By Ian Olson
It is unfortunate that Thomas is commonly remembered as “Doubting Thomas,” as though skepticism were his defining characteristic. But skepticism was not a defect to be overcome for this apostle. Instead, his struggle to believe is actually something of a virtue in the setting of his confession of Jesus’ lordship. Why is this so?
Centuries of the cultural normalization of Christian faith have rendered Jesus’ resurrection the obvious culmination of his story. Even for those who do not believe it ever took place it is treated not as a scandal but as perfectly plausible in its ancient setting. A certain prejudice colors this assessment: the past is uncritically presumed to be a time of ignorance and superstition — a time the present has surmounted. As such, impossible things were routinely accepted as fact.
Nevertheless, for both those who believe it and for those who do not, Jesus’ rising from the grave is understood as the logical climax of his narrative trajectory. What follows Jesus’ death, it is assumed, is of course his resurrection.
For Thomas and the other apostles, however, this was far from obvious. Thomas understood what crucifixion meant: more than simply an instrument of execution, the cross was a means of erasing human existence from history. It was the obliteration of a person’s humanity and memory, a negation enacted by the ruling divinities of Rome. Crucifixion communicated, “This thing hereby is removed from reality.” The crucified did not exist. And Rome could make this so because it was the arbiter of history and thus of destiny.
This demonstrates how scriptural attestation and creedal affirmation have been domesticated over the course of Christendom, as it was unthinkable in one phase of history for crucifixion to result in anything other than erasure. The despair of Jesus’ followers following his arrest and execution signals the impossibility of any outcome save hopeless defeat.
It is crucial, therefore, to see that Thomas is not skeptical in his outlook; he is not dubious toward things in general, nor even toward God’s power. He simply refuses to accept any rendition of his Lord’s survival that is not corporeal through and through, for anything short of that is simply not resurrection. Thomas has no time for stories of Jesus living in his or anyone else’s heart — mere euphemism cloaking the denial of death. Thomas is conversant with reality and knows that short of seeing and touching his body, his friend and master is dead.
Thomas’s doubt is misunderstood when it is not understood as a testament to the faith of Israel which refused to put stock in deus ex machina contrivances which bypassed matter. Thomas’s Lord was an Israelite man of a certain height and build, who carried himself a certain way, with a certain timbre to his voice, a way he embraced others, and a smell to his flesh. Materiality is the site of presence, and his Lord is present if and where such characteristics give themselves to sense.
And it is just this haptic contact with the sites of his Lord’s wounds that impels Thomas to slough off the imperial propaganda that has shaped his agency and understanding of the cosmos. Caesar could not keep the Lord’s Anointed dead. Caesar’s power could not represent the upper limit of possibility from this point on. Jesus’ weakness-in-death did not rule out a different and greater power present in him to establish a new order by which God would liberate and reign. That which had proven true so many times was decisively shown to be false. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaims with the improbable joy of one who has lost everything and now finds it before him, restored.
The stories that vie with one another to dominate people like Thomas — people, that is, like us — depend for their plausibility upon Jesus’ remaining dead. They stand firm so long as the merely reasonable persists. It is not reasonable that a man should be alive again after the liquidation of the cross. But reasonability cannot rule out what actually occurs in time and space, and so if one the empire determined to erase returns alive, then the unraveling of all alternative stories has already begun with the recognition of the Son of God’s resurrection.
So Jesus is not shaming Thomas when, after blessing him for believing, he pronounces a blessing on all who do not see but believe (John 20:29). He is performing a speech-act by which all who turn from misinformation and fake news on account of Thomas’s testimony are blessed with the faith of Thomas. It was not shame that moved Thomas farther than any of the other apostles, it was the exhilaration of his Lord’s invincible life sweeping his own up into the drama of the world’s rescue, dispersing the darkness of alternative facts and fake news to reveal the deepest truth of the world: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
The faith that circumvents the scandal of Jesus’ negation of death by reducing the testimony of his resurrection to an account of faith’s rising, in spite of his dismal defeat on the cross, a faith that makes the cross only a noble defeat, may seem rational given the normal course of human biology, but it is not the faith that impelled Thomas to acclaim Jesus’ mastery over all things. It may be sincerely motivated and may be able to marshal endorsement from unbelieving authorities, but the apostle would never recognize it as faith. For it is resurrection alone that makes allegiance to Jesus Christ and to his priorities rational rather than a pathetic denial of reality.
For nothing else could be sufficient to motivate the efforts that defined and ultimately cost Thomas his life. Thomas went to the ends of the earth to proclaim the beneficent rule of his Lord, not because he was a skeptic by nature, but because he was a skeptic by faith. For what could stand in the way of his and the apostles’ mission if the one they proclaimed had demonstrated the emptiness of Rome’s claims? If even death itself could be overcome and made to serve this One? The faith that justifies is the faith that makes one a skeptic of all other stories, of all reasoning motivated by the lust for power and the worship of self. Christian faith is an incredulity towards all accounts of what is possible.
Thomas embodies a paradigm which refuses both naïve gullibility and stubborn intolerance of anything that could disrupt the predictable and quotidian; a paradigm available to all who will believe the testimony of one who saw the seemingly-impossible become real. May we resist the stories that claim ultimacy over our world with the rationality of Jesus’ resurrection.