Doubts, Doubters and All the Rest of Us

After reading the book Under the Banner of Heaven[1], I feel warned that I should be wary of anyone who believes he or she has heard the voice of God giving instructions or visions of the future. The central characters in that book believed God had spoken and ordered the murder of two innocent people, and they even discussed this order with other people who alleged to love and know the Lord. Everyone involved treated the supposed revelation with respect, even after some eventually rejected it after prayer and thought. (Those who rejected it continued to keep the revelation in confidence, feeling it not necessary to warn anyone about it.) Nevertheless, the one who performed those murders believes to this day that he did God’s work, and he waits patiently for the day when he will be recognized as the one chosen to announce the return of Christ to the earth. There are a lot of people who make a lot of claims about what God is doing and saying, and they usually feel that God wants them to tell others what they have heard. Most of those messages sound extremely bizarre to most people.

 It was the fate of the disciple Thomas to hear a story that sounded extremely bizarre, even impossible, about the resurrection of Christ on the Monday following the crucifixion. Thomas gets a lot of bad press because he doubted what he heard from the disciples, but then, they really didn’t believe Mary Magdalene, either, when she told her experiences. However, after ten of the disciples got together for supper behind locked doors on Sunday night, and Jesus simply appeared in their midst, they couldn’t wait to tell Thomas, the one who failed to show up. Do we dare criticize his skepticism when they told him what had happened? Can we not see how the whole story might seem like something the others contrived simply to shame him for not joining them?

 In fact, which of us can honestly point a finger of scorn at Thomas? He knew that Jesus had been crucified and buried. After the events of the previous Friday, it seemed pretty clear that Jesus had died, and the dream was over. We don’t know why Thomas didn’t join the others Sunday evening, but they were frightened enough that they locked the doors. Thomas may simply have felt it didn’t make sense to go about in public and make himself a target. So Thomas missed seeing Jesus, the resurrected Christ, that Sunday evening when he appeared among the disciples, behind doors that were still locked.

 I wonder what was going through Thomas’ mind that night. He was present for the last supper with Jesus. He was there when Jesus predicted that they would all scatter and abandon him. He had to be regretting his part in that abandonment. He was there, too, when Jesus prayed for the disciples he was sending into the world. Thomas heard Jesus pray, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” He had to be wondering why they needed to go into the world. There was nothing more to tell. Jesus was gone.

 But Monday morning, the other disciples chased him down and told him what had happened. It is the same message we all want to share with everyone in the world who doesn’t know. We have hope after all. Life isn’t a story written by a madman or a demented merry-go-round we can’t get off. Christ has risen, and his resurrection makes him the hope of the whole world. The disciples told Thomas the good news, and he acted the way lots of people act when you tell them about Christ: he wanted proof.

 Thomas got his proof. A week later, Jesus appeared again, and this time Thomas was there. Jesus offered Thomas the proof he asked for, but Thomas was overcome with awe in Christ’s presence. He did not need to thrust his hands in the nailprints or into Jesus’ side. He knew Christ when he saw him. Like many people in the two thousand years since, he came face to face with Jesus, and then he didn’t need any more proof.

 When we tell people the story of Jesus who died for them and rose again to give them eternal hope, they often say that it sounds very far-fetched. It is easier for them to believe things like, “You are really your own god,” or “The universe wants to give you everything you want.” We need to remember that if one of the twelve who walked with Jesus for three years could hardly believe he had risen, then it may be hard for people in the 21st century to believe, too. What was Jesus’ response to that doubt?

 Jesus responded with love. Jesus loved Thomas, and he wanted Thomas to know the blessing of the resurrection along with all the other disciples. He didn’t make an example of The Doubter and strike him with lightning; he lovingly invited him to come closer and check things out for himself. This is what Jesus does for everyone. And it is what we, too, must do when people back away from the good news. Jesus loved Thomas back into the family, and we are called to do the same as his messengers of good news.

 Dr. Rick Carleson, Professor at the Lutheran Seminary atGettysburg, says that the word translated as telling the good news is a single verb in Greek – to gospelize. He says that this is about getting people’s attention and wrapping them up in the good news. That is what Jesus did for Thomas, and that is what we are part of when we share the good news. Jesus doesn’t want to punish people for doubting; he wants to draw them near and dispel all doubt. We must pray that nothing in our behavior pushes people away when we want to point them to Jesus, because he wants them to come near and receive his grace and salvation in their lives, just like Thomas.

[1] Krakauer, Jon, Under the Banner of Heaven, Copyright 2003, 2004 by Jon Krakauer (Anchor Books, a division of Random House, New York)