We too often dismiss this Apostle as “Doubting Thomas.” But what else do we know about him? When Jesus said “let’s return to Jerusalem,” the other disciples said, “Jesus, that’s crazy talk! The last time we were there, they tried to kill you!” But Thomas? Thomas said, “Guys, be quiet . If Jesus says ‘let’s go,’ then let’s go with him — even if it means we die with him.” That there is faith. That’s allegiance.
One of the key New Testament words for doubt/doubting (διακρίνω / diakrínō) can convey the sense of sitting on a fence in a moment of deliberation or judgment, not yet deciding on which side of the fence you’re going to come down. As such, doubt is not the opposite of faith but can be a function of faith, the exercise of discernment. Eventually we need to come down off the fence, of course. But we should never disparage those who are still on the fence, who are still deciding. Let’s also remember (or learn, if we haven’t known this already), that the New Testament idea of “faith” (the term is πίστις / pístis) is not a matter of mere intellectual assent to a proposition (e.g., “2+2=4” or “God exists”) but includes trust and, perhaps especially, allegiance.
I think Thomas may have been on that fence because he had perhaps been more deeply hurt. If he were more deeply hurt, it would have been because he had been more deeply committed (even if he wasn’t in the inner-inner circle with Peter, James, & John). His heart had been broken as were his dreams and his hope. That’s why he said “I gotta see for myself before I can believe again.” He was sitting on the fence weighing the evidence — he had seen Jesus’s battered and broken and breathless body, and this was a powerful testimony which disagreed with the report which he had received that Jesus had returned to life. But what happened next? When Jesus appeared to Thomas and said “here, place your hand in my wounds,” Thomas didn’t need to do that. Hearing Jesus’s voice was enough. And then he fell at Jesus’s feet and declared, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas caught on to who Jesus is faster than the others did at that point — Thomas’s Confession is just as great, and is arguably more explicit, than Peter’s “Great Confession.”
Now of course, I’m not claiming that Thomas was always only faultless and perfect. He was a fallen human on the path of redemption. Consistently, the biblical texts give fair, rather than glorified, portrayals of their characters, warts and all. For example, to borrow the words of my friend David Valentine,
“Peter is far from a rock in the Gospels: he is the opposite, impetuous and rash. But by the time he gets to his letters and his later ministry, he has become what Christ saw in him, like Michelangelo’s David waiting inside the block of marble. John is also impetuous, ambitious and angry …: he is frustrated, but he matures and becomes a ‘son of thunder’ at the deeper level of his Gospel.”
Naturally we can assume a similar trajectory for Thomas. We know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that even well after Pentecost, Peter slipped up and needed to be corrected. Likewise, according to extrabiblical accounts, Thomas really wasn’t interested in going further afield from Jerusalem than Judea and Galilee and initially refused to go as an apostle/missionary/evangelist to other people groups. Though fallen, Thomas, like Peter and John, ultimately will come to vindicate his calling in Christ. It is important to remember that even the Apostles were ordinary humans like us. But so frequently the memory of Thomas has been subjected to a consistently unfair treatment — “Don’t be a doubter like Thomas!” has been the theme of far too many sermons.
Thomas Didymus — Disciple, Follower, Apostle, Missionary, Evangelist, and Martyr — needs a better moniker than “doubting” or “doubter.” He was off that fence and his allegiance to Jesus was greater than the fear and doubt of the other disciples when Jesus chose to return to Jerusalem. He was on that fence, briefly, when most of us would have jumped down on to the side of unbelief. And he got off that fence fast as soon as he saw Jesus. Peter and Paul travelled from Jerusalem to Rome for the sake of the Gospel, 1434 miles (2308 km) as the crow flies. Thomas? He travelled from Jerusalem to Chennai (Madras) in South India for the sake of the Gospel, 3124 miles (5028 km). Like Peter and Paul, he was executed for his faith in Christ. I’m not going to call Thomas “the Doubter.” I’m going to call him Thomas the Faithful.