I’ll admit it. I have a problem with the story of Thomas. It’s not what you think. I don’t dislike him for doubting the reality of the resurrection. On the contrary, I applaud him for having a hard time with something most people find difficult to grasp. He shouldn’t be singled out for being normal. My problem with Thomas runs much deeper.
The story of Thomas’ post-Easter encounter with Jesus doesn’t make sense. Reading more like a fairy tale than Holy Scripture, it makes incredibly stressful demands upon the discerning reader. It is tough to ask me, with my overpriced education and whopping student loan debt, to tell grown adults that a resurrected dead man assumed a ghost like form and walked through a wall. How do I do that with a straight face? Even admitting the “toughness” of such a statement will get me in trouble. So be it. Bring on the trouble. To acknowledge any difficultly at all with “ghost Jesus” walking through a wall means less of a Christian and in favor of everything bad happening to America and the world. That’s not true. Jesus didn’t walk through a wall. If you feel like you have to defend the idea of Jesus walking through a wall you’re probably more concerned about regulating faith rather than sharing faith. And Jesus not walking through a wall has nothing to do with being a Christian.
I want to read and preach from the Bible on its own terms; not those of a sci-fi rulebook few people read and fewer people understand. I do not believe the Bible is supposed to feel like a bad History Channel documentary or SyFy channel series. This is how the story of doubting Thomas feels to me. I have trouble taking this story seriously. What do we do with strange stories like this? What do with do with a God who walks through walls? What are we supposed to do with something so foreign to everything we know? I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the story.
Stress changes our lives. Studies have shown the most stressful moments in our life are weddings, job changes, moving, and death. In some way, the disciples had experienced all of those stress triggers in the days and weeks leading up to the ultimate emotional moment, Jesus’ murder. These guys were under stress. Stress makes people irritable, mean, ornery, passive-aggressive, and do things they wouldn’t normally do if the stresses didn’t exist. Cooped up in the Upper Room, unsure of their own fate, they didn’t know if they would live or die. They needed hope.
Sometimes the Bible does a similar thing to Christians. It puts us in the Upper Room, in a high pressure situation, where we may not be able to think rationally about whom we are and what we need to do next. In short, the Bible stresses us out. Deep down inside, passages like Thomas gnaw away at our insides, like a school yard bully, forcing us to accept realities that don’t and shouldn’t make sense. When and if you get the courage to talk to someone about your stress (a teacher, pastor) you’ve been conditioned to be afraid to bring up your problems because you’re going to be admitting you’ve been bullied about some weakness you can’t accept. Don’t Christians shun people for their faithlessness, for being weak? Some do. The next steps are evident: the stress feeds upon itself to create more stress.
How can we take Thomas seriously without the stress? It shouldn’t be this stressful. Is Christianity supposed to be a burdensome, stressful, chore? The joy found in the Psalms runs contrary to the stress filled living we create. Is the true measure of faith really belief in a God who walks through walls? Here’s a radical idea: what if Thomas is just a story? What can we learn from the story?
It was still the first day of the week. What does that mean? It’s still Easter. In fact, it’s the evening of Easter Sunday. The disciples are behind closed, locked doors. I suppose they thought this gave them a measure of safety and security. Maybe they had a secret knock or password if one of them had to go out and buy food. Though given the way information leaked in Jerusalem, it’s my guess that if the Romans wanted to find them it wouldn’t have been that hard. For all they know Jesus is dead and their lives are on a countdown clock. They have no idea what to do next. All of this makes perfect sense. You could probably cut the tension in the room with a knife. Judas’ treachery left everyone on edge. Despite their intimacy and friendship, question of trust were inevitable. Life didn’t get more stressful than this.
It is in the midst of this stress, the locked room, and the frayed emotions that Jesus appears. Here’s what I mean by saying “appears”: Jesus’ resurrected body appears in the middle of the room in which their gathered. Think of a Star Trek character beaming into a room, think of a ghost materializing in ghost busters, or a spirit walking through a door then coming to life. This is what John is describing. That’s supernatural, weird, and didn’t happen. If you’re Jesus and you take people you supposedly love, people who are on a knife edge of stress, emotionally distraught, and then stress them out with the most unbelievable supernatural occurrence ever documented in human history and expect them to respond naturally and normally, then you’re not Jesus. If you think about it, for more than a moment, despite his perfunctory pronouncements of peace, it’s kind of cruel. It’s a bad practical joke. The Jesus I believe in would never do that to the people he loves. The Jesus I believe in would never expect me to explain something so ridiculous to a hurting world. Is John telling his something else, are these guys seeing things? Are they so stressed out they’re imagining Jesus? Who knows? Perhaps there is more to this story than Thomas’ doubt and Jesus’ appearing tricks
This seems to be the sum total of the disciples first encounter with Jesus. John doesn’t tell it went anything beyond and appearance and one word “peace”. Talk about a letdown! Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first dropped by. To give our Lord the benefit of the doubt, maybe he didn’t want to go into any great detail without the whole group present. Given the importance of the post-resurrection message, perhaps Jesus didn’t want to repeat himself. Though, why would Jesus care about repeating himself? He’s Jesus, he can float through walls, repeating himself should be the least of his worries. Honestly, covering important material twice, especially for the disciples, should not be a big deal. So the flying visit makes no sense to me.
Thomas was making a food run or didn’t share the same fears of capture held by the other disciples. Thomas was absent for a reason. The stresses which held the other disciples in an unholy grip were not as strong in Thomas’ life. We do know what took him from that room. Thomas’ absence says something about his character and how he dealt with fear. His absence means more to me than their presence. He’s not holed up around a conference table planning. Thomas is doing something.
The others believe they’ve seen Jesus. Thomas, who’s been out doing instead of stressing doesn’t believe them. Does that sound like “doubt” or a man worried about the health of his friends and colleagues? Thomas has been out in the world. He knows what’s going on. They others have been cooped up in the Upper Room for several days. Who knows what they’ve seen?
A week later, once again behind locked doors, this time in a different house, the same scene unfolds. Thomas is there and the doors are locked. These two facts are extremely important. John puts it this way, “Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them.” It’s happened again, Jesus has beamed from either heaven or the other side of the door. Why? What’s the point? Why couldn’t he have knocked? Resurrected bodies apparently aren’t totally resurrected; superpowers are also involved. Jesus doesn’t appear from nowhere. John wanted to make some amazing point he didn’t need to make. If you want to prove Jesus is resurrected, having him eat a fish taco, not float through thin air. Magically appearing Jesus’ stresses people out and has nothing to do with what the magically appearing Jesus taught during his Earthly ministry.
In a story written sixty-five to seventy years after the events described, John wants Thomas to touch Jesus wounded side and hands. For seven decades, someone sat on the story of Thomas doubt and Jesus’ ability to walk through closed doors. For something so amazing, (like the other miracles and stories and his ministry) you would have thought it might have come to light a little sooner.
But then John adds this line, “But Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” Maybe this whole story was made up and just told get us to this verse. Jesus says, “Happy are those who don’t see and believe”. Happy are those who haven’t encountered me walking through the walls or locked doors and still believe. We can be happy and believe in Jesus without feeling the stress of having to justify belief in stress causing miracles. You know who says that, not Richard, Jesus says this! John acknowledges, I’ve just told you a bit of hyperbole to make this point, “faith is about what you don’t see and still managing to believe.”
This is an invitation to believe beyond the literal, “Jesus did many other things in his disciple’s presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll.” We don’t know what those signs are. But we do know this, there are signs that point back to who Jesus is and not fairy tales designed to amaze us about his divinity. This isn’t a problem to be fixed; it is a faith to be embraced. Jesus isn’t asking us to touch his wounds so we might believe. It is impossible to touch the intangible change which comes from Christian belief. Belief doesn’t walk through locked doors in spirit form but you can see and touch it as sure as I can see and touch everything around me.