Text: Jn 20:24-31
On the evening of the first Easter Sunday, the disciples of Jesus huddled together in a locked room. They were in utter despair: they had left everything to follow Jesus, but now he was dead. They were frightened: the same people who had killed their Master would surely come looking for them. They were confused: where would they go now? what would they do? Into that despairing, frightened, confused company steps Jesus. The grave could not hold him back; neither can a locked door. There he is, standing right in front of them. They had been trembling with fear, but he says, “Peace be with you”. It can’t be him, surely? – but he shows them his hands and his side. They felt lonely and afraid, but he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” They had come together in secret, but now he sends them out to a needy world: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”
Thomas, for some reason, had been missing from that memorable encounter. The others kept telling him, “Thomas, we have seen the Lord”. But Thomas was having none of it. “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 it.” But before long, he would be utterly transformed, worshiping Christ and exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”
What was it that turned Thomas from a doubter into a believer? And what is it that can allay our doubts, and bring us to joyful faith in Jesus Christ? Let’s look in turn at Thomas the doubter and Thomas the believer.
1. Thomas the doubter, v24f
We call him ‘doubting Thomas’. We meet him on two earlier occasions in John’s Gospel. The first is in ch11. Lazarus is critically ill. Jesus announces his intention to go to him. But the disciples realises that this would take Jesus straight back to the very people who were plotting to kill him. So Thomas gloomily says to the others, “Yes, let’s go, so that we can die with him!”
Our second meeting with Thomas is in ch14. Jesus has been explaining that he must go to his Father’s house, and that he would come back, and take his disciples to be with him. “You know the way to the place where I am going,” he tells them. Thomas blurts out, “We don’t even know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”
We begin to build up a picture of Thomas as a bit of a pessimist – someone whose cup was always half empty rather than half full, a man whose football team was always destined for relegation, never for promotion, a man for whom the light at the end of the tunnel is not a sign of hope, but an out-of-control express train.
But Thomas was not the first to be a bit of a doubter, and neither was he the last. Indeed, over the years, doubt has often been elevated to the status of a virtue. The poet Tennyson spoke for many when he celebrated doubt: ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.’ And so did Bertrand Russell, when he said, ‘The stupid are sure, and the intelligent are full of doubt.’
Soon after the publication of his infamous book The Satanic Verses and the call for his assassination, Salman Rushdie said, ‘The heart of what they are angry about is not the specific insults. It’s to do with the whole notion of doubt. Doubt it seems to me is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century. One of the things that has happened to us as a human race is to learn how certainty crumbles in your hand. We cannot any longer have a fixed certain view of anything. The table that we’re sitting next to, the ground beneath our feet, the laws of science: they are all now full of doubt. Everything that we know is pervaded by doubt and not by certainty.’
Doubt, then is very prevalent, especially in our own day. Let’s be clear that doubt itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. Doubt can sometimes be highly desirable. If we believed every story we heard about tooth fairies, Father Christmas, and alien abductions we would soon lose our sanity. If we were taken in by every promise made by advertisers, politicians and religious leaders, we would lose all our money as well.
But, on the other hand, it is neither sensible, nor necessary, nor healthy to doubt everything. I need to know if I can trust my wife to be faithful to me. I need to know if I can believe my bank balance when it comes through each month. I need to know if the witness of the Bible to Jesus Christ is believable, or whether it is just a piece of pious fiction.
There is a place, then, for confident knowledge. There is a place for Christian dogmatism. John Stott wrote: ‘Christian dogmatism has, or should have, a limited field. It is not tantamount to a claim to omniscience. Yet in those things which are clearly revealed in Scripture, Christians should not be doubtful or apologetic. The corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning ‘We know’, ‘We are sure’, ‘We are confident’. If you question this, read the First Epistle of John in which verbs meaning ‘to know’ occur about forty times. They strike a note of joyful assurance which is sadly missing from many parts of the church today and which needs to be recaptured.’
Doubt, then, is a very widespread phenomenon. Many of our doubts are normal and proper. But we should resist the temptation to doubt anything and everything. And there is good news for doubting Thomases. For Thomas had an encounter with the living Christ, and he would never be the same again. Having looked at Thomas the doubter, let’s now consider Thomas the believer.
2. Thomas the believer, vv26-29
It is one week later. The disciples are assembled again, and Thomas is there this time. Although the doors are again locked, the same Jesus stands among them again, large as life. And he speaks directly to Thomas.
Notice in v27 the exact correspondence between Thomas’s doubts and the evidence that Jesus now offers him:-
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands” – “See my hands” “and put my finger where the nails were” – “Put your finger here” “and put my hand into his side” – “Reach out your hand and put it into my side” “I will not believe it.” – “Stop doubting and believe”
That’s enough for Thomas. His astonished reaction is, “My Lord and my God!” As soon as he saw, he believed, and as soon as he believed, he worshiped.
Have you noticed what our Lord says next to Thomas, v29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus graciously condescends to meet the conditions that Thomas has laid down, but at the same time pronounces a blessing on those who have faith even though they have not seen for themselves.
It’s very important to underline that Jesus is not commending faith without evidence. It is at this point that modern atheist critics of the Christian faith tend to make a huge mistake. They confuse faith with wishful thinking. ‘Faith (says Richard Dawkins) is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence…Faith is blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.’
But that’s not at all what Christians mean by faith. Within a couple of weeks of becoming a Christian, the church I was attending at the time ran a little course entitled, ‘Primary Truths of the Christian Faith.’ The very first lesson was on ‘What is Faith?’, and the first part of the very first lesson dealt with ‘What faith is not’. Faith is not, we were taught, ‘mere assent’. It is not ‘superstition’. And it is not ‘credulity’ (‘an easy disposition to believe on slight evidence’). Faith is, rather, knowing and believing the truth about Jesus Christ and committing oneself to him.
W.H. Griffith Thomas: ‘[Faith] commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence…’
No, Jesus is not commending faith without evidence. What he is commending is faith without sight.
Think about it: If we only believed and acted on those things we could see for ourselves, life would be impossible. I presume that we all believe that the world is round. But how do you know that? The ancients had guessed it, and the early scientists worked out that it must be so. But did you know that is wasn’t until 1966 that anybody actually saw for themselves the curvature of the earth? This is just one of a multitude of things that we believe on the credible testimony of others.
If everyone insisted, as Thomas insisted, on seeing and touching the risen Christ for themselves, there would not be a single follower of Jesus today. For the only resurrection appearances of Jesus occurred during 40 days between his resurrection and his ascension (with the single exception of his appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road). But in fact there are millions of people who know and follow Jesus Christ. They have not had to opportunity to see his hands or touch his wounded side. But they know him and love him. And Jesus calls them ‘blessed’.
The apostle Peter would put it very beautifully in his first letter: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.’
And so John closes this chapter with a message for all his readers. ‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
The whole purpose of John’s Gospel was that we, like Thomas, might move from evidence to faith, and from faith to life.
So, let me ask you, are you still a doubter, like Thomas had been? Or are you a semi-believer, like the one who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Do bring those doubts and questions to Glad You Asked. Do find out for yourself if you can take seriously the testimony of the witnesses that we find in the four Gospels. I do want to promise you that Jesus will deal just as wisely and gently with your honest doubts as he dealt with those of Thomas. And, who knows, you might find, as Thomas found, that a doubter insisting, “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 it,” becomes a believer exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.”