It is for certain that there are many misunderstood characters in the Biblical narrative, but none more than the disciple who became famously known as doubting Thomas. Case in point—the paintings of Thomas that are the most famous, tell a story much different than the actual Gospel story, like Doubting Thomas, by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da, 1571–1610) which shows Thomas literally poking Jesus in the side to feel his wounds.
Pretty gross. It also depicts two other disciples looking on intently as he does it. There’s just one teensy, weensy problem.
Thomas never reached out and touched Jesus’ wounds. Not at all.
Meanwhile, in modern day Sunday school land, Thomas is the quick and easy way for teachers and pastors all over to present a cookie cutter dichotomy: faith vs. doubt.
Kids, don’t be like Thomas; don’t doubt.
Be like the other disciples—believe!
And now go to your soccer game.
It’s really too bad that we have bought into these inaccurate interpretations of this story.
I feel bad for the character Thomas, who is only remembered for what he apparently did not believe.
It’s not a stretch to say that our treatment of Thomas is a microcosm of our treatment of faith in general.
Very rarely do Christian churches allow for much doubt or questioning as it pertains to God, the Bible, or belief.
It’s pretty much believe or don’t believe. This you can see on church websites and in bulletins, in worship services, etc., via doctrines and dogmas or the ever-popular “statement of faith” or “what we believe.”
It’s this type of thing that motivates me to hear more stories from people who are often called nones, people who do not claim a religion. I actually don’t care much for the name nones because it assumes that people without a religious tradition are missing something. Some prefer spiritual but not religious.
I’ll stick with just calling them humans—like you and me and anyone else.
Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted an unprecedented study about religious affiliation; the results show that about 20 percent of adults — about 46 million — have no religious affiliation, up from about 15 percent just five years ago.
Further, about a third of U.S. adults under age 30 are unaffiliated.
By the year 2050, the study projects, atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated people will increase in the United States to 26%.
And of course, this study does not take into account the millions who claim a religious tradition [due to family upbringing or geographical setting], but who do not practice their religion and would certainly consider themselves non-religious, even though if you ask them, they might say:
But I’m not religious.
It doesn’t take an expert to see these findings play out in real life. Look at the huge decline in every facet of Christian church attendance and participation. Every single denomination has undergone massive downsizing of staff and administration. Individual congregations close every single day. Even the so-called megachurches are consolidating and overall, they are downsizing to smaller spaces or choosing not to commit to large campuses as they did in the past. The median age of people in megachurches continues to rise, as many millennials just don’t care for church at all.
These trends are not surprising to me, considering the great number of people I know who are looking for something more than what they see.
People have questions and doubts about Christianity in general and about the Bible. They have doubts and questions about the church as an institution. Most of my friends, family, and colleagues who do not consider themselves religious have been disappointed, or in some cases, even hurt by the church.
Their questions were rejected or ignored.
Their doubts were not welcomed.
It’s hard to fathom, but I have met people who simply asked these questions, only to be told to stop asking, or to leave the church entirely:
Doesn’t the Bible say that we are to love and accept everyone? Didn’t Jesus do that?
So shouldn’t we love and accept people who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender?
I’m not sure that the Bible [and particularly Jesus] say that people who practice other religions won’t go to heaven; so why do we try to convert people?
How does our church justify a multi-million dollar facility when people in our community are homeless, out of work, and in need?
Why do we participate in politically-slanted events and even promote them?
Do we really have to follow these “rules” in our church? Who made them up?
If these questions cannot even be asked, then doubters are most certainly not welcome.
And yet, in spite of this unfortunate policy that many churches have—that faith is the opposite of doubt, the actual story of Thomas and the actual meaning of faith in the Gospels seem to contradict that idea.
Let’s start with the word faith in John’s Gospel and the New Testament. Koine Greek; the word is pisteuein; this is actually a verb.
Now faith as a verb in the English language doesn’t work. So faith is often translated as believe.
If you believe something, it’s absolutely true. It is a cognitive function only. Thus, the word believe appears in doctrinal statements. I believe…
Faith as a word, however, is quite different. Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more akin to an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith also involves trust.
With that understanding in mind, let’s look closer at Thomas’ story.
Remember, it’s John’s Gospel, the fourth one, and so the audience is a group of people who existed long after Jesus’ death. They didn’t know Jesus; they didn’t see him. Therefore, John’s Gospel is attempting to reach out to them.
There are two parts to the story. Part I takes place behind closed doors. The followers of Jesus were hiding from the Judean [temple] authorities out of fear. But Jesus appears to them and says Peace be with you, which might as well have been:
Don’t be afraid anymore.
Then these disciples “see” Jesus after he shows them his hands and side. Finally, Jesus breathes on them [the exact same breath of the Creator from Genesis 1].
And then he tells them about the new strategic plan their new church should follow: the forgiveness model.
Part II of the story takes place 8 days later [see, another Genesis reference to creation!] Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.
And then Jesus says:
Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].
I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to the language points of emphasis I made earlier.
Surprise! The word doubt does not appear in this story. For sure, Thomas is a skeptic and a question-asker—not one to just buy into the fragmented and weird stories of his colleagues, the scared disciples. Thomas needed more than that if he were to commit to following this movement.
One more thing for us the readers.
Thomas’ name means ‘twin’ in Greek.
Look in the mirror, friends.
Thomas might as well be our twin.
Readers of this Gospel story are supposed to see themselves as Thomas—someone who didn’t see Jesus crucified or risen; someone who didn’t see scribes write down the Gospels and then copy them; someone without proof; someone with lots of questions; even someone with lots of doubts.
This story is a healing story if you ask me, because how many times have you heard someone say that good things happen because you have faith and bad things happen because you doubt?
But Thomas’ story shows us that faith isn’t a possession. Faith isn’t trapped in church doctrines or belief systems, or even the book we call the Bible! Faith is an active type of living and trusting with your own eyes, ears, hands, feet, and your mind and heart!
Look, here’s the deal. I agree with those who are called nones and spiritual but not religious. They are like Thomas. All they want is to see more of what the church and Christians claim they are. The story isn’t about doubt and belief—it’s about peace, wholeness, spirit, forgiveness, healing, and empowerment!
So why don’t we SEE more of that in the church?
Most people have no interest in a god who seems to tell them to stop using their brains or to ignore the hurt, manipulation, fear-mongering, and prejudice they see in the church.
Instead, they want to see love and wholeness demonstrated in real life. They want to see that their questions and doubts are welcome. They want to see that churches are simply groups of people like them—people seeking community and forgiveness and healing; they want to see that what they believe or don’t believe is not as important as how they live, how they help, and how they treat others.
That’s what I want to see—both in myself and in others.
Of that I have no doubt.