“Have Mercy on Those Who Doubt”: Does the Twenty-First Century Church Have Room for Doubting Thomas?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas-Caravaggio (1601-2).jpg

Today is the day the church has historically set aside to honor the apostle Thomas. You might recall him by his popular nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” 

This was the disciple who, after hearing the first report that Jesus had risen from the dead, famously made known his skepticism: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).

It’s easy at this point to bag on Thomas for his apparent impertinence. After all, hadn’t Jesus already told his disciples repeatedly that he was going to die and rise again (Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34)? Didn’t Thomas see Jesus perform miracle after miracle? Why didn’t he have more faith, right?

And yet, can we really blame Thomas? We, who have the advantage of being familiar with the ending of the Gospels for the past 2,000 years? Why should we be surprised at his need for more reassurance that his publicly-executed rabbi was now back from the dead?

Turns out, even Jesus understood Thomas’s need. As the rest of the story goes, when the risen Lord appears once again (with Thomas present this time), he greets his skeptical student not with a harsh rebuke or an angry excommunication. He doesn’t chide him for asking impertinent questions or tell him to “Just read your Bible.” 

No, Jesus calmly invites Thomas to come and see. To actually do what he wanted — to touch Jesus’s hands and side. To investigate and reassure his skeptical mind that this wasn’t all wishful thinking. 

The remarkable thing is, Thomas doesn’t even fully do what he said he wanted to do. He doesn’t take Jesus up on his invitation to poke and prod. It was enough for him to see his Master near to him. 

What’s more, I think, it probably made all the difference to “Doubting Thomas” that Jesus was willing to acknowledge his questioning. The risen Lord patiently bore with his need for more assurance. 

And lest we miss it, notice that it is the once-doubting disciple who ends up uttering the most clear and climactic profession of faith in John’s Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). 

In our own day and age, many people are finding themselves in Thomas’s position. Perhaps they’ve been following Jesus for a while — maybe even their whole lives — but recent crises have stirred up significant doubts. Many are struggling to hold onto their faith as they re-examine difficult questions. 

Or perhaps they’re facing the disillusionment of seeing so much shameful and, frankly, damned idiotic polarization and abuses within the ranks of those who profess to be Christ’s followers. (Yes, much of it truly is quite damnable, so I don’t use that word flippantly.)

And just like the apostle we celebrate today, many of these modern Thomases need the same things he did: Patient understanding while they wrestle with their questions, and reminders that Christ is present with them even in the midst of their doubts. 

The challenge is on those of us who are strong in our faith. Will you be willing to let people in your church ask hard questions —even about the things we might deem most settled and most certain — without shutting them down or shaming them? 

Will you bear patiently with those who need a little more reassuring that Christ is real, that the Scriptures can be trusted, and that God’s standards really are for our good? 

Or will you push people deeper into doubt with zealous “heresy-hunting,” defensive put-downs, or overly-simplistic answers that won’t suffice for the ambiguities of life we all must wrestle with?

When someone sincerely but strongly disagrees with your favorite doctrinal soapboxes, will you rush to bury them in piles of unwanted proof-texts? Or will you take the time to ask if there’s a more important, personal reason why they’re questioning?

When someone confesses that they’re really struggling to believe all this Christianity stuff, will you be willing to sit with them through their spiritual struggle and be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (James 1:19)?

And if we really want to get serious about this: When someone points out where your politics might actually be out of step with Christ’s own values, will you at least take the time to examine whether there may be a grain of truth there? Will you seek to embody the kind of fellowship Jesus’s own apostles had, where a tax collector and an anarchist could share table fellowship with each other because they were both so much more gripped by their mutual awe of Christ than by loyalty to their opposed parties?

If we could keep this priority of gracious fellowship, the church would be a safer place for our modern “Thomases.” Oftentimes what they need even more than evidence to poke at is simply a brother or sister to be present with them. To be a conduit of the risen Christ’s presence to them by showing them grace, kindness, and love. 

And sure, when they really are looking for answers and you have some good ones to offer, by all means share them. Invite people to “no longer be disbelieving, but believe” (John 20:27). Be ready to give an explanation for the hope you have (1 Peter 3:15). But do so with gentleness and consideration, to build others up rather than to prove a point.

Let us remember that crucial little command tucked at the end of one of the last books of the Bible: “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22)

Maybe if a few more of us did so, we’d see less “deconversions” and more health within the church. After all, you never know if it might one day become your turn to wrestle with questions. Treat others how you’d want to be treated, I seem to recall someone important saying.

Be patient. Be present. Be an understanding voice the Spirit of Christ can speak through. Honor the legacy of the “doubting apostle”— and obey the Lord Christ! — by having mercy on those who doubt. 



Categories: Contemporary Issues/Ethics, Practical/Devotional

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  1. Between Doubt and Dogmatism (A Review and Reflection on Perhaps by Joshua McNall) – Theology Pathfinder

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