John 20 – Sensible Thomas and the Gift of Empirical Verification

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Today’s PassageJohn 20

When I sat down the first time to write this post, I felt like I had nothing new to say about today’s chapter. Peter and John’s foot race to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Messiah, Thomas’ insistence on empiricism: for nearly two thousand years, wiser individuals than I have been saying things about these scenes, and what could I add to them? As I’ve been reading and re-reading the chapter here, I don’t even have any fresh insights that I’m noticing for the first time. But how is it that I’ve never before discussed Thomas on Chocolate Book? I, a professed Christian skeptic? And of all the topics I could retread today, none seem more worth recapitulating observations on which you may well have heard before than our friend Doubting Thomas.

Why haven’t I talked about Thomas before? Probably because John’s gospel is the only one that records anything about him. In the synoptics, he appears in the roll call of the twelve disciples, and that’s it. But when Jesus braves a trip to Bethany, proximal to the Pharisees’ home turf in Jerusalem, in order to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, John records Thomas’ snarky quip about his Lord: “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him” (11:16). God bless your cynicism, Thomas. He also has an incidental line during Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse (14:5), but far and away he’s known for his role here in John 20, which earned him the moniker “Doubting Thomas.”

I wouldn’t be the first to posit that Thomas doesn’t exactly deserve his nickname or the stigma that goes with it. He doesn’t disbelieve or reject the possibility that Jesus has been raised from the dead; he merely refuses to give his assent until he has tangible proof. Having no precedent for the resurrection of the dead, he refrains from forming an opinion one way or another when his companions begin saying they’ve encountered Jesus again. And that’s a fairly reasonable position, right? I’d take a similar tack in Thomas’ shoes. Everyone’s oscillating between unimaginable sorrow at their teacher’s death, profound fear of his enemies, and awed joy at the possibilities suggested by the empty tomb, and Thomas is trying to keep his wits about him with a (literally!) sensible approach.

Moreover, Jesus doesn’t chastise him in any fashion for wanting physical evidence. In fact, he gives him exactly what he’s looking for, appearing to him and inviting him to touch his wounds from crucifixion, just as he wanted. He commands him: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing” (20:27). I don’t read that last one as a rebuke, as if Thomas should necessarily have taken his fellow disciples at their word. I read the whole set of commands like a parent offering their child a present on Christmas morning: “Go on! Open it!” Jesus invites Thomas to feel his wounds for himself, and with the conditions satisfied for merited belief, to leave behind his withholding of assent and embrace the reasonable faith he was waiting for.

And does he ever embrace it. His exclamation “My Lord and my God!” (20:28) is one of the most explicit statements of Christ’s divinity that you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. This human being survived dying; this human being is the King of Everything; this human being is God. And once again, Jesus doesn’t criticize him for taking a little while to come around on it. But he does remark, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (20:29). He’s glad to give Thomas the gift of empirical verification. But it’s as if he’s saying, “Not everyone will be fortunate enough to have walked with me on earth, or to see me face-to-face during their terrestrial life.” Jesus Christ has big plans for generations to come, and some of us are going to have to take the disciples’ words on trust without getting to touch Jesus’ scars and feed him a fish.

But I don’t think that means we have to take a non-rational, Kierkegaardian leap of faith, independent of logic. We have the gospel accounts, and we can study them; we can look into the manuscript evidence, the history surrounding them, and the scholarship produced as others have evaluated them as well. We can look for answers, and we can ask God to meet us where we are. Our intellects can be a means of verification; we can observe what God has revealed and receive the gift that is a reason to trust.

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