Thomas needed evidence to believe and so do we
by David Faber
Normally, it’s a good thing to have something named after you. It’s a sign of respect, an indication that you have done something significant. But there are some times when you want to avoid having things named after you—Custer’s Last Stand or Doubting Thomas.
Despite the negative connotations of “Doubting Thomas,” I identify with Thomas. I like evidence, and I want evidence for religious belief.
Our belief or lack of belief in Jesus as the risen Lord is the most important decision we will make. And you can’t make that decision on the basis of wishful thinking or mere sentimentality. I don’t want to put less thought into whether I entrust myself to Jesus than I do into what kind of car I buy. So I can identify with Thomas when he says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25). I don’t usually have the courage to be as straightforward as Thomas, but I do identify with his feeling.
But I think that Thomas gets a bad rap. People seem to think that what Thomas did was a bad thing.
Evangelical biblical scholar Andreas Kostenberger says this: “Thus, paradoxically, it turns out that believing without seeing, far from being inferior, is actually superior. For it involves taking God at his word.” On this account, Thomas would have acquitted himself better if he had just accepted the report of the other 10 disciples. Instead he demanded more evidence. He took the inferior path.
The Doubting Thomas interpretation is familiar, but I think it’s mistaken. Jesus is not saying that believing without seeing is better than belief based on seeing. Thomas does not react any differently than anybody else in John 20 to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.
Mary Magdalene is the first witness. She tells Peter and another disciple. Do they just believe her? No, they run to the tomb and check on her story. John 20:8 says that “the other disciple…saw and believed.”
Mary Magdalene then has a conversation with the risen Jesus and afterward tells the disciples. Do they believe it? They certainly don’t act like they believe it. They hide in a locked room.
Contrast this behavior to the bold proclamation we see after the disciples are convinced of the resurrection. The first thing Jesus does after greeting them is to show them his hands and side. The disciples needed to see Jesus in order to believe.
Part of the reason for the traditional Doubting Thomas interpretation is the translation of John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The phrase “and yet” is the translator’s interpretation. In Greek there is only one word, “kai,” which is normally simply translated “and.” Sometimes it is appropriate to translate “kai” as “and yet.” However, it is only appropriate when the context demands that interpretation.
In this case, the context does not demand that translation, and the verse makes perfect sense when “kai” is translated with the normal meaning of “and.” Jesus’ statement feels very different, then, when we read: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” There is no sense of criticism of Thomas.
Consider Jesus’ response in light of the narrator’s comment in verses 30 and 31:“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.” In this context Jesus’ response to Thomas’s confession—“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed”—is a promise.
It is a promise that those who do not have the opportunity to see the body of the risen Jesus can have the same sort of peace that generated Thomas’s confession: “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’s quest for evidence was not a defect in faith. It was an appropriate human response to an extraordinary claim. It is natural for us to desire evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
I would be pretty happy if I could get the kind of evidence that Thomas had. But Jesus recognizes that this kind of evidence is not going to be available to most people. The resurrected body of Jesus is not available to most people. But Jesus promises that they, too—that we, too—can believe. John’s gospel shows us that there are reliable witnesses to provide evidence that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God.
I think a fair-minded, patient assessment of the evidence supports belief in God and in the gospel accounts of Jesus. Obviously, we don’t have the space to assess all of the evidence here. But I am confident that there is enough evidence to warrant belief in the risen Jesus.
We need to acknowledge, however, that the evidence is not absolutely conclusive. British philosopher Basil Mitchell tells the following parable:
In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance—indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.
They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, “He is on our side.”
Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, “He is on our side.” He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, “The Stranger knows best.”
Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say “Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?” But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, “Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.”
We are children of the partisan. We rely on the eye witness experience of the partisan to convince us of the Stranger’s goodness. Things happen that don’t make sense to us. But we rely on the evidence given us, and we believe. And like Thomas, we commit ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus. When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” he is making a promise, a promise to us.
It is a promise that those of us who demand evidence also have the opportunity to experience the peace and hope that characterize a world in which God reigns and evil is vanquished. With Thomas, we can say, “My Lord and my God.” Alleluia, Jesus is risen.
David Faber is professor of philosophy and director of the Carson Center for Global Education at Tabor College. He is a member of Ebenfeld MB Church.