The Thomas of the Gospels may be seen as the epitome of doubt, but he is nonetheless a disciple on the path of faith. And while doubt is all too often contrasted with faith, this disciple’s questioning perhaps tells us that doubt is a constituent part of faith.
This familiar saying is an expression of doubt. A Cartesian doubt that demands to see material proof of what is said. Words are not enough; you have to see, experience and touch reality to believe. And the figure of Thomas is the most representative of this doubt, which comes as an opposition to faith.
But in the story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas, he is not the image of an unbeliever, while the other disciples, who believe without the slightest question, are model believers.
The disciples’ belief when Jesus appeared should not be contrasted with that of Thomas which comes later. And the model believer is not necessarily the one we think of. Thomas is not the figure of doubt, but of the believer who has caught up.
On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, the disciples are locked in their fear. The body of Jesus has disappeared. The door is closed and they are hiding for fear of the authorities.
Not so Thomas, who is not among them. He is not afraid to be elsewhere, outside.
So it is in their fear that Jesus Christ appears to them, announcing peace. A peace at the heart of their fear, transformed into joy by « seeing the Lord ». Their belief is born of an emotion of joy that arises from their fear. Here we find a faith that springs from emotion, and perhaps Jesus’ warning about the forgiveness of sins is a warning to the disciples to beware of emotions in religious matters, because they can quickly become excluding.
The testimony of the disciples, joyful no doubt, is not enough to convince Thomas. He has not had this emotional experience. Moreover, he is not very inclined to let himself be overwhelmed by emotion. He is not afraid, he is not discouraged, and he needs more. Thomas is the image of the rationalist believer. Not just the one who doubts and questions – he accepts that he is a believer – but he needs a little more than the simple testimonies of smiling companions. He will only believe if he sees, if he experiences the encounter. And so it is only after the time needed to let the enthusiasm subside (which could seize Thomas if he allowed himself to hope a little too much) that something happens. This second appearance of the risen Lord, eight days later, is not a lesson given to Thomas to make him understand that he was wrong, but on the contrary, it tells us how everyone can be encountered. Jesus invites him to touch reality, but Thomas doesn’t need that to confess his faith. Thomas’ « seeing » is not that of rationality but that of encounter. He sees and experiences the presence of the living one at his side. Thomas is therefore the blessed one who did not need to see with his eyes in order to believe; he believed because he experienced.
This story compares two ways of believing. The first, that of the disciples, is a belief based on emotion. There is no questioning, and no doubt. But if they are joyful, they do not inherit the title of Blessed that Jesus will give to Thomas. Thomas represents this second way of believing. A belief based on questioning, a necessary doubt that emphasises the importance of encounter.
The story of the appearance to the disciples presents a Jesus who shows, who shows himself, whereas the appearance to Thomas is a word that invites us to experience, to take a step forward.
In our world, where secularisation has given rationality pride of place, Thomas represents a credible faith in which we are not asked to believe in the unbelievable or the supernatural. This story presents a Christianity that is not afraid to reach out to its contemporaries in their questioning and their need for something other than mere emotion.
The Jesus of the story neither reproaches nor calls into question Thomas’ proper questioning. On the contrary, he engages with it, he feels it.
A faith that moves towards doubts without fear.
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