The Benefit of the Doubt

The disciple Thomas reveals an important truth about faith.

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 ...

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