I’ve recently taken to listening to a podcast called Skeptoid. And for those of you who don’t know, podcasts are like downloadable radio shows or lectures. This one is produced by a scientist who goes around investigated urban legends and myths to debunk them or discuss their credibility. Things like the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda Triangle, or the Marfa lights. The show’s entire premise hinges on a healthy use of skepticism and doubt to unlock some of the world’s most intriguing mysteries.
The show taps in to some of our most primordial impulses for survival—those of curiosity and disbelief. Our eyes still alert to movement because somewhere in our deep past we needed to watch for predators. “Did I just see a saber-toothed tiger in those bushes? I don’t know… so my eyes are going to linger there until I know whether it’s safe or not.”
At the core of today’s Gospel we encounter one of these natural instincts—doubt. It’s one of our most basic impulses for self-preservation and it’s vital for human reasoning. We could define “doubt” as a state of mind “suspended between two contradictory propositions.” Its opposite is certitude.
In today’s reading we heard the familiar story of the apostle Thomas, whose name, whether fairly or not, has forever become linked with the descriptor “doubting.” Jesus comes to those locked in the room while Thomas was away, and when Thomas later hears their report he infamously remarks that, “Unless he sees the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and the wound in his side… and places his finger in them, he will never believe." He craves certitude.
An often overlooked detail of the story is that Thomas, we are told, was a twin. I find this significant because twins are accustomed to being misidentified. I once knew a twin whose identical sister worked at one of my favorite coffee shops. Every time I went in there, I’d see her and try to get her attention to say hello, but her eyes would pass over mine as those of a stranger. Then I’d remember she was a twin. Once I went in and saw her pacing between her tables, but this time I was wise to my mistake. Only then, I noticed that the tattoos on her arms kept switching places. I was perplexed until I realized that now both twins were working there. Eventually, my friend saw me and said hi.
Thomas surely would have been familiar with such mix-ups and he, more than most, would have known to look for identifying marks. Maybe his demand to see Christ’s wounds came from such experience. But there are other possibilities. Perhaps his doubt was defensive. He feared being made to look like a fool. “I mean, come on, resurrection? You mean to tell me the man we all watched die days ago…lives?”
As a notoriously gullible person, I know this feeling. If you were to ask my wife Meredith, she could tell you story after story of me falling for someone else’s con. One time, a guy showed up at my doorstep, on foot, with no lawn mower, and I paid him, in advance, to mow my lawn… and then was completely shocked when he took off with the money! I’ve since learned to defer all such decisions to Meredith.
Thomas had had one too many of those moments. Or maybe he simply wanted to enjoy the same audience with Jesus that others had. After all, why had Jesus come while he was away? Had he done something wrong? Was there something he lacked?
I imagine that week between Jesus’ two appearances was a long one for him, perhaps full of much soul searching. Maybe his doubt turned inwards and he questioned whether or not he was worthy of Christ’s blessing. I’m sure that, like many of us, he knew of those sins that he hadn’t quite mastered—those parts he still held back from God. Could he truly be counted amongst Christ’s own while still bearing such shortcomings?
We can liken doubt to sand in that, with the right amount and in the right place, like a few grains inside a clam, it can serve as an irritant, producing pearls of great beauty. It can provoke growth and discovery. But doubt can also overwhelm us, and more like a pit of quicksand, it can keep us mired in place, unable to reach for that which God has for us. It can cause us to question ourselves or put up walls of protection. But these walls can hold us back. And if we’re not mindful of our self-protective instincts, we can become fearful and imprisoned by them.
But that’s not the life Jesus has for us. It’s no mistake that each time Jesus appears, his greeting calls us to lay down our worries. “Peace be with you.” The great news for Thomas, and I think all of us, is that Jesus returns… He doesn’t leave Thomas to mire in despair. Jesus finds him and reassures him that something in this world, or someone, is trustworthy—that he is included in God’s blessing despite his shortcomings. And Thomas responds with great joy.
All of this is very moving, but where does it leave us? Because, as Jesus acknowledges, those who come after Thomas will not be so lucky—to see Christ face-to-face. And, as if a two-thousand-year time gap weren’t enough, our world can be a confusing swirl of competing narratives. We live in an age of scientific achievement, religious plurality, and a whole slew of economic and social ideas.
Perhaps this accounts for all our friends and neighbors who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” It’s as if so many are propelled by some vague sense of hope in something transcendent, hungry for something truly life-giving, but we find ourselves lost in the forest of today’s complexity. Maybe, like Thomas, we are too afraid of committing ourselves to the wrong thing. We question our ability to see and recognize truth, unable to grasp anything with certainty.
But what do we sacrifice when we hold such questions at arm’s length? What is lost when we allow doubt and uncertainty to keep us from committing ourselves to that which could most free us? And for those of us who have committed ourselves to discipleship—here today—what doubts are we afraid to tangle with? What questions dare we not disturb?
Jesus comes to us promising peace, but can we trust him? Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear this, but once, in one of my seminary classes, a professor asked us how many of us had been warned by someone—a friend or relative—before coming to seminary, not to lose our faith. It might sound like a funny question, but I think many of us are hesitant to learn new things. We become comfortable and fear things might unravel if we tamper with them.
I envision this mindset as not unlike that old party game “Jinga” we used to see TV ads for. Remember, Jinga was that game where you would stack long, wooden blocks into the shape of a tower, and then everyone takes a turn removing one block at a time, until, for some unlucky player it all comes crashing down…
Sadly, after the professor asked her question, many of us did raise our hands because we had received such warnings. But thankfully, things don’t have to be this way! We needn’t live in fear, for God is big enough to withstand all our questions—all our doubts. We can’t break God, unsettle God, or catch God in an embarrassing philosophical gaff!
If we hold that scripture reveals God’s character, then today’s lesson reveals our God’s dependable and trustworthy nature. Just as with Thomas, God will not leave us to languish. Jesus goes to him, and raises him from despair. He doesn’t condemn him for his struggles, but commissions him to spread the good news.
Christ’s resurrection laid the foundation for our resurrection—new lives free from fears of unworthiness and doubt. And that same Spirit that Jesus breathed upon his disciples still washes over us today. Jesus explicitly blesses us, as those who will not see Christ physically on this side of the veil… and by the very merit of our baptism, we are empowered to follow him, welcomed into a newfound fullness of life in Christ. Jesus didn’t come to take away all questions or rid us of all doubt, but he did bless us to move forward into mystery.
Aristotle used to teach his students about mastering the “art of doubting well.” Likewise, in Christ, we are challenged to pair our natural, protective instincts with an unshakable faith in God’s goodness. Can we learn to embrace them as vehicles carrying us closer into God’s arms? Can we welcome the peace Jesus brings, laying down our fears and accepting his gift of new life? Can we take hold of His grace, which is our certitude? These are no small challenges, but as Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee.” The coast is clear… it’s safe, so go ahead and rest. Rest in the One who is perfect Peace. Peace be with you.