Benefit of the Doubt

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
—John 20:25

Today’s gospel reading actually took place over the course of a week. The first part happened on the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples, granted them his peace, and them transformed them—that is to say he breathed into them the Holy Spirit, and them changed their title from disciples to apostles. But Thomas wasn’t there at the time, and so he doubted what the others had told him.

And there are three things I want to point out here in Thomas’s defense. First of all, if we’re to believe in the Holy Spirit, then our first reaction should probably be, “Of course he didn’t believe! He hadn’t yet received the Spirit of faith!” The fact that any of us believes is because the Spirit gives us faith, because faith itself is a gift of God. This is perhaps most clearly spelled out by the Apostle Paul: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [1]

So there’s that. But something else I want to point out in Thomas’s defense is the kind of proof he asks for when he wants his doubts alleviated. Let me first ask you (and by “you” I’m including “me”): If you couldn’t believe your ears when you heard that you’d just missed experience the risen Christ firsthand, what proof would you ask for? Would you ask for a healing, or a miracle; would you want a wish granted? By the looks of 21st-century religion in this country, I often get the impression that many Christians would ask for money or a new car. Sounds crass, I know, but if you’ve watched televangelists, you have to admit it’s true.

Compare what most people might ask for as proof of the resurrection and what Thomas said he’d need in order to believe. He wanted to see Christ’s wounds. He wanted physical evidence—not of the miracle worker or the wish granter—but of the Suffering Servant. Think how different the church would be if, in order to show the presence of the risen Savior in its members, we were able to show people not our successful programs or our mega-sanctuaries, or our huge numbers, but our wounds. After all, by which signs is Christ seen in us, if not in the way we give of ourselves for others?

And, finally, thing number three: Thomas did not doubt for long. He didn’t wallow in his disbelief. A week later, one look was all it took before he gave one of the Bible’s greatest confessions of faith: “My Lord and my God!” he said. And we have to believe he meant it. Jesus blessed his belief after he’d seen. But even more, he blessed those who believed even though they hadn’t seen.

So all this is to say that I am kind of impatient with those who use the name “Doubting Thomas” negatively. Thomas was no different than anyone else would’ve been had they been in his shoes. In fact, I think that’s the point of John’s story here: Thomas represents everyone before they’ve received the Spirit, and his faith leads to a proclamation by Christ about those who don’t even have Thomas’s access to the evidence of the risen Christ.

I’d like to backtrack a little bit now—not as an afterthought, but because I think there is a way that even we can see and experience the risen Christ: and that is to use the same test Thomas used that evening a week after Easter Sunday. We might think, how wonderful it would be not to have to doubt, if only we could see what the apostles saw! But, of course, we can. All we have to do is look for the wounds, the pain, the suffering. For didn’t Jesus himself say, when his sheep asked when they’d ever helped him when he was hungry or thirsty or sick or imprisoned, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, that’s what you do to me.” So wherever people are hurting or in need, the risen Christ can be found. And in whom are there no scars? Who doesn’t hurt? Who‘s never been wounded? Maybe that’s part of what Richard Rohr meant when he gave his definition of what a Christian is: “A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude or reject anyone.” [2]

And so, some see in Thomas only a doubter, while others perhaps see the first Christian mystic. And the former—those who want to see a doubter—don’t like what they see. I think included among them would be the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon. Doubt was one of his favorite topics. For example, he opened one sermon with these words:
To doubt the loving kindness of God is thought by some to be a very small sin. In fact, some have even exalted the doubts and fears of God's people into fruits and grace and evidences of great advancement in experience. It is humiliating to observe that certain ministers have pampered and petted [people] in unbelief and distrust of God, being in this matter false to their Master and to the souls of [God’s] people. [3]
And I suppose he has a point. We shouldn’t encourage people to wallow in doubt, or to spend so much time asking questions about what cannot be known that our faith can never find a resting place in those things that we can be assured of.

One of my favorite literary characters is the old Congregational minister—his name is John Ames—who narrates Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. At one point, he advised his son not to keep asking questions that can have no answer:
I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion at any particular moment. [4]
I like that a lot better than Spurgeon. It’s fine to question. Just make sure your questions are your own, and not somebody else’s. Don’t let somebody else’s doubts spoil your trust in God. Don’t nurse doubts as though they’re a grudge. They’re not an end unto themselves. But I think we can use them as a tool to help us look for God in the Bible, in sermons, in other people, and in the world around us. If our doubts aren’t leading us in a healthy direction, then the doubts themselves are probably unhealthy.

But it’s also unhealthy to have no doubts. We believe that it’s faith that makes us whole, and faith means trusting in the love of God, even (especially!) when we don’t know the answers to all life’s questions. Those who claim to have no doubts are probably dangerous—much more dangerous than those who have too many.

If I admit to my doubts, I’m that much more likely to be willing to live in community with those who are different from me, to be in dialogue with them, and to change and grow. If I claim to have no doubts, to be absolutely sure of all the doctrines of my own religion or my own church, then I’m that much less likely to be tolerant of those who disagree.

And so, as Spurgeon pointed out, there can be a danger to doubt, if we wallow in it, or—as Rev. Ames pointed out in Gilead—if our doubts are not our own, but are simply popular excuses not to believe or not to participate in a community of faith. But there’s also benefit to genuine doubt: It keeps us humble, it prevents us from lashing out at those who come from other traditions, and it keeps us asking questions—and questioning leads to growth. May we be a church that doesn’t wallow in excuses, but asks its own questions that we might grow toward wholeness in our Lord Jesus Christ.
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

  1. Ephesians 2:8 
  2. Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Random House Audio, 2019), from chapter 3, Revealed in Us—as Us.   
  3. Charles Spurgeon, The Danger of Doubting (Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, 16 March 1862).   
  4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004, Kindle ed.)