Thomas did not doubt the resurrection of Jesus. He doubted the death of Jesus.
The Gospel of John is set in a darkened world of disbelief. There is a two-fold problem of blindness and ignorance that this Gospel intends to address with a Light and a Word, with grace and with truth. The prologue (Jn. 1:1-18) orients readers by taking them backstage to witness the Gospel’s main character suiting up (Jn. 1:14) for his role in the ensuing drama to make visible what had become invisible, to make known what had become unknowable. So the one who exists from eternity with God, through whom God sang the cosmos into being, enters from behind the curtain into time and space as the Son of God become brother of men, as the one through whom God becomes Father. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; It is God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made him known” (Jn. 1:18).
And thus the unveiling of God the Father required a veiling of God the Son—the Word became flesh. The Son would have to disguise his own glory in order to reveal his Father’s grace, not simply because the grace of God depends on this veiling but because the veil as such will become instrumental in making grace visible and knowable to the objects of grace. So this Gospel sets out the specific task of bringing the objects of grace and the Subject of grace into proximity, calling the characters in the story and the readers of the story again and again to believe in a picture of God that becomes harder and harder to believe, as the divine Word and Light of life makes his descent from God to the flesh and from the flesh and to the cross (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). The Gospel of John is thus concerned with the quality of Christian faith, that is, concerned to take us from believing in an out-of-focus picture of God and zooming in on the Son until a decisive moment at which point he will address the reader directly (Jn. 20:29-31), so that through this Gospel we might see what is otherwise invisible and know what is otherwise unknowable and thereby believe what is otherwise unbelievable: that of all people it is none other than “Jesus,” the Crucified One, who “is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [we] may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31).
It is to this end that Thomas’s character is made intelligible. Historically, Thomas has been cast down almost to the bottom of the disciples, second in antagonism only to Judas. Only by the skin of his teeth does he rise above the status of Judas in a last-second moment of belief, which is often looked down upon as a sort of second class faith-by-sight (Jn. 20:29). And if this Gospel portrayed believing in static, black and white terms, this view of Thomas would be justified. But this Gospel does not portray believing in that way. The believing in John’s Gospel is commensurate with the unveiling in John’s Gospel, which sheds its light not like the flick of a switch but the turn of a dimmer. And it is precisely at the most absurd moment, when Doubting Thomas’s finger is buried inside the gaping bosom of the Risen Christ, that the dimmer switch is maxed out, Thomas believes, Jesus becomes “my Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28), and the readers are called to see what Thomas sees and believe what Thomas believes. It appropriate, therefore, to consider that perhaps Thomas’s character is not there to give us a generic summons to faith in the divine Christ via negativa; rather, Thomas’s character is there to give us a particular summons to faith in the divine Christ of the Via Dolorosa.
We are introduced to Thomas, the one who is called Didymus by John and Doubter by posterity, in John 11, where he immediately betrays one of these given names. Thomas, Jesus, and the rest of the disciples had been driven out of Jerusalem on pain of death because Jesus had claimed, “I and the Father are one.” Certain of the Jews picked up stones and decried him as a blasphemer, “because you, being man, make yourself God” (Jn. 10:30-31). The cat was out of the bag, Jesus claimed to be divine, and at least one of his disciples, it seems, believed him.
News had come about Lazarus. He was sick. After hearing of his sickness, Jesus surprisingly stayed put for two days and then ordered, “Let us go to Judea again” (Jn. 11:7). The disciples protested. They had left for fear of death, so “Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go.” It is precisely at this point the text introduces Thomas: “Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16).
Thomas’s opening line certainly betrays his popular name. Indeed, he seems to be ahead of his time, willing to die before even seeing Jesus’ power over death, which he will see when he gets to Lazarus’ tomb. The Thomas of John 11 seems to believe something about Jesus that none of the other disciples yet believe, perhaps in his power over death, perhaps that what he was alleged to claim was in some sense actually true: “You, being man, make yourself God” (Jn. 10:31). At any rate, he at least at this juncture he acts consistently not with the name given him by posterity but the name given him by John, the twin. “Let us go, that we may die with him.”
After Jesus was crucified, the disciples locked themselves behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews” (Jn. 20:19), the same reason they had protested going back to Jerusalem in John 11. Well, all but Thomas–in both cases. The Thomas who was ready to die with Jesus in John 11 was the same Thomas ready to die for Jesus in John 20. He at least was apparently not afraid of death, for Thomas was somewhere roaming the streets, looking for who knows what?
Three days later, Jesus walked through a locked door, declared, “Peace be with you”, and “showed them his hands and his side.” He revealed to them something specific, his hands and his side. “They were glad when they saw the Lord” (Jn. 20:19-20). They saw something at least more general, the Lord.
The others went to Thomas the Twin and told him about seeing the Lord, but Thomas did not care to see something so general as “the Lord.” “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (Jn. 20:25). Thomas wanted to see something specific, the specific thing Jesus wanted to show.
At this point the reader should ask the question: What do wounds actually prove?
After hearing this, Thomas joined the other disciples. Eight days later, Jesus again walked through locked doors, declared “Peace…”, approached Thomas, and immediately the text turns to Jesus, who becomes the sole agent of the scene. Thomas is silenced and passive. It is no longer about what Thomas wants to see but what Jesus wants to show, the very thing he wanted to show the other disciples but who failed to focus in on it with enough particularity: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (Jn. 20:27). And with the finger of Thomas the Twin, Jesus points deep inside himself in an unprecedented revelation of the heart of God revealed inside his own bosom (cf. Jn. 1:18). He responds, again ahead of his time, and remains the only person in the Bible to ever address Jesus with such an audacious and explicit combination of titles and pronouns: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:27).
The narrative has been moving steadily along since it set out to give readers something to believe in (John 1:12), using the verb for believe 98 times, 60 more than Acts in a distant second of all New Testament books, and taking the disciples on journey of coming to believe again and again in Jesus as he reveals more and more of who he is (cf. chs. 2; 11; 14; 15; 20), and therefore in retrospect who God is. Indeed, John is not just concerned that the reader believes in the Son of God so much as he is concerned who the Son of God actually is and precisely what it is we believe about him, what it means to believe in him, in a way fitting of Thomas’s finger.
And so at this very moment, the narrative freezes in time.
John, taking his cue from Jesus, halts the story with Thomas the Twin caught red-handed, frozen in this frame forevermore. All that is left to happen in this scene is for a summons to be directed beyond this scene. Jesus addresses Thomas and then the reader, after which John follows suit: “‘Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Now Jesus did many things in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:29-31).
Jesus does not want Thomas to believe like the other disciples, for whom belief in the risen Christ reduced to something about his lordship and thus presumably his power. Rather, he wants the other disciples and the readers to believe like Thomas, for whom the risen Christ is intent on revealing his wounds, which for Thomas are none other than the wounds of God, of a God who shares our wounds, a God who indeed becomes our Twin.
What does John’s depiction of Thomas tell us about his doubt? And what does John’s Thomas, the Twin, tell us about Jesus? First of all, unique to Thomas is a consistent fearlessness concerning death, both in chapter 11 and in chapter 20. The best explanation for that fearlessness in chapter 11 is that Thomas believed in the divinity of Jesus, which those who were seeking to kill him accused him of claiming. And if Thomas’s character is intended to be read in this way in the narrative of chapter 20, then it stands to reason that the object of Thomas’s doubt was not the resurrection of Jesus but the more improbable event, namely the death of God. If Jesus was already in some sense categorically equal with God in Thomas’s mind, then the idea of his crucifixion and death would by far be more difficult to believe than his resurrection and life, which would perhaps be a given. The power of God is indeed a given; it is the wounds of God over which the world stumbles.
So what is the purpose then of the Thomas character? It could be and has been argued that John’s Jesus was a correction to the docetic “phantom” Jesus. And that may or may not be true. But the sustained value of this reading comes to the readers of any and every generation with much greater immediacy than the solution to a religio-historical riddle, because at the existential center of the Christian faith there are two very difficult things to believe that this reading seeks to address. The second most difficult thing to believe is indeed that a man could be raised from the dead. All four Gospels bear witness to this historic event which validated all the claims prior to it regarding Jesus’ lordship. But perhaps John’s Gospel, and in particular Thomas’s character in it, are intended to offer readers something beyond faith in Jesus’ lordship, which the text zeros in on in the interaction between Thomas and Jesus just before John calls us to believe in the event Thomas is “pointing” to.
The appropriate question then is how should the reader interpret Thomas’s confession at this apparent moment of belief and the statement from Jesus and the purpose statement from John that follows. This section has traditionally been read as a generic exhortation to believe in the risen Lord without having to see risen Lord. The focus is set on the fact that Thomas believed when he saw and not what Thomas believed, which prompted the breathless and verbless confession of a man just on the other side of speechlessness: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28). Given all the evidence, it seems hardly plausible that Thomas’s confession essentially communicates that the empirical proof of Jesus’ crucifixion, his wounds, had for him finally effected faith in the resurrection, as though he were simply saying in effect, “Now I believe that you were raised from the dead.” Would not the walking-through-the-wall miracle been sufficient evidence for a glorified, risen Lord? Besides, the question bears repeating: What do wounds actually prove? And why was Jesus so intent on revealing them?
If indeed they are the wounds of God, then perhaps Thomas’s confession and the object of Thomas’s belief can best be understood as heard within the chorus of that great Charles Wesley hymn, “And Can It Be”:
‘Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies.
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, My Lord [and my God!], shouldst die for me?
Indeed, the resurrection of Christ proves God’s power but the death of Christ proves God’s love (cf. Rom. 5:8). John’s Gospel gives readers not simply the nature of the divine Christ. He gives readers the character of the human God.
The Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio painted this scene with Thomas and Jesus with the title “The Incredulity of Thomas.” In it he uses an an obvious mirroring effect between the characters of Thomas and Jesus by placing a tear in Thomas’s robe that is level with the wound in Jesus’ side, also by Thomas’s grabbing his own side as he places his finger into Jesus’ side. As he stares wide-eyed at Jesus’ wound and his finger in it, Caravaggio depicts two other disciples peering over his shoulder to see what Thomas sees. Caravaggio was not only right to immortalize this moment in salvation history, in perhaps the single most important snapshot God has given the world of both his infinite power and infinite love, but he is also right to capture Thomas leading the way for the other disciples and readers of all ages to quite dramatically get a glimpse into the heart of God, that is, to see what could have only been shown by the One who was close to the Father’s heart (cf. Jn. 1:18). So as he buries his hand into the Scarred but Risen Lord, Caravaggio captures Thomas grabbing his own side in pain, suggesting that in the wounds of Christ he discovers his own wounds, or rather than in his own wounds he discovers his truly loving Lord. Indeed, he discovers that “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
Perhaps the reader should not be so confused by Thomas’s first words: “Let us go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). For those words had been spoken once before, yes, even before the foundation of the world. They had been spoken by the One who proved to become Thomas’s Twin, indeed, the Twin of us all, the One who left his throne in heaven, saying to the divine council, “Let us go, that we may die with them.” And so he did. And so we live.
We need to get Thomas’s name right. He is not The Doubter. He is The Twin. He is Didymus. Because if we fail to see that Thomas is the Twin, we may fail to see who his Brother is, and therefore just who our Brother, and therefore our Father, is as well.
“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17; cf. Jn. 1:12).
- John’s unique concern with the quality of our trusting or believing in Christ is demonstrated by a simple word count of the verbal form of the faith (pisteuo) in the Fourth Gospel over against the rest of the books of the Bible. Of all the books in the Greek New Testament and the LXX, only five books use the word pisteuo 10 or more times: Matthew 10x, Mark 16x, Romans 20x, Acts 38x, and John 98x. Furthermore, John’s Gospel is bracketed within two “purpose statements” of Jesus’ mission in the Gospel (1:12) and John’s mission and writing it (20:31) that ultimately reduce to eliciting faith in the hearer/reader of the Gospel. So between 1:12 and 20:31 John, I believe, is concerned to bring into clear focus precisely what is the Object of Christian pisteuo.