The Belief of St. Thomas

St. Thomas gets a bum rap. No one expected the Resurrection. All the apostles doubted the reports of the women regarding the empty tomb — that Jesus had been raised. Even after the apostles Peter and John saw for themselves that the tomb was empty, they were uncertain as to what had happened. In the Gospel according to St. Mark (see 16:1-20), Mary Magdalene announced to the apostles that she had seen the risen Lord: “They did not believe.” When eyewitnesses claimed to have encountered Jesus on a country road, “They [the apostles] did not believe them either.” The initial disbelief by the close followers of Jesus is evidenced by all the Gospel writers. Rising from the dead is not within the comprehension of our earthly, human senses; the apostles would need divine intervention to rekindle their faith.

The Risen Jesus and the Apostles

Later that first Easter day, according to St. Luke, the apostles, still in mourning and confounded by the events, gathered inside the locked Upper Room, trying to sort out all they had seen and heard. Suddenly Jesus appeared in their midst saying: “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ ... He showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” (Lk 24:38-41).

Not only does he invite them to inspect his wounds from the Crucifixion but then, seemingly to erase all doubt as to who he is, he asked for something to eat. In the Gospel message attested to by Mark and Luke, the apostles’ unbelief seems mostly assuaged after Jesus appears to them as a group. St. John, however, provides additional details, almost as if there is need for more verification that Christ has risen.

According to John, Thomas was not among the apostles when Jesus appeared in the Upper Room on Easter, but soon after the apostles related to Thomas what had happened. Thomas didn’t accept their testimony. He thought his friends must have seen a ghost or an illusion, or they were hallucinating. He said he could not believe — would not believe — until he saw Jesus: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). From this statement, Thomas forever will be dubbed “Doubting Thomas.” In fact, he only wanted to see with his own eyes and have the same evidence that convinced the other apostles that Christ had risen.

Confirming for All the Faithful

In the sports world today, officials sometime make calls that are in doubt or challenged. The referees or umpires can verify the call by looking at instant replay. Jesus soon would provide a replay for Thomas to confirm the truth of what the apostles have said. This replay takes place on the following Sunday and in the same Upper Room of his earlier visit. All the apostles, including Thomas, are there. Whether or not they expected another visit from Jesus is unknown, but when he does appear there is no dialogue between the other apostles and Jesus, no telling of Thomas’ skepticism. It wasn’t necessary; Jesus read the heart of Thomas. This was not a chance meeting.

Entering the room, Our Lord immediately stood before Thomas and invited him, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe” (Jn 20:27). Thomas utters words that are among the most profound and explicit of all the confessions found in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is convinced. Our Lord then responded to him and to all of us, saying: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe” (Jn 20:28-29). At that moment in salvation history, Thomas became our eyes and ears; he confirms for us that Jesus is alive. God used Thomas as part of his providential plan, explained well by Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604):

“Dearly beloved, what do you see in these events? Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? It was not by chance, but in God’s providence. In a marvelous way, God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief. The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside, and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, became a witness to the reality of the Resurrection. ... When Thomas saw and touched, why was he told: ‘You have believed because you have seen me?’ Because what he saw and what he believed were different things. God cannot be seen by mortal man. Thomas saw a human being, whom he acknowledged to be God, and said: ‘My Lord and my God.’ Seeing he believed; Looking at the one who was true man, he cried out that this was God, the God he could not see.”

Thomas in the Gospels

Except for Sts. Peter and John, the writers telling the Gospel message say little about the individual apostles, and so it was with Thomas. Only St. John, the youngest apostle, provides an insight into Thomas, and he does so twice in addition to the story about the apostle’s hesitancy to believe. The first mention by St. John is the exchange between Jesus and Thomas that takes place when they hear that Lazarus has died. Jesus and the apostles are evangelizing near the Jordan River, and Jesus immediately wants to go to Bethany. Some apostles caution that this trip is not a good idea; it is risky business, as there are enemies of Jesus in Judea, and he could be killed, but Our Lord insists. “Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us go to die with him’” (Jn 11:16).

Pope Benedict XVI comments on the courage of Thomas: “His determination to follow his master is truly exemplary and offers us a valuable lesson: It reveals his total readiness to stand by Jesus, to the point of identifying his own destiny with that of Jesus and of desiring to share with him the supreme trial of death. In fact, the most important thing is never to distance oneself from Jesus.”

Pope Francis: 'Stubborn' Thomas
Pope Francis, on the feast of St. Thomas, on July 3, 2013, said: “[Thomas] was stubborn. But that was what the Lord wanted — a stubborn person to make us understand something greater. Thomas saw the Lord and was invited to put his finger into the wounds left by the nails; to put his hand in his side. He did not merely say, ‘It’s true: the Lord is risen.’ No ! He went further. He said, ‘God.’ He was the first of the disciples to confess the divinity of Christ after the Resurrection. And he worshipped him.”

Another time John mentions Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus tells the apostles that he is going away to prepare a place for them. “Where I am going you know the way,” he says. Thomas responds that they don’t know where he is going, so “how can we know the way?” Here is another teaching moment for Jesus, who responds to the questioning apostle: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:4-6). This is a core belief of all Christians, that Jesus is the way to the Father. In his same homily on Thomas, Pope Benedict said, “Every time we hear or read these words, we can stand beside Thomas in spirit and imagine that the Lord is also speaking to us, just as he spoke to him.”

Tradition holds that Thomas evangelized to the Parthians, Medes, Persians and to India. His work in India resulted in him being regarded as the patron saint of that country. He was martyred for his faith, speared to death in Calamine, India, around the year A.D. 72.

Different Bible scholars have concluded that in the Upper Room meeting Jesus rebuked Thomas for his doubts, his deficient faith. But someone rising from the dead was a miracle never before witnessed. St. Cyril of Alexander wrote: “The greatest marvels are always attended by incredulity; and any action which seems to exceed the measure of probability is ill-received by those who hear of it. But the sight of the eyes succeeds in banishing these doubts and, as it were, compels a man by force to assent to the evidence before him. This was the state of mind of the wise Thomas, who did not readily accept the true testimony of the other disciples to our Savior’s resurrection.”

That Thomas questioned the report Jesus had conquered death — the same Jesus he knew had been crucified and sealed in a tomb — is a reasonable human reaction. His initial unbelief is a reflection on us all. Belief is a gift, an inner grace offered to every man and woman by the Holy Spirit. The words and inclusion of this “doubting Thomas” story in John’s narrative were orchestrated by that same divine Spirit.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and is a longtime contributor to OSV publications.