One of my favorite narrative paintings of Jesus is Caravaggio’s St. Thomas Putting His Finger on Christ’s Wound (1603). I like it not just because of its display of technical skill but because of its theological message. To me this painting says that Jesus is a person who welcomes the questions of honest seekers.
Thomas has always gotten a negative rap in the church. “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas,” we say disparagingly to those who dare to ask those “but how do we know . . .” sort of questions regarding the Christian faith.
The mantra of most Christians is, unfortunately, “Don’t rock the boat”: Don’t rock the boat of my Christian complacency. Don’t rock the boat of my head-in-the-clouds relationship with my sweet, sweet Jesus. I’d like to know where you got the notion to be so inquisitive.
Sometimes, though, a little bit of boat rocking is precisely what we need. Shake things up a little by digging into the sacred texts of other religions and engaging in meaningful conversations with those who don’t share your religious views. Take on the necessary challenge of investigating the ground of your faith.
The apostle Thomas is one who rocked the boat. All the disciples had already seen the risen Jesus, but Thomas hadn’t, and he wasn’t content merely to float along on the claims of others. Let’s look at the biblical account of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to Thomas in John 20:24-29:
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though 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; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
A lot of Christians heavily discourage other Christians from questioning the tenets of the faith. I guess it’s because we think it’s somehow testing God or being heretical or disloyal. I had always thought that Jesus’ response to Thomas in this passage was a rebuke. In my mind, I had translated John 20:29 as, “Tsk, tsk, Thomas. It’s easy to see and believe. But I’d rather people have blind faith in me, because that means their faith is stronger.” The more I study it, though, the more I think that Jesus is merely acknowledging Thomas’s declaration of faith, in a commendatory way (“. . . you have believed!”). Jesus does, after all, happily grant Thomas’s request for physical evidence. So while I used to think that Thomas’s statement (“unless I see . . . I will not believe”) was obstinate and uncalled for, I now see it as the words of someone who was honestly searching for Truth.
If someone came to you claiming that the Flying Spaghetti Monster had appeared to him, you would definitely want some proof. You wouldn’t just say, “I believe!” In a similar way, Thomas seeks confirmation of a claim that, let’s face it, was outrageous. A man had risen bodily from the dead? Yes, Jesus had said that he would do as much, and he had already performed countless miracles, but Thomas wanted to apprehend the Truth more fully, surely, and personally.
All the disciples, in their own ways, went through a phase of unbelief before coming to the point of professing confident faith in the risen Christ. Thomas was no different—he had to touch Jesus’s wounds before he could come to the point of professing Jesus as “my Lord and my God.” Generally Christians have been made to feel guilty, by their own community, for their unbelief. But I say don’t be afraid to acknowledge and wrestle with your doubts. As theologian André Resner says, “The struggle with God is not lack of faith. It is faith!”
Doubt is a stepping stone that leads us to Truth, and one that is sometimes necessary to fall back on so that we can step forward again with greater surety. But even though doubt is a necessary step in the process of faith formation, at some point, we have to move beyond doubt to decision-making time. Don’t just rest in a state of distrust and uncertainty for the rest of your life! How crippling and depressing. Stand for something. Pursue Truth with all your heart, mind, and soul, and when you find it, shout it out.
In his book The Gift of Doubt: From Crisis to Authentic Faith, Christian author Gary Parker claims (as you might guess from the title) that doubt is indeed a gift, because it means that you care enough to ask questions, and that you’re prepared to make your faith intentional:
If faith never encounters doubt, if truth never struggles with error, if good never battles with evil, how can faith know its own power? In my own pilgrimage, if I have to choose between a faith that has stared doubt in the eye and made it blink, or a naïve faith that has never known the firing line of doubt, I will choose the former every time.
So then why does Jesus bless those who believe without seeing? I don’t know. Maybe because in this passage, it’s coming time for Jesus’s ascension, so perhaps he is blessing future generations of people who will come to know him not by seeing him in the flesh, but by seeing him in the Spirit? Physical evidence was appropriate for the disciples because they had spent time walking with, eating with, and talking to Jesus’s physical person. Even if Jesus were to physically appear before us today, how would we recognize him? My point is, there are other ways to confirm the truth of Jesus today. Unlike Thomas, we have the witness of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26-27) and the saints whose eyewitness accounts of Jesus have been recorded in the Scriptures. (Of course, many will say that the reliability of internal promptings and of the Christian Bible is suspect, but that’s for another day.)
There are other ways to test the claims of Jesus, too, and for an introduction to those, I refer you to an article I wrote last year called “The Apologetic Posture,” a shorter version of which was published in the Fall 2010 issue of Virtuous Woman magazine. In the article, I address such questions as, “Can we ever know for sure that Jesus was for real?”, “But aren’t we supposed to have childlike faith?”, and “Why did Jesus sometimes refuse to give signs to those who asked?” For a heftier introduction on the topic of apologetics, I recommend the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, or, for those of you who are visual learners, the Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics. (Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ is also great if you’re interested solely in Jesus-related questions.)
But look one last time at Thomas’s finger in the painting—he’s sticking it way in there! If he’s going to live with the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, he wants that conviction to be well-tested and well-informed. Readers, I invite you, too, to stick your finger into Jesus’s wounds, so to speak. Heck, wiggle that sucker around inside, probe, touch, press—whatever it takes for you to know for sure that they are real, and that he is the resurrected Christ.
What role has doubt played in your faith? What kinds of questions have you had to ask, or what are you asking now? Where’s the line between healthy doubt and unhealthy doubt, or is there one? Do you think the Thomas of Scripture should be reprimanded or admired for his demand for proof? If Christians are so sure of the truth, then why do they tend to be so hesitant or fearful of investigating alternative truth claims?
I enjoyed your view on the account of “doubting Thomas”. However, I must disagree with your view that Jesus was not disappointed in the disbelief of all the disciples. There were two things that the disciples were very good at doing. They were very good at arguing about who should be greater in Jesus’ kingdom and not understanding what Jesus really meant in His teachings. Jesus had foretold of his death and subsequent resurrection numerous times. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, they were huddled in a room fearing that the authorities were coming for them next (John 20:19). If we look at a parallel account in Mark, we see that Jesus rebuked (Mark 16:11-16) the disciples for their unbelief and hard hearts. Jesus was upset with the disciples because they had walked with Him, heard His word, but not fully believed.
I do agree that the majority of modern day “Christians” do not think enough for themselves and have a very low level understanding of why they believe what they believe. Doubting/Questioning what you are taught in church is good, but only if it drives you to the Scripture. That is to be our source for resolving the doubts. There is an old saying, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Our saying should be “God said it, that settles it, whether I believe it or not.”
I think Vic made that point about “doubting/questioning is only good if you’re resolving your questions within the parameters of Scripture” clear
with this statement, “Heck, wiggle that sucker around inside, probe, touch, press—whatever it takes for you to know for sure that they are real, and that he is the resurrected Christ.”
If you are investigating Jesus, where else would you look but the Scriptures (albeit people look in all kinds of places, but can we not concede that He is really nowhere to be found but within Scripture?).
On the other hand, if people are simply investigating spirituality, or cultural Christianity, or religion, sure they’re apt to go off in all sorts of directions.
But those who are truly seeking to know Christ cannot help but be led to the Scriptures, and there their questions will be answered.
Yes, I concede that Jesus was most certainly disappointed in and frustrated with the disbelief of his disciples. But based on what the Bible says, it seems that their struggle to believe was a genuine one, not just a result of their being stubborn and cynical. Luke 18:31-34 says, “Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’ The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” Also notice the parenthetical note that is John 20:9, written smack-dab in the middle of the account of Peter and John’s discovery of the empty tomb: “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
The disciples certainly seem like a bunch of dumbbells (how could they not get it?!), but we have to remember that at the time they were learning from Jesus, they had neither the New Testament to put it all together for them, nor the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to convict their hearts. I think that we as modern-day Christians can be unfairly harsh on them. Previous to their initiation into Jesus’ inner circle, they had most likely been learning from a rabbi whose interpretation of the Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures was different from Jesus’ one true interpretation, so they were understandably confused. But when they see Jesus’ burial clothes laid neatly aside in his empty tomb, it is then (after seeing it for themselves) that Peter and John are able to believe and confess full faith in the Lord Jesus.
As for your citation of Mark 16:14: Touche. “He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.” All I can say is that perhaps Jesus’ frustration came to a breaking point here. Jesus was, after all, human, and a passionate one at that. In other passages, however, we see Jesus nurturing the questions of others. As a boy, he, too, asked questions in the synagogue as a way of learning and discerning (Luke 2:46).
Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to not believe in him; that would be ridiculous, and that’s why he tells Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe”—but he says this AS he’s presenting evidence to Thomas. Jesus can discern our intentions: If you’re doubting just to be contrarian, then Jesus will most likely not reveal himself to you. But if you have honest objections to or qualms about the Christian faith along with a sincere hunger for truth, then I believe that Jesus will convince you of the reality of himself in a real and personal way.
“Doubting/questioning what you are taught in church is good, but only if it drives you to the Scripture,” you say. I still disagree. No person should limit his or her search for truth to the Christian Scriptures, because then you’ve already made your conclusion before you’ve even asked the question. Now, as a Christian, I absolutely believe that the Bible is 100% true and accurate, perfect and whole, containing all the revelation we need for salvation. I also believe that Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven (John 14:6), and therefore the sacred texts of other religions, while they contain some truth, do not contain THE Truth. However, I had to do a lot of reading and a lot of logical thinking before I could come to the point of confessing that. Yes, the Scriptures are the place to go to find out about JESUS in particular, but then you run into the question of, How do we know that the Scriptures are authentic, that they really are divinely inspired and not just made up by men? And that entails some research into what led the early church fathers to canonize the 27 books we call the New Testament and exclude others, like the Gnostic Gospels. My point is, we have to think logically through some things before we can come to the point of truly knowing, with confidence. There are a lot of competing worldviews out there, so it’s necessary to investigate them and see where they fail to cohere, and why the Christian worldview makes the most sense.
Once you’re a Christian and have established that the Bible is the source of truth, then yes, the Bible should be your number one go-to for answers to life’s questions.
We could talk about this topic forever. Much smarter people than you and I have written volumes about the search for truth and how to prove or disprove that the Bible is true.
We can study outside documents, historical findings, and the musings of men which are all good things, but in the end there is an element of faith that we must have. Why do I believe that the Scriptures are true? Because God says so (1 Peter 1:25, John 17:17, Psalms 12:6 to list a few). Does this give me license to stop thinking logically about my faith and the things that I am taught? Absolutely not.
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