Thomas is gaunt, his face stark and raw-edged like a Palestinian landscape. Sharpness of bone, hollowness of flesh. And there's something else, something in the eyes: a shrewdness, a wariness, a caginess. He is sparing with words. He watches. He listens. He can unnerve you with his silence, with the depths and layers of it. What is he thinking? His silence is more inflected than Cantonese.
Thomas is a doubter, the doubter—the doubter's patron saint. His name comes conjoined, hip to bone, feather to wing, with that unshakable epithet: Doubting Thomas.
The Bible never describes Thomas this way. It describes his moment of doubt. But it is one moment, only one, and he moves quickly beyond it. His identity, despite our perception and description of him, is not rooted in that moment. There is much that is praiseworthy in him. When Jesus, hearing of his friend Lazarus's sickness in Bethany, tells the disciples that they are returning there, some of them protest: people want to kill you there, Jesus. But Thomas speaks up. "Let us also go," he says, "that we may die with him" (John 11:8,16). These are hardly the words of a chronic doubter.
Yet, Thomas's moment of doubt has comforted and troubled us so much for so long—it reflects back to us our own stubborn and fragile faith, our heart's own waywardness and waverings and yet tenacity—that our remembrance of that moment has for most of us eclipsed everything else about the man. It is a truth about Thomas that, dwelt upon obsessively, has become a myth about him, a character lapse that has become his all-defining character trait.
This is unfortunate, but not entirely. After all, Thomas's doubt itself is pithy, earthy, real. His is a doubt that often taunts us. It is a doubt that stands between the world's believing and doubting. Because his doubt is this: is Jesus really risen from the dead? Has he really conquered death, with all that such conquest means? Or is the claim that he is risen just the deluded wish-fulfillment of a few men and women made unstable by grief, needing to fabricate a resurrection to console themselves, to vindicate their naïve faith?
Is this not our doubt, too? Is this not the doubt? To second-guess and explain away Christ's resurrection is, of course, the vogue of academia, a virtual growth industry. It has been for a long time. That's neither particularly surprising nor particularly interesting. But this is: even dear Mrs. Smith, a tithing laywoman so reverent and faithful and faith-filled—so abounding in good works and unshakable in her convictions—even she feels, from time to time, the chill of this doubt's shadow.
As a pastor I deal often with death. Believers do respond to death—their own approaching death, the death of loved ones—differently from non-Christians. They don't grieve as those without hope. But neither do they grieve as those without doubt—they do grieve. Now I don't think God intended us ever to meet death devoid of grief. Even Jesus wept over Lazarus's tomb mere moments after calling himself the Resurrection and the Life—just before resurrecting Lazarus back to life. Still, it's disconcerting. The truth is, if we believed without doubt in the resurrection of Jesus, our living and dying would look dramatically different from the way they generally do.
Thomas's doubt is ours, too, our nemesis and companion, our secret haunting. Unless I see it with my own eyes, touch it with my own hands, I will not believe. This is the heart of the matter. This is what stands between Thomas's believing and his doubting: unless I. I know what he means. I can have all the personal testimony and logical airtightness and empirical verification in the world, but unless I see it, touch it, have an experience of it, a shade of doubt exists. Nothing—not the witness box, not the lab report, not the field dispatch—substitutes for the power to convince that my own seeing and touching can deliver. Unless I is the doubter's mantra.