Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
I Will Not Believe (John 20:24-25)
24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
Now we turn to the climax of the story. As the Scripture tells us, Thomas was not present the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group. Exactly why, we have no idea, nor is it important. What is significant is that when Thomas returned and the disciples told him about Jesus’ visit, he did not believe them. And, as Fr. Farley points out, Thomas did not merely say, “I will not believe”: “This last negative is a strong one—not just ‘I will not believe,’ but the stronger “I will never believe” (Gr. Ou me pisteuso)” (351).
Now when you think about Thomas, what do you think about? Admit it—you probably think primarily about his doubt in this story. It is a shame that most people, when they think about Thomas, remember him primarily as “Doubting Thomas.” We need to adjust our negative impression about Thomas for three reasons.
First, to think of Thomas primarily as the famous doubter is like remembering Abraham Lincoln for the many elections that he lost, for remembering Babe Ruth for being the batter with the all-time most strikeouts, for remembering Nolan Ryan for having walked the most batters in history. This one episode of doubt in Thomas’ life is greatly overshadowed by his great courage and his loyalty to Jesus. One Scripture that is not often quoted is John 11:16. In this passage, Jesus is preparing to go and raise Lazarus from the dead. In doing so, he had to return to the province of Judea, where the Jewish authorities were waiting to arrest him. When the other disciples heard Jesus say, “Let us go to Judea again,” they said “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone you, and are you going again?” Thomas, on the other hand, said “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” (John 11:7-8, 16). Also, Thomas’ missionary career after Pentecost, in which he boldly preached the Gospel in India and ultimately gave up his life, proves his great courage and dedication to Christ.
A second reason why we should not fault Thomas for his doubt is that his reaction was perfectly normal. Thomas was undoubtedly still in a state of shock from the tragedy of the crucifixion, and he did not find it easy to think of its consequences as being annulled. Indeed, who had ever heard of someone who had been so brutally executed coming back to life? As Fr. Farley states, “It was perhaps [his] great love for Christ that ironically accounted for his lapse now. Thomas had been so hurt and bruised by his Lord’s death that he was emotionally numb. He could not stand another disappointment, and so refused to believe his comrades’ story lest it should prove false” (351).
A third thing that we should keep in mind before judging Thomas is that sometimes in the spiritual life, doubt is not such a bad thing. A certain degree of doubt can lead us to a deeper faith. As Fr. Anthony Coniaris writes, “Faith rarely comes without questioning and doubt. In fact, it usually comes through questioning and doubt. As one great saint said, ‘The soul makes its greatest progress when it travels in the dark, not knowing the way.’”
Fr. Coniaris goes on to say, “We need a faith like Thomas’—a faith that allows us to express our honest doubts to God and yet compels us to remain in companionship with the disciples just as Thomas, though skeptical, was still with them ‘eight days later’ when Jesus appeared to them. As He appeared to Thomas, Jesus will appear to us through His word or through a providential happening in our lives to strengthen us in our faith.”* There is nothing wrong with honestly expressing our doubts to God when we have them. But we must not allow our doubts to take over and to drive a wedge between us and God. We must always counterbalance our doubts with the assurance that God exists, that he loves us, and that he knows what is best for us, no matter what may happen to us (cf. Heb. 11:6).
* Quotations are from Fr. Coniaris’ book This is My Beloved Son: Listen to Him, page 78.