I spoke to a few people this week and had an interesting question raised about Thomas from the story in John 20:24-29. My son Andy stated it best, as he asked if Thomas was given in this passage as a model to follow or whether he was a picture of what not to be. Often in the Gospels, Jesus says these words to his disciples, “Oh you of little faith.” Is this a chastisement or a call to grow?
My take on this is that the story of Thomas does not give us Thomas as a model to follow, nor is he the image of what we do not want to be. Rather, the story is included in the Gospel account to picture a reality that is very real and very true for most of us. Thomas story hits so close to home because we all have times when we wonder if Jesus is true, if the resurrection actually happened, if Christian faith has any real bearing on life. The story of Thomas shows us a real life example of doubt. The truth is that doubt can be real, and we cannot will-power it away. If we try to ignore doubt the result can either be that we will respond to doubt by running to simple-mindedness, choosing not to think and struggle, or it can drive to despair. But if we will deal honestly with doubt, taking it to Christ, he is able to walk us through the struggle, answer our doubts, and leave us stronger.
The key is the difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is the reality that we have questions, and those questions are deep and difficult to answer. Yet, with that doubt, when we say, “Even in the midst of this, I will choose to trust you,” God will use the doubt to drive faith deep. There are all kinds of examples in Scripture – Abraham, Moses, Job, Jeremiah, David, Elijah, Peter, Thomas… All of these people had points in life where they struggled deeply, wondering why God would not answer prayers or give immediate answers. Yet, they took those doubts to the cross and choose to trust God with the unknown because of what God had already done for them in the known. Doubt seeks answers, but looks to Jesus to provide them.
Unbelief on the other hand comes when a person takes the issues of doubt and adds to them a hardness of heart that refuses to struggle with God to find the answers. An attitude of unbelief is looking for reasons not to believe the claims of the Gospel and the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. A heart of doubt will keep seeking hoping that God will reveal himself. I think the difference between the Thomas story and that of Judas is exactly this. Thomas had serious doubt, he could not bring himself to embrace the testimony of his friends, but he hung around them waiting to see if Jesus could answer his doubts. Judas sank quickly into despair rejecting any possibility that Jesus could redeem his situation. Thomas is not the model, in the negative or positive, but he is the central character in a story that shows us that Jesus can and will answer our doubts, in time, when we do not sink into unbelief.