Saint Thomas gets a bad wrap. That’s all there is to it. Ask a dozen Christians what they remember about St. Thomas and ten of them will likely make a reference to the “Doubting Thomas” story. Was Thomas’ moment of doubt really any worse than Nathaniel’s or Zechariah’s or even Peter’s plummet into the water? No, but it’s Thomas who, rather than always being referred to as Saint Thomas, gets stuck with the moniker Doubting Thomas.
It is unfortunate that the Synoptic Gospels mention St. Thomas so briefly. To Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke, St. Thomas is just a name on a list of twelve apostles. It is in St. John’s Gospel where we see St. Thomas fleshed out. The first time we actually hear St. Thomas speak is in the eleventh chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Our Lord announces to His apostles that He is going to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. One of the disciples points out that the last time they were in Bethany, the Jews tried to have Jesus stoned and asks about the wisdom of returning to a town so close to Jerusalem. Our Lord responded, “Nevertheless let us go to him.” (v. 15) Realizing that Jesus could not be deterred and certain of the danger they faced, St. Thomas addresses the disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (v. 16) These are not the words of someone who is doubting Jesus. This is not the call given by a man who is unsure of his convictions. St. Thomas was not doubting here.
Before we discuss the infamous upper room encounter, history records that, after the Ascension of Our Lord, St. Thomas left Jerusalem and first headed north into Syria before beginning the long journey west into India. Tradition tells us that the Apostle headed to India in order that he might evangelize a group of Jews known as the Cochin or Malabar Jews, immigrants to India from the time of King Solomon. While in India, he established “seven and a half churches” before being martyred. Tradition continues to say that his remains were brought back to Syria where he was interred in Edessa. These activities are well-documented and St. Thomas is widely regarded as the founder of Christianity in India. This makes him the only apostle to have evangelized unbelievers beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Again, St. Thomas was not doubting Our Lord when he went into India.
Returning to that notorious incident in St. Thomas’ life, on the evening of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles in the upper room. St. Thomas, however, was not there. When he rejoined the apostolic company, his fellows informed him of what happened and he said those infamous words: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (St. John 20:25) This is not an unreasonable response. It is perfectly understandable to face rumors of the resurrection of someone you have seen slaughtered three days prior with a certain amount of disbelief. Saints Peter and John did not accept what Mary Magdalene said at face value. They had to run to the tomb to check things out for themselves. (St. John 20:2-9) What makes St. Thomas so doubtful?
Eight days later, when Our Lord finally appeared to St. Thomas, Jesus faces the apostles and invites him to “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (v. 27) Here is where Renaissance art betrays Christianity. Thousands of people have seen the legendary painting entitled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio. In the painting, St. Thomas pokes his finger into Our Lord’s side like a little boy poking a dead bug to see if there is any life left in it. This image has become the dominant image of the event. Thousands of sermons have included the words “When St. Thomas stuck his finger into Jesus’ side, he no longer doubted!” The irony is that it did not happen!
The very next verse of Scripture states, “And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” There is no poking and prodding. There is no examining with probe or scalpel. There is simply the single loftiest Christological and Theological statement thus far in the New Testament. When St. Thomas proclaims that Jesus is “my Lord and my God,” he surpassed St. Peter’s confession that Jesus was (and is) “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (St. Matthew 16:16) St. Thomas exceeds St. John the Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus was (and is) “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (St. John 1:29) St. Thomas even went beyond the confession of the centurion who, seeing Our Lord die on the Cross, proclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (St. Mark 15:39) Each of those confessions admits that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed of God, and even the Son of God, but only St. Thomas goes beyond all of that and proclaims that Jesus Christ is God Himself. St. Thomas may not have been the first to receive the revelation that Jesus was actually fully God, but he was the first to proclaim it. Prefiguring a developed doctrine of the Holy Trinity by hundreds of years, St. Thomas announced that Jesus was not just the Son of God, the anointed Messiah; Jesus Christ is the Lord God Almighty come in flesh! That does not sound like doubt.
He was hand-picked by Our Lord as one of His chosen Apostles. He was willing to go to Jerusalem with Jesus in spite of the danger and even to die with Him. He was the only Apostle who left the confines of the Roman Empire and he evangelized and established a church that remains to this day in the pagan land of India. He made the single most exalted proclamation of the nature of the identity and divinity of Christ in all of the Gospels. He made one smart-alec remark to his friends when they said something that was, frankly, unbelievable and he has been known for that one statement ever since. When I finally go to my eternal reward, may I leave behind a legacy of faith and not be remembered for the many times I said something stupid. It happens a lot. May the most doubtful thing I ever say not be attached to my reputation and define me for the rest of time!
Almighty and everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.