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The Reality of Doubt



Let’s talk about the doubting disciple. 

I don’t mean Peter, who sank into the sea. Or Judas, who sold his Lord for cash. Or Mary, who thought Jesus’ body was stolen. 

I mean the one you’re pretty sure I’m dancing around: Thomas—the Doubter. Thomas gets this little title from what he says in John 20:24-25:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “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.”

I can’t help but think some of you feel the same way. Maybe you don’t buy all of this Jesus stuff as much as you might like to. You would if only you could see him. Touch him. You just need a little more than what you’ve gotten so far. I have good news: there’s more to Thomas than meets the eye, and he tells us something about how Jesus works that encourages people like you and me.

  • The tales of a believer

John wasn’t interested in telling a complete story about Jesus’s life. He wanted to prove something about who Jesus was. John 20:31 tells us the goal of his book, “That you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” So John carefully selected every account for that purpose. 

Thomas appears three times in the book of John.

His first appearance is in John 11. Jesus is in Jericho, preparing to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, but his disciples aren’t thrilled about the plan. John 11:8 reads, “Didn’t they just try to kill you there?” They debate the semantics of some of Jesus’ words. They assume some conclusions about sleep and death. There is some back-and-forth, but eventually, silent Thomas speaks up in verse 16:

Let’s also go, so that we may die with him.

John wants to tell us something about Thomas: he was devoted to Jesus, even to the point of dying.

Thomas’s second appearance comes the night before Jesus died. Jesus has just finished washing his disciples’ feet when he says, in John 14:1-4, “I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to myself, so that where I am you may be also. You know the way to where I am going.” 

This time, there’s no discussion. Jesus’ puzzling final statement, “You know the way,” hangs in the silent air. But then it’s Thomas who speaks for the group: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) When everyone else sat dumbfounded, Thomas brought an honest question to Jesus. It wasn’t enough to sit, not knowing; Thomas needed clarity. This tells us something else about Thomas: he was a genuine seeker. An honest asker. He would rather speak up and wrestle with the truth than sit silently in the dark. 

  • The doubt of a believer

These two encounters between Jesus and Thomas laid the foundation for the third, climactic moment in their relationship. A lot has happened in the past week or so:

Thomas has had his feet washed by his Master. He has seen Peter slice the ear off a temple guard and fumed as Judas sold out their group. Then, he watched Jesus be carried away in shackles, heard about his beating and crucifixion, and learned about His lifeless body left in a tomb. This is speculation, but I imagine all this was too much for a quiet, thoughtful, devoted man to bear. After Jesus died, the rest of the disciples were together, but Thomas wasn’t with them. Some grieve with companions; Thomas needed to be alone. The man he said he would die alongside had died without him. His brothers and sisters were being actively pursued. He was haunted by the details of his Master’s death. So he was by himself when Jesus came to them and when they told him Jesus was back, it wasn’t that he was unwilling to believe them. 

It’s that he was unable to

This man, prone to introspection, rooting out the truth with questions, and quiet, unassuming devotion, simply did not have enough evidence to give him hope. So, he doubted. For people like Thomas, it’s not enough to hear there’s something to believe in. He had to know for himself. He needed to be sure that the planks lining his ship of belief weren’t rotten, or else he could be sure of only one thing: that it would sink.

  • The belief of a believer

Thomas’ conditions for belief were crystal clear: “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.” (John 20:25) Jesus knew this. That’s why, a week later, in an upper room crowded with Jesus’ closest friends, He singled Thomas out and told him two things:

First: Have some peace.

Second: Touch my hands.

Jesus knew what Thomas needed, and, in typical Jesus fashion, he cut to the heart of the matter without wasting any time. That’s the thing about Jesus: he knows your conditions for belief. When you look around your upper room surrounded by people who do not struggle with the doubt you shoulder, He knows what you need. Yes, it’s a blessing to believe without having seen, but it’s beautiful to be greeted by Jesus with peace, with an invitation to touch him, experience him, and know him in the exact way you need to believe in him. 

Jesus knows you. And Jesus knows what you require. Even a man who watched Jesus walk on water had doubts, and Jesus invited his investigation. And He invites yours. 

The reality of doubt is that it exists. No matter who you are, you’re going to encounter it. Some of your doubts will be massive; others will be tiny. 

Tim Keller wrote in The Reason for God, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

Jesus is a safe place to bring your doubts because all he requires is as much faith as you have in as much of him as you know. 

Sometimes, “all of the faith you have” is as plentiful as a widow’s mite. It’s as loud as a whisper. It’s as big as a mustard seed. But with Jesus, that’s enough to move mountains. Bring whatever you have–even if it is empty hands and more questions than you think there are answers to–and watch what he can do with it. 


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Scripture References

  • John 20:25
  • John 20:31
  • John 11:16
  • John 11:8
  • John 14:1-4
Hamilton Barber Hamilton Barber works for Passion City Church on the Film Team as a writer, making him the only person in the history of academia to actually use dubious undergrad degrees like Poetry and Philosophy. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Shelby: a content wizard and unashamed nerd, and their Chocolate Labrador, Baloo: a nap wizard and also unashamed nerd. Hamilton is an avid indoors man, an amateur builder of mind palaces, an embarrassment to the art of freestyle rapping, and frankly he's just generally glad to be here.