The Benefit of the Doubt: A Reflection on John 20:19-29
Real faith includes real doubt which makes faith more honest and authentic.
Some of you have heard of the well-known author, John Updike. In Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, he introduces his readers to a young evangelical Christian named Dale Kohler. Dale’s mission in life was to prove the existence of God mathematically. He believed Christians needed logical, airtight proof of the existence of God to counter the arrogance of secular science.
He told a colleague, “If we could prove God’s existence, we could rout the devil.” His colleague asked Dale who he thinks the devil is. “The devil,” Dale replied, “is doubt.” Many Christians believe the devil is doubt, but they are wrong. And that brings me to the story of Thomas, whom we usually refer to as “Doubting Thomas.”
The story of Thomas’s doubt begins on Sunday night, the evening of Easter Sunday. Jesus appears to his disciples, but Thomas wasn’t there. When the other disciples told Thomas they had seen the risen Lord, he remained skeptical. He wanted to believe but could not blindly accept the news without hard evidence.
Thomas wanted his faith to be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking. So at first he could not believe. He told his friends, “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.”
Thomas wasn’t a bad guy. Nor was he unique in his doubt.
Earlier in the day, Mary told the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord. But most of them didn’t believe her.
Like Thomas, the disciples had not yet seen Jesus with their own eyes and were not convinced. In fact, all four Gospels record that Jesus’s followers initially expressed skepticism about the resurrection. For example, in the closing verses of the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples met the risen Lord on a mountain. The Bible says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17 nrsv).
That’s an interesting passage of Scripture. “But some doubted.” It’s easy to see why. These disciples watched Christ die on the cross. How could he be alive? Their doubts were understandable, including Thomas’s doubts. Thomas wanted to believe. But he wanted his faith to have substance. So, at least for a while, Thomas could not bring himself to believe that Jesus’s resurrection was true.
If we are honest, most of us can relate to Thomas’s struggle to believe. Like Thomas, we all live in the shadow of the cross at various times in our life. We all experience shattered dreams, lost hope, suffering, and pain. We all have questions about God we cannot answer. Doubts are inevitable.
Every believer—at one time or another—will experience doubts. The Bible is full of examples of God’s people—good people—who struggle with doubt. Sometimes they doubted God’s existence. But more often they doubted God’s justice, love, fairness, or involvement in the world. Even the most dedicated believer will experience times of doubt.
Look at Thomas. He followed Jesus for three years. He touched him. He talked to him. He heard Jesus teach with power. He saw Jesus perform miracles. In spite of all that, Thomas still doubted. If Thomas, who spent three years with Jesus, doubted, we certainly will as well. Times of doubt are inevitable. And times of doubt are also permissible. It’s OK to have doubts. It’s not evil, sinful, or wrong to doubt.
Faith does not mean we will never question our beliefs about God. Even Jesus, feeling abandoned by God on the cross, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Doubt is not the opposite of faith but is a part of faith. Tennyson was right when he said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
Doubt can even have value. Faith refined through the fire of doubt comes out stronger, more mature, more honest, and more real. That’s why I’m calling this reflection, “The Benefit of the Doubt.”
Let’s go back to the story. Thomas heard about Jesus’s resurrection but at first was unable to believe. Then, eight days later, Jesus returned to his disciples. Eleven days had passed since the cross. Eleven days of doubt and agony for Thomas.
Finally, Thomas’s doubts ended. Jesus said, “Thomas, see and touch my hands and side. Believe and don’t doubt anymore.” When Thomas saw Jesus, he cried out, “My Lord and my God!”
If you are a modern-day “Doubting Thomas,” you likely are asking the question, “How can I deal with my doubt?” Thomas’s experience suggests at least two important strategies for coping with times of unbelief. Let’s briefly review them.
First, Thomas remained with the community of faith. Although Thomas couldn’t believe what the other disciples believed, he did not leave the disciples. Although he didn’t share their faith, he stayed with them for strength and encouragement.
When we are struggling with doubt and questions, that’s when we most need to connect with other believers. None of us can live out our faith alone. Not in the good times, and certainly not in the bad times.
Years ago, I met a woman named Ellen. She told me her faith story. When she was in her twenties, she left the church for almost a decade. Her faith felt weak throughout those years, and she often struggled with doubts.
In her thirties, Ellen returned to church, primarily for the sake of her young daughter. She told her pastor, “I’m primarily coming to church for my child. I don’t believe much anymore, although I’d like to.”
Her pastor responded, “That’s OK, Ellen, we’ll believe for you.”
Over the next year, Ellen attended church regularly. She worshipped, studied, and served with other people in the congregation. To her great surprise, her faith slowly revitalized. Her church believed for her when she could not believe for herself, and eventually she was able to believe again.
You and I cannot do Christianity solo. It’s a religion of community. It’s a “we” faith, not a “me” faith. When our individual faith is faltering, the community of faith can help us through. And even if our faith in a traditional God never returns, we can still choose to have faith in Christian community. We can remain connected to them in spite of our unresolved doubts.
I know many people who no longer hold any semblance of traditional faith. But they do believe in Christian friendship, find great meaning in those relationships, so they remain in church. That’s certainly a viable option.
Second, Thomas sought renewed faith. Although Thomas struggled with doubt, he remained open to new evidence of God’s reality. He wanted to believe and looked for reasons to do so. We can do the same.
In times of doubt, we, like Thomas, can seek renewed faith. That renewal might happen in a worship service. It might happen when we look at the beauty of nature. It might come through the love of a family member or friend during a difficult time. When we struggle with doubt, we need be on the lookout for a new encounter with God.
Thomas’s renewal of faith came in the upper room when he saw the risen Lord. But even then it was not proof positive.
Although Jesus invited Thomas to touch his hands and his side, Thomas did not. He simply fell down and confessed his faith. We will never have absolute scientific proof of God. That would be math, not faith. But, if we will seek renewed faith, we will often find new expressions of God’s presence in our life.
Of course, that doesn’t always happen. For various reasons, some people will never be able to join Thomas in his renewal of faith. They will never cry out with him, “My Lord and my God!”
If that doesn’t happen, perhaps you can find a new, nontraditional understanding of faith that will feed you spiritually in spite of your doubts about orthodox religion. For example, you could choose, like many others in this modern era, to jettison orthodox religion but continue to follow the example and teachings of the human Jesus.
If you would like to read a story about a person who had that kind of experience, please see my novel (a free download is available on this website) called, An Inconvenient Loss of Faith.
If you are struggling with faith today, you are in good company, for God’s people have done so from the beginning. If you, like Thomas before you, are grappling with doubt, I encourage you to follow his example.
First, consider remaining with the community of faith and find support from their friendship. And second, seek renewed faith, even if that requires you to redefine faith in nonorthodox ways. These two strategies are not a magic solution. They won’t work for everyone. However, if you are a modern-day “Doubting Thomas,” they may prove helpful as you seek to navigate faith during these uncertain and challenging times.