Doubting Thomas – Blessed are those who have not seen?

Poor Thomas….’We’ve seen the Lord! You weren’t here.’

I often wonder – What does it take for us to believe in something or someone? Especially if we’re being asked to ‘take it on faith’? Our first instinct might be to say, like Thomas ‘show me.’ Or, ‘prove it.’  Modern society, for at least the last 100 years, has been less and less inclined to ‘take things on faith’ and more demanding of actual proof which uses our brain and senses to determine whether or not something is ‘true’. Or real. We need to see, touch, even smell or hear. Or have a sufficiently reputable source of information which confirms that something is true.

Religion won’t offer us much in the way of physical proof, especially not for things which sound like being impossible or miraculous. All of our official scriptures were written down so long ago they reflect world views, beliefs and understandings which are very far removed from our own – a young man falling down having fits and foaming at the mouth isn’t because there are demons in him – we can tell that he has epilepsy. Someone with a disfiguring skin disease isn’t suffering because they’re sinful.  A body which is clearly dead after 3 days just doesn’t get up and walk out of a tomb, you cannot be serious. What can enable us – almost 2000 years later –  to say with the voice of faith, ‘Christ is risen?’

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

We need to look at whether or not we have to experience something, have proof, know exactly what happened in order to believe in it. In the case of Jesus’ resurrection this just isn’t possible for us. We weren’t there on the spot.  Even for those who were, the only thing all the Gospels in the Bible agree on, that they report, is that Jesus’ tomb was empty when the women returned to anoint his body after his death.  There was no body to be found. In the original ending of Mark’s Gospel there are no post-resurrection appearances at all, and Matthew, Luke and John all talk about the risen Jesus showing up in different places in different circumstances. 

My late mother, who studied and trained as a research chemist and was seriously smart, was horrified when I told her I was joining the Church of England, becoming a Christian. ’How can you, with a first class brain, believe all that stuff,’ she said.  She was convinced that there was no life after death, Jesus was a superbly wonderful human being whose teachings were worth following but he was in no way divine, and the Resurrection was a totally invented fiction of the Church – because it was physically impossible. The Christian theology which the Church taught was complete tosh, even though the principles of Christian ethics and behaviour were admirable.

I have no idea where my own faith came from, but it wasn’t by anyone convincing me intellectually. I was vaguely aware of some sort of unformed thoughts when I was quite young, I think, but wasn’t encouraged by my parents to ask about them. I suspect that those thoughts, the ‘what is it and is it really true’ stuff then secretly multiplied like friendly bacteria in my background subconscious until one day the bacteria took over and I believed that, for me, Christianity was the way to follow. It was just…there; not bypassing my brain but somehow not needing anything logical to know that Christianity made sense, it worked for me.  No big Damascus Road revelation, no showy display of publicly declaring that I was born again. It was something ‘caught and not taught’ as the saying goes…and took a long time for me to accept that doubting and questioning was an essential part of faith. I, like Thomas, wanted definite proof of the impossible things like resurrection, which I clearly wasn’t going to get in the same way John’s Gospel describes Thomas’s experience.

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

There’s a hint in John’s Gospel that Thomas was annoyed he wasn’t there when all the others had seen the Lord – but he was expected to take their word for it. Why had he been left out?  ‘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,’ he says. You’re the lucky ones, he says, but I have to have proof. I have to know because I just can’t take this on trust. A week later, he gets his wish. There it is…his proof. ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’ A very physical invitation, isn’t it. How could anyone question that sort of evidence. If this is what you need to overcome your doubts, says Jesus, then here it is. Maybe that’s what Thomas needs to find out, that he can have doubts – that he’s allowed to say ‘I don’t know.’ He needs to learn to trust. 

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

That’s us, isn’t it.  We’ve come to believe, and we are blessed even though we haven’t seen. The events of 2000 years ago are real, however we come to understand them. We, like Thomas,  have to learn that we’re allowed doubt, but we still are blessed because doubt isn’t the enemy of faith – certainty is. Locking ourselves into unquestioning rigid beliefs, refusing to think about anything faith related …just in case we dare to question something and might find out that we don’t believe the something any more – we’ve lost our faith as some people might say.  That’s frightening.  If we don’t believe one thing, maybe everything we believe is not true, or fake. But a blind unquestioning faith isn’t faith. That’s fear. Doubt, questioning and then coming back again and again to the conclusion that what we believe – who we believe in – is still the way, the truth and the life for us despite those doubts, allows us to live the most complete life possible, as God wants us to live. Accepting doubts can make our own faith stronger. In a way, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the Resurrection is literally, factually true – meaning ‘demonstrated by physical proof.’  It’s enough that it’s true for us. We learn to trust God even if we don’t understand.

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

‘Doubting Thomas’ has come to be a criticism, meaning someone who’s wrong, doesn’t have ‘real’ faith, can’t possibly be a proper Christian. But I’d rather be a doubting Thomas who searches, asks the hard questions, exposes my beliefs to insecurity; rather than hiding away, slamming the door on God as reflected in Jesus, who will save me from my own fears. He will help me to believe.

The various Resurrection appearances in the Gospels all offer the disciples something different: recognising the risen Christ when he breaks bread with them, doing everyday things like eating fish, standing on a lakeshore making breakfast. We don’t need to know if they’re ‘true’ or not – what matters is that the people who wrote them down wanted others to share their belief in the Resurrection. Just as Jesus calls Mary’s name so that she can come to know that, for her, Jesus the Christ is alive, so Jesus invites Thomas to see and touch his wounded body so he too can believe. Jesus offers us, gives each one of us, what we need. All we have to do is to accept the offer, take the gift. And give thanks.

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Alleluia. Christ is risen.