So what is the trouble for this man in the Gospel? His doubts echo through history. We often assume that he was just a tough guy who had trouble trusting, but it would help you and me in our own doubts if we could understand more about someone who couldn’t believe in the resurrection.
We call him Doubting Thomas.
First, who was he? His real name in Aramaic, Te’oma (Thomas), meant twin, and he was also called Didymus, which meant the same thing in Greek. So he likely was a twin, perhaps of Matthew.
He might have been a bit glum. For instance, he gave a practical but gloomy response when Jesus wanted to go back to Judea after Lazarus died. None of the disciples wanted to go there, because they knew the leaders had tried to stone Jesus (John 10:24-30). Now Jesus gave some high-minded talk about how much they would learn by going, but Thomas ignored these reasons. His sarcastic reply is a perfect picture of him: “Alright, let us also go die with him” (John 11:16).*
Much later, just before the passion, Jesus will say, “Where I am going you know the way.” This was really a spiritual statement about going to the Father, but Thomas took it literally (John 14:3-6). He gives a very matter-of-fact response, but rooted in emotion. To summarize, he says, “You’re talking in secrets! We can’t follow you if don’t say where you are going! Help us.”
Thomas loved Jesus doggedly, that is for sure. But he feared the dangerous situations that Jesus always walked right into. Thomas’ practical nature looked frankly at them and drew the pragmatic, pessimistic conclusion. Thomas the twin had twin emotions, love and fear.
Is it any wonder, then, that in this Sunday’s Gospel Thomas laid down unflinching requirements for believing in the resurrection? Take a look. His worst fears already had come true: Jesus had been killed. To deal with this sorrow Thomas resolved to accept the death stolidly. He would never slip and talk about his departed friend in the present tense, as if he were still here. Thomas the pragmatist knew that Jesus was dead and gone. Thomas had predicted it.
Then came the new news.
“Didymus, Jesus is alive! You were away, but suddenly he stood there among us even though all the doors were locked! He talked to us!”
No. NO! Thomas’ heart could not accept it. He wanted it too much. He could not bear to believe it.
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nail marks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.
This is exactly in character for Thomas/Didymus. These tough words are really a protection for a heart that would break in pieces if it were fooled by another false hope. “The only way I would believe such nonsense is if you give me absolute proof.”
Jesus gave it. Fingers in nail marks, hand in side.
Thomas had always belonged to Jesus. Yes he was cynical, but when he got the practical proof he needed, he sank to the ground in heart-rending surrender.
“My Lord and my God.”
What a great story for us at Eastertide.