Thomas the Doubter: judging the character of he who doubts

Caravaggio – The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

(An excerpt from today’s Gospel: Jn 20:19-31)

Poor doubting Thomas. Since this is one of the Easter readings I have heard countless tales of Thomas’ obstinacy. Though perhaps a more feminine, I take a different view than the arrogant doubts of Thomas I have heard preach about.

Who was Thomas?

He speaks in two others places in the Gospel of John.

First, John 11:16. When Christ decides to return to Jerusalem, Thomas says “Let us also go, that we may die with him”

Second, John 14:5. There, Jesus had just explained that he was going away to prepare a heavenly home for his followers, and that one day they would join him there. Thomas reacted by saying, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

It sounds to me that Thomas is not one of strong hope. His assumption that Christ will die, and anyone with the Christ will die comes quickly. He lacks hope in the possibility of joining Christ. He needs more information, more assurance. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But it appears Thomas needs to see, which we gather especially from John 14:5.

We come to the Gospel of today. In what state is this ragtag group? Hiding. Killing time. Fishing. Without the direction of the Christ, the man they have been living with and following around and learning from these past three years, they return to their old life. This was the man in whom they dared to hope with the hope of all Israel . “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24.21) and he is dead.

What a step that must have been for Thomas, to leave his life behind, this man who needs to see, who needs more reassurance, who is not so wild in his ways to throw it all in without some security. Yet he followed Christ as one of Christ’s intimates. It must have taken a great deal of courage to continue on despite his doubts.

And then what happens? The man he has come to love and to trust and to believe in, dies. All that effort to hope and believe, and for nothing. It must have been terrible to experience, to think, “this is it,” and then it is gone. Haven’t most of us, who have suffered, experienced that at some point? I have.

So I think he must have been very pitiful when he was in that upper room, saying the words that would make sense to him, with sorrow, full of doubt and discouragement, afraid to hope again. “Show me the proof.” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” I just can’t stand to do this again. It hurts too much.

In one homily I heard on this Gospel, I was struck to hear the priest point out that it does not say Thomas put his finger in the nailmarks of Christ’s hands or in Christ’s side before declaring his belief. So I rather believe his statement, so often perceived as obstinate doubt, was one of protection for a broken and despairing heart.

Of course, we’re called to greater faith than that. Nevertheless, its incredible to think of how much of ourselves we can see in his men and their weaknesses. We live in a culture now that demands proof and assurance. So let’s have a little pity on Thomas, poor doubting Thomas.