Poor Saint Thomas. He sure has a bad rap. Though he was one of the most zealous – and youngest – disciples of our Lord, though he eagerly wished to die with Jesus, though he spread the Gospel through many countries and continents, though he died a martyr’s death in India: despite all this, most people know him for the moniker “Doubting Thomas.”
A Doubting Thomas is someone who doesn’t believe without proof. This title comes from the 20th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel, when, after His resurrection, Jesus appears to all of the apostles but Thomas. When the other disciples tell Thomas of the resurrection, he says, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) Eight days later our Lord comes to the apostles again, this time with Thomas present, and He offers His body as proof, saying “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:27) Thomas then believes and confesses that Jesus is Lord and God.
Because of this story, St. Thomas is called Doubting Thomas. He is shown as an example of what not to do in matters of faith; a person should simply believe without needing proof. (In fact some people call the icon of this event, which is remembered on the Sunday after Pascha, “The Doubting of Thomas.” The actual title of the icon is “The Touching of Thomas.”)
In truth, matters of faith are not as simple as this. And Thomas is not the lone skeptic that we make him out to be. Which of the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead without seeing first-hand? None of them. The myrrh-bearers found the empty tomb and encountered an angel. When the apostles heard the news from them, they called it “idle tales.” (Luke 24:11)
Then Jesus appeared to two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They told the others, yet still they did not believe. (Mark 16:13) In fact, the apostles remained unbelieving until Jesus himself appeared to them. And He said, “‘Why do doubts arise in your hearts?'” (Luke 24:38)
You see, doubt is not unique to Thomas. It is something that all of our Lord’s followers suffer from. (Including us!) Furthermore the desire for first-hand experience is not inherently a bad thing. The first thing St. Peter did when he heard of the resurrection from the myrrh-bearers was to run to the tomb to see for himself.
Part of the problem is in the unnecessary contrasting of proof versus faith. This is a false dichotomy. While we as Christians must be comfortable with the unknown – the things which are beyond understanding, accepted only by faith – we are also a people who know God, who experience Him first-hand and “touch” Him as Thomas did.
Our Christian life is really a combination of experience (proof) and trust (faith). It can be expressed by these simple words: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Now let us return to St. Thomas. He was one of the most zealous of the twelve apostles, after St. Peter. It was St. Thomas who, before our Lord’s death and resurrection, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him!” (John 11:16). In his youth and his faith he did not fear death.
After our Lord’s ascension into Heaven and the day of Pentecost, St. Thomas travelled the most of any apostle. St. John Chrysostom said that he “toiled through the grace of God more bravely, more zealously and tirelessly than them all, so that he went preaching over nearly all the earth, not fearing to proclaim the Word of God to savage nations.” According to Church tradition, St. Thomas founded churches in Ethiopia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia (Iran) – where he baptized the Magi – and India.
In the city of Meliapur, India, he converted the wife of a local ruler, for which he was thrown in prison, tortured, and finally pierced with spears. Thus perfecting his life by the martyrdom for which he longed, St. Thomas entered the Heavenly Kingdom.
On October 6, we commemorate this zealous follower of Christ, the Apostle Thomas. May we learn from his zeal, his faith, and his desire to experience God first-hand, so that we may likewise come closer to the mystery and the reality of our Lord and God.