When it was evening on that day, the first
day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met
were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and
said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands
and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus
said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I
send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
"Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are
forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not
with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told 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 in the mark of the nails and my hand in
his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was
with them. Although the doors were shut, 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. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do
not doubt 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 come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you
may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that
through believing you may have life in his name.
The expression Doubting Thomas is often used at best sarcastically, and at worst pejoratively.
After two thousand years, almost, of Christian belief - the notion that Jesus was Lord, and that belief is extremely necessary is a given. It's so ingrained in Christian culture that when we come across this story, we look at Thomas' lack of faith with some degree of disdain.
In today's reading the disciples have gone through a lot. They weren't really ready to accept the death of their beloved master, and their ability to have faith and their lack of belief was a constant theme in the life He shared with his disciples. They refused to believe that he would be killed, and there's a strong possibility they expected what some in the crowd were anticipating - that Jesus would "hulk up" on the Cross, rip his arms off the crossbeam, and beat the Romans to death with his nail-studded fists, before the hallucinogenic Raiders of the Lost Ark lightshow complete with melting faces. Except that didn't happen. What happened was, he quoted the Psalms, gave up the ghost, and died. He was retrieved and placed in a tomb.
The women have gone off at great risk to enbalm and treat the body, while the men cowered and hid in the darkness. We live by electric light these days, and sometimes it's hard to cast back one's mind to the days of candles, where you saw only a few feet, and dimly at that. The house was locked and there was no way intruders could get in, and yet suddenly Jesus appeared in their midst. As far as they were concerned - either he was a ninja, or a ghost.
His very first act was to explain he came in peace. The disciples, expecting the door to be kicked in and crosses prepared for them, or a rampaging stoning mob - any minute - would have been extremely jumpy, and certainly been afraid even from the surprise. He then went so far as to show the wounds in his hands and side to show that it was in fact He, and that he was corporeal and that He really was with them, because they naturally needed proof of this. Whether they knew the full import of the resurrection, that it finally clicked with them just what had happened in human history, with them some of the first witnesses - or they were just overjoyed to see their friend, we won't know. Possibly both.
If we'd been there that night, how would we go about describing this to someone who wasn't there? How would they have started to tell Thomas about this? Thomas would have been aware of the wondrous events around Jesus. Feeding the multitudes, healing the sick. The blind gaining sight, the lame picking up their beds to walk. Even the resurrection of Lazarus, who they knew was dead because they could smell his decomposing flesh. But not the resurrection of himself. There were certainly limits to power, surely. They all would have thought that impossible..
The way I would unconsciously and automatically start with would be to say something like, "you're never going to believe this, but..."
And Thomas' inability to comprehend, to need proof, to need - even after every single thing he saw and heard, to need to actually be present with Jesus and put his fingers into the wounds in Jesus' body to make sure this was real, this was happening - makes him one of the most human figures in the Bible.
There are two main types of atheist responses, when strong atheists engage people of faith on online communities. "How can you know?" They ask. "Prove it. Show me, empirically, that there is a God." Various arguments can and have been made for a God, from the ludicrous Pascal's Wager to the transcendental argument and beyond. But no, there's no algorithm, chemical formula. No mathematical proof, no maker's mark on a lepton or a copyright notice in DNA. You can ask me to provide empricial, repeatable proof that would sway even the most credulous person, and I cannot. Nobody can. That's why religions are faiths, not sciences.
The other response sometimes that you get is a yearning questioning. "How do you have the faith you have?" Usually someone has a dark night of the soul, or looks at an existence that is measured only in chemical reactions and energy states, quarks and random occurrences and seeks, with something that seems to be common in humanity - to get an answer. To have something firm he or she can hold on to.
Not for nothing that the ultra-athiest, ultra-rational men of The Big Bang Theory and their real life ilk - so often spend their off time reading fantastic stories - be they comic books with superhero characters, science fiction and speculative fiction with impossible, even magical technology, or outright fantasy novels with demigods and heroes and sorcery. There is something in the human condition that appreciates, and hopes for - magic, mystery, something more than the mundane. The promise that behind the bricks of the train station there really is a magical portal to Hogwarts.
Even believers will ask themselves, how can I be sure? God, give me a sign! Many an ex-Christian returned to Christianity, or Christians whose faith are shaken have days, months, even years of doubt. And clergy certainly are no stranger to these fears, these worries, their own dark nights of the soul in which they wonder, what's it really all about? Mother Theresa is rumored to have gone through the motions for years, Even she once wrote: "Jesus has a very special love for you, But as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look
and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves in prayer
but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have
a free hand."
In the midst of all their fear, when Jesus appears and gives them reason to believe the evidence of their eyes, their fear is completely forgotten. They rejoice. They welcome their friend, and they're in happy companionship with Him. Every care, from imminent arrest to the post traumatic stress disorder of dealing with the grief and horror of witnessing brutal torture - gone in an instant. He hadn't done any miraculous things, hadn't done anything out of the ordinary yet. Just him - impossibly - just being there - they forgot all their previous cares and worries. They don't know how this has happened. They don't know why this has happened. But they don't care. The only thing they needed to know what that He was back with them.
Marcus Borg, in his new book Speaking Christianity, talks about all the different loaded words whose meanings have changed since they were first used to translate Scripture, and in some cases entire schools of thought and interpretations of theology revolve around the newer version, not the older.
Belief is one of those words that, back in the time in which it was first used to translate from the Koine Greek of the Bible, had a different meaning. Nowadays one thinks of belief as affirming a position, or adding credence to a statement, agreeing that something is fact. But at the time it was first used, it always had an object. It was a transitive verb, with a person as its object. In modern parlance, we'd say "I believe IN", the same way a parent, a coach or a lover looks deeply into someone's eyes and says "I believe in you". It comes from the older "be loef", meaning to hold dear.
Thomas needed to know the facts are true. All that we are told to do is to hold dear to, and believe IN Jesus. Doubt in the facts are okay - doubt's human. There's any of a number of reasons to have days, or even a lifetime to have difficulty giving credence to a particular doctrine or idea. In fact, one of the biggest things that crop up is people going "it can't be like that. It can't be that easy. God can't possibly love me. I can't possibly know for sure I'm saved and wanted." We'll pore through manuscripts and dissect this semantic translation of this verse vs that semantic translation of that verse. Web sites warn of everything from tea bag companies with star and moon logos to pornography lying in wait ready to claw away God's grace from us.
Jesus says that if we believe, if we trust, if we put our faith even though we have no sane, rational or emprical reason to -if we're like Peter, stepping out of the boat onto the surface of stormy water with every nerve and every rational thought screaming that that will result in a watery death - if we do this even when we haven't seen with our own eyes, as it were, and still we believe - then we are blessed.
But that's some of the best news of all. You don't have to understand. You don't need to have certainty in proof. You don't need to have thrust your fingers ito a gaping spear wound or dug into a wrist to find the nail print. Just accept that it's possible - that the things you thought you knew and the limits you thought the universe had are your own limitations. You don't have to understand the whys and the wherefores - just run with it. Just trust. In some ways this is much easier, but in others, it's harder. Even his friends, who were there, had incredible difficulty accepting this. The good news is you don't have to intellectualize, argue, earn or otherwise merit grace and salvation. All we have to do is, in the midst of the dark night, in our fear, in our concern, in the deafening silence and loss - to simply accept Him, live in joy and thankfulness. Just simply have faith it's all going to work out, and that's all we need.