Infamy has long blighted the noble name of Thomas, the "twin" apostle of Jesus (Jn. 11.16; 20.24; 21.2). More than any other faithful apostle, he has borne the stigma of being a doubter.
In the English vernacular, the expression, doubting Thomas, has become a sort of catch-all, describing anyone unwilling to accept a proposition as true without personal experience or empirical observation. As such, it is customarily employed in a pejorative light.
But is this stigmatization of Thomas warranted? Is doubting Thomas an appropriate epithet?
Let's set the record straight.
Thomas erred. Of this, there can be no doubt.
Following the Lord's resurrection, the twin apostle pursued the path of empiricism. Here is how he reasoned:
"Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20.25).
The savior rebuked him, saying, "do not be unbelieving, but believing" (v. 27 — literally, 'stop being a faithless man'). Let us briefly examine the nature of Thomas' error.
First, Jesus reprimands the apostle for being without faith, unbelieving. It has long been assumed that faith is merely the conviction of things irrespective of evidence — more blind trust than open-eyed reliance. This is erroneous. In fact, the evidence of the Lord's work and resurrection was necessary to produce eyewitnesses. Without their sight, we would have none of their testimony; and without their testimony, there would be no faith (cf. 1 John 1.1-4; Rom. 10.14-17). Evidence and faith go hand in hand.
Paul affirms that those who ignore the evidence of God's existence and will are "without excuse" and "senseless" (Rm. 1.19-21, ASV). Indeed, proving the gospel message resides at the very heart of Christian preaching, and is essential to establishing faith in that message (cf. Acts 2.22; 9.22; 17.11-12). The Bible message was designed to appeal to the rational mind (cf. Acts 17.1-3; 18.4, 19; 24.25; Rm. 12.1-2, etc.).
Hence, Thomas' problem was not that he refused to believe without evidence, but that he refused to believe the evidence already available to him — the reliable testimony of his peers (cf. Jn. 20.24-25; Mk. 16.14). He had become an empiricist, accepting only sense-experience evidence, while repudiating rational evidence.
Second, the Scriptures nowhere characterize Thomas as a doubter — one who wavers, unsure of his convictions.
(1) There are several Greek terms used to convey doubt (e.g., 'standing in two ways,' 'in mid air,' 'held in suspense,' etc.), which are frequently applied to many other disciples in the New Testament (see below), but none are ever attached specifically to Thomas.
(2) Thomas was resolute in his declaration: "I will not believe!" There is no hesitation — no suspense — no wavering. He is frigidly cold in his faith, not luke-warm.
(3) Jesus himself uses the term, apistos (without faith), to describe his apostle. Thus, the twin's problem was one of disbelief, not doubt; lack of faith, not little faith (cf. Mt. 14.31).
Hence, while it is possible to use the term, doubting, generically to refer to a basic lack of conviction, it is not sufficient to describe Thomas' specific sin (stubborn unbelief). And since the Scriptures never characterize Thomas' post-resurrection error in this fashion, it is best to follow the Spirit's example in this regard (cf. 1 Pet. 4.11). Unbelieving Thomas, certainly. Doubting Thomas — doubtful.
Third, it is appropriate to observe that, according to the Lord, a person who disbelieves (like Thomas) is far more preferable to one who doubts or wavers. In his revelation to the Laodiceans, Jesus explains that a "lukewarm" faith is more revolting than one stone-cold (Rev. 2.14-16). Thomas was not a "double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (Jms. 1.6-8). His sin was far less egregious than that. And Jesus' gentle, accommodating rebuke to the apostle suggests that Thomas is wholly undeserving of the degree of infamy which he has so cruelly received.
Not only does the expression, doubting Thomas, miss the mark in describing the nature and degree of Thomas' sin, it also unduly singles the apostle out.
Of the faithful apostles of Jesus, the name of Thomas has no doubt been the most besmirched. Yet, oddly enough, his flaws were of far less significance, both in magnitude and number, when compared to those of his apostolic peers. This treatment of Thomas is both inconsistent and unjustified.
First, before Thomas encountered the resurrected Lord, the other disciples had already met the savior. At this encounter, they "were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit" (Lk. 24.37). Jesus identifies the source of their angst:
"Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?" (v. 38).
Here, the Lord employs the term, dialogismos — questioning hesitation, uncertain reasonings — doubting! While Thomas refused to believe without empirical evidence, the other apostles had the empirical evidence in front of them, and yet doubted what they saw. But the dictionary has no entry for a doubting James (or, Matthew, John, Andrew, etc…)! Only Thomas has received that distinction.
Furthermore, if we are inclined to malign Thomas for wanting to see and handle the Lord's resurrected body, we should also remember that the other apostles received the same treatment. Jesus told them:
"Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Lk. 24.39).
Again, not only has Thomas been misrepresented, he alone has been assigned the very sin of which the other apostles were guilty (viz., doubting, wavering in the face of proof).
Second, the other apostles committed far more numerous (and more egregious) sins recorded in the sacred text. However, they do not live with the stigmatization which Thomas has received.
(1) The brothers, James and John, sought to exercise authority over the other disciples (cf. Mt. 20.20-28). Their power-hungry appetites were incongruous with the kingdom of Christ, meriting the displeasure of both their Lord and brothers in the faith (v. 24ff). Yet, there are no wikipedia entries for being a greedy James or a megalomanic John.
(2) Paul, who once described himself as "chief" among sinners (1 Tim. 1.15), was a "blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent (violently arrogant) man" (v. 13). He was responsible for the murder of many Christians (cf. Acts 9.1; 7.59-8.1). Yet, have you ever referred to someone as a blaspheming Paul, a persecuting Paul, a murdering Paul, or a violent Paul?
(3) Peter also committed numerous sins, which are recorded in the New Testament. He doubted as he walked on water with the Lord on the sea of Galilee (cf. Mt. 14.31). But English jargon does not contain the phrase, doubting Peter.
When the Savior was betrayed, Peter famously denied him three times (John 18.15-18; 25-27). Ever heard of a denying Peter?
While the Lord was being arrested, Peter precipitously cut off one of the arresting officer's ears (cf. Jn. 18.10-11). But no man has ever been deemed a violent Peter.
Many years later, Peter was again "to be blamed," this time for engaging in racial prejudice, for which Paul publicly rebuked him (Gal. 2.11ff). How has this apostle escaped being saddled with the notorious designation, prejudicial Peter?
The only sin ever recorded of Thomas was that he was unwilling to believe that the Lord had been resurrected, unless he had first seen the resurrected body for himself. He had closed his mind to the available evidence. And while it is true that we often think of Peter as being impetuous, and the name, Judas (Iscariot), has come to be synonymous with betrayal, Thomas is the only faithful apostle whose sin has infiltrated our language and culture with such distinction and infamy.
Despite his brief lapse of judgment, the New Testament portrays Thomas as a disciple on whom Jesus could rely. He was honest and curious, generally open to learning and contributing to the cause.
When Jesus met Thomas after the resurrection, the Lord encouraged his erring apostle. Rather than spurn the twin's litmus-test, Jesus instructed him to "reach [his] finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side" (Jn. 20.27).
Nathaniel received similar encouragement (and proof) when he once wondered whether any "good thing" can "come out of Nazareth" (Jn. 1.43-51). Jesus gave all of his disciples more than enough physical and rational evidence to strengthen their faith in him and his message, that they might become stalwart representatives of the Christian movement. If Thomas craved more evidence, Jesus provided it for him liberally.
It should also be observed that Thomas, at least at his core, was exercising the Berean-mindset (refusal to believe something without solid foundation), which is highly commended in the Scriptures. Acts 17.11 describes the Jews who lived in Berea as being
"more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so."
While Thomas was not quite so open to conviction as the Bereans (which led to his error), he nonetheless shared their disposition — to test and verify the prophet's message, refusing to blindly commit himself to it. Indeed, the Lord has always instructed his people to test those who teach (cf. Deut. 18.17-22). He instructs:
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 Jn. 4.1).
In that light, at least, Thomas should be commended.
Finally, there is Thomas' overall spiritual record. While not much is written about the apostle, what has been written is mostly laudable.
(1) When Jesus determined to return to Bethany in order to raise Lazarus from the dead, the other apostles sought to dissuade him, since the Jews of Bethany were hostile to the Lord and his apostles and "sought to stone" them (Jn. 11.8). Their fear crippled their faith. But Thomas — dependable Thomas! — alone protested, saying: "Let us also go, that we may die with him!" (Jn. 11.16).
(2) When Jesus announced his intention to leave them (by dying and eventually going to heaven), it was Thomas who humbly asked: "Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?" (Jn. 14.6). Thomas, ever inquisitive, carried himself as one willing and desirous to learn; to receive the calm assurance of faith in his Lord.
(3) After seeing the resurrected Jesus, Thomas made what is perhaps the most sublime and reassuring declarations of all New Testament sayings: "my Lord and my God!" (Jn. 20.28). No more was his otherwise dependable mind closed! His faith was now all-in.
(4) There is no New Testament record regarding the death of Thomas. However, the earliest secular writings indicate that he may have been martyred in India or Parthia. If that is so, Thomas proved himself to be unwavering in his dedication to the faith, right to the very end (cf. Mk. 13.13; Rev. 2.10).
Those who honor the Lord should also honor his faithful apostles. They too committed sins, for certain. But without their efforts, you and I would know nothing of Jesus or salvation (cf. Jn. 17.6; 20). Thomas is no less deserving of our admiration and commendations.
This too, in closing: when we speak of doubting Thomas, do we blind ourselves to the fact that Thomas is a real human being — who, upon hearing the expression, is put to shame every time it is uttered? Would you like to be described by one of your own sins for all eternity? Answer that question honestly, and you will have come to the crux of this entire exposé.