With his searching right hand, Thomas did probe Your life-bestowing side, O Christ God; for when You did enter while the doors were shut, he cried out unto You with the rest of the Apostles: You are my Lord and my God.
The story of “doubting” St. Thomas is read both at the Agape Vespers the morning of Pascha and during the Sunday after Pascha, St. Thomas Sunday. It is interesting to me that the Orthodox tradition does not seem to criticize St. Thomas for his doubt but rather, as does the hymn above, praises his confession and even, perhaps, “his searching right hand,” i.e. his skepticism.
The biblical story comes from the Gospel of John:
Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
So he said to them, “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.”
And after eight days his disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then he said to Thomas, “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.”
And Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
On the one hand, Jesus clearly reproaches St. Thomas—“Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” On the other hand, Jesus does not criticize St. Thomas for his apparent empiricism but rather indulges it—“Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side.”
I think that perhaps the misunderstanding comes from a conflation of doubt and disbelief. That is, we can read this in two ways. When Jesus says, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing,” we can presume that, therefore, St. Thomas must have been “unbelieving.”
But is that what doubt is? I don’t think so. Rather, doubt is a mixture, an indifference between unbelief and belief.
It is like the man who says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) This man was pleading with Jesus to heal his son from epilepsy (or a demon, depending on how one reads it). In any case, his son was suffering and he had heard of Jesus’s reputation for healing.
Yet did he really believe it? It seems that he’s willing to try anything for his son, but perhaps he doesn’t know what to think of Jesus. Say what one wants about people in the ancient world, stories like this show that one cannot simply presume that everyone at the time superstitiously spiritualized everything. This man was skeptical. But that does not simply mean that he didn’t believe—“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
So what about St. Thomas? I think he’s more like this man. Of course, having followed Jesus for three years, even being willing to die with him on Lazarus Saturday, we ought at least to assume that St. Thomas wanted to believe in the Resurrection. But, really, can’t we sympathize with him? It is a pretty outlandish thing to believe.
What I would contend, rather, is that St. Thomas is a model of watchfulness. A certain degree of skepticism is quite healthy. It helps us question what we really believe, what is the substance of our beliefs, and whether, after all, we really believe them.
St. Thomas, clearly, is the sort of person who needs to see the evidence for himself. He would not be satisfied with the words of his friends, nor would it even be enough for Jesus to appear to him: “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.”
This is a hard path to take, and Jesus acknowledges that there is a more blessed way. Yet, Jesus does appear to St. Thomas. He doesn’t refuse his empiricism. Like the rest of the Apostles, St. Thomas answered the call to “come and see” Jesus, and he held to that to the end.
St. John the Theologian (the author of the Gospel of John), details the purpose of his writing, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
This comes right after the story of St. Thomas. St. John knows that not everyone will have the same evidence afforded to them as St. Thomas. But, at the same time, he also takes the time throughout his Gospel to point his readers to what evidence they do have. It is full of references to bearing witness and being witnesses.
In Greek, the term is martys, from which we get the English word martyr. Christians in John’s time, especially in Asia Minor where he lived, had already had to face several state-sanctioned extermination attempts and likely knew of many among them who had held to their faith to the point of death.
From an ancient point of view, a witness at a trial was not necessarily there because they had seen the event in question, but because they had an honorable reputation—they could be trusted. It is in this way that martyrs are witnesses: they themselves are the evidence. If someone was accused of murder, the weight of the reputation of the witnesses who testified in defense of the accused was itself the evidence of his/her innocence.
While this might not be the most trustworthy legal procedure (though our own method has its flaws), it is one that persists. Much of what we believe comes to us second-hand, through the testimony of others. Sure, St. Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples, but they hadn’t yet died for that belief either.
And, in the end, St. Thomas offers arguably the clearest witness to Christ in all of New Testament—“My Lord and my God!”—and he himself was martyred while preaching the Gospel in India, according to one tradition.
Which brings me back to the subject of the last few weeks. The Gospel of the Resurrection does not preach an easy way to avoid death but a way to overcome all the deaths in our lives by enduring them. While dying for something is the clearest evidence that a person truly believes it, we can live in such a way now, through asceticism, that testifies to the Resurrection.
That is, if we truly believe it in the first place. But in order to answer that question, we may, like St. Thomas, need a little sacred skepticism of our own.
Christ is risen! “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And blessed, too, are those who care enough to question what they really believe in the first place.