By Fr. Mark Sietsema
Our Holy Week doesn’t lack for bad guys: fickle crowds and Pharisees, centurions and Sadducees, Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate. What’s the point in picking on Thomas at the end of it all?
“Doubting Thomas” we call him—as if one moment of disbelief defines his life’s work. This is not the attitude of the Orthodox Church. In our hymns for Thomas Sunday Vespers we find this lovely line: Ω καλη απιστια του Θωμα, “O good unbelief of Thomas!” Through his doubt, the blessing of faith was granted to all generations after him.
What did Thomas doubt? Or more to the point, whom did he doubt? You cannot say that he doubted Christ; at least, not any more than any other disciple up to that point. No, it is clear: Thomas doubted his fellow apostles. They said they saw Jesus risen from the dead. Thomas replied that he couldn’t take their word for it.
Why should he? The apostles’ credibility was at an all-time low. At Jesus’ arrest they scattered. Peter—all his boasting notwithstanding—denied Jesus readily and rudely. John alone joined the women at the Crucifixion but played no part in the Burial. In light of these behaviors, the word “reliable” does not spring to mind.
Then the Eleven spent the next couple of days cowering in the Upper Room, doors locked, windows shuttered, heads down. If Thomas was missing when Jesus came, that could only mean that he had the courage to go outside and be seen. Isn’t that even a little bit admirable?
Now, I ask you to consider Thomas’ frame of mind when he returned to the house that night, and heard the Ten disciples tell the story of how Christ had appeared to them behind closed doors, how He had given them the sign of peace and the power to forgive sins.
If you were Thomas, wouldn’t this have raised an important question in your mind? How can it be that this happened while I was gone? I wasn’t the greatest disciple, he might say, but I certainly wasn’t the worst. I’m not Peter, James, or John, but I’m no Judas, either. So why would Jesus come just at the one moment when I wasn’t there? Could it be that He is really the Conqueror of Death and Hades, the Lord of Heaven and Earth … but doesn’t control His own schedule?
Thomas would tell us: It doesn’t make sense that Christ would come when one of the Eleven wasn’t there. He would have to have a very good reason to leave me out after all we went through together. And so for now, until I have some personal sense of meaning in all this, I do not accept the other disciples’ experience at face value. Unless I have some tangible proof of their stories, I will not believe.
This, my friends, is not the frame of mind of a coward or a skeptic. This would be the reaction of someone who truly believed in the divine character of the Son of Man, who truly expected justice and goodness from Jesus Christ. A coward would have bent to peer pressure. A coward would have swallowed all those thoughts and just gone along to get along. Thomas didn’t do that.
He suffered, I’m sure, a very uncomfortable week until Christ appeared again to the Eleven. Then Christ’s intentions became plain as day. Thomas hadn’t been left out: Thomas was given the honor of being the one who stood in for all the people of reason and courage in centuries to come, for all those who want two and two to add up to four (or, if you will, ten and one to add up to Eleven). Thomas was chosen to be the eyes of all those who would not have the chance to see the risen Jesus in person, but who, because of his seeing, could believe. This was a great honor, and a worthy disciple received it. If you want to call him “Doubting Thomas,” say it with respect.
Is doubt a sin? Often when I hear confessions at camp, the young people list doubt as one of their faults. I am careful to listen to the specifics of their doubts. Often what they struggle with is not really doubt, but simply questions: good, important, insightful questions. No young person should ever be belittled for asking a tough question. No older person, either, for that matter.
My point is that we must be careful to foster a spiritual environment where reason and facts and thinking are welcome. Our children must never have the sense that they have to make a Sophie’s Choice between their faith and their education. This is not to say that science is always right when it crosses over into philosophy. Far from it! But in the Orthodox Church there can be no inquisitions, no witch hunts, no censuring of questions or thoughts, no labeling of people as unbelievers or apostates, just because they have questions.
Doubt is different from questioning or curiosity. Doubt is wishy-washiness (James 1). Doubt is a fear of commitment (1 Kings 18). Doubt is going with the flow like a dead fish (Romans 14). Doubt is witnessing the power of God and labelling it the work of the Devil (Matthew 12). This kind of doubt is not just a sin—it’s a flaw of character.
Often what we call doubt is simply the humility of admitting: I don’t know everything; I don’t understand all that I should; I believe, help my unbelief. How can God condemn this kind of doubt? He does not.
The Holy Spirit gently leads everyone who is open to discovery and ready to learn. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). The basis of all spirituality is this thought: God rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Sometimes, like Thomas, we seek God with questioning. And, like Thomas, we will not be left out in the cold forever by the One we seek. If we truly seek Him, He will always find us.
Christ is Risen! Χριστος Ανεστη!