What I Learned From the Apostle Thomas

It’s time for me to come clean about something.

In many ways, I really love the Bible.

My twitter feed after such blasphemy.

My twitter feed after such blasphemy.

I love the evocative language, the sheer scale of its epic narrative, the stunning imagery (I’ve used the line ‘Your hair is like a flock of goats running down the slopes of Gilead’ a few times with varying degrees of success). I love the insight it gives into the minds of people who lived millennia ago, what their values were, their understanding of the natural world. Some of is shocking, some of it repulsive, some of it is filled with wisdom and some parts are just damn funny.

But, as you may assume, there’s a difference in how I love the Bible and how a Christian loves the Bible. I love the Bible in the same way I love Sumerian mythology, Egyptology, the Greek epics. I love the Bible like I love the Táin Bó Cúailnge, I love Queen Esther in the same way I love Queen Maebh, Samson and Cuchulainn, the angels and the Tuatha de Danaan.

I love the Biblical narrative the same way I love Game of Thrones (and indeed many of the best parts of George. R. R. Martin’s works parallel the parts of the Bible that Christians don’t really like to talk about.) Where else can you find an assassin that sticks his sword into a king so fat that the weapon is lost in rolls of lard? Or an army of six-hundred expert sling-shooters, all of them left-handed? Or a deity so tempestuous that he slaughters 36,000 people because a king took a census? With the Nye vs. Ham debate still fresh in people’s memory, Noah’s Ark is a renewed topic of discussion, and despite its complete implausibility it’s a damn good tale and I have no more qualms about seeing the upcoming Russell Crowe film than I do about seeing Clash of the Titans.

Atheists don’t despise the Bible. Well, maybe some do, I can’t speak for all of us. But for the most part, we see its value as a historical document, a mythological cycle, a piece of literature. But we don’t ascribe mystical properties to the text like Christians do. We don’t set it above other similar narratives because it’s our favourite. We don’t demand special respect for the Bible in halls of justice or in popular culture. We don’t take the Bible to distant lands and use it to spread hate and fear and create a new ‘us vs. them’ mentality. And we don’t demand that our friends and neighbours get on their knees and worship the text, change their lives in accordance to what we glean out of it, and threaten those who refuse with eternal hellfire and damnation. Atheists don’t hate the Bible for what it is, we hate how it is used.

And, in much of what I see in the atheist community, this has an unfortunate side effect. Our contempt for the theology translates into a contempt for the text it’s based on. We lose appreciation of the value of the Bible because it’s covered by the veil of historical and modern Christian culture. As a theology, Christianity is twisted, and (I would argue) irredeemably corrupt. The few Christian friends I have are, not coincidentally, those whom the vast majority of Christendom would describe as having ‘bad theology’ because they don’t let the tenants of their religion interfere with their common human decency. But the Bible has immense value as a rip in the tapestry of time that we can peel back and get a glimpse of ancient peoples, and so often that’s lost in the culture war between the secular and the devout.

Which brings us to the Apostle Thomas.

Thomas’s name has, unfortunately, developed a negative connotation over the centuries. The archetype of the ‘doubting Thomas’ is one that has appeared regularly in literature ever since Thomas made his literary debut in the Gospels. It’s a result of just a few passages of text in John 20: 24-28 (NIV)

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.

25 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.”

26 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!” 27 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.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

These five brief verses solidified Thomas’s reputation as the doubter and made his name synonymous with disbelief. A ‘doubting Thomas’ is usually portraying as a sneering cynic, one who refuses to accept anything unless it’s laid out in front of him. “If I can’t see it with my own eyes, it doesn’t exist!” proclaims the Doubting Thomas, to the exasperation of the optimistic, starry-eyed protagonists around him.

Gee. That sounds familiar

And this is why, over every single character in the entire Bible, I admire and identify with the Apostle Thomas. Not because he was a cynic and a scoffer who refused to believe, but because he had the courage to say “I can’t believe.”

Far from being an exemplar of negative qualities, Thomas is one of the noblest of the apostles. It takes a great deal of courage to set yourself against popular opinion and refuse to go with the crowd. Thomas was one of Jesus’s dearest friends. His friend and teacher had been arrested, tortured, and murdered in one of the most horrific ways known to the ancient world. Thomas had as much reason as anyone to want to believe the account of Jesus’ resurrection. In the brief sentences describing the scene, you can almost feel the hope rising in him and the blazing desire to believe that it was true. How greatly he would have wanted to believe.

But he didn’t. Because Thomas was a rational, logical man who didn’t allow the power of emotion or desire or even grief to cloud his reason.

As evidenced by the cymbal behind his head, Thomas was also the percussionist for a moderately successful indie band.

As evidenced by the cymbal behind his head, Thomas was also the percussionist for a moderately successful indie band.

It would have been so easy for him to lie say “Yes, I believe.” Perhaps he would have almost convinced himself that his belief was genuine, as so many Christians who sit in the pews on Sunday do. He could’ve followed the crowd, been one of the gang, but he chose to set himself apart and ostracize himself from his only friends for a week because he didn’t have the ability to believe based on faith alone and he refused to lie about it. And that took courage.

Thomas did what any scholar, scientist, philosopher, or student needs to do. He said, “You made this claim. This is the evidence I need to accept that claim. The burden of proof is on you to support your claim and I will not accept it until you do.”

And what was the result? Jesus appeared out of thin air and showed himself to Thomas. He gave Thomas exactly what he needed to believe. And when Thomas was faced with the evidence he had demanded, he reversed his stance and accepted that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

And for that his reputation was tarnished forever.

It’s interesting to note two things. First of all, Jesus never once admonished Thomas for not believing. He accepted the burden of proof and provided evidence. He didn’t mock, dismiss, ostracise or criticise Thomas for using his mind. The same can’t be said for the religion named after him, but more on that later. The second thing is that Thomas isn’t unique in the account of the resurrection of Jesus. In all of the Gospels, there does not exist one person who believed Jesus’s account based solely on hearsay. None of the ten other remaining apostles. None of the women who followed Jesus and came to his tomb. Neither of the disciples on the road to Emmaus ( which is one of the most hilarious stories in the Bible, being the only example of where Jesus deliberately played mind games with people for his own amusement). But only Thomas gets the reputation of the doubter, because only Thomas had the courage to stand against the crowd and say “I don’t believe.”

My journey into atheism didn’t happen in a day. I often have to make the distinction to people between the catalyst of my atheism and the cause. The catalyst happened quickly, as I saw the abuses by people of the Christian faith in my native Ireland. This catalyst was only furthered by Evangelical culture after my immigration to the United States. But this didn’t leave me as an atheist instantly. I’m not sure what I was in my early teenage years. I suppose I floated between agnosticism, deism, theistic spirituality, etc. None of it had a clearly defined label. But I had been told throughout my childhood so often and with such fervor that there was a god, a real god, an all-powerful god, that giving up this idea proved harder than it may seem. I stepped away from Christianity in a moment, but stepping into atheism took years of struggling with an upbringing of powerful religious influence. The break happened when finally I had the courage to admit to myself that I doubted the existence of God. After that first step, the destination was assured.

It is such an easy thing, to fall away from religion, but far more frightening to admit it.

It isn’t easy, being an atheist in a religious world. I face discrimination in politics, the workplace, in my home and among my family. I am open about my atheism in many circles but there is a reason I write anonymously. I’m a private tutor and I would have an exceedingly hard time finding people who would allow me to teach their children if I were an open atheist. Not to mention large swaths of my Evangelical and Roman Catholic family would be…troubled, to say the least. But in many ways, I am free. I am free to talk openly about my lack of belief, not to everyone, but to many. Not everyone has that advantage, however.

No matter how hard it is to be an open atheist, it is so much harder to be a religious person and express doubt. The shaming techniques used by many branches of Christianity have been refined over centuries. These days they have a more ‘psychological torture’ sort of feel rather than a ‘burned at the stake’ feel, but the damage it does is incredible and heartbreaking. I’m sure everyone reading this can pluck out an anecdote in which a Christian individual has said ‘I don’t know if I accept that,’ or ‘I just don’t believe we can interpret that passage in that manner,’ or even ‘Sometimes I wonder how a loving god could let horrible things happen,’ and been shamed for it. Any individual who doesn’t show a complete acceptance of every point of Scripture, one hundred percent of the time, can expect to be called an unbeliever, a false teacher, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or worse. They might be ostracised, mocked, publicly admonished. They may lose their friends, or even their job. Simply for the crime of doubting, as Thomas did.

Probably half of confessed Christians will admit to feeling doubt at some point in their lives, and the other half is lying through their teeth.

And yet, doubt remains one of the best things that can happen to a religious individual. Doubt leads to curiosity. Curiosity leads to exploration. Exploration leads to learning, learning leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to new and better ways to live your life. Doubt me? Look at Thomas. Every religious person will doubt, but not everyone will have the courage to admit it. Sometimes, doubt will lead a person back to where they started, their conviction stronger and renewed. Sometimes it will lead them to a new way of living under the banner of Christianity or whatever religion they adhere to. For many, doubt will lead to unbelief. What matters is that they had the courage to doubt, and the conviction to act on it.

There was a moment in the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate in which both Nye and Ham were asked what would be necessary to change their minds. Ham blustered through a few sentences, then stated that nothing would be able to move him from his conviction in the Bible’s authenticity, and in that moment he lost the debate. Nye responded that the only thing necessary to move him from his position was a single shred of evidence. And in that moment, when he paralleled the words of the noblest of the apostles, Nye was acting more biblical than Ham ever did.

I don’t have to ask you to doubt, friends and readers. I know that you will. But when you doubt, doubt boldly, as Thomas did.