Some people are doomed to be labelled for as long as they’re remembered. Ethelred will always be unready, and while Alexander will always be great, Vlad will always be an impaler. And the disciple Thomas? Always going to be the doubter.
Which isn’t entirely fair.
Here’s the deal – on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, who are obviously overjoyed. Thing is, Thomas isn’t there – maybe he’s gone to ground, maybe he was held up somewhere, but he wasn’t there.
That’s important, because no-one was expecting a resurrection. John’s gospel tells us that Mary, Peter and John, when faced with the empty tomb, thought they’d been victims of grave robbers. It’s only when they later meet Jesus that they truly believe. So why’s Thomas the one who’s known as the doubter? He’s the victim of 2,000 years of belief in the resurrection. He was on the first wave of the clean up crew, I think we can forgive him a burst of initial scepticism.
Maybe it’s the way he expresses himself. He comes across as a bit blunt, a bit dark. A week after Easter and he’s back with the disciples, although he’s not that receptive to their good news: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
He’s probably not all that different from his friends in that regard, but he was doomed to be last, the eternal sceptic.
Or the eternal pessimist? He crops up earlier in John’s gospel – Jesus has been threatened with stoning and they’re laying low. However, they’ve heard that their friend Lazarus is dying. Jesus wants to go to him; the disciples don’t want to go back into the dragon’s maw. Which of the Twelve thinks they should take the risk and follow Jesus?
It’s Thomas – “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” It’s not the cheeriest expression of loyalty, but loyalty it is – he thinks he’s going to die, but he’s still willing to follow Jesus. It’s an act of downbeat bravery. And, given what happens with Lazarus, it’s interesting that the guy noted for doubting the resurrection is the catalyst for the disciples going with Jesus and thus witnessing another resurrection.
It’s also interesting to note how Thomas reacts to seeing the risen Jesus. The offer is given for him to touch the scars in Jesus’s hands and feet, but here’s the thing – there’s no evidence that he actually did. He sees Jesus, believes and cries out “My Lord and my God!” He’s really no more of a doubter than any of the others, he just wasn’t in the right place at the right time. Jesus tells him to stop doubting and to believe but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d already had ten similar conversations.
But then it’s easy to label people. One act, one trait, one mistake can become your epithet forever, and your reputation can be boiled down to one word. It’s a terrible thing and I don’t think Jesus wrote Thomas off as the eternal doubter after this. I don’t think God does that to us either. Easter, after all, is a time for new starts – for Thomas and for us.