Jesus and Thomas (and us) in John 20:24-29
We come, at last, to “Doubting Thomas.” That title is a misnomer. Jesus does not mention the “doubt” of Thomas. He commands Thomas to stop being “unbelieving.” To move from unbelieving to believing in John is not about intellectual assent. It is rather to accept and embrace a whole new way of seeing. It is being born from above, as we read in John 3.
Thomas is one of a number of witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection appearances are not merely wish-fulfillment. Thomas does not expect Jesus to be alive again. Instead, he had earlier committed himself to go with Jesus to “die with him.” The argument that the stories of resurrection appearances are reports of wishful delusions ignores the content of those reports. Wright notes, “and actually none of Jesus’s followers believed, after his death, that he really was the Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine” (Surprised by Hope, page 61).
“The call to resurrection faith occurs for people of later generations,” Craig Koester writes, “when the message about the risen Jesus is made effective by the risen Jesus. This,” he suggests, “is the dimension of Johannine theology that informs the story of Thomas” (page 70). The resurrection good news becomes credible and life-changing in the midst of genuine encounters with the risen Lord Jesus.
Thomas represents the readers of John’s Gospel in several ways, Koester suggests. We did not see the risen Christ on that first Easter. Instead, we have received the testimony of witnesses to those first appearances, and that testimony is found in John’s gospel. In that testimony we may discover that we too have encountered the risen Christ and may respond with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Seeing by itself does not guarantee believing, Koester notes. We are readers of John’s gospel “can be assured that those who have not seen Jesus are not disadvantaged but are as blessed as the first group of disciples” (page 72). Seeing always happens in a context and within a framework of belief in what is possible. In a very real sense, it’s not that we believe something when we see it. Rather, we often see something when we believe it.
Thomas “is one of those who will know the resurrection not through an Easter experience,” Sandra Schneiders writes, “but through the testimony of the church, ‘We have seen the Lord’” (2005, page 27). But Thomas insists, according to Schneiders, on clinging to a pre-Easter perspective, where he must be able to handle Jesus with his mortal senses. It is not the case that Thomas “doubts” anything. That word is not used in the text, regardless of traditional labelling. Thomas refuses to believe. That’s what he says. “I will not believe unless…”
John’s gospel spends some time and rhetorical effort on the demands Thomas makes. The other disciples share their testimony with him, but Thomas is recalcitrant. He uses, according to Daniel Wallace, an emphatic, negative subjunctive construction (can also accompany a future tense, as is the case in John 20:25). Wallace notes that this “is the strongest way to negate something in Greek.” The construction is especially used to negate something that could happen in the future (Wallace, pp. 468f.).
Thomas is quite certain – not doubting at all. He is quite certain that unless his standards of evidence are met fully and without exception, he will definitely not believe. Thomas insists on experience rather than witness as the reason for his believing. He wants to impose pre-Easter categories on the post-Easter reality.
But there’s no going back after Easter. In the post-Easter cosmos, it is witness that makes the experience of Jesus possible. “What he misunderstands,” Schneiders writes, “is that it is not their experience [that of the other disciples] which he must accept in place of his own, but their witness upon which his own experience must be grounded” (page 32). This is the situation of every believer since.
There is a tone of brutality in Thomas’ demands here. “Unless I can thrust my finger into the place of the nail and thrust my hand into his side,” he declares, “I will certainly not believe” (my translation). Thomas represents the invasive, penetrative, conquering approach to knowledge as objective facts which must meet my specifications and must be under my control. Of course, any God worth having would not submit to any such external and objective standards of validity. God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news.
When Jesus stands again in their midst (please see the description above), Thomas faces the glorified and resurrected post-Easter Jesus. He is challenged to evaluate the wounds of Jesus in a new way. “The wounds of Jesus are not a proof of physical reality,” Schneiders writes, “but the source of a true understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ revelatory death” (page 27). Jesus invites Thomas to “bring” his fingers into Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into Jesus’ side.
Jesus imitates Thomas’ demand for rough handling. He magnifies that demand with a clear command. “Do not become unbelieving but rather continue believing!” (my translation). Thomas doesn’t touch Jesus. Rather, he is touched by Jesus. This isn’t about being convinced. It’s about being converted. Easter isn’t about new information. Easter is about New Creation. Thomas receives the gift of new eyes. He sees the wounds of the Risen Jesus in a new way.
Alan Lewis helps us to understand that Thomas is not a skeptical foil to our heroic faithfulness. “He is not so much the slowest, and most doubtful of the contemporary disciples,” Lewis writes in Between Cross and Resurrection, “as the final and definitive eyewitness of the church’s good news for every generation: that Jesus, born in flesh, crucified with finality, and buried in godforsakenness and godlessness, has been raised by God the Father” (page 104). The conversion of Thomas represents the culmination of the journey from a pre-Easter world to a post-Easter world.
Wright describes this as the “epistemology of love.” This is the only way of knowing which can grasp the resurrection of Jesus. “What we are called to, and what in the resurrection we are equipped for, is a knowing in which we are involved as subjects but as self-giving, not as self-seeking, subjects,” Wright suggests, “in other words, a knowing that is a form of love. The story of Thomas,” he observes, “encapsulates this transformation of knowing.” (Surprised by Hope, page 239).
Now, does this mean that there can be no connection between knowing on the basis of evidence and knowing on the basis of faith? Wright pursues this question in the latter pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God. On the one hand is the skepticism of “objective” history which remains unconvinced in the absence of compelling evidence. On the other hand there is a certain Christian piety which regards any desire for evidence as suspect and as a demonstration that faith is lacking. Will the twain never meet?
Wright points to the Thomas story. In fact, Jesus encourages Thomas to access the physical evidence he desires. And Jesus mildly critiques Thomas for having such a rigid need for physical proof. Evidence can lead to exploration. Openness to new possibilities can lead to new insights. Both ways of knowing can be true and in fact supplement one another. That seems to be part of the encouragement we receive in the Thomas story.
In the end, however, this is not about investigation but rather about Reality itself. And it is about how I will engage with the Reality, if at all. “Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement,” Wright suggests, “going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere,” he writes, “and sail back home to safety” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 717).
Instead, we too meet the risen Lord Jesus, wounds and all. Those wounds are not embarrassing remnants from a former existence. “The living one is Lord and God,” Alan Lewis writes, “just because he is manifestly none other than the frail and fleshly creature whose final agonies and injuries had emptied him of life and reduced him to a corpse” (page 105). John tells us a story about the Word made Flesh – flesh that can be wounded, flesh that can die, and the Word which lives among us full of grace and truth.
Lewis deserves a lengthy quote to finish here. “From first to last, then, the identity of Jesus is that of one in whom God’s presence and splendor are coexistent with their very opposite – with the finitude of creaturehood, the shame of suffering, the finality of termination, the nothingness of sepulture, the relationless nonpresence of extinction. In him,” Lewis concludes, “the eternal, creating, and resurrecting God of heaven and the perishable and finally perished man of Nazareth are one” (page 105).
References and Resources
Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.
Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.
Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.
Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.
Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.