ON Scripture: Lisa Nichols Hickman on John 20:19-31: Thomas > Doubt

John 20:19-31: Thomas > Doubt

By Lisa Nichols Hickman

Thomas is permanently labeled a 'doubter' by two millennia of history books, sermons, cartoons and theological treatises in the Christian tradition.  A cartoon by Joshua Harris has Thomas crying out, "All I'm saying is we don't call Peter 'Denying Peter.'"

Thomas is not to blame for this label.  He made a reasonable statement in an unreasonable, once-in-a-lifetime resurrection situation.  What's fascinating is how comfortable we are in letting Thomas be so trapped.  We might need his doubt to make sense of our own.  But when we let the story end with a label as easy as, "Doubting Thomas," we let ourselves reside in disbelief as well.

Recently, David Brooks of The New York Times criticized YouTube phenomenon Jefferson Bethke for just this.  In a public display of doubt over institutionalized religion, Bethke's rebellion resonated with over 20 million viewers who watched his lyrical lament, "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus."  With statements like, "The church should not be a museum for the good, but a hospital for the broken," his message is balm to a century disheartened by the institutional church. 

Watch the Video: Jefferson Bethke on Loving Jesus but Doubting Religion


While his poetic rant is filled with a plethora of one-liners, the message lacks a vision beyond lament.  Brooks names a singular criticism of Bethke:  "Rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm."  In his article, "How to Fight the Man", Brooks challenges Bethke to move beyond rebellion.  Brooks believes Bethke must turn his "passion into change."

Today's lectionary text, the story of Doubting Thomas, speaks to rebellion, passion and change.  While it would be easy to paint Jefferson Bethke as a contemporary Doubting Thomas, that comparison fails both Bethke and Thomas.  Bethke is far beyond doubt.  His love for Jesus shapes his logo, "Jesus>Religion."  But for as much as Bethke believes, he needs the next step. Thomas, surprisingly, provides that momentum. 

From Rebellion to Revelation

One word marks the rebellious nature of Thomas. "Unless," Thomas says, "Unless I see... I will not believe." 

This comes as a surprise, throughout John; Thomas perceived Christ's calling clearly.  As Jesus headed to the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus spoke cryptically of death.  Understanding what was to come, Thomas called the other disciples to perish with him (John 11:16). Later in the Gospel, Thomas asks Jesus, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?"  (John 14:6). Jesus responds, "I am the way and the truth and the life."

By John 20, the certainty of 'way, truth and life' are lost to three demands of Thomas.  While the disciples witnessed the resurrected Jesus, Thomas missed that revelation.  Now his request is to see the nail marks, put his finger there, and thrust his finger into his side. (KJV) The path of way, truth and life are lost to the human demand to see, put, thrust. These three verbs name that human desire for manipulation.  We want to change our circumstances ourselves.  When we can't, we rebel.

After making this demand, Thomas is behind locked doors when the risen Jesus appears with a threefold invitation for Thomas to see his hands, to put the finger of Thomas on his nail marks and to thrust his fingers into his side.  Jesus mirrors the request of Thomas and thereby creates a space for revelation. The risen Christ meets Thomas in his rebellion, stands before Thomas on his terms, and yields to revelation.

From Spasm to Momentum

Three easy-to-miss words mark the fact that this story will not end in a feeble spasm.  Instead, the momentum Thomas will bring the burgeoning Christian movement will be far-reaching.

"After eight days," the text denotes, Christ appeared to Thomas.  References from the Old Testament encourage us to consider the divine blessing and commissioning that occur on the eighth day.   The eighth day is the fulfillment of priestly ordination, the day for dedication of the firstborn, a day to mark in circumcision the covenant relationship, a day of gratitude and offering.  Could it be that Thomas will be marked on this eighth day and commissioned for service? 

The towns of Kodungallur and Kollam in Kerala, India, know the answer to that question.  Thomas started 'seven and a half' churches there in southern India. These churches stand as testament to the 'rigorous alternative vision' of Thomas.  He moved from feeble spasm to divine momentum with the humble confession, "My Lord and my God." There in India he created many a church that served as hospitals for the broken.

The vitality of Thomas' testimony is lost when it ends at belief.  This is not a story lent towards dogma.  Such clarity discredits the story.  In John's Gospel, belief is never static.  A person is always in the process of 'believing,' that is, leaning into belief in a broken world.  Easter faith is not about certainty.  The reality of Easter is the complexity of living anew in a broken creation.  Christian history tells us that Thomas shared the gospel in India, far from the certainty of his home.

This is precisely what Brooks wants Bethke to understand. Take the next step beyond easy word to a broken world. That eighth day, is rich in symbolism that mobilizes the doubt from spasm to momentum. 

From Bethke, To You and Me

At the Mikael Agricola Church in Helsinki a worship service called the 'Thomas Mass' creates a place for those who doubt. Their website shares a wonderful invitation, "The St. Thomas Mass invites doubters and seekers to celebrate, worship God, serve their neighbor, and grow together. Those who feel sinful and weak in faith are especially welcome."

When I collapsed into the pew while visiting there this summer, I sat with the weight of doubt in my personal and professional life consuming me from the inside out.  I prayed for a vessel where I could place my disbelief.  The service provided movement from spasm to momentum.  I could name my doubt in personal and corporate prayer.  But worship would not leave me there.  Like Thomas, that eighth day, I was commissioned.

On the eighth day after Easter, the world looks to you and me to take the first steps to turn the passion of Christ into compassionate change.  Bethke, like many, is looking for proactive change.  But first he needs a vision beyond his rebellion.  What steps would he take to move the church from a "museum for the good" to "a hospital for the broken?" Lingering in doubt is all too easy; leaning into change relies on the grace of resurrection faith.  Thomas is greater than his doubt because he received that commission and served beyond a doubt. 

Lisa Nichols Hickman serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, teaches part-time at Westminster College and writes regularly for the 'Call and Response' blog on the 'Faith and Leadership' website.  Her book, 'The Worshiping Life', is used by seminaries and small groups.  In her writing and teaching she hopes to tug on hearts and minds to go longer, deeper, broader and higher to explore new dimensions in life and faith. Her personal experience is very much shaped by surprising new dimensions:  the call to ministry, the birth of a daughter with Down Syndrome and a congenital heart defect, as well as all of life's daily surprises as a parent, spouse and person of faith navigating our complex world.    

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