Thursday, July 14, 2011

Believing Thomas

Consider a young man in school who has spent long hours preparing for a final exam. It is an important exam. If he does well he can expect to receive a hefty scholarship. If he does poorly he may not get the educational experience he really wants. On the evening following the test he has a sudden misgiving about the last big essay question and fears that he misread it. Several days pass - each one filled with anxiety. When he finally gets the score he is greatly relieved. His teacher gave him high marks.

Now consider a woman who has just met an attractive man and wants to get to know him better. He appears to be a responsible and capable person but as she gets to know him she begins to have doubts. Some of the things he does aren’t consistent with the things he says. Eventually she learns that he is often dishonest and not morally trustworthy.

Both of these examples deal with doubt. In the case of the student, the doubt was misplaced. In the case of the dating woman it was not. Now let me give another example that is meant to contrast to these two.

Suppose a young man, raised in a caring home, comes of age and begins spending time with a crowd of delinquent youth. They poison his thinking about the way he was raised. After a time he begins fighting with his parents over simple family rules. He says he doesn’t believe them anymore. After several weeks of this he moves away from home and eventually ends up in jail.

In this story we notice the rebellion of the young man first and only secondly do we see his doubt. In fact doubt may not even be an issue, it’s hard to say for sure. Yet as vague as this may seem it is more the scriptural sense of doubt than the first two examples.

This kind of doubt, as a disbelief and a turning away from truth, is the kind of doubt that has serious spiritual consequences. The doubts of the young student and the dating woman are different. They are part of a healthy human approach to the world. They represent a kind of doubt that makes us credible instead of credulous. Yet sadly we often fail to appreciate these different kinds of doubt. Even worse, we sometimes confuse a virtue for a weakness. When we do this we limit our own personal growth and understanding.

The story of Thomas the disciple of Christ is the saddest example of this that I know. His universally recognized nickname “Doubting Thomas” is one of history’s least merited attributions. It is true that he was uncertain about the risen Lord (see Luke 24) but there was never any rebellion involved and he never turned away from the truth. In fact, what we know of Thomas is the opposite of this.

At a time when Jesus’ popularity had grown to a degree that He was in mortal danger from the rulers of Jerusalem, Thomas was willing to give his life for the Master. Jesus had learned of Lazarus’s recent death and told His disciples that He would need to return to Judea, were recently he had nearly been stoned to death. Thomas, upon learning of Jesus’ dangerous trip said to the other disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (John 11).

I don’t mean to imply that Thomas didn’t have doubts (meaning that he was uncertain) about the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. He did. What I want to show is that the kind of doubt he experienced is not necessarily an evil thing. It can be overcome with faithful effort. Many great men and women of faith experience much more doubt than did Thomas and yet we never think to accuse them of lacking faith.

Peter, for example, after walking briefly on the sea became troubled upon seeing the wind and the waves and sank. Jesus asked him why he doubted. Yet we don’t hold this against Peter. In fact we are amazed at the faith he must have had to walk the few steps he did take. Is Thomas’s doubt so much greater than Peter’s? I doubt it.

In a world of so many competing doctrines and philosophies - some that are clearly wrong and even harmful - we do well to be guarded about many of the claims of others. It serves us well to doubt - that is to acknowledge our uncertainty. And yet the command of Christ is to “doubt not.”

Perhaps there seems to be a contradiction. We are endowed with the tendency to doubt and then commanded not to. This is the same sort of thing we face with selfishness. It clearly helps us to survive, and yet spiritual growth requires that we overcome it (at least some of it). Some aspects of selfishness, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove or coming inside from a storm, are never considered spiritually bad. The selfishness that harms another or tarnishes our spirits, is.

Similarly, doubts about used cars will serve us well throughout our lives. Doubts about saving truths can harm us a great deal. Yet given these obvious differences, religious doubt has been seen to be a universal evil in ways that it shouldn’t have.

According to traditional Christian doctrine, religious truths are to be accepted on authority. Very often this leaves little room for anything between acceptance of a truth and its outright rejection. Similarly Latter-day Saints have often been taught that religious doubt is generally an evil thing (even of the devil). And while this is expected to refer to the doubt that rejects saving truths, other distinctions are often overlooked.

In contrast to this dubious absolutism, the prophet Alma (in Chapter 32 of the Book of Alma in The Book of Mormon) taught about experimenting on the words of life, growing from truth to truth. Then as we grow in our understanding and experience with truth we are lead to other truths and in the process come face to face with other unknown propositions. We then are faced with the option, yet again, of either faith or doubt. It seems that while struggling here in mortality we will ever be experimenting this way, and growing.

And yet it is possible to remove doubt, at least in part, if we find Someone who is completely trustworthy. And as we gain experience with this Someone, our doubt - even of things that seem miraculous - will disappear. Clearly this is a lifelong process even for the spiritually great souls among us - great souls such as Thomas.

Perhaps I am being a little bold in giving Thomas so much credit. But let me point out one of the greatest scriptural chapters we have about doubt, in the 9th chapter of Mormon (in The Book of Mormon). Here Moroni pleads with his readers repeatedly to believe in Christ, doubting nothing. Such an immense belief really makes no sense if all we understood by belief is a simple mental agreement. Such a belief is little more than gullibility.

The immense belief described by Moroni is the kind of belief our ancestors meant by the word be-love. Only a few centuries ago these two words (be-lief and be-love) were used interchangeably. Our misunderstanding of this earlier scriptural sense has led many to think that all we need to do in order to gain salvation is to acknowledge the reality of Christ, regardless of the behavior of our lives. This is a mistake. The scriptural significance of be-lief implies a life-directing commitment to the One that we love above all else.

A belief in Christ that comes from the center of our being, from experience with the divine, is a kind of belief that truly does eliminate doubt. And when we grow towards this kind of belief - this kind of experience with truth - to the point that we love its author enough, we approach the point where doubt no longer exists, and our faith in Him is complete.

I believe that Thomas was well along this path. We know he loved Jesus and was willing to experiment further with His truth - even traveling to the ends of the earth to teach it. I expect that his doubt was much less than ours is. We need to judge him less severely. Thomas was a believer.


The Catholic Encyclopedia under doubt gives a detailed evaluation of the word’s meaning from a religious and historical perspective. The Mormon reference to doubt in Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, though not official church doctrine (despite the title), is somewhat ambiguous in its reference to doubt being of the devil. For an important discussion of be-lief and be-love see Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Faith and Belief.

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