Doubting Thomas

April 8, 2018 — Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church

(Based upon a sermon delivered April 15, 2007, at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church)

John 20:19–31 (CEB)

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

A week ago today, we celebrated the defining moment of all history — the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. But while today, in hindsight, we understand what took place, at the time only a few people knew about it, and none of them — except Jesus himself — understood the full implications.

And then, of course, there was Doubting Thomas.

Thomas was a believer, a follower of Jesus, but there were times he just couldn’t go all the way. When Lazarus died, and Jesus decided to return to Judea, Thomas assumed that they would all be arrested and killed. He said, “Let us go, that we might die with him.” He believed in Christ, but not enough to assume that Christ is in complete control of the situation. He thought that they were all going back to Judea in order to go out in a blaze of glory.

Yes, all of the disciples misunderstood Jesus or his mission at one time or another, and most of them doubted him enough to run away on the night of his arrest and trial. But Thomas is singled out as “the doubter,” because of the story in today’s Bible passage. Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. We don’t know why, or where he was or what he was doing. But he missed it. Talk about missing out on something!

When Thomas was told about the Lord’s resurrection, he was reluctant. He was skeptical. He wanted to see for himself.

We live in an age when many are skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection or the truth of his divinity. Skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris shun religion because, like Thomas, they want something physical, something measurable.\

There are many scientists, and have been through the centuries, who have been able to reconcile science and faith. They see science as a method of explaining God’s creation, and take joy in a God whose creation is so elegant and symmetrical that it obeys natural laws.

Atheism and science are not the same thing, even though atheists sometimes claim they are. It is possible to be a person of faith and still a believer in the scientific method of looking at the world. The key is understanding that while matter and energy are subject to the laws of the physical world — they are predictable, and measurable — there are things that fall outside of man’s ability to measure or understand.

Because these things can’t be measured, or predicted, they can’t be proven, at least not in the sense that is required by the scientific method. They require belief. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

There have been atheists through the years who did not believe in God but who tended to leave religion alone as long as it stayed out of the way of science. They might be condescending to people of faith, considering faith to be a crutch, or an inferior way of looking at the world, but they didn’t actively try to fight it.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw was an atheist and G.K. Chesterton was one of our great Christian writers. For a while, they had a debate tour, arguing about the existence of God, but at the end of the evening they would retire to a pub somewhere and have a pleasant conversation. Shaw’s atheism did not keep him from spending time with a person of faith, and Chesterton’s faith allowed him to have a conversation, even a friendship, with someone on whose heart God might still be working.

Today, though, there is a new type of atheist — atheists like Richard Dawkins, whom I mentioned a little earlier. Dawkins, and others like him, blame religious belief for many of the evils in the world. They look at bad things that have been done in the name of religion — any religion — and they conclude that religion itself is fundamentally evil and should be eliminated.

Interestingly enough, Albert Einstein, whom most people think of as the greatest scientist of the 20th Century, had no patience for this kind of atheist. Einstein himself, even though he was Jewish by birth, never fell squarely into any religious belief system. But Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” quotes Einstein as writing this about militant atheism:

“The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

Einstein had enough of a sense of awe about the universe that he was willing to accept the possibility of a creator, or at least keep an open mind about the subject. He heard “the music of the spheres,” quoting a famous hymn, and saw it as evidence of an intelligence behind the design of the universe.

Unlike Thomas, who was able to eliminate his doubts by placing his hands in Jesus’ wounds, we don’t have physical evidence for our faith. We can’t use science to prove that we are right and Richard Dawkins is wrong. And yet, we believe anyway.

One of the great divides in Protestant theology is between Arminians and Calvinists. Arminians, and John Wesley has passed down to us an Arminian belief system, say that faith is an act of will, that we are free to accept or reject God; Calvinists believe faith is a gift from God, and that some are predestined to receive it. Arminians say that Calvinism means that God plays favorites, and chooses some people to be faithful but not others. Calvinists say Arminians give people too much credit and are preaching a gospel of human effort under which we earn our salvation.

So is faith our own decision, or is it something that God decides for us? In any case, it’s clear that our faith is something which transcends observable facts. It’s not about what you can see and feel. Blessed are the people who haven’t seen Jesus but believe in him anyway.

There’s a terrific movie — a great family movie — called “Secondhand Lions” which stars Haley Joel Osment as a young boy sent to live with his uncles, who are played by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. The uncles are wealthy and somewhat mysterious. Michael Caine’s character tells the boy fanciful stories about how they earned their fortune through swashbuckling and derring-do. But other family members imply that the uncles might actually be bank robbers or worse.

At one point in the movie, Osment is forced to decide which of these stories he believes. Robert Duvall’s character, Hub, tells him this:

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

That’s a pretty good speech, but I have to disagree with the part where Robert Duvall says it doesn’t matter whether what you believe in is true or not. I’m not a universalist. I don’t think you can just make up your own religion and believe in it, and as long as you’re sincere everything will turn out OK. 
Linus, in the comic strip “Peanuts,” may be sincere when he waits for the Great Pumpkin, but that doesn’t mean the Great Pumpkin is going to show up. There are false teachings, and wrong paths, and there are consequences for following them.

I believe God is true, the Bible is true, and Jesus is risen from the dead. But I also think that there are times we have to address our doubts. We don’t have the advantage that Thomas had of being able to put our hands in Jesus’ wounds. Even so, we can’t look down our noses at Thomas, because all of us have doubted Jesus, or doubted some aspect of his plan, or doubted that God was in control of the situation.

The great author Frederick Buechner saw our occasional doubts as a sign of our humanity. Buechner once wrote, “Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

I tend to think that if you’ve never had any doubts, it’s because you don’t take your faith very seriously. People in dangerous professions sometimes say that fear — and fear is a form of doubt — is essential to what they do. If they weren’t just a little bit afraid, they wouldn’t be as careful. If I never have any doubts, you’d have to question whether or not I’ve really thought through the larger issues of who God is and who I am.

So the question is not whether or not we’re ever going to have doubts, it’s what we are going to do about them.

The psychologist Carl Rogers was 22 years old when he entered Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1924. While there, he participated in a seminar that was all about discussing religious doubts. Rogers later said this about the experience: “The majority of members…in thinking their way through questions they had raised, thought themselves right out of religious work. I was one.” Those people dwelled on their doubt, and let it steal away all of their faith. That is not what I mean about addressing our doubts. We have to acknowledge our doubts, and be honest about them, but that doesn’t mean we have to dwell on them.

Sometimes, addressing our doubts comes down to a decision. We have to decide, as Robert Duvall tells Haley Joel Osment, to set aside our doubts and believe in the things worth believing in.

We can’t place our hands in Jesus’s side and feel his wounds. But we have our own evidence of his reality. We can feel Jesus tugging at our hearts. Sometimes we feel it during a church service or some other religious program. Sometimes we feel God speaking to us through the love and concern of a family member or a close friend. Sometimes we feel God speaking to us when we look at some spectacular piece of natural beauty. Sometimes, we feel God speaking to us at times of trial or struggle, when we call out to him.

A man named G. Campbell Morgan had already enjoyed some success as a preacher by the time he was 19 years old. But then he started having doubts about the Bible. He read the writings of some of the atheists and skeptics of his day, and he became more and more confused. Finally, he canceled all preaching engagements, set aside these other books, and went to the bookstore and bought a new Bible. He said to himself, “I am no longer sure that this is what my father claims it to be — the Word of God. But of this I am sure. If it be the Word of God, and if I come to it with an unprejudiced and open mind, it will bring assurance to my soul of itself.”

“That Bible found me!” said Morgan. This new faith gave him the motivation for his preaching and teaching ministry. He devoted himself to the study and preaching of God’s Word.

That’s good advice. When we feel doubt, the best way for us to put our hand in Jesus’ side and feel the truth of his existence is to let the Bible find us.

A couple of years ago, I got to interview an author named Mike McHargue, author of a book called “Finding God In The Waves.” McHargue and his wife attended a fundamentalist Baptist church, but McHargue, who’s always had a strong interest in science, and who even does a podcast under the name “Science Mike,” found himself troubled by parts of the Old Testament, which eventually caused him to lose his faith in the existence of God, even as he continued to be an active member, even a leader, at his church, which had no idea about his faith struggles.

For a long while, not even his wife knew what was in his heart. Eventually, though, it all came out.

But as McHargue ended up walking on the beach one day, following a conference at which he and others had discussed the issues of faith and doubt, he was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings that led to a renewed faith in God. It’s not exactly the same faith that he left, and you or I may or may not agree with him on certain points. But he’s returned to calling himself a “follower of Jesus.”

Faith is a mystery. Hebrews 11:1 says that “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.”

Martin Luther said this: “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.”

For Thomas, it was the evidence of the wounds in Jesus hands, feet and side that made him say “My Lord and my God!” We don’t have the physical presence of Jesus standing before us. But Jesus says, “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

God calls on us to believe. That’s the first step in becoming a Christian — to believe in God, creator, redeemer and sustainer, to recognize that we are sinners in need of salvation, and to believe that God offers that salvation, through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

A friend of mine and a former mission trip teammate, Terry Blankenship, wrote this in a blog post in 2010: “Doubt has caused many Christians to fall away because, rather than ride out the storm, they toss their faith overboard.

“I say ride out the storm. It is normal. If you feel Christianity is all a big joke or all some sort of collective wishful thinking, just hang on. The Holy Spirit will help you get through it.

“So here’s the Christian defense of doubt … it is part of the terrain we must traverse. It is part of the jungle we must hack our way through while on earth. Never put a fellow-believer down who is struggling with doubt. And never chase the non-believer away who dares to ask the tough questions.”

We may never completely quench our doubts, but if we keep our faith alive, we will be a part of God’s kingdom.