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Why Did St. Thomas Doubt


By Ted Schroder, Amelia Plantation Chapel

The reason the first Christians changed their day of worship from the seventh day of the week (the Sabbath), to the first day, was because of the resurrection of Jesus.

The resurrection was so important to them that it even changed the way they worshipped. The Sabbath, which was so holy to the Jews, became the Lord's Day. For it was on that first day, that Jesus appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room.

He came and stood among them, spoke with them, and showed them his wounds. John's Gospel tells us that the disciples were overjoyed when they saw him. He commissioned them in his service of preaching the Gospel of forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit. But Thomas was not there. He missed church that Sunday! The other disciples told him what had happened. They gave their first hand testimony: "We have seen the Lord!" But Thomas was not easily persuaded.

He wanted proof. "Unless I see with my own eyes the nail marks in his hand and put my own finger where the nails were, and put my own hand into his side, I will not believe it." Have you had the experience with someone who does not share your faith? They want first hand proof that your experience is valid.

Or perhaps you have had difficulties believing yourself that the Gospel record is true, and want to see everything tested before you will receive it as valid? Why did St. Thomas doubt?

Why do many people find it difficult to believe the testimony of others, the witness of history, the record of his post-resurrection appearances, the claims of Christ to be God in the flesh, the Lord of all, the conqueror of death and Hades, the authority of Holy Scripture?

What causes some people to be congenital doubters? Did Thomas suffer from existential angst? Philosophers explore the problem of having a fundamental sense of uncertainty about the reality of existence. Doubt and despair can be the result of a basic pessimism about the human condition.

Modern atheistic philosophy, that denies any divine purpose, and defines life in terms of a biological determinism, breeds cynicism. Life that is lived on the surface, that seeks to escape boredom and emptiness through material acquisition and pleasure, is prone to perennial doubt. Doubt cannot be always kept at bay by distraction from anxiety. Perhaps Thomas was plagued with troubling questions that he couldn't ignore. Doubts are often rooted deep in the personality.

Did Thomas suffer from emotional mood swings: a manic period when faith was strong, and a depressive period when faith was absent? When we feel good, and life is going well, faith is easy. But when we pass through periods of discouragement, doubts resurface.

It is important to distinguish mood swings from genuine doubt. Our feelings have to be offered up to God, to be purified, so that we can experience peace.

We can choose to be governed by our feelings or by our daily commitment to follow Jesus. Jesus said, "Come to me all you who weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (i.e. my teaching) upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

Was Thomas at a turning point in his development and personal history? Different seasons of our lives affect our faith and our doubts. Changes in life lead to vulnerability which leaves us open to doubt.

Transitions, a sense of danger, insecurity, loneliness, which Thomas must have been experiencing, can cause doubt and fear. Adolescence, mid-life crises, menopause, empty nests, illnesses and retirement bring stresses that cause us to doubt. As we age we ask, "Is there nothing more?" and we face the three big D's: decline, depression and death.

Did the death of Jesus trigger some emotional connection in Thomas's life? The loss of Jesus may have led him to contemplate other losses in his life, which he interpreted as abandonment by significant people, and consequent feeling of anger, or lack of value. Some doubts can be traced to painful chapters in our emotional history.

Deaths of parents, siblings, or close friends in tragic circumstances, may have left unfinished business. The fact that Jesus had appeared to the other disciples and not him may have upset him. Was Jesus avoiding him? Was he not important? Why was he being put on the spot and expected to believe when the others had it easy? It could have looked to him as favoritism. Pressure points and crisis events can shape our doubts.

Job losses, illness, bereavements, tragedy of one kind or another, may push us to doubt. Loss of children or other people we love, often cause us to doubt that there is a God of love.

Perhaps this is what led to Thomas's doubting. He had undergone the stunning shock and stress of Jesus' arrest, trial, torture and execution. This was a major life crisis for Thomas. All his hopes and dreams had crashed and burned.

Parental abuse causes distrust and doubt of any authority figures. New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz, in his book Faith of the Fatherless, studied the childhood of several well-known atheists and saw strong evidence that their rejection of God is directly related to father pain: the death of a father or abuse or abandonment by their fathers.

Vitz points out that Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who declared that 'God is dead,' lost his father at age four. Samuel Butler, skeptical British novelist, was often brutally beaten by his 'pious' father. Sigmund Freud said his father was a 'pervert' and built much of his psychological theory around father hatred. Joseph Stalin's father beat him unmercifully. Madelyn Murray O'Hair once tried to kill her father with a butcher knife.

Vitz suggests that after studying these and other 'major historical rejecters of God .... We find a weak, dead or abusive father in every case." Consequently Vitz urges great compassion for atheists, because behind their unbelief, in all likelihood lies some painful memory. So as you examine your doubts, you may want to honestly confront the possibility that one of your roadblocks to faith may be some pain from the past. Lynn Anderson in "If I Really Believe, Why Do I Have These Doubts?" claims that the pace of our lives breeds doubts. He calls it cognitive overload.

The impact of the media upon us transforms every day into a crisis as we absorb the tragic events in the world through our television screens.

We are overstimulated by our environment and overcommitted in our schedule. We keep ourselves busy so that we do not have to find time for reflecting and listening. Activism, no matter how well-intentioned, leaves life shallow. It can also leave us with faith that may appear to be a mile wide but may not be an inch deep.

Cynicism and skepticism pours over us from the talking heads, and the experts. As in the garden of Eden, the tempter can stimulate these roots of doubt and encourage their growth so that we question the presence of God. The influence of evil seems more pervasive than the power of the goodness of God when we see innocent civilians and children killed or maimed by terrorists.

"Where is God in all of that carnage?" we ask. Henri Nouwen refers to this experience as 'the absence of God'. But some of the times when God seems to be absent may actually be fulfilling his purpose. "His absence... is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of His presence." (Reaching Out, p.127) When we feel that God is absent, he may be more completely and sharply focused in our conscious thoughts, more so than when we take for granted that he is very near.

Henri Nouwen writes, The mystery of God's presence, therefore, can be touched only by a deep awareness of his absence. It is in the center of our longing for the absent God that we discover his footprints... In the patient waiting for the loved one, we discover how much he has filled our lives already. Just as the love of a mother for her son can grow deeper when he is far away, just as children can learn to appreciate their parents more when they have left the home, just as lovers can rediscover each other during long periods of absence, so our intimate relationship with God can become deeper and more mature by the purifying experience of his absence. (p.128)

When you consider your doubts, look for its roots in your basic temperament, or your particular stage in life, or to a negative experience either long past or recent. Doubt may have more to do with your personality or your personal history than it does with the facts, with the issue of truth, or the conflict between faith and knowledge. Who knows what were the roots of Thomas's doubts about the resurrection?

Eventually he came to believe. Some of us take longer to process the information we need in order to experience the presence of Christ. That does not mean that we should give up or summarily reject the evidence we have in hand. It means that we need to be patient and humble enough to be open to what God might want to teach us. A week later, the next Sunday, the first day of the week, the Lord's day, when the disciples were gathered together again (the second Sunday in the Christian era), Jesus came and stood among them, as he does whenever his church gathers.

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." When Thomas saw Jesus he acknowledged him with words of personal faith, "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) Jesus says to every one of us, "Stop doubting and believe." That means making a choice. Will I consciously believe, or will I choose to continue to doubt? Doubt is a decision, just as much as faith.

Feelings of uncertainty or doubt, should not prevent us from making the decision to believe in Jesus and to follow him. Sometimes we have to act on our choices before the feelings will follow. The habit of keeping company with Jesus, will result in a secure relationship of love, which fosters faith. Walking in the way of Christ each day, gradually dispels doubt, until it withers away through lack of attention.

Faith needs to be fed, and doubt needs to be starved through prayer, study. service, witness, and worship. In that way the past can be put behind us, and the future becomes an adventure of faith with all the possibilities the kingdom of God promises. It is the only way to live. END

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