The story of Doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29) takes place at the end of the Gospel of John. Like the rest of the Gospel, the Doubting Thomas tale is not a true story but rather what we call religious history. The truth is inside the story. The surface story says that Thomas the Twin (rumored to be the twin brother of Jesus, but that idea has never been substantiated) was not in the room for Jesus’s first appearance to the disciples after his crucifixion. But Thomas was there for the second appearance a week later. Jesus insisted that Thomas touch his wounds, after which Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Thomas the Twin then became Doubting Thomas. His role in the history of the Jesus movement is to tell us that doubting is a no-no, and believers must have total faith in Jesus as God.
Guess what? I disagree! I think doubt is a very important part of growing in the Christian faith. For instance, back in 1957 when I was in my second year of seminary, on a beautiful Friday afternoon in October in Berkeley, California, a fire truck broadsided my friend Brad and me. Brad was killed instantly. The next day, an Episcopal priest came into my hospital room and asked, “What did you and Brad do to deserve this?”
Had I believed this priest, today I would still believe that there is a God sitting up there in his little castle above the three-tiered flat world and orchestrating every aspect of people’s lives. Instead, I instantly doubted this priest, and my world changed. I came to grips with the fact that the concept of God is a man-made idea. I believe there is a greater force in the universe, but I am not capable of describing or defining it.
Once I embraced Creation (my word for this force), almost all of the institutional church’s dogma and doctrine became irrelevant. This was a great time of growth in my life because I had doubted most church doctrine for years. I was ready to look at Jesus in a very different light. Had I not doubted, I would still be stuck with Jesus the world’s greatest magician or the mystical Jesus who can say or do anything, but believers are not allowed to doubt it. After all, he is the nonexistent god up there who isn’t to be questioned.
I doubted it all. My liberal arts education taught me to question everything, and I have spent my life doing just that—except when I was in the Marine Corps. But I soon learned that I couldn’t do the Marine Corps thing and be a successful officer. So, I left!
In one of my many journals, I read a story about Mother Teresa, who is one of my favorite witnesses and examples of how to “[do] it to one of the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). It surprised me that Mother Teresa had long periods of doubt. When she was thirty-six, she received a call from God telling her to leave her teaching post and serve the poor. She did but claimed she never heard from God again. I understand!
The difference between Mother Teresa and me is that in my doubting, I was and still am allowed to openly express my thoughts and to explore other ways of keeping the baby (Jesus) while throwing out the bath water (the institutional church and its antiquated beliefs). I feel that perhaps Mother Teresa could have moved through her heaviest doubts had she been encouraged to share her doubts with her community instead of living under the threat of excommunication if she expressed them.
For me, being a doubting Thomas is one of the foundation stones of my theology and faith. This is the only way I can continue to grow. I have to keep asking my questions. Fortunately, I am part of a faith community that encourages us to ask our questions—any questions.
Are you a doubting Thomas?