Summary: Thomas should not be condemned or even criticized for his insistence upon empirical evidence but rather provides an exemplary modal from which we can learn more about the nature of convincing faith.
John 20:19-31 “Thomas’s Experience”
When we think of the Apostle Thomas, we usually think of him in a somewhat negative light. The event involving Thomas in today’s Gospel lesson Thomas is the origin of the phrase, “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas. This 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 true in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and perhaps we might learn something from those churches who associate Thomas with strong, enduring faith—faith built upon an irrefutable epistemology.
Epistemology is the way or system by which someone knows that 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 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.
Thomas is the scientist 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. 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.
For hundreds of years faith in western Europe and the Americas has stressed submission to doctrine, conforming ones thoughts to church doctrines, allowing others to tell us what to believe. This is a weakness in our church tradition. It is a weakness because it pits faith against experience, and when pitted against our natural epistemology, our natural ways of knowing what is truly true, such a faith often crumbles. But because of the Holy Spirit which provides a 6th sense helping us to interpret experience, it is not necessary to deny our natural human epistemology. For it is through the 5 senses interpreted through this 6th sense that the Christian finds confirmation of the resurrection of the Lord.
We today, of course, can not obtain direct experience through sight, sound and touch as did the early disciples, but when can experience the power of the risen Lord in our hearts. A faith that is based upon such experience 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. “Head faith”, faith based upon ideas alone, is not as strong as faith based upon the experience of the Holy Spirit which integrate all that we have heard, seen and experienced.
And so in Thomas we are not seeing the weakest of the disciples, but rather a paradigm or model for the strongest faith. Thomas knew, really knew, because what he knew was based upon a solid epistemology. And really this is the only way that we ourselves can really know—experience involving all 6 senses including the illumination of the Holy Spirit. And so always, we pray for the experience of the Holy Spirit, study the word, and wait for experiences which interpreted through the influence of the Holy Spirit, help us to see heavenly things in a really real way.