The account of the exchange between Thomas and his fellow disciples, and then Thomas and Jesus, is remarkably well known – so familiar that the term ‘doubting Thomas’ has entered colloquial language. One problem is that the word for doubt is not what is used in the original Greek of the New Testament – rather a word that means ‘not believing’ – a subtle distinction, but an important one.
In many respects, Thomas appears as a courageous follower of Jesus in the gospels. However, in John’s gospel, framed by imagery of light and dark, Thomas is in the dark, in several senses, until he encounters the risen Jesus.
The reason for his absence when Jesus first appeared in the locked upper room bears consideration: Thomas was absent – therefore, had gone out – probably a mark of greater courage than the others. If we focus too much on the questioning Thomas, we overlook that Jesus told his followers to get out and be about the business of forgiving and healing – something that they evidently were not doing a week later, when Jesus reappeared, this time with Thomas present.
Who knows – perhaps it was Thomas, the one who questioned, but who had the courage to go out, who finally persuaded the rest to get on with what Jesus told them to do. They must have ventured out at some point, because in Acts we encounter Peter and the others in front of the council, confidently proclaiming the risen Christ (despite having been instructed to stop doing so). An encounter with the risen Christ can be a transforming experience.
A little doubt, or questioning, is not a bad thing for the development of faith – in fact, it is essential. We can allow the borders and boundaries of our faith to be walls within which we lock ourselves, and trap ourselves in refusal to develop and grow. But intrinsic to the process of life, scientifically, biologically, all growth occurs at edges. It is the same spiritually.
We can only grow if we confront the edges of our faith, admit where we have doubts and questions, and be willing to try to grow in understanding – and sometimes to grow in accepting mystery and our inability to understand everything.
And then we must get out, and be about the work that Jesus instructed those disciples – and us – to do!