The scene is a courtroom in Oklahoma where a man is on trial for murder. There is strong evidence indicating guilt, but the body has never been found. There is no corpse. In the defense’s closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client will probably be convicted tries something clever.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” the lawyer says as he looks at his watch. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom,” he says and he looks toward the courtroom door. The jury, somewhat stunned, all look on eagerly. A minute passes. Nothing happens.
Finally, the lawyer says, “Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked on with anticipation. You were ready to believe me. I therefore put it to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.”
The jury, clearly confused, retires to deliberate. Only a few minutes later the jury returns, no longer looking confused, and their representative pronounces a verdict of guilty.
“But how?” inquires the lawyer. “You must have had some doubt. I saw all of you stare at the door.”
The representative answered, “Oh, we did look. But your client didn’t.”
Some doubt could have saved the defendant. And I believe that in today’s Gospel text from the 20th chapter of John, it is doubt which saves Thomas. Unfortunately, because we have been prone to think that doubt is the opposite of faith, we cover our doubts behind a façade that tries to communicate to the outside world that all is well. The irony is that the church, one place where you might hope we could talk honestly about such things, becomes the place where we work the hardest to maintain the façade.
I believe that doubt serves a useful purpose. To have deep questions, anxieties, reservations, is not the opposite of faith. It is part of the life of faith. By way of analogy, consider a scientist who has no questions, no doubts about anything, who believes she has all the answers. Is such a person a true scientist? Is such a person going to grow? It seems to me that only the one who is open to wondering and searching and questioning is going to move forward.
If we think that doubt is the opposite of faith, I suspect it is because of the way we understand faith. Too often Christianity has been turned into a religion about believing certain things. If you think of faith as believing certain things, then I suppose doubt could be seen as the opposite of that.
But faith, I think, is more a matter of your basic attitude toward the universe and toward life. Faith is a sort of intuition that there is the possibility of joy and meaning in life. Faith is an attitude and a confidence about the centrality of kindness, compassion and love. Some once said that the only person without faith is the one who loves no one and is loved by no one, who does not care for the truth, sees no beauty, strives for no justice, knows no courage and joy, finds no meaning in life and has lost all hope. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is despair, the conclusion that life is not worth living.
Doubt does not lead to this kind of meaninglessness. Just the opposite. As we see in the case of Thomas, doubt will lead into deeper meaning and greater love as his doubts are met with love by Jesus. That is why I like to call him “Honest Thomas” rather than “Doubting Thomas.”
Let us remember where Thomas was the evening his name became forever linked with doubt. He was with other disciples even though he had steadfastly refused to believe the resurrection story they had told him. He did not have the “right belief.” But I suspect he shared with those disciples something more important than “right belief.” He had spent several years with these other disciples. He had been through much with them. With this bunch he had come to learn that life is about relationship, about connectedness with others, about love. So he was with them. His doubt did not lead him to despair for he had found something more important than “right belief.” His doubt led him to discover what was most important. That’s why I said earlier that doubt saved Thomas. And that may be the all-important thing. Had he not been there he would not have seen Jesus.
Some weeks earlier Jesus talked about going to Bethany, a place he had once had to leave under threat of being stoned. Most of the disciples warned against going. But Thomas said, “Let us go that we may die with him.” The life of faith is not about what you believe. It is about how you live. Jesus makes that very clear in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. So doubts about what you believe are not dangerous and can be helpful.
That faith is about how you live more than about what you believe is a lesson the 19th century preacher F.W. Robertson learned as he struggled with great doubts about the faith he professed. Before I give you his own words, let me say that I can relate to his struggle. If you can also, I would be happy to talk with you about that. Here is how Robertson put it:
“It is an awful moment when the soul begins to find that the props on which it has blindly rested so long are, so many of them, rotten, and begins to suspect them all. In that fearful loneliness of the spirit, when those who should have been his friends only frown upon his misgiving… I know but one way in which an individual may come forth from such agony… it is by holding on to those things which are certain still – the grand, simple landmarks of morality. In the darkest hour through which a human soul can pass, whatever else if doubtful, this is at least certain… it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be true than false, better to be brave than a coward.”
Being generous and true and brave in in one’s darkest hour. That sounds a lot like Thomas, doubts or no doubts. May it be true of us, also. Amen.