Summary: Thomas should not be condemned or even criticized for his insistence upon empirical evidence. Thomas provides an exemplary modal from which we can learn more about the nature of convincing faith.
When we think of the Apostle Thomas, we sometimes think of him in a somewhat negative light. The event involving Thomas in John 20:19-31 has given rise to the phrase, “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas”. The incident involving Thomas’s refusal to simply take the word of other’s that the Lord had risen is often held up as an example of weak faith. This, however, is not the attitude in the Orthodox Church tradition (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian and so on). The Orthodox Church’s viewpoint is that through his doubt, the blessing of faith was granted to all generations after him. That’s pretty high praise for someone who distrusted the reports of the other apostles and had to see for himself before he would believe. Perhaps we might learn something from those churches which associate Thomas with strong, enduring faith, faith built upon personal experience.
Is doubt a sin? No one should be belittled for asking tough, insightful questions. Reason and facts are an important part of our faith tradition. In 1 Thessalonians 5:21 we read, “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” I think this understanding explains why Thomas is not dubbed “Doubting Thomas” in the Orthodox Church tradition. In fact, a hymn containing the line “O Good Unbelief of Thomas” is song for Thomas Sunday Vespers in some of those churches. Human nature is lazy and takes the lazy road at every opportunity. Rather than searing for clear instructions from God leading to a true spiritual foundation, people tend to hang on to their pre-conceptions often based upon the ideas and experience of other persons. Thomas refused to do this.
Epistemology is system by which someone determines something is really true. Most modern epistemologies are built upon scientific observation involving sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. These senses are our bridges to the world around us. Those who seek confirmation in science lay the foundation for a firmly grounded hypotheses and established theories. Those who look for confirmation in their belief system, their religion, should also lay the foundation for a firmly grounded faith. Those who merely accept the doctrine or beliefs of others uncritically without any epistemological evidence are more likely to abandon their faith, and less likely to work to advance it. This, I suspect, is why in some Christian churches “O Good Unbelief of Thomas” is sung.
Thomas is the empiricist among the apostles, the one who measures, who sees, who touches, who knows through use of the senses rather than simple trusting what others have said. One week before the events described in John 20:19-31, the other apostles had gathered together. The risen Lord presented Himself to them and showed them the wounds in his hands and feet, but they still doubted as it seemed too good to be true. The others may doubt (see Luke 24:36-41) but Thomas tests. On the surface this may appear to be the same thing as doubting. But it isn’t quite the same. After experiencing irrefutable evidence, Thomas’s faith became unshakable. Tradition has it that he went on to become a dedicated missionary founding the first Christian churches in India. To have accomplished this in such a hostile land required unshakeable faith, faith based upon experience.
Some Christian theologians have insisted that submission to church doctrines; i.e., subordinating one’s personal opinions, allowing others to tell the individual Christian what to believe, and so on, is necessary for salvation. This approach to maintaining doctrinal integrity is a mistake, not representative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and a weakness in our church tradition. It is a weakness because it defines and limits spiritual growth, and robs the believer of authentic spiritual experience. It is a mistake because it is contrary to Scripture. Jesus taught, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree brings forth good fruit, but a bad tree brings forth bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-17).
The New Testament, and Christianity by extension, does not seek to contradict or limit empirical epistemology, nor common sense. On the contrary, Jesus uses metaphors which reference our human experience as a means of communicating otherwise transcendent truths. He also gifts us with the Holy Spirit which helps us understand His teachings through reasoning and intellect. The Holy Spirit also helps us apply His teachings with what we are experiencing in day-to-day living. A faith that is based upon the integration of reason, experience guided by the Holy Spirit, and New Testament teaching is a much stronger faith, a faith not likely to wilt in the scorching sun, or dry up in the deserts of life’s many difficult experiences. Faith based upon unambiguous biblical teachings, the interpretations of which are measured by the illumination of the Holy Spirit which uses personal experience as a teaching device, in other words “the faith of Thomas”, builds a solid foundation for the Christian faith.