jesus the Christ said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
He was a doubter. A disbeliever. He was “of little faith.” He was told the truth before most anyone else: yet, he scoffed. It couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be true. Jesus could not really be alive! He died. He was buried. Dead and buried people simply do not appear to their friends!
Doubting Thomas. Silly Thomas! Why could you not have just believed? Is it really so hard to do? Oh yes – silly, stupid, unfaithful Thomas…
Yet, Thomas the Doubter saw what the other disciples could not see: “My Lord and my God….”
The Gospel of John characterizes Thomas as an extremely loyal disciple of Jesus, but—like the rest of the disciples—one who did not understand who Jesus truly is. Our first introduction to Thomas is in chapter 11 when he speaks words that, in light of later events, are tinged with irony: “Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
Then, in chapter 14, Thomas wants to know exactly how he can follow Jesus to the place Jesus was preparing: “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’”
In many ways, Thomas represents a human understanding of Christ: he is a realist. He knows how the world works, and he knows what’s what. Metaphor and allegory are not his strong suits. His deepest desire is to follow Jesus and he wants the directions and the map, and the turn-by-turn instructions.
However, Thomas is also a disciple. He spent three years walking with, laughing with, praying with, eating with, crying with, and learning from Jesus. Thomas was as close to Jesus as any human ever was, and he watched his friend and his master die a long and traumatic death. There was no question that he was probably devastated and paralyzed with grief – who wouldn’t be? While the other disciples banded together, Thomas went off by himself. He buried himself in his own sadness and missed Christ’s first appearance to the disciples because of his self-imposed isolation.
So then, the broken-hearted realist did not believe the story they told him. We see Thomas’ words as a demand for proof—I won’t believe until I see it for myself! In reality, it was more than a need for proof. Thomas’ words are not cold-hearted incredulity, but the words of a man protecting himself. The words of a man who deeply loved and dedicated his life to Jesus. The words of a man whose heart could not endure being taken in by tricks or posers.
Despite witnessing the miracles of Jesus; despite seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead; Thomas cannot believe. Why can’t Thomas believe? Maybe it was too painful to hope for the impossible. Maybe Thomas could not bear to hope that the intimate friendship he and Jesus shared was not over: for fear that it was all a misunderstanding. Maybe he really did need a rational explanation. Maybe…maybe in asking for the undeniable evidence, he is admitting the all-too human limitation – to simply believe.
There is nothing odd about Thomas’ request. He is asking to see what the other disciples already saw. The other disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene’s account of meeting Jesus by the tomb, but in Jesus’ first appearance to the other ten, he showed them the wounds in his hands and side. He gave them the proof that Thomas demanded.
In fact, when Jesus comes to the disciples the second time, the two scenes are almost identical. The disciples sit in a locked room when suddenly a new voice calls out “Peace be with you!” Jesus shows his wounds and invites his disciples to come and see that he has risen.
However, Thomas sees what the other disciples have not. He sees Jesus and knows that he is not simply seeing his rabbi and teacher. He knows he sees not only flesh and blood, but something else as well. Thomas knows that he is seeing God. “My Lord and my God!” The doubter’s eyes see more clearly than any others. The one who refused to believe has given voice to the gospel’s ultimate confession of faith – My Lord and my God.
We’re so quick to find fault with Thomas. We Christians are so quick to jump down the throats of any who express even the smallest doubt. “I’m not sure I believe…” “NO! NO! You have to believe it. The Bible says it’s true!” We look at those who question and doubt and see a weak faith, or an incomplete sanctification. We are uncomfortable with the doubters. They scare us. They shake the religious reality that we’ve built.
What if doubt isn’t a bad thing? What if, now bear with me on this – what if it’s a good thing? What if questioning and exploring and, yes, doubting our faith – is okay? Not just okay, but is an actual precondition of declaring who Christ, in all of his fullness, is in our lives… Our Lord and Our God!
Scary stuff, isn’t it? It’s especially scary to those of us who have invested inordinate amounts of time studying our faith. Those of us who have answered a call and dedicated our lives to being spiritual leaders—it feels like we’re supposed to have it all figured out. We’re expected to have it all figured out. We’re not supposed to be weak or unsure.
We’re supposed to be positive. We’re supposed to be 100 percent, unwaveringly, unquestionably, undisputedly certain we know what we believe. Even more than that, we’re supposed to understand and explain everything from Scripture to theology, from dogma to doctrine to our people and our parishes… Yet, dare I say it, even we have doubts…
We have doubts when the news is full of pictures of anguished parents mourning the deaths of their children, killed by senseless violence. We have doubts when we see members of our congregation struggling to make ends meet, and fruitlessly searching for jobs. We have doubts when we drive down the street, and see one more drug deal go down, and see one more child of God succumb to an addiction…We have doubts when we are on our knees, desperately crying out for God to speak to us, to give us direction, and all we hear is silence. Amid the fallenness of creation – we have doubts…
Here’s the thing about doubt: it makes us who we are. It makes our faith our own. Without doubt, we are just regurgitating anything and everything we hear. Without doubt, “why do you believe in God?” is not a complex and nuanced question, but a simple, cut and dry question. “Because it’s what my parents believe,” or, “Because the Bible says so,” or, “I don’t know.” Perhaps worst of all: “Because it is what I was conditioned to believe. Because I have never put forth the effort or energy to truly KNOW myself.”
Doubt opens the space to discover the world with eyes that are fresh and new. It enables us to see the same things that others see – but it shows us the risen Christ, Son of the Most High God, the Second person of the Trinity – when others simply see a good and moral man.
As we seek to live holy lives, doubt can act as a balance against complacency. Doubt can take a life of holiness away from a legalistic set of rules, to a life that explores and pursues the true will and love of the Creator when it comes to living, loving, being a citizen, parent, teacher, and friend.
Doubt can encourage us to continually look for situations in which we can live incarnate lives, lives that reflect Christ.
We the doubters, are truth seekers. We the doubters, strive to truly KNOW God. We the doubters, keep searching for God in the times of pain and suffering. We the doubters, look for and seek out the mystery and beauty of the Almighty. We the doubters, desire and pursue an intimate relationship that transforms not only us, but the world around us.
Does doubt have any pitfalls? Yes, doubt is a bad thing when it is allowed to consume us. We cannot doubt everything in life—it would be exhausting. We must have a firm foundation of faith.
However, it is that seed of doubt, that feeling that drives us into the Scriptures and into the arms of God, is far from a bad thing. Without that seed of doubt, our faith would not be our own. Without that seed of doubt, our relationship with God would not be our own. That doubt is what allows us to look upon the one standing in the doorway, bearing the marks of torture and death, and see more than flesh and blood. That doubt enables us to see the risen Christ clearly and proclaim:
“My Lord and My God…”
Please rise and receive this benediction: Now, may you go out to question, explore, study, search, unearth, uncover, and doubt. Follow the path of these things and discover the risen Christ. Go in peace. Amen