For the majority of Christians--and many non-Christians who have adopted certain Christian idioms--there is a fundamental misunderstanding surrounding the account of Thomas' famous refusal to believe in the resurrection of Jesus as recorded in John 20:24-29. The first verse and a half are commonly overlooked when discussing this story, and they could not be more important. Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus made his first resurrection appearance. Thus, we are told, "the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!" (20:25a). It is in this context that Thomas makes his well-known proclamation, "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" (20:25b). From this, he has acquired the enduring nickname, "doubting Thomas." But I do not think that doubt was his real problem, and I think this misunderstanding has led many Christians to draw incorrect, negative conclusions concerning the nature of doubt.
Consider the following story.*
Charlie was in the bed unusually late for a Monday morning. His wife said, "Charlie, you need to get up, you're going to be late for work." Charlie said, "I can't. I'm dead." His wife assured him that he was not dead and told him again to get up. Charlie refused to budge. "I'm sorry honey, I'm dead," he insisted. His wife decided to call the doctor. The doctor arrived and took Charlie's vitals. The doctor assured Charlie that he was in perfect health and certainly not dead. Unfortunately, Charlie still refused to move. The doctor told Charlie's wife, "Your husband needs a different type of doctor." Charlie's wife called a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist arrived and asked, "How do you feel Charlie?" Charlie said, "I feel dead." The psychiatrist assured him that his mind was playing tricks on him--he was very much alive. Even so, Charlie remained unconvinced. The psychiatrist told his wife, "It seems like the only thing to do is to call the undertaker." Charlie's wife called the undertaker. The undertaker arrived quickly, loaded up Charlie's body and drove to the morgue. The undertaker wheeled Charlie into a room with several corpses. He said, "Charlie, I want to show you something. Did you know that dead people don't bleed?" Charlie said, "I didn't know that." The undertaker pulled out a needle and pricked the thumbs of two different corpses. "See Charlie, no blood," he said. Then, the undertaker used the needle to prick Charlie's thumb. A red drop of blood quickly formed. Charlie was amazed. "What do you know," he said, "dead people DO bleed!"
Would you say that Charlie's fundamental problem was doubt? Of course you wouldn't. You would say that he stubbornly refused to believe the good evidence that he was given. Now, let's look back at Thomas. Did he have any good reason to believe that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead? Absolutely. The other disciples were telling him that they had seen Jesus resurrected with their own eyes. And there is no doubt in my mind that they probably said a lot more than what is recorded by John. None of them were expecting Jesus to come back from the dead after 3 days. They had no concept of a dying and rising Messiah. The Bible makes it embarrassingly clear that they totally didn't understand Jesus on that point. Thus, if they were saying that Jesus was alive, there was hardly any reason to doubt them. Thomas just stubbornly refused to believe them. Now, I am not trying to make Thomas out to be a hardened skeptic. It may be that he was so overwhelmed by the idea that he couldn't bring himself to conceive of something so wonderful. His reaction when He saw Jesus gives us good reason to think that was probably the case. Personally, I don't think he ever actually go around to touching the wounds of Jesus. It seems pretty clear to me from verses 27-28 that Jesus made the offer, but as soon as Thomas saw Him and heard His voice, he fell down and cried, “My Lord and my God!” Let us not miss the tremendous grace God gives, even to stubborn hearts like Thomas (and me).
At this point, someone might say, "Sure sure, but what about when Jesus told Thomas that it was better to believe without seeing?" Many assume from this that Jesus is saying that faith is opposed to reason. Thomas should have believed without asking for evidence. But I hope you can see from the context that this cannot be what Jesus meant. Thomas already had good evidence. What is more, we can’t dismiss the fact that Jesus actually did offer evidence to Thomas. The reality is that when He says that those who do not see are more blessed, he is not thinking of “those who blindly follow,” but “those who don’t demand make stubborn demands when there is plenty of good evidence and testimony.” But if you remain unconvinced, just look at the verses that follow. The very next thing that John says is that Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of the disciples that he didn’t write down. But he says that all of the ones that he did record are there to be evidence so that people will believe. Jesus actually said as much Himself earlier in John's Gospel when He told the Pharisees that if they couldn't believe what He was saying, they should at least believe the miracles that He was doing as evidence that He is God's Son (John 10:37-39). If Jesus was saying “people should believe without needing evidence,” then it appears John seriously missed the point.
Doubt has gotten a bad reputation among Christians because of this misunderstanding. But doubt wasn't Thomas' real problem. Furthermore, doubt itself is not always negative. I love this quote from Os Guinness:
"If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt . . . There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt."
And this one from Tim Keller:
"A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”
For these reasons, I think it is high time that we put "doubting Thomas" to death.
*This is not an original story. I have heard this story many times, and with a few variations, but I honestly have no idea where it originally came from.