Thursday, April 20, 2017

Unless...I Will Not Believe


There's a reason we read about "Doubting Thomas" each year on the Second Sunday of Easter, and it isn't because Thomas is special. Thomas plays an important role in John's account of the resurrection. In fact, it's a role he plays throughout John's gospel account. Thomas isn't the curmudgeonly hold-out who is the last one to accept the newfangled way of thinking. He's the guy who needs to encounter Jesus before he can believe in the resurrection. In other words, he's you and me.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about the compassion Jesus had for Thomas, urging us to hear his words not as a taunting rebuke of the faithless disciple but as an offer of his body as physical proof of the resurrection. I strongly urge you to read his post. I want to build on what he said, using the Greek text to show that, as Steve concludes, Thomas' "unbelief" is not only not recalcitrance but the same honest, genuine skepticism that we bring to the story of the resurrection.

When Thomas heard from his companion disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus, he responded, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." As I often ask people in bible studies, if you were the film director designing this scene, how would you set it? My instinct is to show Thomas with his arms crossed, shaking his head, denying actively what his friends were saying to him. When I hear him say, "...I will not believe," it sounds like an expression of his will. It's as if he were saying to them, "I am withholding my belief until I get the proof I want. I have made up my mind not to give in until my terms are met."

Does this sound familiar? "Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse?" Sam-I-Am asks. "I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere," the unnamed character responds. That's Thomas. That's the Thomas of my imagination--stubborn, cynical, pouty, and uncompromising. And all of it is because of the way his response to the disciples' testimony is conveyed. But I don't think that's a fair translation of what Thomas says.


The verb that Thomas uses to tell the disciples that he will not believe is "πιστεύσω." As you might expect, it is the future indicative active first-person singular verb for "to believe." It is, of course, rightly translated, "I will [not] believe," but that doesn't necessarily mean the stubborn refusal that is sounds like in English. For starters, consider how someone might say, "Unless I get pregnant, I will not buy a car seat." That's not stubborn. It's just sensible. Unless the context is a high-pressured sales pitch, during which the salesperson badgers a woman into buying a car seat she doesn't need, to which the response would rightly be a stubborn, insistent, defiant rejection, the statement "I will not" isn't necessarily defiant. It's just naming the condition necessary for the purchase to ensue. As Steve suggests in his post, maybe Thomas is simply saying, "This is what I have to have--not because I want it to be that way but because that's what I need in order for the faith to be real to me."

Taking the Greek a little further, it may be worth noting that in New Testament Greek there is no difference in the form of a future indicative active first-person singular verb and the form of a aorist subjunctive active first-person singular verb. In other words, the same word πιστεύσω, that is usually translated, "I will [not] believe," may also mean "I shall [not] have believed." Before my Greek teachers line up to take my passing grades away from me, let me acknowledge that the context makes that unlikely, but the fact that the forms are identical suggests etymologically that there is similarity in the meanings--a similarity that comes out in the awkward translation I provide. The point I'm making is that the volition behind the English "I will not believe" is not necessarily present in what Thomas says to his colleagues.

If I were directing this scene in a movie, I would give Thomas a pleading posture and an urgent tone. When he says, "Unless...I will not believe," I would invite the actor to portray that with a desperation that yearns for the truth. "I want to believe, but I will not, cannot, until I can touch it for myself." Isn't that what we say? Isn't that John's point?

"Have you believed because you have seen me?" Jesus says. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That's John's way of letting us know that our own doubts are reasonable. No one would have believed in the resurrection unless Jesus had appeared to them in the flesh. The other eleven disciples had that opportunity, and Thomas' doubt is our doubt. His question of Jesus back in John 14--"We do not know where you are going. How will we know the way?"--is our question as well. He's the reasonable one. He's the rational one. He's the real one--the one who, like us, doesn't find true belief because someone tells us we should. He needs to see and know and feel the risen Jesus. We don't have that opportunity, but the realism of Thomas' request helps us overcome our doubts. Our faith is found as Thomas' is found, and Jesus' response to us is the same: Here I am. Come and touch me. Feel me. Do not doubt but believe.

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