Summary: A look at Thomas’s doubts and the reason for them with a warning about unbelief in our own lives.
We have all at some time probably cynically said about something “I’ll believe it when I see it”, with the implication that we will not believe it until it is seen. I remember thinking this about the formation of the first non-communist government in Poland. I also said it about predictions that England would have a good cricket team. “I’ll believe it when I see it!” is essentially an expression of doubt that something will happen. More than simple doubt it is an emotional defence that puts up barriers to prevent disappointment. Most of us have a fear of being let down and disappointed, so we protect ourselves. When we see “I’ll believe it when I see it!” it is normally about something that we would like to be true, but are afraid of building our hopes up and getting disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
A similar phrase is “Seeing is believing”. However, unlike “I’ll believe it when I see it”, it is essentially an expression of belief, a statement of belief that something has occurred that was perhaps unexpected, but because it has been witnessed, it is believed. It is an expression of surprise and often joy and excitement that the unexpected has happened. It is the breaking down of defensive barriers of doubt.
We see something about both of these expressions in the story of Thomas and Jesus.
It was now a week since that great day when Jesus had appeared to his disciples as the risen Lord. They had seen it and they had believed, they had experienced the surprise, the excitement and the joy of seeing their dead master alive again. They had had a week to think about it, to try to understand it and to allow it to sink into their heads. Thomas, however, had missed out. He was not with the others that first Easter Sunday. For whatever reason he had missed the time when they all met together. Perhaps in all the chaos of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus he had somehow got separated from the others and they had not been able to find him, perhaps he wanted to mourn for his Lord alone. Jesus had earlier promised that when two or three were gathered together in his name he would be with them. Then as now he chose to come particularly close when his people met together, if we shun meeting with other believers we are in effect shunning meeting with Jesus.
The others eventually met up with Thomas, and, in their excitement, told him what had happened. Thomas’s response was blunt:-
Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
Thomas often gets a bad press, he gets slated as ‘doubting Thomas’, but I wonder if, in fact he was trying to protect himself from further disappointment. His hero and friend, Jesus, whom he loved, had died a horrid death and he was in mourning for him. He was disappointed because he had believed him to be God’s Messiah, but things had not gone the way he had expected. Then the other disciples came and told him that, in fact Jesus was alive and had risen from the dead. He desperately wanted this to be true, but couldn’t bear another disappointment, so he protected himself and set a test.
A week had passed since Jesus had appeared to them and they had gathered together again. This time Thomas was with them. The Lord had not reappeared during that week. The joy and excitement of the previous week had turned to fear and anxiety. They were in a locked room, fearful of arrest and persecution.
Suddenly Jesus was there. He showed that he had been with them all the time by offering Thomas the very test that he had said he required in order to believe that he was alive. Thomas had said that he wanted to see and touch the wounds of the nails in his hands and put his fingers in the spear-hole in his side, this is exactly what Jesus invited him to do. Thomas did not mention the marks on Jesus’ feet, neither did Jesus.
Instead of taking him up on his offer, he fell on his knees in belief and faith. Indeed, far from being doubting Thomas, he became the first person to dare to declare his faith in a statement of Christ’s divinity “My Lord and my God!” Emboldened by this and the infilling of the Holy Spirit the tradition of the Church is that he took the gospel to Persia and India before being martyred. To this day, in the state of Kerala in Western India, there is a small Church that was already there when Western missionaries first came to the country that traces its origins right back to the ministry of Thomas in the first century.