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Fact vs. Fiction: Who was the Real Apostle Thomas?

We've all heard the expression, "doubting Thomas" in reference to the Apostle Thomas. And many believe the defining characteristic of Thomas was unrelenting doubt. But this belief stems from a misinterpretation of a single Bible verse taken out of context. In this article, I separate fact from fiction to expose the myth of "doubting Thomas" and discover the real Apostle Thomas.

by William L. Nowell

The Epitome of Love and Loyalty

When Yeshua (Jesus) heard that His friend Lazarus was sick, He said to His disciples, “Let's return to Judea.” But the disciples, with the exception of Thomas, tried to talk Yeshua out of returning. They reminded Him that only recently some Jewish leaders had tried to kill Him. However, Thomas realized that Yeshua would return to Judea with or without them. And so, without hesitation, he implored the disciples to also go with Yeshua so that they “may die with Him.” (John 11:16) Thomas' loyalty was unwavering and his love is best described as heroic. Only Thomas was ready to follow Yeshua even if it meant he would die.

I can imagine Thomas pounding his chest, testosterone pumping through his veins and saying, “The scared little school girls You call disciples can go run and hide, but not me. The Pharisees don't know what they're in for. The first time they try something, they better be ready for a good old fashion beat down. I don't play that!”

Later, Yeshua would say, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13) Yet, Thomas had already put this teaching of Christ into action before Yeshua ever uttered those words. Courageous Thomas, ready to lay down his life for his friend Yeshua, was the epitome of love and loyalty.

Only One Way

Only one way to heaven
“I (Yeshua) am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)

Yeshua had just told His disciples that He was going to His Father's house when Thomas naively asked a crucially important question. He asked how can we know the way to your Father's house—literally, how can we know the way to God? To which Yeshua replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Yes, contrary to popular opinion, there is only one way to God, and that way is through His Son Yeshua (Jesus), Christ the Lord. (See John 14:2-6) Indeed, this central teaching of Christianity is the foundation on which our eternal hope stands. But let's not forget that this doctrine, one of Yeshua's greatest “I AM” statements, came as a response to Thomas' naive question. For this reason, we ought to at least appreciate Thomas for his willingness to ask such an important question.

The Doubting Disciples

Early in the morning, on the day of the Resurrection, a group of women went to the burial site of Yeshua only to find an empty tomb. When the women returned from the tomb, they told the disciples all that they had seen and heard. But not only did the disciples not believe the women, they dismissed their words as utter nonsense. (Luke 24:1-3, 9, 11) In addition, Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had actually seen and spoken to the risen Lord, but they refused to believe it. (Mark 16:9-11)

Garden Tomb
"The Garden Tomb", an original painting by Jon McNaughton (McNaughton Fine Art)

Later, Yeshua appeared to two men on the road to Emmaus. These two men immediately returned to Jerusalem, found the disciples, and said to them, “It is true! The Lord has risen”; but they did not believe them either. (Luke 24:13, 33-34, Mark 16:12-13) After receiving multiple reports of Yeshua's resurrection, the disciples still did not believe.

In the evening after the Resurrection, we find the disciples hiding behind locked doors in fear of the Jewish leaders. But Thomas was not with them. (John 20:19-24) Though the Bible does not tell us where Thomas was or what he was doing, we do know that Thomas was not in hiding along with the other disciples.

Now it was at this time that Yeshua appeared to the disciples and rebuked them for stubbornly refusing to believe those who saw Him after He had risen. (Mark 16:14 and Luke 24:38) Yeshua rebuked the disciples, minus Thomas, for their unbelief. Yet no one calls them the Doubling Disciples!

Later when the disciples told Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord, he did not naively take their word for it. Instead, he wanted to see physical proof of the Lord's resurrection, just as they had seen. Thomas needed a faith built on fact; not on hearsay. From my perspective, that's a good thing. In fact, Scripture tells us to always be ready to give a logical defense for the hope we have. (See 1 Peter 3:15) In other words, we ought to have a faith built on facts.

Thomas' Reaction to the Risen Lord

When the disciples saw Yeshua, they were afraid and thought they were seeing a spirit. Only by showing them His hands and feet and urging them to touch Him could Yeshua convince the disciples that He was real. At this point, they were both amazed and glad to see Him, but still could not believe their eyes. And so, He further convinced them by sitting down to have a meal with them.

Now let's contrast Thomas' response to the risen Savior to that of the other disciples. First, notice that there is no indication that he was afraid or could not believe his eyes. But more importantly, when Yeshua said to him “Stop doubting and believe,” Thomas' response was immediate and profound. No longer doubting, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Unlike the other disciples who were merely glad to see their old friend alive and well, Thomas recognized Yeshua's divinity. He referred to Yeshua not only as “my Lord” but also as “my God.” (See John 20:26-28)

Thomas displayed a depth of understanding that surpassed that of the other disciples. His powerful declaration, “My Lord and my God!” is in accord with John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word [i.e. Yeshua], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Yeshua's words “I and the Father are one,” rang true for Thomas. He got it! Thomas was the first disciple to explicitly acknowledge the Messiah Yeshua as God in the flesh.

Noble-minded Thomas

Let's also compare Thomas' actions to that of the Berean Jews. We find in Acts 17:10-12 that upon arriving in the city of Berea, the Apostle Paul went to the Jewish synagogue to preach the gospel message. But do we find that the Bereans blindly accepted whatever he told them? Not at all! On the contrary, they searched the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was actually true. They would settle for no less than definitive proof that Paul's teachings were in line with the Hebrew Scriptures. Much like Thomas, they needed a faith built on fact and not on hearsay. It's important to note that Luke does not describe these “skeptics” as the “Doubting Bereans.” Instead, he describes them as being of noble character.

And so the Apostle Paul praised the Bereans for demanding proof and said they were of a nobler character than the Thessalonians. Therefore, we ought to praise Thomas and refer to him as the “noble-minded disciple”. Nevertheless, many have castigated Thomas, labeling him as a doubter for doing the same as the Bereans—demanding definitive proof. Clearly, a double standard is at work here.

Yeshua Does Not Want Empty-Headed Disciples!

When asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Yeshua replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” (Mark 12:28-30) Clearly, Yeshua wants us to love God with our minds. Furthermore, Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Notice that the phrase 'be transformed' is both present-tense and passive. In other words, our transformation is a continuous process that we allow God to perform in us. But God is not going to just miraculously transform our minds. No, He wants our active participation. Therefore, we must do our part by saturating our minds with His Word and thereby grow in the knowledge of God.

Hebrews 8:10
It's God's will to connect our minds to our hearts through His Word.
Jeremiah 31:33 / Hebrews 8:10 / Hebrews 10:16

Beware of False Teachers

The apostle Paul prayed for the Colossians to grow in their knowledge of God. (See Colossians 1:10) The Colossians needed to grow in their knowledge of God, and we do too. In fact, it is imperative that Christians know God's Word because of the ever-growing number of false teachers infiltrating the modern church. More than ever before, today we live in a world filled with false teachers (preachers, prophets, etc.). Prominent names on the very long list of false teachers are Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Andy Stanley, Steven Furtick, and the list goes on and on, and on. Matthew 7:15 warns us to beware of false teachers, as does Matthew 24:11, 2 Peter 2:1, and 1 John 4:1.

Some false teachers water down the message to the point that little to nothing of value remains. Still, others are so blatant in their heresies that only the deaf, dumb, and stupid cannot see their deception. Nevertheless, they have (empty-headed) followers. But the most dangerous among them are the wolves who skillfully weave the truth and lies together into a message that is almost true. It takes knowledge, and oftentimes discernment, on the part of the Believer to not be led astray by these wolves in sheep's clothing.

Philippians 1:9

Would we not all be better off if we were more like Thomas and the Bereans? Instead of merely taking the word of deceitful and/or misguided preachers, we ought to practice a mature faith built on a thorough knowledge of the Word of God. But to do that, we must make every effort to diligently study, analyze and accurately interpret the Word of Truth. The more we know God's Word, the better equipped we are to detect cleverly crafted lies that sound like the truth. (See 2 Timothy 2:15 and Ephesians 4:14)

Commissioning of the Apostles

The Great Commission: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15) and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Forty days after His resurrection, Yeshua commissioned the disciples (now apostles or “sent ones”) to take the gospel message into all the world. Just ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, He baptized them with His Holy Spirit, thus empowering them to fulfill the Great Commission. An early legend says the apostles cast lots to decide who would go where, so all the world would hear the gospel message.

Various historical records and traditions tell us that Thomas' missionary travels carried him some 3,000 miles from Jerusalem to India. Using only 1st-century modes of transportation, his 3,000-mile journey would've been arduous, to say the least. Nevertheless, Thomas —strong-minded and loyal— obeyed the Lord's commands. As the “Apostle of India”, Thomas established seven churches, performed miracles, and in the end, he died a martyr's death.

A Fallen Soldier

death of Thomas
Martyrdom of Thomas

Of the original Twelve, the Bible only mentions the deaths of Judas Iscariot and James (the son of Zebedee). We must rely on extra-biblical histories for information about the deaths of the other apostles. Some sources say that Thomas died of his wound when stabbed with a spear. Other sources say he died there when stabbed with the spears of four soldiers. In either case, he gave his life in the service of his Lord and his God.

When Yeshua was on earth Thomas was willing to follow Him anywhere, even if that meant he would die. Then after Yeshua returned to His Father's house, Thomas continued to follow His commands until the day he died. Loyal to the very end, Thomas laid down his life for his Lord. What greater love is there? Thomas loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength.

Super Saints

We seem to forget that the disciples were not super saints. Instead, they were flawed individuals, much like the rest of us. Here's a short list of a few shortcomings of Yeshua's “inner circle”, Peter, James, and John.

  • Surely we cannot forget the impulsive Peter denying the Lord three times
  • And let's not overlook John, who described himself as “the disciple whom Yeshua (Jesus) loved.” (John 20:2) Some would say he was a bit narcissistic; I'll let you draw your own conclusion
  • John along with his brother James rather arrogantly approached Yeshua requesting that He do whatever they asked. Their self-serving request was for honored places in His kingdom, one to His right and one to His left (Mark 10:35-37)
  • James and John also wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village for the “capital crime” of not welcoming the Lord. Their judgmental attitude was way over-the-top (Luke 9:52-54)

I find it ironic that the character flaws of the other disciples are generally overlooked. Yet, Thomas is vilified for his skepticism. Though he doubted the reports of the Resurrection equally with other disciples, many people have magnified his doubt and blown it out of proportion.

Defamation of Character

gavel & scales of justice

Nowhere in the Holy Scripture did the Lord, the disciples, or anyone else defame Thomas' character by labeling him as a doubter. Nevertheless, countless numbers of preachers have slandered his good name in their sermons. And a great many authors have published libelous accusations deriding his character. Now imagine this. What if Thomas was alive today and said, “Enough is enough, I demand justice!” Could he win a defamation of character lawsuit? To answer that question, let's consider the following facts.

When a public figure files a defamation of character lawsuit, he/she has the burden of proving that the defendant(s) either: (1) intentionally made a false and defamatory statement, or (2) acted with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statement. Thus, it would be difficult for Thomas (a public figure) to prove that those who have defamed his character did so with either malicious intent or reckless disregard of the truth. I have no doubt that many who've “misrepresented” Thomas's character are guilty only of negligence.

Unlike the Bereans, most who disparage Thomas' character do not search the Scriptures to find out if they've been told the truth. But since simple negligence is not sufficient grounds for a defamation lawsuit, it is highly unlikely that he would win in a court of law. Nevertheless, those who have branded him as “doubting Thomas” are guilty of tarnishing the reputation of a man who deserves better.

In Conclusion

The Scriptures paint a picture of Thomas far different from the distorted caricature we know as “doubting Thomas”. Here is a summary of the facts as presented in the Word of God:

  • Thomas was courageous, loyal and loving:
    • “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”
  • He was inquisitive; willing to ask questions no one else would ask:
    • “Lord, we don't know where You are going, so how can we know the way?”
  • He doubted the reports of the Resurrection no more than the other disciples. And being noble in character, he would not believe hearsay:
    • The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands... I will not believe.”
  • Finally, Thomas' depth of understanding of who Yeshua (Jesus) was—God in the flesh—surpassed that of the other disciples:
    • “My Lord and my God!”

Furthermore, we know from reliable extra-biblical sources that Thomas faithfully obeyed the Lord's command to go into all the world and preach the gospel. And so, in light of what the Bible and extra-biblical sources reveal about the true character of Thomas, do you need to change the way you think of him? I believe it's past time that we dispense with the infamous “doubting Thomas” cliché and give proper respect to the real apostle Thomas.

Three Crosses