Benjamin Franklin famously said, “When in doubt, don’t.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “When in doubt, do.”
John Heisman said, “When in doubt, punt.”
Bill Blass said, “When in doubt, wear red.”
And, of course, Mark Twain said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
Keeping his mouth closed is not something the Apostle Thomas was ever accused of doing. Thomas gets a bad rap in Holy Scripture. We call him “Doubting Thomas” or “The Doubter,” with an overt negative connotation. That’s really not fair, though it is understandable. Thomas appears eleven times in the New Testament. In all but two of those occasions, his name is simply mentioned alongside those of the other apostles. And in the two other instances—instances in which Thomas has a speaking part—he is questioning.
The second of those occasions occurs in Today’s Gospel. Late on Easter day, the resurrected Jesus appears to several of the apostles in Thomas’ absence. (We’re not told where Thomas is.) In order to get to the apostles in the locked upper room where they cower in fear, Jesus walks through the wall. He speaks a word of peace and breathes the Holy Spirit upon the ten gathered apostles, granting to them the authority to forgive sins, an authority previously restricted to God and Jesus himself. And then, virtually as soon as Jesus appears—poof!—he’s gone.
Thomas finally arrives, and the aforementioned is the story the others tell him. Now, let me ask, how would you respond, if three days earlier you’d seen your teacher and hero ridiculed, derided, beaten, and crucified, if you’d seen his broken and lifeless body removed from the cross and carried to the graveyard? How about if you’d then been told that Jesus is miraculously alive and walking through walls? Yeah, maybe we should give Thomas a break. For his part, Thomas responds to the other apostles, “You guys are nuts. Unless I see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
That’s the second occasion in which Thomas opens his mouth. The first comes on Maundy Thursday, as Jesus is in the upper room explaining to the Twelve that he must go to the cross ahead of them, that he must prepare the way to God the Father. Here, too, Thomas speaks up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
I’m an amateur student of literature, and one of my favorite literary devices is the character who asks the questions the reader wants asked, the character who speaks for those of us who live just outside the pages of the story, but who read with interest, and, as we become engrossed in the narrative, whose lives seemingly depend upon the answers received.
You see, I love Thomas, and that’s why. He asks the questions we all want answered. He probes where we all need explanation. He has the courage to pursue, seeking understanding, when most of us would stay silent or else give up and walk away confused.
My all time favorite song lyric is from the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” John Lennon reminds us, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” Living is also comparably easier with mouths closed, never probing, never asking, never doubting. It would do us well to remember Voltaire’s saying, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
Riffing on Mark Twain, it is not, then, Thomas who is the fool. It is the other ten, who sit silently by and pretend that they can fathom this resurrected Jesus who stands among them, and breathes the Spirit, and then disappears into thin air. They sit slack-jawed as Jesus tells them at the Last Supper that he will go to the Father ahead of them. In both cases, they are mute because they are utterly befuddled. They don’t know what Jesus is talking about. On Easter, they don’t even know what he is. And they don’t ask. They don’t utter a peep.
Not so, Thomas. Thomas asks. Thomas admits his doubts and his confusion and his lack of understanding. He may be a fool, but at least he knows it. And what is the result of his questioning? Is he ridiculed by Jesus? Is he marginalized or cast out? No. When the resurrected Jesus returns to the upper room, this time when Thomas is present, he says to Thomas just as he earlier said to the others, “Peace be with you.” And he provides Thomas exactly what Thomas has declared as his need. To Thomas who, in vulnerability, admits his doubt, Jesus says, “Place your hands in my wounds.” Jesus might as well say, “Experience me in my immediacy. Know me in my depths as a person, as one you encounter rather than a list of beliefs you check off.”
Only to Thomas—only to the one who questions—does Jesus offer this gift. And Thomas among the Twelve—not Peter, not James and John, only Thomas—is the first person in all creation to declare of Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
We must not, we cannot, understate the importance of this moment. It is the moment in the Gospel. Not the Transfiguration; not any of the grand miracles; but here is where the ultimate identification of Jesus the Christ as God is made. By the one apostle who would not be content with blind faith, but rather wanted faith with understanding, who here and elsewhere found his voice to ask the vexing questions. By the Doubter. Through his questions, and not blind faith or simple certainty, Thomas alone comes fully to know Jesus, not as a proposition of faith, but as his Lord.
I strongly suspect Thomas didn’t stop here. Christian tradition tells us that Thomas’ evangelistic work took him further afield than any of the other apostles. Thomas alone took the Gospel as far as South India. When fourteenth century medieval Dominican missionaries arrived on Indian shores to share the Gospel, they were met by cross-carrying Thomist Christians who’d been there for over one thousand years! I suspect it was the other apostles who sent Thomas to the end of the earth to get him out of their hair, with his incessant questioning, always seeking to plumb the mystery, to know God more deeply.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ injunction to Thomas in today’s Gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”? Too often in Christian history this has been taken as a counsel toward ignorance, but don’t believe it. John the Evangelist is here having Jesus speak not really to Thomas but directly to us, the readers now two thousand years distant. His words intend to be a comfort to us, that though Jesus no longer walks the earth, present to our mortal eyes, we can nevertheless know him just as intimately as did Thomas. And as with Thomas, the peace of God is bestowed upon us not when we settle for easy certainty, but when we needle, when we ask, when we plumb the depths of God as Thomas plunged his hand into Jesus’ side. Because it is through our seeking that we come to inhabit the vastness of God’s mystery and love. It is through our seeking that we come to know Jesus as Lord and God.