I belong to a secret fellowship called The Friends of Saint Thomas. We have to be a secret society because in the church—not just the Adventist Church but in the larger Christian Church—Thomas' faith is regarded as defective. Nevertheless, Thomas is our patron saint, or to be more precise, our inspiration and model.
Thomas' defect is well known: he would not believe unless he saw the evidence for himself. This putative defect was rooted in his twin virtues of loyalty and hardheadedness.
Classic Christian spirituality has denigrated Thomas on the basis of Jesus' words, "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me" (John 20:29). The argument against Thomas goes something like this: Jesus condescended to Thomas' need for irrefutable evidence but then rebuked Thomas for compelling him to stoop to providing the evidence Thomas demanded. Jesus blessed people who, unlike Thomas, believe easily, readily. Believers are to see in Thomas' insistence on evidence he regarded as adequate, an example of dangerous spiritual pride. In this view, the most noble spiritual life is characterized by a cheerful, unruffled acceptance of “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” That “Word of God” is whatever is taught by the particular church as the plain meaning of the Bible. Proper Christians do not question God (or the church's interpretation of the Bible); they obey. They believe without seeing.
Friends of Saint Thomas, on the other hand, citing the apostle's example, insist, “We will not believe unless we see.” Many preachers are appalled at such spiritual uppityness. This flies in the face of Jesus' blessing on those who believe without seeing. It smacks of pride.
Friends of Saint Thomas are uncowed by the aura of holiness attached to unquestioning faith. Whatever Jesus meant by his words, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing,” the fact remains that Jesus gave Thomas the evidence he needed. Unless we are prepared to argue that Jesus sometimes acted contrary to what he knew was right, we must acknowledge that the right response to Thomas' insistence on evidence that was adequate to his own mind was the provision of just such evidence. Jesus gave Thomas what he required.
Thus Thomas becomes a biblical model (yea, verily, a New Testament model) of holy skepticism. Or to use an adjective more familiar in contemporary usage—approved skepticism. With his words Jesus blessed those who believe without seeing. With his actions, Jesus approved those who refuse to believe unless they see. There is a place for both in the community of Jesus.
So at gatherings of the Friends you will hear people express all sorts of stubborn unbelief. In the safe place inspired by Thomas' bold insistence on waiting for adequate evidence before he would believe, you'll hear all sorts of doubts expressed. There are petty questions about the reliability of the secular history undergirding the classic Adventist dating of “the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem,” or the precise interpretation of 666. You'll hear questions about the age of fossils and the plausibility of two million people camping together at Mt. Sinai. Listen long enough and you'll even hear people waiting for evidence that God answers prayer or even that God (in any traditional sense) exists.
These doubts, these sometimes brash, sometimes plaintive declarations of not yet believing because the evidence is not sufficient, are echoes of Thomas' declaration, I will not believe unless I see. It's fine for others to believe what they will, but their experience is not enough for me. I must see. For myself.
Some would argue that such questions are proof that those who ask them do not deserve to be included in the community of disciples. This flies in the face of the fact that Thomas made his declaration, “I will not believe unless I see.” as a member in good and regular standing. The other disciples knew Thomas' protestation of unbelief did not arise from a lack of courage or loyalty. Rather it arose from his integrity. When the rest of the twelve had tried to dissuade Jesus from his final, death-tempting march into Jerusalem, it was Thomas who finally spoke up and said, “Come on, guys, let's go. What? Are you afraid to die with him?” (John 11:16, the Friends version).
Thomas' loyalty to Jesus compelled him to hold out for adequate evidence. Thomas had seen his friend, Jesus, die. To announce that Jesus was alive—in the absence of adequate evidence—would be to make light of the tragedy, the horrific miscarriage of justice, his friend had endured. So Thomas held out. It wasn't enough that Peter had seen Jesus, or Mary or John or the guys from Emmaus.
Jesus honored Thomas' stubborn refusal to believe on the basis of inadequate evidence. Jesus gave Thomas exactly the evidence Thomas demanded.
Traditional Christian spirituality has highlighted the value of the believing community. We find wholeness and life as we step away from radical individualism and confess with the church, “We believe . . .” Saint Thomas modeled another spirituality. He was willing to die to advance the mission of Jesus. He valued his place in the community of Jesus. However, his loyalty to his master and friend was so intense, he adamantly refused to make statements about Jesus for which he had inadequate evidence.
Whatever others make of Jesus' commendation of facile believers (Blessed are those who believe without seeing), Thomas remains a consolation and encouragement to doubtful believers, those who insist, “Unless I see, I will not believe.” For these friends of Thomas, it is a matter of integrity to be honest about the distinction between what “we believe” and what “I believe.” Their confidence in the goodness of God compels them to reject “beliefs” which contradict or are unsupported by their life experience. Believing contrary to experience implies that God is a trickster.
Thomas' refusal to believe without seeing is supported by the testimony of the Apostle John and even Theologian Paul: John writes, “That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard with our ears and seen with our eyes and handled with our hands, this we declare unto you.” And Luke writes, “Then Barnabas brought Saul to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus.”
The difference between Thomas and the other apostles was not his refusal to believe without seeing, but the fact that they had seen and he had not. The questions of friends of Thomas are not more honest than the certainty of orthodox believers. Their questions are not less holy than the confidence of the pious. Both believers and skeptics—if they are honest—are living out their respective experience. They are faithful to what they have seen.
Given Jesus' willingness to give Thomas the vision he needed, contemporary friends of Thomas, are heartened in their own faithful pursuit of adequate evidence.
John McLarty is Pastor at North Hill Adventist Fellowship in Edgewood, Washington. He blogs at www.liberaladventist.blogspot.com.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4585