On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (called 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 it.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
—John 20:19-31, NIV
Did This Really Happen?
The first thing we have to deal with when we read the resurrection accounts in the gospels and Acts is to decide if they really happened. None of us have encountered a resurrected person; none of us have seen any of our friends laid out in a casket and then talked with them at the mall a couple days afterwards. So this incident in scripture, and others like it, leaves us scratching our heads and wondering if it is real.
Some of us reply immediately out of faith that it is real, that Jesus really did rise from the grave, and that this incident really did occur as John describes it. If that describes you, you can skip over this part. The rest of us need to do a little more thinking about it.
There are three different approaches to the resurrection accounts:
Theory 1: The resurrection accounts are theological fiction
This theory asserts that the resurrection accounts did not occur at all; they are fictitious stories invented by the writers (or their sources) to make Jesus heroic despite His ignoble death. In other words, they are the product of the theology of the ancient church.
This theory was especially palatable back in the days when scholars thought the gospels were written in the second or third centuries. However, we now know that they were written in the first century, when there was a community for whom the crucifixion and the events over the next few days were personal memories. It doesn’t seem very likely that they would tolerate such a brash embellishment of events. The disciples must have been traumatized by the crucifixion, so it is much more reasonable to assume that they at least believed that these events occurred.
It is also likely, if the resurrection accounts were theological fiction, that there would have been an effort to harmonize them, to get the details straight. In a murder mystery novel, all the clues come together at the end to form one possible solution. Fiction is neat and tidy, but reality is messy. The truthful accounts of honest witnesses are sometimes very hard to harmonize. The resurrection accounts aren’t neat and tidy. They leave us wondering, for example, if the Ascension took place in Galilee, as Matthew appears to imply, or in Judea, as Luke and Acts seem to say. If we put them all together, it is more like a scrapbook of assorted memories than a fictional narrative.
The resurrection accounts were written during a time when there were witnesses who would object to a preposterous embellishment of events, and they do not have the character of fiction. Whatever the resurrection accounts are, they are not theological fiction.
Theory 2: The resurrection accounts are bereavement visions
This theory asserts that they really did occur exactly as the gospel writers describe them, but the accounts are only subjectively true. We know that when a person dies, especially under traumatic circumstances, that it is common for the survivors to experience the presence of the dead person in the days and weeks that immediately follow the death. This can take the form of dreams, visions, or auditory hallucinations. So perhaps these resurrection accounts are products of the disciples’ grief.
I was traumatized by a tragic death several years ago, so I am personally familiar with the phenomena that bereaved people experience. I can speak out of personal experience. Right off the bat I can see very significant differences between bereavement visions and the resurrection accounts. I was the only person who saw my bereavement visions, and I was very much aware at the time that they weren’t part of the reality I live in. I saw them out of the corner of my eye, in a flash, in a dream, or in the foggy moments while awakening from sleep. The vision went away as soon as I looked at it directly or became fully awake. The visions were momentary and fleeting, but they were comforting and helped me make peace with what I had witnessed. From what I have read, my experience was normal and typical for a person who had witnessed a tragic death.
The resurrection accounts do not fit this pattern. There were multiple witnesses who were all wide awake at the time, the duration of the incidents was too long, and skeptics, such as Thomas, could see them. Thomas was not an exceptional case. All of the disciples were skeptical of the resurrection until they saw the Risen Jesus, only then were they convinced, and the resurrection appearances did not comfort them, they emboldened and energized them. Bereavement visions comfort the bereaved; they do not end the bereavement, as the resurrection appearances did. Bereavement visions certainly do not charge up a person to the degree that they can evangelize the world and march fearlessly into death!
There is no doubt in my mind that the disciples must have experienced the same sort of bereavement phenomena as I did. However, the resurrection accounts in the gospels are something entirely different. Whatever the resurrection accounts are, they are not the phenomena that accompany bereavement.
Theory 3: The resurrection accounts really happened as described
This theory asserts that the resurrection accounts are objectively true. That is, if non-believers had stumbled into the scene, they would have witnessed it also—and in fact that happened, especially in the case of this passage.
There is no way we can prove it definitively after all these years, but I think this is the only explanation given the facts at hand. Not just because of the character of the resurrection accounts themselves, but also because the accounts depict the disciples deep in grief before the resurrection appearance and energized and emboldened after the resurrection appearance. They even proclaimed the resurrection in the very city in which Jesus’ crucifixion occurred—the very location where their claims could most easily be disproved and in which it was most dangerous to make them public. It is also true that early Christians were confident as they were put to death for this belief, and it was this unwavering confidence in the face of torture and death that made the early church grow. Obviously, something more stupendous than a literary fraud or a bereavement vision must have occurred. The only explanation I can think of is that the resurrection accounts were objective events that really occurred.
I won’t pretend that this conclusion doesn’t give me some intellectual indigestion, but it is the best explanation I can find that fits the facts.
If I have trouble believing, am I really a Christian?
All of these things happened long ago and far away, and sometimes even the most faithful Christian falls into doubts about whether they occurred. That’s only natural, and it is good spiritual hygiene to examine one’s beliefs from time to time. That is what we are told to do in 1 John 4:1—to test the spirits to see if they are from God.
Jesus didn’t correct Thomas’ statement!
I have heard a lot of Thomas-bashing in sermons and in Sunday school, but notice it does not occur in this passage. No one criticizes or rebukes Thomas for his lack of faith or for his skepticism. The passage does not tell us how they put Thomas in his place, rather it tells us how Thomas was surprised!
Thomas says he won’t believe until he can see for himself that Jesus is alive. What happens next? Do they heard Jesus’ voice booming through the room, rebuking Thomas and imposing some penalty on him? No! Jesus immediately appears and meets his demands! Jesus did not criticize Thomas for wanting physical evidence, but rather blessed those who believe without it.
So if Jesus didn’t penalize Thomas for doubting the resurrection, He certainly won’t penalize you if you have misgivings about it. You are not saved by your beliefs but by your faith; by your reliance on Jesus Christ.
Of course I wasn’t there when they crucified my Lord!
There is a romantic old hymn that asks, Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Well, I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t there. I’m not anywhere near old enough. I wasn’t there when they nailed Him to the cross, or buried Him in the tomb, and I certainly wasn’t there when Thomas got the shock of his life. Even if I had been alive at the time, the disciples didn’t think to invite me. So I did not see the nail marks in His hands, I did not put my finger where the nails were, and I did not put my hand into His side. Jesus ascended into heaven before I was born, so there is no opportunity for me to do so.
Yet I believe these things occurred, because I have reasoned it out, and these events help me to believe that Jesus is the one whom I should trust and obey. Because I have not seen and yet have believed, Jesus says I am blessed.
How should we read the Bible?
At the end of a television quiz show, the announcer often says that some parts of the game that did not affect the outcome were edited out so that the program would be the right length for television. John essentially says the same thing here. He says that Jesus did and said more things than can possibly be recorded in all the books in the world. Given his claim in the first chapter of his book—that Jesus is the incarnate Word through whom all things were created—I can see how that is true. Some things that do not affect the outcome of our salvation were left out, so that it would fit in a book that is small enough that we can actually read it.
John effectively tells us that the Bible does not contain the blueprints for the universe. It does not contain the answers to all possible questions. There are things that you won’t learn by reading the Bible, like auto repair, subnuclear physics, tap dancing, double-entry bookkeeping, or why there were dinosaurs. Those things are not essential to our salvation. The Bible’s purpose is to save our souls, not to replace our brains, and not to feed our egos by making us into bossy know-it-alls.
The Bible equips us with the wherewithal to have faith in Jesus Christ, and for that purpose it is sufficient.