Posts Tagged ‘Doubt’

Doubting Thomas’ Doubting

“Be not faithless, but believe.”

Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

(John 20:27, NIV)

First of all, Thomas didn’t doubt, he flat out refused to believe. The NIV translates the word apistos as “doubt” but pistos means faith so apistos would be “without faith.” There are other words used in the New Testament that mean doubt and they aren’t used. Even the context argues against “doubt.” In verse 25 Thomas had said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

So here’s the question: what wouldn’t Thomas believe? Well, he wouldn’t believe that Jesus was alive. But why? Did he not believe in resurrection? I doubt that is the answer; he saw it happen.

In chapter 11, Jesus and the disciples were across the Jordan river, where John the Baptist had been, when they receive word that Jesus’ good friend Lazarus was ill. Jesus decided to remain where he was two more days and then announced, “Let us go to Judea again.” His disciples pointed out that the Jews were trying to stone him there. When he insisted that he had to go “wake up” Lazarus who had died, Thomas replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

We learn a few things in this exchange. First, Jesus said “let us go” so it appears the disciples, including Thomas, went with him to Bethany. So though Jesus’ disciples were not mentioned, they were surely there. Therefore, Thomas saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. He is mentioned by name in the context if not the location. So it seems unlikely that, by chapter 20, Thomas didn’t believe in the possibility of resurrection.

The other thing we can learn from Thomas’ statement takes a bit more work. Who was he referring to when he said “die with him”? Thomas was traveling with Jesus and the Jews were trying to kill Jesus, so maybe Thomas meant “let’s go die with Jesus.” If that’s what he meant, and he wasn’t being sarcastic, it shows tremendous faith in Jesus. Jesus is worth dying with. Thomas is that dedicated to Jesus.

But the most recent and direct reference to someone dying is not Jesus but Lazarus. The statement that Thomas is referring to Jesus’ that Lazarus had died. So if Thomas is saying “let’s go die with Lazarus” it seems that he is asking to partake in the resurrection, the “waking up,” that Jesus has promised. Either way then, Thomas is showing tremendous faith in Jesus and his ability to raise the dead.

So back in chapter 20, Thomas is being told by the other disciples that they have seen Jesus alive. He can’t accept, that not because of a lack of faith in Jesus, but, it seems, because he believed that only Jesus could raise the dead. In the Old Testament, God raised the dead but he did it through men, through Elijah and Elisha. He never raises the dead independent of a prophet (thought, theoretically, he could). For Thomas to accept that Jesus is alive again would mean that God is using someone other than Jesus to raise the dead and it seems Thomas cannot accept that. Jesus is dead, Thomas reasons, so he can’t raise himself; there is not other prophet to raise him, so Jesus must surely still be dead. To accept his resurrection would be to admit God is using someone else for his mighty works. It would put another prophet on par with Jesus.

But Thomas is missing one key component, one line of code, one important link in the chain. Though he thinks very highly of Jesus, he doesn’t think quite highly enough. There is an explanation that Thomas hasn’t yet considered.

When Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him to inspect his risen body, he commands Thomas to stop not believing and to believe. If Jesus is alive, then he must have raised himself. But people cannot raise themselves because they’re dead and dead people can’t do anything. Then it all comes together for Thomas and he announces, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus had been Thomas’ lord, his master, and Thomas had been his disciple. Now Thomas understands what Jesus had said before:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”… But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

(John 2:18-22)

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

(John 10:17–18)

The only answer is that Jesus is Thomas’ master and more. Human nature dies, divinity can raise it, and divine nature cannot. Jesus is Thomas’ lord and his God.

But Some Doubted

There is a way in which doubt can establish faith rather than undermine it.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Some people believe that and the way they explain the Biblical accounts is to say that years later they were written by manipulators in order to turn a good teacher into a god to galvanize a movement that was beginning to fray.

There are historical, theological, and textual problems with this answer, but let’s leave them aside for the moment and ask what kind of writings such manipulators might manufacture. How would they tweak history to convince people 100 to 200 years later (according to skeptical timelines) that Jesus came back to life?

You might put words in Pauls mouth to the tune of:

“He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor. 15:4-8)

Years after Paul’s death there would be no way to actually verify any of this. These writings would be taken as inspired scripture which you’re not allowed to question so there you go. Jesus rose even when he didn’t.

I’m giving the skeptic a lot of leeway here. There are problems with the idea of anyone accepting modified writing or with their sudden appearance 200 years later if they were made up. But let’s let them have those for now.

A more sophisticated approach might be the story of Thomas’ doubt in John 20:26-29:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

You see? Thomas came around! A story like, were it fake, would serve to strengthen the deception. “See? Thomas didn’t believe it either! But Jesus said you’d be blessed it you believe without seeing.”

What you would not expect to see if people are trying to establish the lie that Jesus rose from the dead and everyone back then knew it and believe it is this:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. (Matt. 28:16-17)

These supposedly fabricated stories would seek to establish the supposedly ancient truth that Jesus rose and people saw him. Why would they include this? The disciples saw the resurrected Jesus and they worshipped him. “But some doubted.” What more proof did they need? He’s standing right in front of them!

But Matthew’s account could serve to undermine the entire covert attempt to fool people. You can’t let that kind of doubt slip through or the whole thing could unravel on you.

So why did Matthew include it? Probably because it really happened. People are not so simple as to believe just because they have evidence. We all doubt sometimes and the disciples were no different. After all, people don’t usually rise from the dead. Even in the pre-scientific mindset of the first century, Lazarus rose from the dead because Jesus told him to. But Jesus just rose.

That leads to another problem with fabricating this story. Even by the third century, women were not given equal status in society. So when the gospels say that women reported that Jesus rose, it again kind of undermines the attempt at deception.

So is it satisfying to believe that these masterminds who attempted to turn Jesus into something more than a rabbi were genius enough to fudge the scriptures and at the same time dopy enough to do it so poorly? It isn’t to me. So even when I question and wonder and, yes, doubt I still look at the scriptures and believe. But some doubt.