If you are familiar with Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ in John 20, then you may know this as the story of doubting Thomas. In fact, the expression “doubting Thomas” has become something of a cliché. But it’s not really accurate. It is true that most of our English versions use the word “doubt.” Jesus says to Thomas: “Do not doubt, but believe.” A more literal reading of the Greek is: Do not be unbelieving, but believing. Jesus is exhorting Thomas to move from a state of unbelief to belief (trust, faithfulness).
But even if we accept the translation—“Do not doubt”—Jesus is not judging or condemning doubt per se, nor is he condemning the particular kind of doubt expressed by Thomas.
The living Christ accommodates himself to Thomas’ requirements in order to move Thomas from a state of unbelief to belief. Of course, Christ was under no compulsion to do so, and John 20: 29 suggests that the vast majority of believers will not be given the kind of special revelation that was given to Thomas: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” There will be many after Thomas who will not “see” Jesus the way Thomas saw (experienced) Jesus, and yet they will believe.
That is not a condemnation or judgment on Thomas; but it is an acknowledgement that we all encounter the Divine from different places and not everyone has equal opportunity.
We should know that this is how life works. We are all given the freedom to choose, but we are not all given equal freedom to choose. The freedom some have is restricted by their circumstances in life.
The film Looper is a science fiction thriller that creates a dilemma around the subject of time travel that is very complex. Joe, the key character who is a killer, in the final scene performs a rather selfless act to save a mother. He does it, because he knows that the child of the mother, without the mother’s love and care will become a vicious killer known as the Rainmaker. But with the mother’s love in those formative years, the child will grow up to become a different kind of person.
When children are deprived of adequate love, attention, and care in their formative years, they are severely restricted in their freedom to love. That is a psychologically proven reality.
All sorts of things impact the freedom we have to choose: our genetics, our family history, our early childhood experiences, our socialization into our context in life, our education, our relationships, etc.
When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who do not see and believe,” he is clearly implying that there will be others who are not given the same vision, the same experience, the same opportunities that Thomas has been given. That’s life.
The reason for this has nothing to do with divine choice, or predestination, or divine providence, or anything that resides in God. God does not, God cannot micromanage the world. God is all about freedom, not control.
What we need to know is that God is present in whatever the history, the circumstances, and the experiences of our lives. God is there inviting us, wooing us, drawing us into relationship and it doesn’t matter what we have done or who we have been in the course of our lives.
The ways we encounter God are diverse and varied because we and our life situations are diverse and varied. We are each one unique. God meets us where we are.
What matters is the relationship—a relationship of grace and truth, a relationship that teaches us how to love and be faithful, honest, and trustworthy. That’s what matters.
People who know God, that is, who have genuine God experience, who know God—relationally, intuitively, mystically, intimately— are people who are always growing in faith, hope, and love, regardless of the specifics of their belief system or the doctrines they hold too.
This is at least part of what the death and resurrection of Jesus is about from the perspective of the Johannine community. For this Gospel says that when Jesus is “lifted up from the earth” (referring to his death and resurrection) he will draw all people to himself (John 13:32). The Spirit of Truth is always drawing us into relationship. Christians enter into this relationship through Christ; that is not true for everyone, but it is true for Christians.
This relationship is one rooted and grounded in trust and trustworthiness. One could translate the verb “to believe” in John’s Gospel as “to trust” or “to be faithful.” Our awareness and experience of the Divine Love compels us to live in loving relationships with each other. For our relationship with God is inseparably tied to our relationship with everyone else.
And while it is true that our freedom to choose is shaped and influenced by numerous factors, and freedom is not distributed equally, and some events and circumstances severely restrict our freedom, it is also true that whosoever will may come and discover a God who loves us more than we can ever fathom.