Friday, October 07, 2005

Unless I Shall See Evidence, I Will In No Way Believe: Blessed St Thomas

St Thomas the Apostle gets a bad rap. He's my own "patron saint" [being a patron saint in RC lore, among other things, for those who doubt], so in the reversed bizarro economy of a pseudonymous blogger standing up for an apostle, I offer St Thomas my protection services, waiving the usual fee.

Contrary to those who consider justification the article on which the Christian Church stands or falls, this [pedantic] Protestant views the historicity and veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the article on which the Christian Church stands or falls. The historicity of Our Lord's crucifixion and resurrection is intimately linked with various things, such as God's justice in punishing sin meaningfully, God's undeserved bestowing of grace on all who place their faith and trust in Christ's work, and the resurrection of the dead at the final judgement. The resurrection was the main article the English deists attacked in the deist controversy of a few centuries ago, and this fact is no mere coincidence, for the deists knew that the bodily resurrection of our Lord undergirded the entire veracity of the Christian faith: no resurrection, your faith is in vain.

What does St Thomas get a bad rap for? The answer is that he supposedly doubted the resurrection of our Lord, and he is known as "Doubting Thomas." Yet, what did Thomas do that was so unreasonable? He merely asked for evidence.

One might say that Thomas didn't exist in a vacuum --- far from it, as he was an intimate of Jesus, a witness to His many miracles, His many acts of power, and a witness to His authoritative teaching and special bond with the Father. Thomas, in particular viewed Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead, so Thomas wasn't, at the time of Jesus' resurrection, a stranger to bodily resurrection. [John 11] And, with these facts, it might seem that Thomas, having seen all of these items firsthand, is suddenly being faithless and doubting when it comes to this miracle. Having seen so much directly, why does St Thomas now doubt?

I would contend that, even with these miracles in tow, Thomas is not to be condemned for doubting the resurrection. In fact, he is being eminently reasonable.

Why? Because there is, in my book, a difference between seeing Jesus being raised in the dead and seeing Jesus raise somebody else from the dead. Thomas wasn't doubting that somebody could be raised from the dead by Jesus. But, rather, Thomas merely wanted to be shown that He who quickens the dead was Himself quickened.

It is important to note that Thomas' request for evidence was not something above and beyond what others had seen. Our Lord had appeared to Mary Magdalene, and then to the Thomasless disciples. They doubtless gawked at the wounds and the marks on the risen body of Jesus. Wouldn't you?

But when the disciples tell Thomas that they had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas states: "Unless I see the wounds from the nails in His hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will surely in no way believe it [i.e. that the Lord has risen]." The last clause of the verse feautures the ou mh + aorist subjunctive construction, hence the emphasis on Thomas' not believing: "I will surely in no way believe..." instead of "I won't believe unless..."

Thomas does not doubt for the sake of doubt. He isn't a nihilistic Western modern who makes doubt the center and core of his philosophy. He isn't a new age guest on Larry King spouting all sorts of dogmatic gobbledygook about how one shouldn't be dogmatic. No, Thomas doubts for reasonable reason --- it is not a trivial thing for a God-man to be raised from the dead. All he wants is evidence --- evidence the others have already received.

Now one might accuse St Thomas of already having had evidence when the other disciples of Jesus --- fellow intimates of St Thomas --- approached Thomas with the blessed news of Our Lord's resurrection. And perhaps there is a point here. After all, you and I have to accept their testimony, and we cannot make a request as did Thomas; at least we cannot expect to have our own firsthand empirical verification.

But, for reasons ultimately known only to God, Our Lord Himself appears among a group consisting of Thomas and the other apostles [and perhaps others].

[Not sure of the author of this painting.]

[Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas, 1600-01?]

Our Lord tells Thomas to place his fingers in the holes, to examine His hands, and to put his hand in Our Lord's pierced side. And He also states: "Do not continue in your unbelief but believe."

To this display of evidence Thomas does not persist in doubt, nor does he find new objections. Instead of these, Thomas makes one of the greatest confessions of faith in all of Christian history: ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou --- My Lord and My God.

To this confession of faith, Our Lord states: "Because you have seen me, have you believed [or do you believe]? Blessed are those who do not see yet believe."

We must respectfully dissent from any interpretation that views Our Lord's words as a chastisement and a rebuke of Thomas. Nothing of the sort is implied by the text. The implied comparison is not between Thomas' belief being somehow bad while those who do not see and yet believe have a somehow better state. The implied comparison is rather that Thomas' belief is what it is --- note that nothing is said condemnatory to Thomas here --- but those who do not see and yet believe are blessed. At least this is how the text seems to me. I believe, on this point, I'm in the minority opinion even with respect to conservative evangelicals. Oh well, one has to be a contrarian from time to time, and this represents my most radical departure from orthodoxy!

I'm not able to track down the authors of the images of St Thomas in a quick fashion, but they're presented because they're interesting.

One Roman Catholic prayer to St Thomas goes as follows:

O Glorious Saint Thomas, your grief for Jesus was such that it would not let you believe he had risen unless you actually saw him and touched his wounds. But your love for Jesus was equally great and it led you to give up your life for him. Pray for us that we may grieve for our sins which were the cause of Christ's sufferings. Help us to spend ourselves in his service and so earn the title of "blessed" which Jesus applied to those who would believe in him without seeing him. Amen.

While we don't ever endorse praying to the saints or invoking the saints here at PP, viewing it as a mild excursion into idolatry at worst and something unsupported by Biblical evidence at best, the prayer has the right spirit. If I had to pray a prayer to the saints, this would be it.

On a devotional note, when I was wrestling quite hard with the questions of the evidences and veracities for the Christian religion a decade ago, Our Lord, as He did with Thomas, provided me the time and opportunity to learn and study matters where I could reach a reasonably supported conclusion on my own. This doesn't mean that I don't wonder about the whole thing from time to time. When one sees the power and standing of "the world" with its secular culture, and one sees in comparison a dead Jew slung on a bloody tree, it is not irrational to doubt from time to time. And, such doubts are honest. But, for the Christian, at least for the Christian who maintains an intellectual focus and does not retreat into soft fideism or pietism, God will provide an opportunity for one to test one's doubts. He will and does and continues to provide understanding for those who seek Him with a humble heart and a humble mind.


Blogger Jason Engwer said...

I'm disappointed in you, PP. Haven't you read Richard Carrier's article proving that almost everybody in the ancient world was gullible? Surely John made up the account of a doubting Thomas. (Gullible people like John usually have a lot of concern for physical evidence and for portraying Christianity as a belief system supported by evidence.) Even if John didn't make it up, sometimes people hallucinate. But that isn't the worst of it. How can you, with intellectual integrity, read Leviticus 11:6 and still believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Rabbits don't chew the cud.

Seriously, though, I agree with you that Thomas isn't being rebuked for wanting evidence. God can lead people to faith without such evidence, but He also can use that sort of evidence if He wants to. Jesus says that Thomas did believe and that it was by means of the evidence. And going by such evidence is the normal course of life.

I do think, though, that Thomas probably was wrong to have not believed on the basis of previous evidence (fulfilled prophecy, the testimony of the other resurrection witnesses, etc.). But, as you explained, the problem then would be a failure to correctly follow evidence he already had, not a failure to believe without evidence.

Jason Engwer
New Testament Research Ministries

Saturday, October 08, 2005 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

Ah, don't forget the contradictory resurrection accounts, and don't ever forget the census problem in Luke. And of course those passages that refer to Christ as theos or ho theos are surely third-century interpolations reflecting a Christological consciousness developing through dialectic struggle! And don't [please never] forget that Paul and James contradict each other.

One could find fault with Thomas for the reasons you mention. However, if I conduct a thought experiment and ask what I would have accepted, believed, etc, given my personality, predisposition, etc, I can't see myself doing any different than Thomas.

Saturday, October 08, 2005 1:27:00 PM  
Blogger c.t. said...

You can't pull yourself off the ground by pulling on the tops of your boots.

Saturday, October 08, 2005 6:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...


What can I say -- when you're right, you're right. Thomas gets a bum rap. Thanks for standing up for that innumerous but precious tribe of those who understand that these things were not done in a corner.

And no, I have no idea what c.t. is talking about.

Sunday, October 09, 2005 5:53:00 PM  
Blogger ct said...

Faith isn't manufactured via any type of reasoning process.

And demanding or needing sensual evidence is not a virtue in a Christian.

Monday, October 10, 2005 1:44:00 AM  

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