Simply saying Thomas could mean millions of people, but everyone knows who Doubting Thomas is. Generations of preachers have heaped abuse on him. But maybe Doubting Thomas isn’t the best way to describe him. And it certainly shouldn’t make him seem in any way more doubtful than the other apostles.
Let’s take a closer look to gain a more accurate picture of the man.
Resurrection Day morning
Only the gospel of John (in chapter 20) even mentions Thomas in the resurrection narratives. Here is a summary of John 20:1-18:
- Mary Magdalen arrived at the tomb while it was still dark. The other gospels say that she came with other women, but apparently only she ran to tell the disciples that the stone had been rolled away.
- Peter and John ran to the tomb, entered it, and saw the grave clothes. Verse 8 says that John saw and believed, but verse 9 says that neither yet understood the necessity of the resurrection. So just what was it they believed?
- Mary returned to the tomb and remained outside for a while. The account does not say that she was with Peter and John or if they said anything to each other. It would appear that while the men ran, Mary walked, and that they had left by the time she got there.
- As Mary cried, she looked into the tomb. Peter and John had seen the grave clothes. The grave clothes must have still been there when Mary looked in, but the text only says that she noticed two angels.
- They asked her why she was crying, and she answered that “they” had taken Jesus away.
- Then she turned and saw Jesus but didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name.
- She embraced him until he told her to stop clinging to him and tell the disciples.
Reconciling John with Luke’s account
According to Luke 24:1-12, the women reported the words of an angel to the disciples. The disciples didn’t believe them. Peter then ran to the tomb to see for himself. It is difficult to reconcile the gospel accounts. Certainly, it was a morning of chaos, and the chronology soon became hazy in everyone’s mind.
Apparently, Mary ran to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing and the other women stayed at the tomb. They encountered angels who told them Jesus was risen and went to tell the unbelieving men. Peter and John ran to the tomb after this encounter, saw the grave clothes, and believed.
Where was Thomas? The Bible doesn’t say.
Resurrection Sunday evening
John 20:19-25 says that the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors. In some unspecified manner, Jesus appeared among them anyway. He showed them his wounds and breathed on them. In Luke’s account, some of them, at least, responded with terror at first. Not only did they need to see the wounds before they all believed, but they also had to watch him eat.
Thomas was not there. John doesn’t tell us why. We can’t know, but preachers and scholars have made guesses over the years. Perhaps he had gone off by himself to mourn. That seems to be the most common explanation. But recall that when Jesus was arrested, the disciples all fled, and they probably didn’t all flee in the same direction.
The gospels tell us that the disciples all met in the same place but don’t tell us where it was or how they knew to meet there. If they were scattered in all directions, we would expect them to arrive at this location at different times. Perhaps Thomas did not arrive until after Jesus had left Sunday evening.
So Thomas may or may not have been with the others in the morning. In any case, none of them believed the women’s initial report. If Thomas was there, his unbelief was no worse than anyone else’s. Also, if he was there, he must have left before Mary returned. After all, John 20:19 gives no hint that anyone responded to her with unbelief at that time.
Given Luke’s account of everyone’s hesitancy to believe their eyes, whatever they believed of Mary’s testimony did not yet encompass the entire truth.
If Thomas did not join the group until after Jesus’ first appearance, then he did not express any unbelief at the women’s words. He never heard them.
But whatever the human reason for his absence, we can be confident that God ordained it.
One week later
In any case, when Thomas came in after Jesus’ appearance, he refused to believe the testimony he heard. He insisted on seeing and touching Jesus, just as everyone else had, before he would believe. John portrays not Doubting Thomas but Unbelieving Thomas.
According to John 20:26, Jesus appeared to them again the following Sunday. Thomas was there this time. What a horrible emotional experience that week must have been for him! Everyone else believed Jesus was alive. Thomas did not.
Jesus told Thomas to touch him. “Don’t be faithless, but believe” (CSB). Thomas responded by acknowledging Jesus as his Lord and his God. No one else had yet made that confession, by the way.
But then, in verse 29, Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
“Doubting” Thomas’ missed opportunity
Think about it!
Jesus visibly appeared to only a limited number of people. Paul says he appeared to 500 people at once, an event not recorded in the gospels. And, of course, he later appeared to Paul.
Everyone else, beginning with the new believers on the day of Pentecost a month or so later, has believed on the basis of someone else’s testimony. And any of the disciples could have believed the women.
The Ten and whoever else heard the women’s report could have believed it. Thomas could have believed their testimony after his appearance to them. Instead, they all chose to walk by sight and not by faith. The privilege of becoming a believer by sight has not been to any but Paul since Ascension.
Jesus certainly would have preferred that they all walked by faith and not by sight. According to Mark 16:14, “Later he appeared to the Eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table. He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who saw him after he had risen.”
If God prevented Thomas from being present at Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples, he gave him a great opportunity to become the first person to believe in the resurrection only by believing a testimony.
Thomas missed his chance.
So instead of heaping abuse on Doubting Thomas, we need to look for, and seize, opportunities God gives us to “be not faithless but believe.”