Some scientists are busy trying to prove that humans have a biological predisposition to faith. The theory is that a "God gene" causes the human race to tend toward belief in the supernatural, explaining why religions of varying sorts have sprung up in every culture throughout human history. Scientists see this as a result of (or contributor to) natural selection, and argue that it has helped humanity survive and thrive through ties of community based upon belief.
And yet, as we look around, it may seem just as likely to conclude that people are predisposed to doubt instead. Indeed, everywhere we look, we meet those who doubt the existence of God, or the power of God, or the goodness of God. If they think of God at all, they may see him as a distant being, perhaps a creator, or a judge, but not personally involved in our lives. Some reject God's existence completely. And even in our churches there are certainly many who have sat through hundreds of worship services without ever resolving inner doubts they dare not utter to family and friends. Doubt, at every level, is all around us.
So how then can we blame the Apostle Thomas for stating his desire for proof of the resurrection? Here's a quick review of how our culture came to have a "Doubting Thomas":
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)
Thomas has been known for centuries as the disciple who doubted; what a reputation to have! Yet he is no worse than us, and no worse than his follow apostles. All he wanted was proof, to experience what his fellow disciples had experienced, and in his hyperbole, he declared his need to touch the wounds of Jesus before he would believe the resurrection. If anything, his response is human and understandable. Given the circumstances, any saint-in-the-making would have said the same.
What does it mean to doubt? We attach the word to Thomas but we do so too quickly. Yes, the NIV (quoted above) has Jesus saying, "Stop doubting and believe," but that may not be the best translation of the Greek. The ESV uses, "Do not disbelieve, but believe." And the famed King James Version says, "Be not faithless, but believing." Instead of actively doubting, it seems Jesus knew that Thomas was merely lacking in his faith.
Doubt is a very natural thing, and doubt can even be a healthy thing. Doubt keeps us from eating food that doesn't smell quite right, or from opening up email messages from addresses we don't recognize. We teach our children to doubt strangers in cars who pull up asking for directions, and we learn to doubt the promises of politicians at election time. In our day-to-day world doubts are overcome by facts. We come to believe in something by learning more about it. When an advertisement for car insurance arrives in the mail, we start by doubting it almost in its entirety. But if we're in the market for such a policy, we learn more about the offer, talk to people, and do research, until at least our doubts are resolved.
But when it comes to religion, the relationship with doubt is different. Doubt is overcome not by facts, but by faith. That is because the existence of God, and the attributes of God, cannot be proven by facts or by logic. Such a being would not be God. Despite the demands of many to prove the existence of God, who would want to believe in a God small enough to be provable? In things of this world, the opposite of doubt is, I think we could say, knowledge. But in terms of religion, the opposite of doubt is faith, because the very idea of God -- the all-encompassing God of Jewish and Christian tradition -- is above and beyond the bounds of human knowledge. In the words of Augustine: "If we are speaking of God, why be surprised if you do not understand? If you could understand, it would not be God."
And so if faith comes not from facts, it must instead come from open heart, one that is willing to search for and accept that which is greater than the mere self. And such was the case with Thomas. Despite his statements, when he did come face-to-face with the risen Christ there is no indication that he bothered to touch his wounds -- the mere encounter was enough to make him believe. And more than just believe in him, Thomas went on to proclaim his deity. By this late point in John's gospel it is easy to read Thomas's words without much reflection on their depth, but consider this -- in the entirety of John's gospel, only two people declare Jesus to be God. First is the narrator himself (who we assume to be John). The second is Thomas: "My Lord and my God!"
What irony! In this gospel it is the one man most synonymous with doubt who gives the clearest declaration that Jesus is God. That's what our Lord can do. Any doubt we carry can be overcome. The key is to stop wanting proof, and instead want truth. If we ask for that, if we seek it, God will provide it.