Who was Doubting Thomas?

Thomas has an unfortunate nickname – doubting Thomas. Most people have heard the phrase even if they have no idea where it came from. This nickname has stuck, and Thomas’ character as a doubter is famous. The problem is, it is difficult to know whether his doubt was in fact doubt about Jesus, or confidence in his own understanding about the nature of the Messiah and resurrection. Commenting on John 11:19, Andreas Köstenberger says “doubting Thomas” replied “rather sarcastically and no doubt with gallows’ humor, perhaps under his breath, ‘Let’s also go that we may die with him” (Signs of the Messiah, 125).

Maybe. But it is possible to describe Thomas as a very faithful disciples who never lost hope in Jesus as the Messiah, despite his own misunderstanding. In fact, what seems like pessimism may also be read as a willingness to lay down his life for Jesus, to face his persecutors and force the issue of who Jesus really is.

Doubting Thomas?Thomas is only mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but he is featured in three key stories in the gospel of John. All we really know about him on a personal level is that he is called “Didymus,” a word which means “twin,” presumably because he had a twin brother. In fact, the Hebrew name Tom or Tomas in Aramaic also means twin. There were Gnostics who thought that Thomas was Jesus’ twin, and died in his place. The so-called Gospel of Thomas was written by Gnostics and preserves some teachings of Jesus in an overly-spiritualized form. According to tradition, Thomas ended up as far east as India and planted many churches there before he was martyred.

After the resurrection, Thomas is not among the disciples when Jesus first appears, prompting his famous “doubt” about the resurrected Lord Jesus (John 20:24-30). Where was Thomas? Why was he not with the disciples? Was Thomas not with the disciples because he was still in despair over the death of Jesus?  Possibly.  On the other hand, it is possible that Thomas is the only disciple willing to show his face outside of the locked upper room!  Perhaps he is out in the streets, going about his life, willing to “take the risk” that someone might recognize him and arrest him as a follower of Jesus.

Dorothy Lee suggested John used Thomas and Mary Magdalene as examples of two individuals who struggle to understand the resurrection.  There a few parallels between the two witnesses of the resurrection.  For example, both attempt to touch risen Jesus.  Both Mary and Thomas mix faith with misunderstanding, and both receive a revelation from Jesus.  For Lee, Thomas is no less faithful than the other disciples because of his absence from the upper room.  Thomas’ reaction to the resurrection leads to a significant statement of who Jesus is in the conclusion of gospel of John.

Thomas is therefore singled out from the disciples to be the first to recognize Jesus as Lord and God after the resurrection.  In the synoptic Gospels, Peter speaks for the twelve at the midpoint of the story to confess that Jesus is God’s Messiah, but in John it is Nathanael in the first chapter and Thomas in the twentieth chapter who confess that Jesus is the messiah.  In Thomas’ case, he calls Jesus Lord and God – a highly theological statement which indicates that Jesus is not just messiah, but in fact God.  Notice that Jesus does not correct Thomas, as an angel might if someone offered to worship it as a god.  Jesus accepts this worship from Thomas because he is in fact God.

Bibliography: Dorothy A, Lee, “Partnership In Easter Faith: The Role Of Mary Magdalene And Thomas In John 20,” JSNT 58 (1995): 37-49.

14 thoughts on “Who was Doubting Thomas?

  1. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the titles that modern Christians label the disciples with. “Doubting Thomas” is one of these infamous accusations.

    To begin, I think people over-emphasize the part about Thomas doubting. The hardest thing for me to understand is why John would add something to His gospel that would mock a fellow follower of Jesus, when he states, in the next verse that He is trying to reinforce belief in Jesus and the cause of the Apostles. Rather than empasize the fact of Thomas’ “lack of faith”, thus making salvation about our understanding, but realize the world-changing power of Thomas’ exclamation of “My Lord and My God!”, which is, as aforementioned, not Him confessing Jesus as Messiah, but God. It’s not about us, It’s about God.

    Also, I have to think that Thomas was not “doubting” Jesus’ Messianic reality, but the fact of His resurrection. It’s easy for us to say things like, “If he really believed in Jesus as the Christ, Thomas wouldn’t doubt in his resurrection.” In hindsight, it becomes easy for us to piece together prophecy and understand the whispers of the resurrection, but in the immediate time period of the crucifixion, Thomas, in my opinion, would be completely legitimate in doubting that his Master and teacher had raised form the dead. Any hint toward the latter would seem a cruel joke or a hallucination, which is typical when people are still in mourning. This all leads to even more significance of Thomas not only declaring Jesus as the Christ, but as God. In that moment, Thomas understood his doubt, but thought it all irrelevant and he finally understood Jesus’ power and love for him.

    • Joe I think you make some really good points in relation to Thomas’ doubts. In the end, like Joe said, Thomas embraced the reality of who Jesus was despite the doubts he was known for. I think the fact that Thomas was known as a doubter only strengthens the fact that he declares Jesus “Lord and God.” Doubts help define and strengthen faith because they allow us to wander in the possibility of something not being true. These dark wanderings of the soul aid one in finding out what they really believe. I believe Thomas was only able to proclaim Jesus’ true identity as “Lord and God” because he wrestled with doubts. We often paint such a lowly picture of the effects of doubting our faith. I do not see it in that light because doubts cannot erase the truth. Do matter how long I wander in my doubts I will not be able to cover over the truth (especially when it comes to the realities of faith).

    • “I have to think that Thomas was not “doubting” Jesus’ Messianic reality, but the fact of His resurrection.” – I am not sure these two things can be so easily separated. If Jesus was Messiah, he should not have been killed in the first place. Perhaps Thomas is looking for conclusive proof of the resurrection, but that would also be conclusive proof he was Messiah.

  2. First of all I would like to talk about the absence of Thomas when Jesus came to the other disciples. It would be awesome to say that Thomas wasn’t in the house because he was the only one of them to go out into the world after the death of Jesus. I don’t think it is possible to know though. When thinking deeper about this it makes me wonder if it even matters. For all we know he could have been hanging out with his other buddies or working or pretty much anything else. The most important part to get out of this passage is the fact that Thomas declares about Jesus that He is, “Lord and my God” (John 20:28). If I was in Thomas’ sandals it would be hard for me to believe that after Jesus died and rose to heaven that he would come back. I think we would have to call all of the disciples doubters at some point. Did they all believe that Jesus rose right away? They all ran over to see and then they believed. I think the statement, seeing is believing, should be said about all of the disciples. Thomas got is answer quick after Jesus appeared to Him.

    Another interesting point to look at is in verse 29 which says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” When He said this I don’t think he was blaming Thomas for anything. It seems more likely that instead He is praising those who haven’t seen yet believed. In my opinion, Thomas is not a doubter more than any other of the disciples were or would have been. Thomas yet praised Jesus in the end just like the others and said that He was indeed God!

    • I completely agree with Greg in the fact that I think that the reason Thomas wasn’t in the house was simply because he felt like he could be doing more than just mourning over the death of Jesus. Not that it is a wrong to mourn, there is always a time for that, but I think that he took what Jesus had taught him and wanted to immediately go out into the world and planted churches. I think that support is needed, but action in this case was needed more. I don’t think we can really know what his intentions or motives were but again like Greg said about the statement about declaring that Jesus was not just the Messiah but God as well changed everything. Jesus did not deny the fact that he was called “God” but Peter was the only one that really caught that. Because of these facts and wanting to be like Christ by going and spreading his word and declaring the fact that he was indeed God confirms to me that Thomas in fact did not doubt God, but praised him in the way that would glorify him most.

  3. I do not remember who, but someone scolded me for calling him doubting Thomas once a while ago. Because I do not believe that he was really doubting Jesus so he had to feel the wounds. I think it is more likely that he was very distraught with the idea of Christ being crucified, and he wanted to feel the wounds as a visual. A lot of times things do not really sink it fully, until you see it or even feel it. “Thomas is therefore singled out from the disciples to be the first to recognize Jesus as Lord and God after the resurrection”-plong
    This shows right here that Thomas did not doubt at all. If anything Thomas almost fully understood the idea that Jesus is the Messiah and is in fact God also.

    • I think one could claim that Thomas understood who Jesus was all along. His claim of Jesus being “Lord and God” is not new. I would venture that he probably had a tougher time understanding that his Messiah and God would be crucified and resurrected. He needed to see and touch Jesus to fully grasp the reality of who he was and what his mission really was. Like Joey said I believe it did not fully sink in till his eyes beheld the Lord Jesus after the resurrection. His doubts vanished when he stood face to face with Jesus. His times of doubting and wrestling with the truth seem to be more based around the prophecies surround Jesus. Imagine your friend and Rabbi (Lord and God) dies… How would you react? Like many of us, we need some sort of proof or unexplainable encounter with God in order to believe with a doubt.

  4. I like what has been said so far. It is a bit harsh to say that Thomas was the singled out disciple that had the least amount of faith just because he “doubted” when he was told that Jesus was alive. I think that is unfair to say of just him. Really, every disciple doubted in the same way Thomas did. They did not understand or know that Jesus was going to rise from the dead even when Jesus repeatedly told them what was going to happen in Jerusalem that Passover. However, they all are afraid for their lives and they are all scattered when this whole event unfolds. Even the disciples do not believe the women who go to the tomb and return saying that Jesus is not there (Luke 24:1-12).

    It is not about his doubt, but about the reality that Jesus was alive and was there physically. The focus is on Thomas’ claim after he sees Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” This is an amazing statement of Christ’s present reality and his divinity, which, just like Joe said, is more focused on how he is presented as God.

  5. Why do we like to assign meaning to a person based on one event so much? This happens so much in our world today especially if there isn’t much other information on this person. One reference about Thomas not doubting occurred when Jesus wanted to go to a city where Jews had tried to Stone him before. Jesus wanted to go back to raise Lazarus from the dead. In response to this “suicide” mission we find Thomas’ response. In John 11:16 what is Thomas saying in “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” the him he is referencing is Jesus because Thomas thinks he will get stoned. Is he being sarcastic? Or is he serious? I am leaning towards serious. Is it just me or is this an interesting statement.

  6. Thomas has developed this label of being a doubter by many including myself. It is one of the things I remember learning in Sunday school. The church tends to point out the negative aspects of the disciples often. I can’t recall the amount of times I heard a pastor preach on Peter’s denial of Christ. I really appreciate this perspective of Thomas by P. Long. Maybe Thomas was more than a doubter, someone who identified Jesus as God clearly has a better understanding then most of his peers. “In Thomas’ case, he calls Jesus Lord and God – a highly theological statement which indicates that Jesus is not just messiah, but in fact God (P. Long).” Exploring the Gospels this semester has really broadened my Knowledge of Jesus, the disciples, and the Jews. It is amazing how a little bit of information can change the way one looks at something.

  7. I know for myself, sometimes, when I go through a tragic event… maybe even something with less impact… I need to touch something related to the event that either reaffirms or comforts me. This touch is soothing and allows me to either move on, deal with the situation or helps me to work through it. It may be a stretch but maybe Thomas is doing the same. He’s touching Christ’s wounds because it is going to help him come to terms with the situation. Jesus could have understood this of him and catered to his needs. This perceived need for physical evidence is what gives Thomas his title of doubting. Maybe Thomas was having a hard time rationalizing resurrection but here was Jesus, standing in front of him. Thomas is not doubting but struggling through a humanly impossible event and trying to understand what is going on.

  8. So I did not grow up in a Christian home, or really knowing much about the bible or any of its characters. However, growing up I had always heard of doubting Thomas. Not going to lie, I always thought they did a survey throughout the world and found that most people named Thomas were doubters. So I was a little wrong, but everyone makes mistakes :).
    Now to get into a more serious note, I do not think it is fair that he gets such a rough nickname. I know that other disciples have doubted before. I like when Plong says “it is difficult to know whether his doubt was in fact doubt about Jesus, or confidence in his own understanding about the nature of the Messiah and resurrection.” I honestly think this is it, I feel like Jesus would not call a disciple who was going to doubt him in all that he did. Overall, we all have doubts and for him to get such a harsh nickname is kind of unfair.

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