I still remember the panic welling up from somewhere deep inside me. I had lingered in the classroom after all the other students had left in hopes of getting some answers from my professor. No, “answers” is the wrong word. What I wanted was something more like assurance or even certainty. I wanted to be told that all the questions reverberating in my mind about the early chapters of the Bible and the comparative Ancient Near Eastern stories we had been studying were nothing to worry about. The Bible is God’s inspired Word, after all. These other stories were fictional myths.
My professor, a devout Christian, and ordained minister listened graciously as I rambled through my jumbled thoughts and concerns. Then I asked him the question at the heart my anxiety: “How do you know everything you know and still keep your faith?”
And this really was the pivotal question. Because I didn’t know a fraction of what my professor knew about the Bible and its ancient cultural contexts. And my faith was unraveling. I felt I was near a tipping point. Hadn’t I come to college and majored in biblical studies to grow in my faith and knowledge of the Bible? Now I wasn’t sure I believed any of it.
I’ll never forget what my professor said. He looked at me with what seemed to be sincere compassion. He’d no doubt had this conversation with students before. He said, “I’ve learned to live with a lot of tension in my faith.”
What? No! That was not the answer I was looking for. Panic seized me. But it was the answer I needed. I can see that now, some twenty years later. I wanted neatly packaged answers to complex questions. My professor gave me something better. He gave me permission to doubt and question, to explore and wonder. And I’ve been working out living in the tensions that arise ever since. Thankfully, the Bible has stories that help us.
I’ve long felt that Jesus’ disciple Thomas has gotten a bad rap. After all, he’s commonly referred to as “Doubting Thomas”, and that’s not meant as an affectionate nickname. And it’s only because he was a bit skeptical about the claim from his friends that Jesus—who just a few days earlier had been brutally tortured, executed and buried in a tomb—was suddenly alive and well, appearing in rooms and passing through locked doors.
I suspect we’d have been a bit skeptical too. After all, dead people generally stay dead. So perhaps instead of “Doubting Thomas” we should call him “Honest Thomas.” Regardless, the Gospels indicate that Thomas was not the only one who doubted.
The book of Mark is widely regarded by most Bible scholars to be the earliest written account of Jesus’ life—and it ends on a cliffhanger. Rather than the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection, ending with praise and proclamation, the earliest conclusion to Mark’s Gospel leaves us in suspense: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
Later readers and editors found this conclusion unsatisfactory and added verses 9-20. Most Bibles have those verses bracketed off with a note indicating, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.” This later conclusion reads like a harmonization of other accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and concludes triumphantly with Jesus’ ascension to heaven and the disciples proclaiming the Good News everywhere.
But it’s fascinating that the apparent original conclusion to the earliest Gospel we have ended in fear and silence. At one of the most climactic scenes in the Bible—the resurrection of Jesus—we’re given a similar permission that my professor gave me. The women were bewildered and afraid. I think that means we can be too.
The book of Luke offers a subversive critique of Jesus’ male disciples. Like all the other Gospels, Luke reports that Jesus’ female followers were the first to find the tomb empty. Luke also records that they had a vision of angels who told them Jesus was raised from the dead. When the women rush to tell the male disciples what they had discovered, Luke records the reaction: “But they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
Finally, the way Matthew tells the story the women were successful in their mission of telling Jesus’ disciples about his resurrection. Matthew writes that the eleven disciples went to Galilee as Jesus had instructed them through the women. He promised that they would see him there. And so they all gathered and did, in fact, see Jesus. And then this fascinating tidbit: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”
These different accounts provide snapshots of how Jesus’ followers were responding to the news of his resurrection from the dead. And they suggest that more people doubted than “Doubting Thomas.” The Gospels portray people who are trying to process and explain the unexplainable. They are scared and bewildered. They question and doubt. They wonder and are amazed and perplexed. And they are all people who were faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Some of us were raised in a Christian community in which doubting was discouraged at best. At worst, doubting was considered shameful, heretical, and earned you criticism from those in authority. We learned that some questions were okay as long as you arrived at the correct predetermined answers. But other questions were off limits. Better to avoid the proverbial slippery slope and quickly squelch certain inquiries than risk losing your faith.
A couple years ago I was in a meeting with other pastors and district leaders from my denomination at our denomination college. We had been participating in a series of discussions regarding how to read and interpret the early chapters of Genesis and what the implications were for teaching the Bible, science, and other relevant disciplines at the college. The conversation quickly devolved into pitting faith against science, evolution against creation, and woodenly literal interpretations of the Bible against literary and theological readings of the Bible.
I suggested that if we read a story featuring a talking snake and two magical trees, as Genesis 3 does, in any other ancient literature, we would quite reasonably identify the story as myth. Not myth in the sense of blatantly false and made up. But myth in the literary sense of a story that explains our origins and tells us profound truths about the human condition. Perhaps, I said, these early chapters of Genesis are more like myth than a newspaper report. The story is powerful because it is our story. We make wrong and sinful choices that have devastating consequences and then we blame others. The story truly reveals the brokenness of God’s good creation and our human predicament.
My suggestion was quickly dismissed and I was reprimanded for not taking the Bible seriously. One colleague even said he was worried about me. It was an experience I’ve had many times in various church settings. Some questions, ideas, and suggestions are off limits.
But the Bible tells a different story. The Bible is filled with people who ask questions and doubt, who wrestle and wonder, who rage and protest. And quite often their questions, doubts, rage, and protests are directed at God.
The Bible is filled with people who ask questions and doubt, who wrestle and wonder, who rage and protest. And quite often their questions, doubts, rage, and protests are directed at God.
Something tragic happens to faith when we don’t allow ourselves to be surprised and challenged, troubled and perplexed by the stories, poems, prayers, and prophecies in the Bible.
Doubt and questions are not the opposite of faith. Rather, they are a sure sign that someone is deeply engaged in the ongoing journey of figuring out what it means and what it looks like to faithfully live and love in the way of Jesus. Through stories like “Doubting Thomas”, the Bible invites us to be honest with our doubts and questions, our perplexity and bewilderment. And Jesus met Thomas in the midst of his doubts. Let’s not miss that.
I was having coffee with a friend recently who was raised in church but stopped attending once he became an adult. His experience was that his questions and doubts about the Bible and Christian faith were regularly met with some version of Jesus’ seemingly terse, “Stop doubting and believe” to Thomas in John 20:27. It always came across to him as a minor rebuke.
But I think this is a tragic misreading of the story. After all, Jesus showed up and provided Thomas with the proof that Thomas said would be necessary for him to believe. In what I see as a tender, intimate pastoral moment, Jesus invites Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” And we can imagine Jesus taking Thomas’ trembling hands into his own nail-scarred hands, and placing Thomas’ hands on his pierced side as he tells him, “Stop doubting and believe.” It’s a scene dripping with compassion.
Thomas’ response is one of awe, wonder, and worship. And it’s a definitive declaration of the deity of Christ: “My Lord and my God!.”
Twenty years ago my Old Testament professor gave me a gift, though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. It was the gift of permission to ask questions, explore, doubt, and wonder. I’m still learning to live in the tensions that inevitably arise. What I’ve discovered is that while wrestling with perplexing questions, troubling biblical texts, and doubts often remain unresolved, they nevertheless typically lead me to a profound sense of worship, mystery, and encountering the sacred.
It’s perhaps in the very midst of our doubts and questions that, like Honest Thomas and so many others in Scripture, we’ll discover God.
Sam Ochstein is the pastor at Hillside Missionary Church in South Bend, IN where he lives with his wife Jen and their lovable yellow labrador Amos. His writing has appeared in Missionary Church Today, Reflections, and The Episcopal Cafe. He holds an MMin and MATS from Bethel College (Indiana) and is finishing up an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary.