Thomas: Apostle for a Secular Age

One of the distinguishing characteristics of our current “Secular Age,” Charles Taylor observes, is that we have moved “from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”1 

Children of our time, we are all “doubting Thomases” now.

What, then, might this skeptical disciple have to teach those of us who wrestle with doubt and disbelief even as we strive to follow the Risen Lord?

The Fourth Evangelist tells us that Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with the rest of the disciples when the risen Jesus suddenly stood in their midst that first Easter Sunday. Later, “the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’” (John 20:24-25 NRSV).

Thomas’s reluctance to believe that Jesus is alive should not surprise us. After all, Jesus was nothing but a corpse when he was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. God had not saved him from that shameful death; and dead people do not come back to life. Even if Thomas shared the belief of many Jews that God would raise all the righteous to life on the last day, the continuing presence of the Roman garrison in the holy city was proof enough for anyone that judgment day had not dawned on Easter morning.

If Jesus had indeed been raised, just about everything Thomas thought he knew would have been turned upside down. Can we blame him for wanting some evidence? The other disciples have seen Jesus. But Thomas hasn’t. And in any case, merely seeing will not be enough for him. Appearances can be deceiving. Thomas demands the certainty he believes can only come from handling Jesus’ wounded body, poking his finger through the nail-holes in Jesus’ wrists and sticking his hand into the gash left by the spear that pierced Jesus’ side.

As heirs of the Enlightenment, we should have a particular sympathy for Thomas. We have been taught that knowledge begins with skepticism—even of our own existence. “I think, therefore I am,” reasoned Descartes. Having divided mind from body, thought from action, the interior mental world of the thinking subject from the universe of external objects, Descartes sought by reason alone to replace the subjectivity and uncertainty of mere belief with an unassailable edifice of universal, objective truth.

Like Thomas, we too fantasize about holding the truth firmly in our hands. We speak casually of “grasping a concept” or “mastering a subject.”

Jesus, however, will neither be grasped nor mastered. He will not be circumscribed by Thomas’s hunger for certainty—or by ours. Jesus is no mere object for our detached analysis or dispassionate evaluation.

On the contrary, John’s Gospel insists that Jesus is the Subject. He is the Word who was with God in the beginning, the one through whom all things have come into being and by whom all things are sustained. Truth, John insists, is not information we can hold within our grasp. Truth is a person: the Word made flesh, God with a human face, the Teacher who washes his disciples’ feet, the Lord who lays down his life for his friends.

Thus, it is Jesus who takes the initiative on that first Easter Sunday. His frightened followers have locked themselves away in fear for their lives, but the Risen One finds them out. No stone can shut him in; no door can keep him out. Standing in the midst of his disciples, Jesus shows them his scars. As the one who has triumphed over death, he blesses them with peace (v. 19). What is more, Jesus sends them into the world as his witnesses (v. 21). Just as the Father has been present and active in the Son’s mission, so Jesus will be present and active in the mission of his followers; in their witness, Jesus himself will confront the world. To equip them for this ministry, Jesus bestows on them the Holy Spirit (v. 22), conferring on them authority to proclaim forgiveness of sins and newness of life through fellowship with the Father and the Son (v. 23).

One week later, Jesus appears to his disciples again, and this time Thomas is present among them (v. 26). Contrary to his expectations, Thomas does not encounter Jesus as an object to be examined and probed. Instead, the doubting disciple finds himself confronted by One to whom all hearts are open, all desires known: the Risen Lord who challenges him to see and touch and believe (v. 27).

Thomas had thought to make Jesus the object of rigorous and methodical examination. Instead, Jesus invites him into a relationship of trusting love and faithful discipleship.

The response is immediate and unequivocal: “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). This is no bare statement of fact. Rather, Thomas’s confession constitutes a wholehearted embrace of God’s gracious promise: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” 

Thomas’s encounter with Jesus exposes our modern quest to possess the truth without putting ourselves at risk as a fantasy. We may imagine ourselves to be detached observers, rationally evaluating competing claims to truth. But as Lesslie Newbigin observes, “[Knowing is] the responsible activity of a person who is required to make costly and risky commitments. ... There can be no knowing without personal commitment.”2

Because Truth is a person, knowledge of the truth demands nothing less than a radical self-commitment to the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures the paradox precisely: “Only those who believe Jesus obey him, but only those who are obedient believe.”3

Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with his disciples in John 20:19-29 continue to set the pattern for Christian worship, even in our Secular Age. As we assemble on the Lord’s Day, the Risen One stands in our midst. By the power of the Holy Spirit, his words of forgiveness are pronounced over us, and his blessing of peace is passed among us. In word and sacrament, Jesus confronts us with the gracious invitation: see, touch, taste, believe.

If, like Thomas, we respond in joyful self-surrender —“My Lord and my God!”— we discover that Jesus sends us, too, to be his witnesses in our homes, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, and to the ends of the earth.

 Contributor: Ross Wagner

References

1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007), 3.
2. Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 45, 50.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBW 4; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 63.


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Specializing in Paul's letters and in Septuagint studies, Wagner seeks to contribute to the recovery of theological exegesis through careful investigation of the ways scriptural interpretation shaped early Jewish and Christian communities. His publications include Heralds of the Good News: Paul and Isaiah in Concert in the Letter to the Romans (2002), Between Gospel and Election: Explorations in the Interpretation of Romans 9-11 (coedited with Florian Wilk, 2010) and Reading the Sealed Book: Old Greek Isaiah and the Problem of Septuagint Hermeneutics (2013). Professor Wagner taught New Testament for fifteen years at Princeton Theological Seminary before moving to Duke in 2013. He serves as an ordained minister in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.