When a person is referred to as a “doubting Thomas,” it generally means that he refuses to believe what others have said unless he has direct personal experience—and it isn’t necessarily a compliment. The reference is to the Apostle Thomas, who would not believe that Jesus was resurrected and alive unless he could literally put his hand into Christ’s wounds.
The Apostle John was present when the incident occurred that earned Thomas his nickname, and here is his account of what happened. Mary Magdalene had already seen the resurrected Jesus alive near the tomb early that morning, and Peter and John had seen the empty tomb. “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19–20).
The disciples saw Jesus and recognized Him, but Thomas wasn’t there. “Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ So he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe’” (John 20:24–25).
Thomas was saying that he would not believe that the Man the other disciples had seen was Jesus unless he had additional evidence to evaluate for himself. He wanted not only to see Jesus, but to perform a physical test as well. What would have been on Thomas’ mind? Was he concerned that the Man whom the disciples saw was an impostor? Was he unsure that there truly was a resurrection from the dead?
Prophesied to Be Pierced
The Scriptures had recorded centuries before that the Messiah was prophesied to have His body horrifically pierced. In Psalm 22, King David, writing under inspiration, gives a vivid, prophetic description of the experience and suffering of the Messiah’s crucifixion: “For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:16–18). All these things occurred during Jesus’ crucifixion (see Matthew 27). The Hebrew idiom translated “pierced” is “lion bit,” as in violently gouging out a hole. The piercing of the spikes through Jesus’ hands and feet was surely an agonizing experience to endure!
The prophet Zechariah tells us that after Christ’s return, His piercing and crucifixion will be recognized and deeply regretted. “It shall be in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:9–10).
But skeptics say that an impostor could have fooled the disciples. “Just make cuts on some man’s hands, feet, and side,” some may suggest, “and he could pose as Christ. After all, the disciples were religious fanatics, and they would want to believe.” And today’s skeptics have ancient predecessors. The religious authorities were well aware of Jesus’ resurrection statements and wanted to be sure that His body stayed in the tomb. They took measures to ensure that it did. The Apostle Matthew gives an account of their actions:
On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard (Matthew 27:62–66).
The religious authorities and the guards would have been very careful and highly motivated. There would be no way Jesus’ followers could steal His body. But after Jesus was resurrected, they had to come up with a cover story.
Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day (Matthew 28:11–15).
Some continue the religious authorities’ fabrication today, even though it is not possible that the disciples could have physically overcome a guard of armed soldiers—nor, acting by stealth, could they have unsealed the tomb and rolled the stone away without alerting the guard. Breaking the seal of the stone that was set over the entrance of the tomb would have brought swift action by the soldiers. And guards generally did not sleep while on duty because they were well-disciplined and, according to some accounts, the penalty for doing so was death. That is why it was very important to the guard for the Jewish authorities to intervene with the governor on their behalf, if necessary. Sleeping while on duty could have cost them their lives.
Matthew recorded what actually happened to the soldiers at the tomb: “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men” (Matthew 28:2–4). The biblical account is correct. The same power that raised Christ from the dead and opened the tomb also terrified and paralyzed the soldiers for the divine event. Facing possible execution, the soldiers who were on duty at the time would have been very happy to have the Jewish authorities concoct a story and intervene on their behalf with authorities, who would not have believed that the soldiers were overcome by a powerful angel. The bribe would have provided additional incentive.
Thomas’ Doubt Serves a Purpose
Resurrection is a miraculous event, and one of our primary lines of evidence for the resurrection today is the accounts of witnesses from long ago. Are those accounts really reliable, or could the disciples have been fooled by an impostor? Skeptics sometimes make this argument.
But while Thomas may have been acting out of a lack of faith, God uses his doubt to shed the light of evidence even more brightly on this event!
A Roman spear usually had a wide, sharp blade that would cause a large, traumatic injury when thrust into a victim. The wound made in Jesus’ side would have been large enough to allow the insertion of a hand. And the spikes that pierced Jesus’ hands (or perhaps the joints between His wrists and hands, as some believe) and helped to support the weight of His body would have created passages completely through Jesus’ limbs that would be large enough to allow the insertion of a finger. Anyone bearing such wounds could hardly be expected to walk around among the living!
Thomas’ opportunity finally came: “And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:26–28).
Though Thomas doubted and showed a lack of faith, Christ was mercifully willing to meet his need. Scripture records that the Apostle saw exactly what he needed to see to convince him that the crucified Jesus truly was alive again, resurrected from the dead. Thomas got the proof he sought, which provided it for the rest of us, as well!
Other Recorded Witnesses
Scripture reveals that many others saw Jesus alive after His crucifixion. For example, Jesus appeared to some of the disciples while they were fishing, and when they returned to the shore, He ate with them.
After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”
They said to him, “We are going with you also.” They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?”
They answered Him, “No.”
And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish.
Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”...
Jesus said to them, “Come and eat breakfast.” Yet none of the disciples dared ask Him, “Who are You?”—knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then came and took the bread and gave it to them, and likewise the fish. This is now the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead (John 21:1–7, 12–14).
This account should make us mindful that, although the disciples were to become “fishers of men,” Jesus Himself would direct that Work—both then and today.
John added at the end of his book, “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen” (vv. 24–25). Here, John adds that many things occurred that were not recorded in the gospel accounts.
The Apostle Paul gives further details in his letter to the church in Corinth, Greece.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time (1 Corinthians 15:3–8).
Paul stressed that Christ’s resurrection is vital to the Gospel message.
Why Is This So Important?
We remember Christ’s death and resurrection throughout the year, but we focus on these events in a special way during Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. His sacrifice as our Passover made it possible for our sins to be forgiven, for us to be reconciled with the Father, and for us to receive God’s Holy Spirit. In explaining the meaning of the Christian Passover, the Apostle Paul instructed the church in Corinth, “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6–8).
Our hope of life after death lies in the resurrection—but if we die profaned by the guilt of our sins, unforgiven and unjustified, we cannot be in the resurrection of the just when Jesus returns. The wages of sin truly is death (Romans 6:23). Christ paid that penalty for us, so that, in the first resurrection, we can “put on immortality” and be in God’s Kingdom, His holy mountain, forever. “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).
If we are to live forever, we must be resurrected to life, and Jesus Christ, the First of the Firstfruits, has made it possible through His death and His own resurrected life. Paul also wrote to the church in Rome, “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5).
Concerning the importance of the resurrection of the dead, the Apostle Paul instructed the church in Corinth,
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:12–20).
Paul said, in effect, no resurrection means no salvation!
In a Way, Thomas Helped!
We can know that there is no question that the Man the disciples and hundreds of others saw was, in fact, the resurrected Jesus, thanks to a body of evidence that includes Thomas’ own lack of faith in what his friends had told him. We were not present to see Jesus after His resurrection, but we can have confidence in the veracity of the accounts given of it—on which our faith and our salvation depends.
God anticipated the needs of our faith and provided the example of Thomas and his doubts as evidence of Jesus’ resurrection—for our sake, yes, but also for all who need that testimony to bolster their faith. Our Father used Thomas’ moment of weak faith to make possible a stronger faith for us—and also to make possible a blessing for us! In John 20:28, we read that Thomas exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” upon fully realizing that the Man before him was, of a certainty, the resurrected Christ. Then, in the next verse, Jesus spoke of a blessing: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
The God who is able to use our weaknesses for His own glory—and our benefit—did so with Thomas’ doubt.