Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Thomas the Apostle

When considering Thomas the Apostle, lots of people fixate on the post-resurrection Thomas, who doubts that Jesus is alive and is only persuaded by seeing the risen Christ.  This is not, perhaps, Thomas' finest moment.  Still, it resonates with our sceptical and empiricist age, which tends to cast Thomas as the hero of the scene.  To do this, of course, one has to to ignore the implicit rebuke in Jesus' words regarding those who have not seen.  In fact, Thomas should have believed on the basis of testimony, and so should we, but "God, for the firmer foundation of our faith, allowed... Thomas to doubt the resurrection".

Anyway, that isn't the snap-shot of Thomas that I love.  I love his minor appearance in John 11.  The story is simple.  Lazarus has died, and Jesus is determined to go to Bethany; we do not yet know that he is going to restore Lazarus to life, although it is clear that Jesus knows.  The problem for the disciples is that Bethany lies in territory extremely hostile to Jesus.  The last time they were in the region, Jesus was almost stoned.  Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go, and Thomas pipes up: "Let us also go, that we may die with him".

Doesn't sound like a statement of great faith, and I don't think it is meant to.  Unpicking the logic of it a little, it doesn't even make much sense.  Thomas is presumably following Jesus because he believes him to be the Messiah; if he is not the Messiah, Jesus no longer has any claim on Thomas.  But if he is stoned by the Jews, it will be shown clearly that Jesus is not the Messiah (for Thomas, like all the disciples, is unaware that the Messiah must die).  If Jesus dies, there is no reason to die with him, from Thomas' point of view.  His claims will have been shown to be false, and following him will have been revealed as a huge mistake - a colossal mistake if indeed it ends in being stoned at his side!

So Thomas in this instance isn't driven primarily by truth.  If he were, he would say "Let us also go, because he is after all the Messiah, and no harm can come to him".  Right at this moment, Thomas is more like the contemporary Christian who says "If it all turns out to be false, I will still cling to him".  At this point, I think Thomas is driven not by truth, but by love for Jesus' character.

My reflection on this is that truth alone is not always enough to keep me following Jesus.  In the classical triad, the other two - goodness and beauty - are just as important.  I wonder if the need to fight for truth in our culture - for the very concept of truth as well as the particular truths of Christianity (or perhaps that should be the other way round) - has led us to neglect the other two aspects.  Of course we need truth.  Ultimately, the person who wants to cling to Jesus even if his claims are proven to be false is a fool.  But perhaps from time to time a little foolishness is permissible.  Perhaps sometimes we can't see the truth, or at least it doesn't seem as certain as it once did.  What do we do in those times?  Follow Jesus because he is good.  Follow him because he is beautiful.  And hope and pray that we will see clearly again that he is the truth.


  1. Thomas's inclusion at the end takes on a new significance if indeed Thomas was the one who thought the direction/sens/sense/significance of going to Lazarus' tomb was death. Especially if Ben Witherington is right that the 4th gospel may have been written by Lazarus - whom Jesus loved, the one he raised from the dead. FWIW I think he makes a very very good case.

    1. Interesting, Chris - and thanks for the link to BW3. He does make a good case (after a very quick read through). I do find the presence of the BD at the supper to be a sticking point with this and Richard Bauckham's alternative theories, so I'm probably going to stick with John son of Zebedee for now - but not cling to it all that closely.

      Can you unpack a little the significance of the link between these two episodes in Thomas's career as you see it? I'm interested to see more of where you're going with it.

  2. Oh my. I LOVED this.
    Yup - got me in the soul, right under the ribs. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Tanya - glad it was helpful!