John 20- Thomas and Doubt

Most of us have no problem relating to Thomas as he struggles to believe something that seems too good to be true. We live in an age of science and belief based on evidence. I speak to many people that are plagued by doubts. I meet many people who would like to believe but they feel they just can’t bring themselves to that point. 

If you struggle with doubts, it can be comforting to read about people like Thomas, who doubted the resurrection. … When Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee and they are standing in front of the risen Jesus as he is giving them the great commission to go out into the world to make disciples, Matthew tells us, “And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Believing isn’t always easy, especially in our world.

Thomas says he won’t believe “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side” (John 20:25). He wants proof. And, to be fair, he wants the proof the others have already experienced. … We can be like Thomas that way too. We want to experience Jesus the way the disciples did.

Jesus seems to be gentle with those who genuinely struggle to believe. When a father comes to Jesus asking if he can heal his son he says, “‘All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). Jesus healed the boy. … His followers seemed to be gentle with those who struggled to believe, as well. In the very short book of Jude we read “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).

In university I was having a conversation with a friend who was not a Christian. I asked him what it would take for him to believe. He said he would believe if God spoke to him and confirmed the beliefs he already had. Which is probably a very honest answer. Many people doubt, not because they have genuine intellectual problems with believing, but because they don’t want to be challenged in their moral beliefs and behaviours. It is easier to doubt Christianity, then you are let off the hook in your own mind. Otherwise you would live with a lot of internal tension as a hypocritical Christian. So the more I thought about my friend’s answer, the more honest I thought it was.

I then asked him, “What if the ceiling blew apart right now and an angel descended right in front of you and told you God was real”. He said, “I’d probably think I was hallucinating”. Our ability to doubt is incredible. What would it take for God to actually get through to someone like that?

So, what do we do with our doubts? We should realize that for most of us, we will just have doubts (Or unanswered questions) that will be with us pretty constantly. For most of us, the answer probably isn’t getting rid of our doubts. The answer is learning to live with our unanswered questions.

CS Lewis notes in his book Mere Christianity, "Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable." … That is an important thing to realize. Walking away from Christianity doesn’t release you from doubt. Human beings have to exist in some kind of set of beliefs. You can’t escape that. And every set of beliefs will have points of friction that will give rise to doubts and unanswered questions.

It can actually be a great joy to pick out one of our doubts and research it to death. In this way, Doubt can be the growing edge of our faith.[1] Read books about it. Write about it. Look at articles. Talk to wise friends. That is a tremendously good thing to do, but we have to realize we will never get through the whole list of doubts. Tackling one once in a while can be very encouraging though because we start to see that there are good and helpful ways to approach our doubt. We might even end up resolving our doubt, so that it isn’t a doubt for us anymore.

If you feel crippled by your doubts then you could do a few things. One is choose to live like a Christian. You have to live some way, why not that way if you are inclined to be a Christian? Don’t live like half a Christian because you think you only believe it half-way. Go to church on Sundays. Read your Bible and pray every day. Read good Christian books- Read the books written by saints and masters of the Christian life. Be a part of an encouraging group of disciples who want to grow in their apprenticeship to Jesus. Confess your sin and grow in virtue. Serve others. Be careful about what you put into your soul. If you only eat junk food, you will feel like junk. Be careful about what you watch and listen to. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever listen to something that challenges Christian belief, but be careful with how much of that you put into your soul- especially if it causes you inner turmoil. Sometimes belief follows behaviour. Sometimes there are things we learn by ‘doing’.

The other thing to do is do learn to doubt your doubts as pastor Timothy Keller says. He quotes Michael Polanyi’s essay “The Critique of Doubt” where “Polanyi argues that doubt and belief are ultimately “equivalent.” Why? “The doubting of any explicit statement,” he writes, “denies [one] belief . . . in favor of other beliefs which are not doubted for the time being.” You can’t doubt belief A except on the basis of some belief B you’re believing instead at the moment.”

“So, for example, you cannot say, ‘No one can know enough to be certain about God and religion,’ without assuming at that moment that you know enough about the nature of religious knowledge to be certain about that.”[2]

I don’t want to spend too much on that, but it can be a good exercise to analyze your doubts and ask yourself, “what and I believing instead of the thing I’m doubting? And does that belief have more reason to back it up?”

We do have to make decisions, though. We have to believe in something. We have to decide what is important to us. We have to have values that direct our lives. How do we know what is right and wrong? What is true? What is real? We have to decide who we are, and who we belong to, and what story we are in. … It is also important to consider the consequences of the belief. What kind of a person will we become if we believe it? Are we more likely to become a good and kind person? Or a selfish and cruel person? Will be become courageous or fearful? What are the consequences for a society if we believe these things?

Thomas believes because he sees. In the Gospel of John some believe on the basis of direct experience. Seeing the resurrected Jesus- Touching Jesus- Hearing Jesus- this leads to believing that he has been resurrected. This is the kind of evidence we want. This is the evidence valued in our culture. We want to touch his scars- to hug him- to talk to him. But, of course, this kind of evidence is not available to us. … Jesus promises a blessing for those who believe without having seen- That means believing on the basis of what trustworthy witnesses have said. We are asked to trust the words of those who experienced the risen Jesus Christ. Do we trust their story?

There are good reasons to believe their story. I think there are good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus as a historical reality. Historians of the ancient world who look at the history of Jesus overwhelmingly agree on four aspects of the Jesus story.

1. Jesus existed and died on a Roman cross.

2. The early disciples said they experienced the risen Jesus. (That doesn’t mean those scholars agree wit what they say, but there is little doubt that that is the story they were telling).

3. The Tomb was found to be empty. (There was disagreement about how it got that way, but it was empty).

4. The disciples of Jesus were strengthened as a community and in their mission. (A strange reality if your leader was just killed who you believed was a messiah that the 1st century Jewish society believed was supposed to establish an earthly kingdom and reform and reunite the country).

(I invite you to look into the work of William Lane Craig and NT Wright to learn more about the historical case for the Resurrection-
Just click on their names.)

That kind of historical case isn’t always what we are looking for. Usually the question we want answered is, does believing in the resurrection of Jesus make a difference in our lives? It certainly made a difference for the early disciples.

The Early disciples went from a group of scared disciples huddled behind locked doors to proclaiming Jesus right in the midst of those who put Jesus to death and across the known world. … So, as a consequence of their belief, these disciples were strengthened, they were emboldened, and they were set free from the fear of death. The “peace” Jesus spoke over them became a lived reality.

I believe that same peace can be available to us as we follow the teachings of Jesus. This doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly and easily in life. That certainly wasn’t the case for the early disciples or Jesus. That is what we hope for our children when we baptize them. We hope they will live inspired lives. We hope they will grow to be compassionate and kind. We hope they will stand up for what is right even in dangerous circumstances. We don’t want them to be crippled by fear. We want them to be free to live because they know the peace of the resurrected Christ. … A belief that can lead to a life like that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

Doubt and unanswered questions, for most of us, will just be a part of what it means to be human. This does not leave us hopeless. We are invited to trust the stories of those who did encounter him. Through their stories we can mysteriously encounter him too and be transformed. Amen.

[1] I believe Leslie Weatherhead said this.



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