Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.
“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).
Rich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.
Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.
Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.
That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.
Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.