In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard followed in the footsteps of W.S. Gilbert1 before him and wrote a play in which two minor characters from Hamlet are the lead actors. Like much of Stoppard’s work, it is absurdist in nature, but is still pretty funny if one is familiar with the source play.
Today we’re taking a page from Mr. Stoppard and looking a little closer at one our minor characters from last time. This disciple uttered the line we examined in the second half of that post, but we know him for something quite different. In fact, he has a nickname that most of us are familiar with, and have probably used in other situations to describe ourselves or others in similar situations — Doubting Thomas.
Like the phrase “the patience of Job,” I’ve always found Thomas' sobriquet a bit confusing. Any reading of the book of Job exposes the titular character as having the opposite of patience, and a closer look at Thomas shows him as having no more or less doubt than the rest of his compatriots.
The circumstances are well-known. In John 20, Mary Magdalene discovered an empty tomb and the risen Jesus, and per His instructions returned to the disciples to tell them He was alive. That night, Jesus appeared to them in the room in which they were shut-up for fear of being arrested. Or, most of them — it seems Thomas wasn’t there, and when he heard about it, he famously said he wasn’t having any of it until he himself could touch Jesus' scars.2
When Jesus appeared again to them a little over a week later, Thomas was present. Jesus quoted Thomas' words back to him3, telling him to come touch all of His scars, and to be “believing, not unbelieving.” Thomas immediately responded with perhaps the shortest and clearest confession in scripture — “My Lord and my God!”
The question for me is why Thomas is labeled “doubting.” He wasn’t asking for anything the other disciples hadn’t already had — the opportunity to see for himself. It isn’t like the other disciples were quick to believe before they saw Jesus — Mark 16:11 tells us that when Mary told them He was alive, “they refused to believe it,” and Luke 24:37 tells us that when they did see Him the first time, they didn’t believe their own eyes but thought He was a ghost. Further, in the verse before the Great Commission we find that “some were (still) doubtful” (Matt 28:17).
There’s therefore no reason to disparage Thomas — he wanted to see for himself, just like the other disciples, and when he did, he immediately acknowledged that it was in fact the risen Jesus.
But Jesus' last words to Thomas lead to an even more interesting question. After Thomas' confession, Jesus said to him, “Oh, now you believe, now that you saw me? (More) blessed are those who won’t see me and believe anyway.” If Jesus thought it was more impressive to believe without seeing Him, then why appear to any of them? Why not just ascend straightaway?
We obviously don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s because for someone to believe without seeing Him, they needed to hear of Him from someone who did see Him. One of the most remarkable things about those we see both pre- and post-resurrection in the New Testament is how radically different they are between the two. Peter in Acts 2 (or, indeed, even in Acts 1) is a radically different man from the one we see in Matt 26 or John 18. The attitude we see in Jesus' brothers in John 7 is radically different from what we see in James his brother post-resurrection. What we see from Saul before the encounter on the way to Damascus is radically different than what we see after.
All of these have one thing in common — they saw Jesus post-resurrection. We who haven’t seen can believe them because they were eye-witnesses. And we can be confident they were eye-witnesses because if they weren’t, they died for a lie. It’s a very different to die for something you believe but turns out not to be true than it is to die for something you know not to be true. Many have done the former, no one outside of a country-and-western song4 does the latter.
So, not only was Thomas not a doubter, but we who believe today without (physically) seeing are “more blessed” than those who did see. As a result of what Thomas saw, he ended up taking the gospel to India. How about you (and me)?
Of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. ↩
Including the one in his side. Which leads to the question of how Thomas knew there was a scar in Jesus' side, since he wasn’t there to see it happen. Apparently John has expounded on the details of Jesus' death to the remaining disciples. ↩
So not only can Jesus appear in a locked room, He also knows the conversations that occur when He isn’t present. ↩