Saturday, April 10, 2010


Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20.27-28)

The Twin

We know Thomas, the disciple, as “Doubting Thomas,” a moniker that has trailed him for centuries. We look down our noses at his “lack of faith” and think if we were in Thomas’s shoes and learned that Jesus was alive, we wouldn’t ask for actual proof. But all this shows is how poorly we understand Thomas—and how silly we are to form our view of him on popular assumption rather than scriptural information. Before shaking our heads, it’s best to revisit what we know about Thomas and the circumstances of the fateful incident that stains his reputation.

Other than listing him with the Twelve, Mark, Matthew, nor Luke makes mention of Thomas. All we learn comes from John, who includes him in three signal moments in Christ’s ministry: the raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper, and finally, the infamous post-resurrection encounter. Twice, John identifies him as “Thomas (called Didymus)”—or, “Thomas, a.k.a. 'Twin.'” While the others don’t report this, many Bible historians turn to them for clues as to whose “twin” Thomas is. Finding him consistently listed with Matthew, the tax collector, convinces many they’re twins, even though none of the writers—including “Matthew”—confirms it.

What we observe in John, however, suggests Thomas may not be a biological twin at all. “Didymus” may be no more than a fond nickname, because in each case John cites, we’re aware of Thomas’s intense bond with Christ. In John 11, after the disciples discourage Jesus from visiting Lazarus because hostile forces may stone Him, news of His friend’s death compels Jesus to go anyway. The other disciples still have reservations. Not Thomas. He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11.16) If Jesus is going to die, Thomas is ready to die, too. Then, during their last meal together, when Jesus says He’s going away and they’ll follow Him later, Thomas voices His concern. “Lord,” he says, “we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus famously answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14.5-6) In both instances, we discover a facet of separation anxiety. In the first, we sense Thomas’s fear that if Jesus visits Lazarus alone, He’ll die alone—and Thomas will live that always. In the second, we understand his fear of Jesus leaving him. Could it be that Thomas is Jesus’s figurative twin, that he’s called “Didymus” in reference to his “twinning” with Christ? It makes sense. And if it’s so, it shines an entirely different light on the third incident.

The Latecomer

Before reevaluating Thomas’s reaction to the Risen Christ, it’s important to establish a few details—and, perhaps, infuse the scene with a few inferences. As we know, Easter turns out being a very busy day. Indeed, so much happens so quickly the Gospel writers can’t quite get the facts straight, giving us four conflicting accounts. Without bogging down in precisely who’s where when, we can summarize the day with three occurrences. Even this startles us with contradictions. After Mary Magdalene and several women find the empty tomb, Jesus appears to her. She reaches for Him, calling Him “Teacher.” But Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to my Father.” (John 20.17) Instead, He tells her to inform the disciples He’s alive. They greet her news with speculation, go to the tomb, and finding His body gone, withhold judgment about His resurrection. Later, Jesus appears to two disciples traveling to Emmaus. He’s completely unrecognizable, i.e., He’s altered His likeness to conceal His wounds. While dining with them, He vanishes into thin air. They rush back to tell the others, who sit behind locked doors. Jesus inexplicably appears to them. This time, however, His wounds are visible and He asks the disciples to touch Him. “Look at my hands and feet,” He says. “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24.39)

While all this touching and not touching, appearing and vanishing transpires, two disciples are nowhere to be found—Judas and Thomas. We know Judas has since hanged himself. But where’s Thomas? Scripture doesn’t say. Having witnessed his bond with Jesus, though, it’s reasonable he pulls apart to mourn privately. He resurfaces to a lot of stories about the Risen Christ from people he’s seen make mistakes and assumptions many times before. He’s not convinced. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hands into his side, I will not believe it,” he says. (John 20.25) A week passes before Jesus reappears, again entering a locked room. The others are certain it’s He; they’ve already touched Him. But now watch very closely. Thomas never questions Jesus’s identity. Before he can, Jesus does for him what He did for the rest. “Put your finger here,” He instructs. “See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (v27) Once Thomas feels Jesus, he says, “My Lord and my God!” Is Thomas any different than the others? I don’t think so. Doubting Christ lives again is common to all—until they touch Him. Being the latecomer, not the skeptic, singles Thomas out.

Part of the Process

Eastertide finds all of us in no better shape than the disciples, each in our own way trying to process the reality of the Risen Christ. We make our annual pilgrimage to Calvary, the empty tomb, and finally, the disciples’ rooms because much that occurs in a year’s time resurrects doubts in ourselves, as well as our relationship with Christ. What we see in Thomas, then, we see in us. It isn’t literal-mindedness and weakness. If anything, it’s the result of our fervent bond with Jesus. Like the Twin, we strive to be like Christ in every way. When anything threatens to separate us from Him, anxiety spikes. And when we feel isolated from His presence, we may also isolate ourselves. Listening to others isn’t enough to convince us. Touching Jesus is what restores our trust and passion.

Instead of sneering at Thomas, we should admire him. His unabashed insistence reveals he realizes questions are part of the process. What’s more, his story proves Jesus understands this, too. As with Thomas, Christ offers to let us touch Him and then tells us, “Stop doubting and believe.” How easy it would be to base our belief solely on what we’re told. Yet how dangerous that would be. Those who tell us about Jesus are just as prone to mistakes and assumptions as we. How marvelous if we could be like Mary Magdalene and instinctively reach out to Jesus, our Teacher. Yet in these moments our faith is so strong it’s unnecessary to touch Him. Finally, how glorious to know when we’re honest about our doubts, Christ presents His open wounds to heal our shaken faith. The lost connection is restored. Our sorrow ends. Belief begins again.

Doubts are part of the process. Touching Jesus restores our connection to Him.


Tim said...

Sherry and Missy -- mistakenly nixed your comments, but saved them via email. (I'm not at home right now and working on a borrowed computer, which explains the whole debacle.) Will respond later when I'm at home. Meanwhile, here are your comments:

I've never held a poor opinion of Thomas oddly. I like his questioning, and it seems appropriate. I have always loved the man who said to Jesus, "help my unbelief" and considered it a call to us all to explore, question, and dwell deeply in the mysteries of Jesus and his ministry. Thanks for another thoughtful and provacative post Tim. They are all so wonderful.

(Missy Francis:)

I had never thought of Thomas as Jesus "twin" before! Tim, as always your compassion is evident in your writing.

"Touching Jesus is what restores our trust and passion." Wow.

And, ah--the resurrection of doubt! What a wonderful turn of phrase. Thank you for these new thoughts to meditate on.

Tim said...

Sherry, I too have always liked Thomas's questioning. There's a straightforward fearlessness in him we should all adopt. He's just who he is and makes no apologies about it. (Same holds for the man who prays, "help my unbelief.") If we don't question, we'll never dig below the surface to luxuriate in the depths of Christ's teachings. Our resemblance to Him will never reach "twinning!"

Missy, I was up to my elbows in ideas about Thomas's twin, and none of them ever rose above thin theorizing. I kept bumping into the Thomas-Matthew connection and thinking, "So what?" Why would John point this out indirectly, while the Synoptic writers--the biographers--don't mention it all. Then I thought about the possibility of a nickname. If I haven't anything more than the notion to go by, it still leaves me no worse off than the others. And, for me at least, it seems a richer option, given what touching Jesus must mean to a twin who feels abandoned. It just helps me understand Thomas better, I guess.

Thank you both for contributing to this conversation. And again, I apologize for bungling the publication of your original comments!

Blessings always,