This morning, something stuck out while I was listening to my usual commute sermon. For those who don’t know what a commute sermon is, it’s actually extremely intuitive. It’s a sermon you listen to on your commute. There. You know that now.
The reason that something stuck out to me today was because it started out talking about Thomas (Widely nicknamed “Doubting Thomas”, which I don’t like) and later talked about Peter, and for some reason I thought of you. Both were in reference to their responses to Jesus after the resurrection. But I’m not talking about Peter today. Today isn’t his day.
The section about Thomas noted what everyone thinks of when he comes up–his adamant declaration that unless he touches Jesus’ scars, he won’t believe in the resurrection. And then Jesus comes through some walls into a locked room, which is kinda sci-fi ish but to be honest I don’t really find it surprising, I mean he’s Jesus. Suck it. (I mean, you suck it, not Jesus. I feel like that’s obvious though.)
But Thomas is there and Jesus is like “poke me in the scar dude, it’s real” and then some fingers go places and then Thomas is like “what???? dude, ok, that’s actually real, you’re like actually God” (Which, in that time period, was a ridiculous and weird thing for a Jewish man to say. Like… monotheism was their thing. They did not fuck around with other gods.)
[[Now, for those of you who are surprised that I just used the word fuck to discuss the apostles, well, I mean for starters, sorry for catching you off guard. But the thing is, I really like curse words, and I try to be unapologetic about the affection I have for them. I don’t personally see them as “filthy talk” as others might (though I can understand why people would feel that way, and I do try to be sensitive about it when I’m not the host of the situation). I see words like “Shit” and “Bitchin” to be extremely helpful in communicating with more nuance something that would take far more effort to explain, and would be less accurate. When you stub your toe on something (and I mean really stub your toe), you don’t say, in your head, “oh shooty darn, this hurts” you probably have a string of “fucking ow why is my furniture out to destroy my feet one tiny appendage at a time”.]]
[[And I mean, I suppose I could say that the Jewish people of Jesus’ time don’t mess around with other gods. But the whole point of all of the laws and everything that was part of Jewish ancestry and history was so that God could drill into their heads “No, don’t do that, you will murder yourselves and everyone you love if you find other gods.” (Well, that and the whole ‘leading up to Jesus’ thing. It wasn’t, like, the whole point, but I’m not sure that anyone can ever really grasp what the whole point was from our finite and also very distant humans-in-the-21st-century position.) And not to put words into God’s mouth or anything, but it’s sometimes just more concise to say, “don’t fuck with polytheism” than to say, “don’t approach them, believe that they are real, entertain the possibility of them, or get roped into any of the activities that are involved in worshipping them”. I personally think the former way of saying it also communicates something of the urgency of the matter. But you can’t put fuck in a bible.]]
[[Last point here before I move on– I realize I could be wrong. Even the fact that I feel compelled to add this point kind of speaks to that. But I have yet to encounter an argument against it that holds up. Most of the time, I’ve heard objections in the form of “it’s traditionally not good to use curse words” so.. yeah. But if you have a theologically sound argument for why it’s bad to do, leave it in the comments and I’ll gladly pay attention.]]
Anyway, after Thomas is convinced, Jesus is like “it took touching me to make you believe? Dude come on I told you this was going to happen like how many times, like, there was a whole thing where Peter was against the plan and I called him Satan” (and then personally I think it was probably followed up with an “it’s ok little buddy, I mean, if you’d believed without needing to touch my stab wounds then that’d be sick bro, but the point is you’ve got it now” but we don’t have any proof of that, so maybe strike that from the record, and jury, forget you heard that. Also, I don’t know why Jesus always has a kind of hyper-exaggerated mid 2000’s teenage slang to him. But he does when I’m condensing his words.) The story is in John 21, in non-bro language.
But what most people forget about Thomas is that he was actually really dedicated to Jesus. Like…. He is the one who wants to know the way to where Jesus is going to prepare rooms for them. In John 11:16 he shows boldness in wanting to go and possibly even die with Jesus on the journey to revive Lazarus.
So what was it that made Thomas doubt the resurrection?
The guy in the sermon I was listening to said that it couldn’t have been lack of evidence, because all of his friends had seen him and he had heard the predictions of Jesus before, so there was no reason for him not to believe. They also didn’t think it was because he lacked love for Jesus. They thought it was because Thomas wanted the Messiah to be different, to be more of what traditional Israelites believed back then. But I disagree. I don’t think Thomas was being obstinate, at least not fully.
And I think we can learn something about ourselves when we look at the story as though he was doubting because the evidence wasn’t quite enough. The bible never really says why he was doubting anyway, which kind of opens up the possibilities.
Our culture is evidence-addicted. And I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. While evidence can be misconstrued or impacted by human error to appear to support lies, in the end, all things will eventually point towards the truth. And the truth is really what we should be aiming for, regardless of where we start.
When scientists are studying something, they often take together a bunch of data and form a model in their minds or on paper about how it all comes together. And then as more data comes in, they will either figure out how it works into the model, or it will sit unexplained as a scientific mystery, like when birds do that murmuration thing. And eventually, with enough unexplained data, a tipping point would be reached, and a new, better model would be found. We can see this at work with the geocentric vs heliocentric solar system situation. For a long time, all the data we had suggested that earth was still and the sun and moon and stars were moving. They didn’t have calculations to predict the celestial stuff, and I mean, who actually experiences the earth spinning like a goddamn top? We’ve all got too much momentum for that. It’s understandable that nomadic hunter-gatherers would see the world as geocentric. So, when new data comes in that looks like the earth isn’t actually fixed in position, it has a ton of data and a pretty sound model (in that time) to fight against. But eventually, better data came in. There were revelations that the earth isn’t flat. The planets and stars and moon and sun were charted. The math just didn’t add up under the old model, and data was popping up all over the place that refuted geocentrism. And eventually it collapsed, it stopped working, and heliocentrism came in. And then we figured out that the Milky Way is a thing. (I assume. I’m not very good at astronomic history.)
(Image: Birds doing that murmuration thing. They’re probably starlings, although I’m not sure if starlings are the only ones who do that.)
In Thomas, I think we see a reflection of ourselves, both in general and in how we approach things scientifically. I think, in terms of this specific story, Thomas would probably have been a doctor or something in our time (even though it was actually Luke who was the doctor… but that’s beside the point.) Thomas’ worldview, his model for how the universe worked… it did not include people rising from the dead. This is pretty true for most people. And especially after Jesus died the death he did. I mean, if someone dies of like… lightning strike or something, it’s kind of weird, but lightning is weird too. Idk, I could imagine someone dying for a little bit and then coming back after a lightning strike. But when you get beaten like that and then suffocated for hours and eventually stabbed so that the fluid filled sac surrounding your heart releases …. Sac juices…. all over the place… it’s pretty difficult to imagine someone coming back from that. In our culture, if someone were to come to us saying “HEY this guy who just fell through a car compacter? Yeah, he’s walking around now. Yes I know he was pronounced dead on scene by law enforcement. Yes I know they buried him. But he’s back dammit”, it would be extremely normal to want a lot of proof. I would want proof. Well, but maybe I’d be ok with secondhand accounts, as long as I trusted the sources. I think if like, the New York Times wrote a piece about it I’d be more likely to believe it. If there was video evidence that I could look at, I’d be more likely to believe it. If major authorities today were behaving as though someone had risen from the dead and the word about it needed to be kept down but they weren’t saying that it was false, I’d probably believe it. But there would also be conspiracy theorists who would say that it was all a hoax, just another balloon boy situation. The pictures were shopped; the “witnesses” were just paid actors. I mean, there are even reports that DNA and fingerprint evidence isn’t as reliable as we thought it was.
But I think, if I was Thomas, I’d still probably want to see it with my own eyes. I mean, if nothing else, I’d be sad that I’d missed out on something that everyone else I know had seen. Maybe Thomas was a bit obstinate about it because he didn’t want to have missed out on something cool that all his buddies experienced. Side note, I have been pronouncing Obstinate wrong my whole life. I thought it was “Obstinant”.
When I think about it, what I find cool is that it’s not like Jesus walks into that room with mittens and a parka on. He like… phases in, all Jesus style, and then is open and welcoming to Thomas about his situation. And he shows him the scars. He invites Thomas to address the issues he’s doubting and to investigate the evidence for himself.
And it’s easy to read that section and think Jesus is sad or disappointed in Thomas for doubting. But I don’t think this is the right way to read him. Not when you consider the way he was with his friends. He wanted to spend lots of time with them. He loved them dearly and cared for them. A lady who was teaching a bible study I was in once mentioned that when he says “oh ye of little faith” (or other words for that) he’s using it as a term of endearment, (and that makes sense when you consider his whole argument about faith as small as a mustard seed being a great thing). It would be more of like “ahh my friends, you don’t get it yet but you will.”
When a parent is teaching their kid to walk, any tiny amount of progress is ridiculously joyous to them. If the kid barely sits up, it brings them joy. When the kid makes an attempt to stand up and wobbles, falling down, the parents invariably respond with smiles, laughter, and sometimes applause. They wouldn’t be satisfied if their kid never learned to walk, of course, but even the smallest development is much more of a cause for celebration than a reason for disappointment.
I think Jesus is more like these parents, in his interactions with the disciples, than he is like we might easily imagine him to be. For a long time, whenever Jesus’ words made him seem disappointed in something, or whenever he says something rebukey, I would always see him as…. Well, sort of like my mom, whenever I brought home anything less than an A-. She would use this sort of “Oh well. I’m disappointed” attitude that made me feel horrible, even though I knew that she was right, and that I should hold myself to high standards and meet those standards too. (Eventually, it worked out pretty well, as her prodding kept my grades from slipping too far, and I managed to get into a very advantageous financial situation in college because of scholarships [thanks mom]).
When Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” I don’t think he’s using the disappointed Mom tone. I think he’s saying something about people.
For Thomas, his faith in the earlier promises of Jesus wasn’t enough to support an understanding of a world that includes Jesus rising from the dead. It took a lot of data to change the model in his mind about how the world works. But for others, who believe without needing to see, less data is needed to change their models.
If Christianity is true, if the resurrection and the whole Jesus story is true, it would be good for anyone to be in sync with the reality exposed within that story, just like if you were in a remote Alaskan forest, it would be very good for you to acknowledge that as reality. Now for most people, it wouldn’t take much information to acknowledge their remote forest situation. They also might start panicking, but they could maybe also think about building shelter, finding resources, building a fire, and coming up with a plan. But suppose you take the Thomas of natural landscapes and stick him way out in Alaska with all the bush people. (You’ve seen those shows, where they follow around people who live way out in the middle of some snowy wasteland, shooting elks or whatever live out there and living in cabins.) The Thomas of natural landscapes might be super skeptical, though. He might think “this is just a TV set that they’ve refrigerated a lot. They can’t let me die or they’ll be sued. I’ll just do what I want.” Or they might think “eh, this might seem remote, but there’s probably a town just over that hill where I can find a hotel, I’ll keep walking.” Skeptical Thomas will have a lot harder of a time surviving in the reality he’s in than he would if he required less data to come to the same conclusion as a normal person.
So, it follows that, provided the Jesus story is true, of course there would be blessings for the person who is able to believe without extensive proof. If the story is true, people who believe in Jesus easily would be more easily in sync with reality, and being in sync with reality, itself a blessing, brings a buttload of other benefits.
I don’t think this is totally out of left field either. Life also seems to be easier for people who can meet expectations that others have for them and also expectations that they have for themselves. People who struggle to garner the motivation to, say, leave early enough to make it to work early (ahem, me) will have to stay at work later to make up for that prior struggle. People who think to themselves “I should research this thing” or “I should read this book” but struggle to follow through will feel frustrated with their inability to do things that they want to do. Granted, this is a matter of willpower, but something about it feels parallel. Or, maybe I’m just making crap up. That’s entirely possible too.
I don’t think that the story of Thomas and his doubting (evidence based or not) tells us to just take everything at face value and be gullible in our lives. I think, if that was the moral of the story, Jesus wouldn’t have let Thomas touch him at all. I mean, why would Jesus let Thomas touch him if not to provide additional evidence to Thomas?
And why would Jesus provide evidence to Thomas if the very act of doubting was a problem?
Doubts keep us from a lot in our lives. For example, when I was on a cruise with my family for my Grandparents’ 50th anniversary, they had one of those rock climbing walls on the back of the boat, which was very fun. Except they had automatic belays, instead of actual people, which was probably safer for the belays. Well, the nonexistent human belays. Mechanical belays can’t be in danger. But humans attached to other easily-spooked humans on the back of a boat might be in more danger.
Anyway. The belays did a really, really good job of keeping you safe, but they also did a really good job of not feeling like they worked. They are designed to let you climb at your own pace and not pull on you (that’s cheating) and to let you go down and up and wherever without needing to pull extra hard to compensate.
But this also means that if you relax and move downward, it feels like the thing isn’t actually going to catch you. It takes a couple feet of falling for the mechanical belay to say to itself “oh this item attached to me needs to be lowered at a slightly slower pace than terminal velocity. I should slow it down.” After its mechanical belay ears have heard this totally audible sentence, it does a great job of producing a comfortable and well supported descent, and you land with your feet solidly on a large plank of metal floating in the middle of the ocean. But those couple of feet where you feel like you’re in free fall are terrifying.
And even more terrifying is all of the time you spend going up (and then, at the top, when you are considering this whole “descent” thing) knowing that really, that’s your only way down, and you’ll have to let it catch you, and that aside from watching other people do it and having heard no reports from the internet saying that accidents have happened, you have no reason to believe that it will catch you too.
See? Doubts keep you from all kinds of major life stuff.
(that was a joke.)
(But it’s also actually true. How many times has someone doubted that a potential romantic partner would be interested in them and declined to speak to them out of fear? How many publishers rejected J.K. Rowling?)
I think Jesus understands that doubts are a part of how people are. His behavior throughout the gospels isn’t a standoffish, arrogant “believe me in spite of all evidence” behavior, it’s a “come and see” behavior.
When you meet a new puppy, sometimes the puppy is really happy to see you, and it comes to you and you pet it and rub its head and belly and the puppy is so, so happy. And that’s always a pleasant experience, unless you are allergic to puppies or it licks the inside of your mouth somehow. An example of this kind of person, in the bible, might be Zacchaeus, the tax collector who was so happy that Jesus was around, and who was so touched by his love that he responded in a sort of fireworks display of love for everyone around him. Another of these puppies might be the woman who was so overwhelmed, while Jesus was talking to Simon, that she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair. (And I realize that’s a super moving thing to do to anyone and it has great lessons and implications for the gospel story, especially in the context of that time, but like… am I the only one who reads that story and thinks “…Eew???”)
But other times, you meet a puppy and the puppy is shy, and doesn’t bound over right away. I think, if Jesus met that shy puppy, that he would be gentle and calm and assume a nonthreatening position, allowing the puppy to come and sniff and investigate this new and weird dude. And once the puppy came over and was satisfied, Jesus would love on that puppy so much. Look at how he is with children. Look at how he is with the woman who couldn’t stop bleeding. Look at how he is with the Samaritan woman with 5 husbands. I mean, he’s firm and holy, no doubt, but he is forgiving and flexible. He knows he created us to be different from each other, to be unique, so of course he’s not surprised when we don’t all react the same way to him.
Jesus also says, “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To be either of those things is to recognize that you don’t have something and that you need it. To doubt is the same– when you doubt, your model doesn’t have enough data to feel real yet. When you doubt something, you seek out more data.
(I think this kind of doubting is different than flat out refusing to look for the truth. Thomas did not refuse to touch Jesus’ scars. Had he refused in this way, I think it’s likely that he would never have believed. But he touched. He was open to new evidence, he was open to new data. And when the data provided what he needed to believe, he considered it valid. Just a thought.)
Maybe Thomas didn’t have enough to believe. Maybe Thomas wasn’t quite there yet. But Jesus knew, and he reached out to bridge the gap. * And though I don’t think that this shows Thomas to be the best role model in this particular situation, I think it’s worth noting that even poor role models are invited to be with Jesus.
*Oh-I-Just-Realized-This-Could-Maybe-Use-A-Disclaimer: Don’t expect Jesus to do some sort of miracle to make you believe. That’s not his style. There are all varieties of evidence out there already, for the head and the heart, that point to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. And in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable in which a rich man in hell asks Abraham to send Lazarus, a resident of Heaven who had previously been a beggar, to the rich man’s brothers. Abraham responds by saying that they have Moses and the Prophets to listen to, and that “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NIV). I think this cautions us against demanding evidence from God. Rather, when the stories of Thomas and this parable are combined, it seems that the right approach is to seek out evidence that already exists. Jesus is still rumored to be up and walking at the time that Thomas makes his declaration that he needs to touch all the scars to believe. Perhaps that explains why Jesus showed his scars to Thomas but not to the rest of us? Idk. I’m just a kid. Well not really. I’m 23. Sorry.