There is one way of doubting that contains a promise. Thomas tied his fate to Jesus, even in despair.

There is a small thirteenth-century miniature from Cologne that depicts the decisive encounter of Jesus with doubting Thomas. (It is in the Gospel-book from Great St. Martin’s in Cologne, which dates from 1250 [Bibliotheque Royale, Brussels].) Christ, followed by his disciples, steps through the church door while Thomas stands outside, ready to test Jesus by placing his hand in the nail prints.

There are some significant details in this scene. Jesus stretches his arms over Thomas like a cross. It is as though the unhappy seeker already stood under the cross without realizing it. While he yet doubts, he is already touched by that gesture of Jesus’ blessing. The lines in the figure of Thomas have about them a tense excitement. It seems as though Thomas is saying, “Everything depends on what happens in the next few moments. Nothing less than my identity is at stake. Am I saved, or have I fallen prey to a gigantic illusion that will leave me spiritually bankrupt?” But one final intimation of the painter is the most astounding of all. Although he stands outside in a state of unmastered doubt, Thomas is encircled by a halo, the aura of a saint. He is already enveloped by rays of glory that Jesus’ other followers still lack, even though they appear secure in their discipleship.

What kind of figure is this, surrounded by doubt and hope at the same time? In a few strokes I would like to try to sketch a portrait of this man.

Here is a New Testament story that does not lend itself to theology or formula: What sort of theological doctrine would be distilled from it? Could one, for instance, formulate from it the thesis that faith requires confirmation by experience—that one cannot hold something to be true unless one has established it by all means of verification (beginning with eyesight and touch)? Obviously, our story resists being pressed into such a mold. Indeed, Jesus expressly rejects the idea that faith is based on proof from experience. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Perhaps one could formulate the opposite thesis and say that faith is not true faith if it wants to “see” and “experience.” Without any reassurance, faith must take the risk of falling blindly, so to speak, at the Lord’s feet. But even this thesis doesn’t work, for Jesus lets Thomas see and feel! That may be illogical; it may be theologically “questionable”; but that’s what Jesus did. So he foils our attempts at theologizing.

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It is a good thing to encounter a story that cannot be neatly pigeonholed. It quite definitely trains one in openness of mind, in hearing and accepting surprises. Also, a story that is so illogical and resists all doctrinaire formulations reminds us that Holy Scripture is always greater than our minds, even greater than our theology, and that an explosive power lurks within it.

Let us begin by looking at the figures in our text. That Thomas, the doubter, comes to believe is due in no small measure to the miracle of the fellowship. Certainly we cannot say he was a “leading member” of the congregation, or even a “model Christian.” At crucial moments in the life of the fellowship, he had not exactly demonstrated staying power. He was not a man endowed with rousing, consoling, and encouraging words.

Nevertheless, in a certain sense he was faithful. He was even ready to die with Jesus. In spite of that, there was a crippling hopelessness about him. Time and again he came out with things that the others hardly dared think about in their most anxious moments. “What are we fighting and preaching for?” was the burden of his questioning. “We do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

Of course, the others were just as much in the dark about whether or not they were serving a lost cause, but Thomas said openly that he didn’t know. Once this is spoken, the door is opened to the specter of fear. We know how it goes when people speak out in that way. Suppose you have heard a good, rousing sermon. Right afterward someone says to you, “Granted it was a good sermon, but outside the masses pour from factory doors without having heard it. What will happen to us if the masses remain without a shepherd and if secularism stifles all searching for God? What use is one good sermon when we need a revival throughout the country? Isn’t it all fruitless in the end, and isn’t the night coming, when no man can work?”

Even if we have silently thought the same thing, that is paralyzing. And that was certainly Thomas’s constant effect.

Finally, he absented himself completely from the gatherings of the disciples. He no longer put up the “opposition” but, like a wounded animal, crept into his burrow. If the disciples had then said, “Thank heaven we’re free of that fault-finding wet blanket,” we would understand perfectly. But that is just what they did not say; they remained faithful to Thomas. They kept him posted on their experience with Jesus, and in such a way that he felt himself buoyed up, and brought himself to return to their fellowship at the decisive moment.

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At any rate, this fellowship endured the uncomfortable presence of a man who could disturb them acutely and who constantly teetered on the brink of heresy. In other words, it was not a closed group or party intent on homogeneous exclusiveness, nor was it a chemically pure denomination, permitting no one to step out of line. Notice: they endured a man who doubted the resurrection, the basic teaching of Christianity. If he held office in any self-respecting church today, he would certainly be saddled with a heresy trial. And if the members didn’t go that far, it would not usually be because they were willing to “bear with” the annoyance; it would likely be because they didn’t take the church too seriously. They would tell themselves, “We can endure the weeds until things can be sorted out on Judgment Day.”

That is, of course, the reason why no revivals and no awakenings break out among us; that is why we have so few Thomas miracles. Where we have nominal members on one side and friendly tolerance on the other, no sparks are likely to fly. No one catches fire. Thomas must have noticed that it pained the disiples’ fellowship not to be permitted his complete presence, and that it hurt them that he had excluded himself from the blessing they shared. Which of us feels a twinge in his heart when he uses the popular phrase, “those on the outside,” or “the fringe members of the church”? Haven’t nearly all of us classified our environment into Christian and heathen, believing and doubting, active and indifferent? But he who wants to save men’s souls, concerning himself with doubters and secular mankind, must suffer pain. Otherwise he doesn’t “bear with” the other person, he merely “bears” him. I fear, however, that in such a case Jesus never comes at all. Behind the unblessed, hermetically sealed doors, people without Thomas go on whining for an awakening or a new power of the Spirit that will rouse the valley of dead bones. They forge “strategies,” carry on “public relations,” organize great conferences, and resort to all sorts of gimmicks. But nothing happens. How could it be otherwise?

Then there is thomas himself. We are all like him, of course, or at least one voice in us is. Let’s see precisely how he doubts, for there is one way of doubting that contains a promise and another that does not.

We hear of Thomas’s doubts in the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:16). Thomas, like everyone else, has assumed Jesus will bring in the theocracy and set up a reign of peace. Then is it possible (and this is the question of doubt) for this assumption to be correct when, instead of making headway and in fact winning, the force of the Messiah only creates a counterforce? And then what happens when the feeling arises that the counterforce is actually growing stronger and that the chances for the long-awaited “Christianization” are proportionately dimmer? If these dismal prophecies prove accurate, then isn’t the assumption that Jesus is victor over the world false? The introspective Thomas grapples with tormenting thoughts like these. He becomes depressed.

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Then Lazarus dies: so there is something stronger than Jesus, namely, death. If death can drag off the friend of Jesus as booty, that means he can seize even Jesus. Perhaps this experience contributed to the fact that, later, Thomas was not able to believe the resurrection of Jesus either. If a man has to give in to death, then he cannot be the Savior of the world. Thus Thomas argued, and he doubted.

Yet it was a special sort of doubt that agitated Thomas. The peculiar feature was that he didn’t turn, say, to the Pharisees, or to some other world view for security. All of us want something certain to hang on to. So did Thomas. But still he didn’t leave; he said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” That is the speech of a man with empty hands, bereft of hope.

Now, we must try to understand that the divine promise is already active in this sort of hopelessness. But first we must examine Thomas’s hopelessness more closely. He didn’t want just to die. He wanted to bind the hopelessly lost cause of his life with the lost cause of the Nazarene. If I am ready to die with another, then I surrender myself to him absolutely; I wager my entire existence on him. And that is exactly what Thomas did. Therefore, clouds of blessing floated above his hopelessness. He did not bind his fate to Jesus because he hoped that by so doing he would become rich, happy, or comparatively free, or perhaps would even be able to expect a cabinet post in the messianic kingdom. He did not give himself to Jesus in order to obtain something else.

Thomas was completely without hope. He held to Jesus because he loved him, because he was faithful to him, and because he wanted to die with him. It was precisely his complete hopelessness that forced him to the person of the Savior himself.

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I only wish that we, too, had a dose of this divine hopelessness within us, so that we didn’t yet know what clouds of blessing floated above us.

However, let us (as comrades of doubting Thomas) allow our hidden hopelessness to stand for once: the concern, for example, that no awakening will again sweep across our land, that secularism and indifference will continue to grow, that the trend toward a mass society will increase, that the facts will more and more disprove the lordship of Jesus, and that only a few old people will still huddle around the altars. With one brave, heroic, despairing blow, let us free ourselves from all dreams of re-Christianizing culture and even from optimistic church statistics. Let’s be clear for once that we Christians may become very lonely people. Let’s not console ourselves by saying that this is the “tribulation” Jesus predicted. Let us rather entertain the possibility that all this could be a refutation of Jesus Christ, and that he had left us, as Jean Paul Richter expressed it, as waifs without a father.

Let us not cease doubting too soon! Our faith should certainly not be the product of repressed doubts. For, as Luther said, “Testing teaches us to heed the Word.” But if we doubt in that way, we won’t want to run away or die or put a bullet through our head. Then our final word will be, “All right, then, I’ll just die with him. Was he wrong? All right, then I will be wrong too.”

If I say that, then I have cast myself on Jesus in a way that no one who secretly lives on other hopes can do. Then I am his disciple totally and to the end. In that case, my complete hopelessness (precisely that, of all things) has driven me to him. And Jesus does not let us down. Our hopes deceive everybody. Our life, you know, is full of disappointment. But Jesus does not let us down.

We should serenely (or despairingly, as far as I am concerned) lay the responsibility of proof upon him. We may say to him, “Show me what you’ve got, and if there’s nothing to you, then nothing else matters, either.” And Jesus shows what he has.

Now jesus, and he alone, has the floor, and he says. “Blessed are the poor; blessed are the poor in hope; blessed are the doubting who are willing to die with me, for with such I am willing to live.

Have we understood, therefore, that Thomas’s doubt is of a quite special kind? It is not to be equated with that blasé doubt that fairly bursts with self-assurance, and even less with that false snobbish doubt that wants only to argue without getting involved. Involvement is Thomas’s salient characteristic. He throws himself and all he has into the balance. He is prepared to die for his doubt.

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We have to look at the background of our text; then we can understand it rightly. It portrays the moment in which doubt reaches its climax and in which all the promises come to fulfillment.

Thomas is once again in the fellowship. He has been, so to speak, “loved into it.” The disciples had told him, “We have seen the Lord. He came through locked doors.” Of course, this report cannot satisfy the doubter’s deep honesty.

And Thomas says to himself, “It could have been a spirit. And spirits people think they see are usually products of their own imagination.” He is willing to believe only if the presence of the risen One is real. He is not interested in “ideas” or “spirits.”

While Thomas is thus doubting, Jesus again comes through the locked doors and says, “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t say, “Peace be with you—except Thomas, because he has no peace; he is quarreling with me.” He includes the dear doubter in his salutation of peace. Then he addresses him immediately, commanding him to place his hands in the prints of the wounds.

That is a grand and comforting thing. Jesus’ attitude to this poor doubter—to us poor doubters—becomes clear.

We must discover that Jesus is not angry with Thomas about his questioning. Instead, Jesus lets him know he understands. That is the last thing we can hold to when doubt comes over us: Jesus knows about us, but he does not doubt us in return.

Next, Jesus does not wait until Thomas asks him; he is suddenly there, unasked, with his answer—and in a way that Thomas had never dreamed of. And finally, Jesus does not come to him with a “theory” about faith. He doesn’t say, “Your request is not quite legitimate, theologically speaking. In reference to me, the appropriate posture is not seeing, feeling, or experience; it is blind faith.”

That’s the way we theologians always speak in our discussions. And that’s why so few people believe us. It would certainly have been true if Jesus had said that. For faith is actually independent of verification by sight and touch. But in that moment, such a truth would have been an excessive demand to place on Thomas. He simply wasn’t far enough along to have been able to bear that truth.

Jesus, however, does the completely unexpected. He lowers himself to this poor doubter. “Seeing is really not important,” Jesus may be thinking, “but Thomas is still a poor beginner, an amateur at faith. He still has no idea of what’s really essential.” Yet that does not hinder Jesus from yielding to this poor beginner in faith. Jesus didn’t act properly, one might say. He didn’t act in conformity with the prescriptions laid down in dogmatic textbooks under the heading, “Christology.” Notice that Thomas’s request places a condition on the Lord. He says, in effect, “Do thus and so, otherwise I will not believe in you.” May one speak this way? No; it is not proper. But Jesus does the improper. He does what the phrase of Paul’s, “by faith alone,” seems to contradict directly. Jesus shows himself to Thomas; he lets him see and touch a little. The Son of Man is not only Lord of the sabbath (Mark 2:28); he is also Lord over dogmas.

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That Jesus became man shows his activity is always downward in its motion. In this encounter he lowers himself yet another time, going not only to the human heart, but right down to the fingertips.

This may also be instructive for us who are witnesses of Jesus. Perhaps we know someone who hasn’t the slightest inkling of the correctness of orthodox belief and is so much the more depressed by uneasiness and anxiety. Should we give him a lecture about the Trinity or the mysteries of predestination? Or should we simply describe to him what it is like when Jesus comes into our life: namely, that one finds something like peace; that there is a very fine thing; and that one then sees the whole world with new eyes?

But if we spoke in that way, we would show that we did not consider ourselves somehow or other above bending to such a person’s poor amateurish faith. Perhaps then an occasion might arise for us to say, “You know, faith doesn’t depend on subjective emotion, or on seeing and feeling. The case is, rather: Blessed are those who do not feel and yet believe.” It is at the end, however, that Jesus says this, and not at the beginning. It is very like the progression from milk to solid food.

And now we look on and are amazed; Thomas, conquered by faith, exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

What, precisely, brought him to his knees? Was it really the unique opportunity to touch Jesus? Or could it have been something entirely different, perhaps the fact that Jesus lowered himself as he did, that conquered him? Was he simply overpowered by the fact that someone did not scorn his poor doubt and place himself and his resurrection glory above Thomas? Did he see how Jesus left the faithful community of disciples standing there and sought him alone?

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I’m sure that we would have no difficulty answering the question as to which of these two actions conquered Thomas. If it had been the experiential touching and seeing, then he would have come up with something like a medical diagnosis: “Yes, it all fits. The nail prints are genuine. He is actually risen and alive.” Thus Thomas would have had to speak of Jesus in the third person: “He” is alive; “it” fits. But that is precisely what he did not do; he said, “My Lord and my God!”

Immediately, the matter of touching, feeling, and experiencing became inconsequential. We are never told whether Thomas acted on Jesus’ offer at all, whether he really placed his hands in the wound prints. It either never happened or it no longer needed to be mentioned. No, Thomas’s belief does not rest on seeing and touching. He says “My Lord.” Mere seeing and touching can never produce anything like that. The fact that Thomas did not simply say “it fits,” but rather “my Lord,” shows that he recognized the Lord by his love and not by physical characteristics, just as Mary had probably done on Easter morning.

The fact of Jesus’ presenting himself to sight and touch is thus placed back in its proper perspective. It was a sort of icebreaker, a loving concession to a blocked-in faith, but it was not the cause of the faith. There is a similar clearing-up operation in our proclamation, too. It has not yet come to the point where faith is born; it merely sweeps up and prepares the cradle.

Jesus’ showing himself to Thomas—the icebreaker—was a touching concession to an undeserving skeptic. Jesus did not want to argue with him; he wanted to take him by the hand. And then at the end of this encounter (but really at the end, after love and leading had done their work), then Jesus untied the water wings of support that seeing and touching had provided. Then Thomas must swim for himself. And, as we said before, maybe Thomas never even grasped for the water wings; he may have taken the first strokes of faith boldly, as soon as he saw who was watching over his efforts to stay afloat.

It would be a fine thing if we, as Thomas’s companions in misfortune, could likewise come to the point where we could say, “My Lord and my God” after having doubted so long or having spoken half-blindly about “Christendom” or the “Christian West.”

It would be a fine thing if, in our moments of direst inner turmoil, we could hold fast to the one thought that, even then, Jesus understands us and keeps us from falling. Blessed are the poor in hope, for they are the ones who may say, “My Lord and my God.” But if we learn to know this about him and become his disciples, may we be given the grace not to exalt ourselves above the doubting Thomases around us. We will no longer want to argue with them, but we will try to show them a little of the glory of Jesus as we understand it, perhaps even without words, letting the simple deed speak for itself. We should not worry about whether that word is letter perfect and chemically pure in its orthodoxy. The person to whom we are speaking at the time is not going to endorse any “dogma”! He is simply invited to meet the Master and receive his peace.

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We shall never tire of asking that the Lord come to us and to the other doubters, saying in his immeasurable goodness (as he pronounced at the death of Lazarus), “ ‘This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God’ (John 11:4). And precisely those who are at the end and have lost all their chances shall be the bearers of the promise. They shall be showered with wonders beyond their wildest dreams. And as they stand baffled, looking for a way of escape, I have entered through a different door and already stand beside them.”

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