John 20:19-31 (NRSV) - Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
– Trigger Warning –
If you have recently experienced a loss or bereavement then I would recommend waiting for another time to read this blog.
For almost 2,000 years, Thomas the disciple has had to live with an adverb attached to his name that paints him in a bad light and calls into question his faith and devotion to Jesus. If those who have died can indeed look down upon those who are living, I wonder how frustrating it must be for him to be distinguished from all other Thomases as the one who doubted. I don’t think he would be frustrated for being judged and found wanting, but for being misunderstood and watching us miss the point. At first glance, Thomas’s refusal to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead looks like a character flaw or failure ... but only until it’s juxtaposed against the alternative.
At the end of John 19, Jesus is dead and buried. The miracle worker, the preacher, the leader, the Messiah: dead. It’s a dark day for everyone, but particularly for those who were closest to Him. Spectators lost a public Jesus, the one who had taught them, healed them and brought hope to them. Those who followed Jesus, both men and women, lost the one who called them, rescued them, challenged and changed them. They lost a brother, a father, a confidant and friend. Their purpose, identity and hope died with him. At least until He shook off death’s chains and came back, changing everything. It’s one of those moments in history that I think every Christian would give anything to have witnessed.
It’s easy for us as 21st-century Christians to judge the disciples for not seeing it coming or believing that it would happen, particularly when we read His predictions just a couple of chapters before His death. But we weren’t there for the final dinner. We weren’t with Him in the garden. We didn’t watch the nails pierce Him or watch Him breathe His last. We didn’t see the sky go dark and feel that darkness cast a shadow over our hearts and hopes. We understand its necessity, we know the whole story. For us, it’s already resolved and fixed. We don’t have the tension of the time between His death and rising. We can’t imagine what it would have been like to be there in the midst of it, trying to recall the words of Jesus in our minds over the weeping of our hearts or the deafening silence as we sit together, unable to find words that would bring even the possibility of hope.
Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb to grieve and finds it empty. She calls on Peter and John to come see; they too see that it’s empty. Even then, they don’t know what’s happened. The possibility of resurrection, no matter how many times Jesus told them about it, doesn’t even enter their minds. It’s impossible. It’s too good to be true. It’s too much to believe. So Peter and John go back to their houses and miss seeing Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene. They don’t see Jesus until He walks through a locked door and stands in their midst. They are amazed, moved, restored. But Thomas was not there. And when they come to him and tell him of what they have seen, he says:
‘Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
Poor ‘doubting’ Thomas. Why didn’t he believe? Why couldn’t he muster enough faith to proclaim that Jesus had risen?
Perhaps because belief is not the central issue of Thomas’s story. Perhaps it’s because whether or not Thomas believed in Jesus was not as important as how much he loved Him.
The closest I can get to putting on Thomas’ shoes and walking through his experience is to imagine my father dying. My dad means more to me than words can say. Some say that they struggle to engage with God as Father because of their family experience. That has not been my story. My hope is that I discover God to be as good as my father is.
So if he passed from this world and my family came to me a few days later and said they had seen him alive, I would not believe them. Not until I saw it. Because it’s not about belief. It’s about humanity and love. If my father’s light were to be extinguished then, for a long time, so would mine. It would crush me and I don’t know how I would recover.
What would your reaction be if you saw my family come to me and say that my father was alive again and I said,‘Wow, that’s cool’?
A little bit anti-climactic isn’t it? You’d have to question whether or not I cared.
What if Thomas had said, ‘Great! I’m so glad Jesus is alive!’? It would be faith... but it wouldn’t necessarily be love.
Thomas’s response is beautiful because it denies truth in favour of love for the sake of his heart. Watching Jesus die was the most painful thing he had ever experienced. His world changed when Jesus died. It ended. So he can’t affirm Jesus’ life after death because his life is intertwined with Jesus’. When Jesus died, so did he. And he is not prepared to hope again, to love again, to live again unless he knows it’s real.
Thomas did not have too little faith to believe. He had too much love for belief to be taken lightly.
A second look at the story challenges us not to ask whether or not we believe but whether or not we love. Whether or not our lives are entwined with the life of Jesus. It exposes how we reward intellectual affirmation oforthodoxy without addressing our lack of devotion and love. Belief is cheap; love is expensive. Belief can happen without love; love can make belief difficult. Belief asks us to take an intellectual stand on one side or another; love requires us to actually stand there.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.