May 11, 2006

Show Me the Nail Prints

Why has Thomas been singled out among the disciples as the doubter? Why not also call Peter “the reactionary” or John “the zealot” or Nathanael “the obscure”? But it’s Peter “the rock,” John “the beloved”; and Nathanael fades away into little more than a name. Where did the label “the doubter” come from? Certainly not the Bible.
In his Gospel John gives insight into the probing mind of this disciple through story. Nothing reveals character as stories do, and in the stories in John we see Thomas interacting with the other disciples and with Jesus. In chapter 14, right after the Last Supper, realizing the time is short, Jesus is outlining some of the issues they will face: His mission, the trouble ahead, their weakness and betrayal. Wanting to encourage them, He tells them to not let their hearts be troubled. “In My Father’s house,” He said, “are many mansions. . . . If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself” (verses 2, 3).* Concluding His beautiful and moving assurance, He said: “And you know the way where I am going” (see verse 4).
The disciples stood around him speechless and wondering. It’s unlikely if any of them understood what Jesus was saying. Yet no one said a word until Thomas spoke up. “We do not know where You are going; how do we know the way?” (see verse 5).

1513 page24 linkThat question, as all good questions, opened up the discussion that follows, clarifying Jesus’ plan of salvation, His mission, and their mission. Beginning with the powerful and significant metaphor of the vine and the branches, it develops into a sermon, in which Jesus lays out His plans for the church and prepares them for what will happen. He emphasizes the necessary connection to the Father through the Son and the spiritual nature of His kingdom. Up to this point, the disciples were focused on a worldly kingdom, missing entirely the essential spiritual nature of Jesus’ message.

Thomas’ question, “We do not know where You are going; how do we know the way?” was not a frivolous bid for attention, nor was it asked to cause trouble. Rather, it showed his prudence and the working of a probing mind looking for truth. And it didn’t come out of the blue. Jesus had warned about false christs: “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24).

I Want Proof

Later, after the Resurrection, in another telling scene, perhaps the one who caused some to call him the doubter, Thomas asks for proof that this is indeed the risen Christ. Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus came to them after the Crucifixion, spoke with them, and showed them His hands and His side. When the others told Thomas they’d seen the risen Lord, Thomas was guarded and skeptical. “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails,” he said, “and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). It is easy to call Thomas “the doubter” here, but remember that the others did not believe without proof, either.

This is quintessential Thomas (and I hope a model for Christians today)--unwilling to accept as truth every rumor on the wind, every self-proclaimed Christ as the real thing. False christs appeared in Jesus’ time and still appear today. Do we believe any pied piper who comes along playing a pretty tune, proclaiming, “I am Christ,” or do we insist that he show us “the nail prints”?
What else will keep us from following a David Koresh or a Jim Jones but caution and prudence and a demand to see the nail prints? Many good and intelligent people followed these false christs to their death, simply because they did not demand to be shown the evidence. We tend to be fearful and lazy, unwilling to do the research and think things out ourselves. We let someone else tell us what to believe. The Thomases among us step forward, demanding: Show me the nail prints!

It’s Good to Raise Questions

What is it about the questioner that causes unease in some quarters? That makes us equate questioning with doubting? Doesn’t questioning point the way to truth? Where would we be as far as human rights and dignity are concerned if someone hadn’t asked the questions that freed things up, that brought liberation to open doors? Are dark-skinned people destined to be slaves? Should children be working in factories? Do women have brains and the emotional stability to vote and hold office and preach a sermon? What if courageous men and women had not questioned being refused service in a restaurant or having to sit in the back of the bus? What if Martin Luther had never questioned the evil of selling indulgences?

1513 page24Thomas’ loyalty and devotion to Jesus were established early on when Jesus said, “Let us go to Judea again” (John 11:7). Jesus said this in spite of the fact that the last time He was there, they’d tried to stone Him. Realizing that Jesus might be walking into a death trap, the disciples were cautious--except for Thomas: “Let us also go,” he said, “that we may die with Him” (verse 16).
Hardly the words of a timid doubter.
If Thomas is truly a doubter, why did John give him so much space? The theme of John’s Gospel is faith and spirituality, rather than (like that of the Synoptics) history and miracle. In Thomas’ questioning, there’s an honest effort to arrive at truth, at faith, at a greater spirituality.
In our own spiritual search, are we asking the pertinent questions or simply parroting what someone else said? What is our protection against every zealot with some groundless speculation on health, on politics, on salvation? Do we put it through the truth test? Who said it? What was their source? What is my own point of view?
Naïveté and blind acceptance are hardly the basis of faith.
“Ever insurgent let me be,
Make me more daring than devout.
From sleek contentment set me free,
And fill me with a buoyant doubt.”
--Louis Untermeyer.
“A buoyant doubt,” a doubt that sent Thomas searching, asking questions, being misunderstood, but still asking. A doubt that drives me to ask the uncomfortable questions, look for other questioners, engage in lively discussion, in which truth is laid bare.
And even when truth is only glimpsed afar off, even that glimpse can shine as a beacon in the night.
*Texts is this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Rosalie Mellor writes from northern Minnesota.