When the storms of doubt and fear assail
An homage to St. Thomas, the skeptic
The Apostle Thomas gets a raw deal from history.
You know what I mean if you’ve ever read the resurrection story. In John’s account, “Doubting Thomas” is told the news of Jesus’s resurrection but doesn’t believe it.
Thomas’s response was, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Imagine that. You express a little skepticism about an outlandish claim, and you’re still getting called out for it 2,000 years later.
A lot of preachers talk about how Thomas should have had faith and believed and often the general consensus around the Sunday School is that Thomas was one of those rebuked as “ye of little faith.”
I have a problem with this.
When we sit in church and read about Thomas, we have the benefit of 2,000 years of history, but put yourself in Thomas’s shoes. Suppose someone came up to you and said, “Hey, remember our friend that died last week? We just saw him walking up the street towards the Waffle House.”
I’m sure that your first reaction would not be, “Oh praise the Lord, Fred has been resurrected.”
If we’re honest, our first reaction would probably be to think, “This dude is crazy.”
We might even smart off like Thomas did and say something sarcastic along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m sure. I’ll believe that when I can reach out and touch him.”
Thomas’s reaction was entirely human and understandable. I don’t think that Thomas’s doubt was sinful or lacking in faith. Rather, I think that Thomas was using the intellect that God gave him to question an extraordinary claim. It is unquestionably NOT a good thing to believe wild claims without question, and extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence.
I don’t want to veer off into politics here, but too many in the church have fallen into this trap. Being too credulous has led many believers to follow false teachers and make life-threatening (or life-ending) decisions.
But Thomas did have something that we don’t have today. He had the physical manifestation of the resurrected Jesus directly in front of him. A bit later, Jesus was close enough for him to touch. We don’t know if Thomas actually put his hand into the wound on Jesus’s side, but the Bible records that he was quickly convinced that Jesus was alive.
I’m a bit of a Thomas myself. I’m skeptical and I question things. I look at evidence and probabilities.
A few months ago, I was talking to a coworker and I told him that I was a believer, but that I did have some doubts from time to time. I want to make the most of my life on the chance that there isn’t anything that comes after.
His response was, “David, you need a faith-lift.”
I laughed because it’s a funny line. It’s also a bit belittling and condescending. Maybe that guy doesn’t have doubts and questions. If so, I’d imagine he’s one of the few. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to admit his own doubts and hides them behind bumper-sticker phrases.
With all the conspiracy theories and flagrant falsehoods that permeate modern life, we should be skeptical. If not, we’d have a dozen extended warranties, possibly without a car, and our student loans would have been refinanced multiple times.
So how are modern people supposed to make a judgment about an extraordinary claim from 2,000 years ago? We don’t have Jesus standing right in front of us like Thomas did, but we do have another important advantage. We have 2,000 years of scholarship and research into Biblical claims.
Four years ago, I found out that I had skin cancer. Thankfully, it was stage one and easily removed, but my brush with melanoma was psychologically jarring for someone who was relatively young and healthy and didn’t give much thought to my own mortality. Of course, I knew that I would die someday, but that event was always assumed to be far in the future. Suddenly, I had the c-word now.
That realization made it a bit more imperative to think about after life. I’d been a Christian all my life. As they say, I was in church nine months before I was born, but I started thinking that you don’t want to assume that your understanding of God is right because the stakes of eternity are so high. You want to be sure.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), we don’t live in First Century Jerusalem. We also don’t have a time machine so that we can go back and witness those world-changing events as they happened. We have to take the word of others and either accept or reject their claims.
We do have the Gospel accounts. A lot of people who are better investigators than I am have examined them and found them credible. Quite a few researchers who have set out to disprove the validity of the Gospels have themselves become believers.
Two good books in this vein are “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel (also a 2017 movie) and “Cold-Case Christianity” by J. Warner Wallace. Wallace in particular also does a good rundown of supporting evidence outside the Gospels from contemporaneous sources. (Wallace was kind enough to provide an autographed bookplate to accompany his new book that I got my dad for Christmas last year. ) For the Old Testament, there is Werner Keller’s “The Bible As History,” which tells the story of how British soldiers in WWI used a Biblical story about a secret passageway from King David’s time to find the same route and use it to outflank the Ottomans.
What it boils down to is that there are different kinds of faith. Some people brought up in Christianity just never question it and have blind faith that their beliefs are correct. Others have an emotional faith where they trust that their feelings will lead them in the right direction. (I think here of Yoda and Obi-Wan telling Luke to search his feelings.) But in reality, feelings are very subjective and untrustworthy.
Then there is the faith that is built on evidence and experience. It’s like being on a jury. You listen to both sides, weigh the evidence, and then decide who you believe. You hear the testimony and you don’t know for sure that the witness is telling the truth, but you look at the big picture and then decide whether you have faith that his account is correct.
In my view, the evidence supports the claims that the authors of the Bible were making. I have made the conscious decision to believe that their account is true.
But my decision wasn’t made merely on third-person accounts. I’ve also had a number of experiences in my life in which natural explanations just didn’t fit. There might be natural explanations for some of these experiences, but for some of the others, I have not found any way to explain what appears to be a supernatural experience. Some could be viewed as bizarre coincidences, like the dream I had that motivated me to go to the dermatologist who discovered my melanoma, but maybe they were cases of supernatural timing.
I’ve also looked into some of the claims against Christianity. As part of my post-cancer searching, I went down the list of prophecies that were claimed to be in error. Instead, I found the list was in error. “The Big Book of Bible Difficulties” was a valuable addition to my theological bookshelf.
One of the arguments against Christianity, the claim that First Century people were simplistic and ready to believe almost anything, is undercut by Thomas’s skepticism. Even First Century yokels knew that the dead didn’t come back to life.
One of the most searing claims against Christianity regards the behavior of Christians. As I’ve watched pastors and self-professed Christian politicians do very unchristian things, I‘ve often wondered whether they really believe what they claim to believe.
The answer is that it really doesn’t matter. The objective reality of Christianity does not depend on the behavior of its adherents. In other words, Christianity’s truth does not depend on whether Christians follow its tenets or doctrines.
The Crusaders slew infidels in the name of Christ. The Spanish Inquisition persecuted non-Catholics. Puritans executed women for witchcraft. Nazi Christians killed Jews. MAGA Christians sometimes imbue Donald Trump with messianic standing. All of these are incorrect understandings of the Bible, but none of these misunderstandings disprove the Bible.
Christianity is founded on the claim that Jesus is Truth. That Truth does not rely on the actions of others.
If we are honest, I think that most Christians sometimes question God and have doubts. We all have a little bit of Thomas inside us. The great thing is that at this point in time we have more evidence to support the validity of the Gospel story of Christ’s resurrection than at any time since the time of Thomas.
Pretending that you don’t have doubts doesn’t make them go away. Face those concerns head-on. God is not afraid of your questions.
Thomas’s story doesn’t end with skepticism. History tells us that Thomas traveled as a missionary to India. There is a possibility that he even ventured as far as China and Indonesia before being martyred in Chennai, India in AD 72. It seems that Thomas was convinced enough by his encounter with Jesus to dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the Gospel.
I think Jesus realizes that his claims are hard to believe. He hinted as much when he met Thomas face to face. We can’t reach out and touch Jesus’s side, but we do have enough information to make a decision on a preponderance of the evidence.
As Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
All of us at Racket News wish you and your family a very blessed Easter.
Today’s title is a reference to the old hymn, “Standing on the Promises.” Here is a rendition of that song by Alan Jackson.
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