Doubting Thomas

John I. Carney
12 min readApr 7, 2024

First United Methodist Church, Shelbyville, Tennessee, April 7, 2024

(Based upon a sermon preached in 2007 at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church; in 2018 at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church; and in 2021 at Normandy United Methodist Church)

Painting of Thomas, the disciple, touching the wound in Jesus’s side.
Franciszek Smuglewicz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John 20:19–31 (CEB)

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

A week ago today, we celebrated the defining moment of all history — the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. But while today, in hindsight, we understand what took place, at the time only a few people knew about it, and none of them — except, of course, for Jesus — understood the full implications.

And then there was Doubting Thomas.

Thomas was a believer, a follower of Jesus, but there were times he, like the other disciples, just couldn’t completely imagine the fullness or the true nature of Jesus’ destiny. When Lazarus dies, and Jesus decides to return to Judea, Thomas assumes that they’ll all be arrested and killed. He said, “Let us go, that we might die with him.” He believes in Jesus, enough to die by Jesus’ side, but not enough to assume that Jesus is in complete control of the situation. He thinks that they’re all going back to Judea to go out in a blaze of glory.

All the disciples misunderstood Jesus or his mission at one time or another, and most of them doubted him enough to run away on the night of his arrest and trial. But Thomas, in popular culture, is singled out as “the doubter,” because of the story in today’s Bible passage. Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. We don’t know why, or where he was or what he was doing. But he missed it. Talk about missing out on something!

In the musical “Hamilton,” one of the big numbers is titled “The Room Where It Happens.” The point of the song is that Aaron Burr is frustrated because he wasn’t in the room when Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked out what is called the Compromise of 1790, helping to make possible a new, centralized federal government which would be based on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.

Thomas, like Aaron Burr, wasn’t in “the room where it happened” when Jesus first appeared to the core group of disciples. But instead of responding with frustration, he responded with skepticism. He wanted to see for himself.

To be fair, it’s possible any of the other disciples might have reacted the same way if they had been the one who wasn’t in the room.

Jesus’ resurrection became the foundation on which the church was built. It transported the disciples from a place of fear to a place of boldness and allowed them to turn the world upside down by preaching the Gospel.

We live in an age when many are skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection or the truth of his divinity. Skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris shun religion because, like Thomas, they want something physical, something measurable and repeatable.

There are many scientists, and have been through the centuries, who have been able to reconcile science and faith. They see science as a method of explaining God’s creation and take joy in a God whose creation is so elegant and symmetrical that it obeys natural laws.

Atheism and science are not the same thing, even though atheists sometimes claim they are. It is possible to be a person of faith and still a believer in the scientific method of looking at the world. The key is understanding that while matter and energy are subject to the laws of the physical world — they are predictable, and measurable — there are things that fall outside of man’s ability to measure or understand.

Because these things can’t be measured, or predicted, or repeated, they can’t be proven, at least not in the sense that is required by the scientific method. They require belief. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

There have been atheists through the years who did not believe in God but who tended to leave religion alone as long as it stayed out of the way of science. They might be condescending towards Christianity, considering faith to be a crutch, or an inferior way of looking at the world, but they didn’t actively try to fight it.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw was an atheist, and G.K. Chesterton was one of our great Christian writers. For a while, they had a debate tour, arguing about the existence of God, but at the end of the evening they would retire to a pub somewhere and have a pleasant conversation together. Shaw’s atheism did not keep him from spending time with a person of faith, and Chesterton’s faith allowed him to have a conversation, even a friendship, with someone on whose heart God might still be working.

Today, though, there is a new type of atheist. Richard Dawkins, whom I mentioned a little earlier, and others like him blame religious belief for many of the evils in the world. They look at bad things that have been done in the name of religion — any religion — and they conclude that religion itself is fundamentally evil and should be eliminated.

Albert Einstein, whom most people think of as the greatest scientist of the 20th Century, had no patience for this kind of atheist. Einstein himself, though Jewish by birth, never fell squarely into any religious camp. He was never a devout practitioner of any religion. But Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” quotes Einstein as writing this about militant atheism:

“The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

Einstein had enough of a sense of awe about the universe that he was willing to accept the possibility of a creator, or at least to keep an open mind about the subject. He heard “the music of the spheres,” and saw it as evidence of an intelligence behind the design of the universe.

Unlike Thomas, who was able to eliminate his doubts by placing his hands in Jesus’ wounds, we don’t have physical evidence for our faith. We can’t use science to prove that we are right, and Richard Dawkins is wrong. And yet, we believe anyway.

One of the great divides in Protestant theology is between Arminians and Calvinists. John Wesley was a die-hard Arminian, and even published “The Arminian Magazine” with articles supporting that theology. Our Methodist theology is based on an Arminian heritage. Arminians say that faith is an act of will, meaning that we are free to accept or reject God; Calvinists believe faith is a gift from God, and that some are predestined to receive it. Arminians say that Calvinism, if it were true, would mean that God plays favorites, and cruelly and arbitrarily chooses some people to be faithful but not others. Calvinists say Arminians give people too much credit and are preaching a gospel of human effort under which we earn our salvation.

Is faith our own decision, or is it something that God decides for us? In any case, it’s clear that our faith is something which transcends observable facts. It’s not about what you can see and feel. Blessed are the people who haven’t seen Jesus but believe in him anyway.

There’s a terrific movie — a great family movie — called “Secondhand Lions” which stars Haley Joel Osment as a young boy, Walter, sent to live with his uncles, Garth and Hub, who are played by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. The uncles are wealthy and somewhat mysterious.

Michael Caine’s character, Garth, tells Walter fanciful stories about how the uncles earned their fortune through swashbuckling and derring-do. But other family members say that the uncles might actually have been bank robbers or worse.

At one point in the movie, Walter is forced by circumstances to decide which of these two stories he believes. Robert Duvall’s character, Hub, tells him this:

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and — I want you to remember this — that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

“You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

That’s a good speech, but I must disagree with the part where it doesn’t matter whether what you believe in is true or not. I’m not a universalist. I don’t think you can just make up your own religion and believe in it, as long as you’re sincere. Linus, in the old comic strip “Peanuts,” may be sincere when he waits for the Great Pumpkin, but that doesn’t mean the Great Pumpkin is ever going to show up. There are false teachings, and wrong paths.

I believe God is real, the Bible is God’s holy word, and Jesus is risen from the dead. But I also think there are times when we must address our doubts. We don’t have the advantage that Thomas had of being able to put our hands in Jesus’ wounds. Even so, we can’t look down our noses at Thomas, because all of us have had our doubts. We have doubted Jesus, or doubted some aspect of his plan, or doubted that God was in control of the situation. Perhaps we have even doubted whether the Gospel is true at all.

The great author Frederick Buechner saw our occasional doubts as a sign of our humanity. Buechner once wrote, “Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

According to the author Martin Thielen, Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” When author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts.”

I tend to think that if you’ve never had any doubts, it’s because you don’t take your faith very seriously. People in dangerous professions sometimes say that fear is essential to what they do. If they weren’t just a little bit afraid, they wouldn’t be as careful. If I never have any doubts, you’d have to question whether I’ve really thought through the larger issues of who God is and who I am.

The question is not whether we’re ever going to have doubts, it is what we are going to do about them.

The psychologist Carl Rogers was 22 years old when he entered Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1924. While there, he participated in a seminar that was all about discussing religious doubts.

Rogers later said this about the experience: “The majority of members…in thinking their way through questions they had raised, thought themselves right out of religious work. I was one.”

The people in Rogers’ story dwelled on their doubt, and let it steal away all their faith. That is not what I mean about addressing our doubts. We must acknowledge our doubts, and be honest about them, but that doesn’t mean we have to focus on them.

Sometimes, addressing our doubts comes down to a decision. We must decide, as Hub tells Walter, to set aside our doubts and believe in the things worth believing in. Faith, in our Arminian understanding of it, becomes an act of will, a decision that we make with the support of God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace.

We can’t place our hands in Jesus’s side and feel his wounds. But we have our own evidence of God’s reality. We can feel Jesus tugging at our hearts. Sometimes we feel it during a church service. Sometimes we feel God speaking to us through the love and concern of a family member, a friend, or even a stranger. Sometimes we feel God speaking to us when we look at the beauty of nature. Sometimes, we experience the divine presence in times of trial, when we call out to God.

G. Campbell Morgan had already enjoyed some success as a preacher by the time he was 19. But then he started having doubts about the Bible. He read the writings of some of the atheists and skeptics of his day, and he became more and more confused. Finally, he canceled all preaching engagements, set aside these other books, and went to the bookstore and bought a new Bible.

He said to himself, “I am no longer sure that this is what my father claims it to be — the Word of God. But of this I am sure. If it be the Word of God, and if I come to it with an unprejudiced and open mind, it will bring assurance to my soul of itself….

“That Bible found me!” said Morgan. This new faith gave him the motivation for his preaching and teaching ministry. He devoted himself to the study and preaching of God’s Word.

When we feel doubt, sometimes the best way for us to put our hand in Jesus’ side and feel the truth of God’s existence is to keep an open mind and let God find us.

When I was with the newspaper, I interviewed an author named Mike McHargue, author of a book which I love called “Finding God In The Waves.” McHargue and his wife attended a fundamentalist Baptist church, and were very happy there, but McHargue always had a strong interest in science, and once put out a podcast under the name “Science Mike.” At one point, he found himself troubled by parts of the Old Testament, which eventually caused him to lose his faith in the existence of God, even as he continued to be an active member of his church. For a long while, not even his wife knew what was in his heart. Eventually, though, it all came out, and he left the fundamentalist church.

But as McHargue walked on the beach one day, he was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings that led to a renewed faith in God. It’s not exactly the same faith that he left, and you or I may not agree with him on certain points. But he’s returned to calling himself a follower of Jesus.

Faith is a mystery. Hebrews 11:1 says that “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.”

Martin Luther said this: “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.”

For Thomas, it was the evidence of the wounds in Jesus hands, feet and side that made him say “My Lord and my God!” We don’t have the physical presence of Jesus standing before us. But Jesus says, “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

A friend of mine and a former mission trip teammate, Terry Blankenship, wrote this in a blog post in 2010: “Doubt has caused many Christians to fall away because, rather than ride out the storm, they toss their faith overboard. I say ride out the storm. It is normal. If you feel Christianity is all a big joke or all some sort of collective wishful thinking, just hang on. The Holy Spirit will help you get through it.

“So here’s the Christian defense of doubt” — I’m still quoting Terry here — “… It is part of the terrain we must traverse. It is part of the jungle we must hack our way through while on earth. Never put a fellow believer down who is struggling with doubt. And never chase the non-believer away who dares to ask the tough questions.”

God calls on us to believe. That’s the first step in becoming a Christian — to believe in God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, to recognize that we are sinners in need of salvation, and to believe that God offers that salvation, through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

We may never completely quench our doubts, but if we keep our faith alive, we will be a part of God’s kingdom.



John I. Carney

Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at