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‘Doubting Thomas’ story is about gratitude, not doubt

The following article is a guest post from Diana Butler Bass

It’s an ancient Christian tradition to retell stories of Jesus appearing to people after the resurrection. Thanks to the lectionary, the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ was assigned for last Sunday. Though many Christians in American churches revisited this narrative, most missed its point.

You may know the story. Jesus’ disciples are gathered when their resurrected rabbi shows up. But one of the twelve, Thomas, was not present to witness it. When the other disciples recounted the event, Thomas balked: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later the disciples were again in the house, only this time Thomas was with them. The doors were shut and Jesus appeared a second time. He invites Thomas to put his fingers in the wounds, and the doubting disciple exclaims that he now believes.

This story may be familiar to those raised in church. Even if you didn’t grow up in church, it still may be familiar because it is culturally familiar. But in order to let this story fire our hearts anew, we need to see a part of the story many overlook: the beginning.

That very first sentence where John “locates” the story: “It was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked out of fear.” The disciples returned to their “happy place” where they had felt safe, loved, comfortable. The last place where they had seen Jesus alive. The upper room around the same table where they had shared that last meal. They were cowering with fear in the dining room of that house.

Who among us, when we hear upsetting news, doesn’t seek a familiar place filled with people who can comfort and reassure us?

Though having your dead friend show up for dinner is about the least expected, least familiar thing you can imagine, Jesus did something very familiar, and by the way, very Jewish: He says grace. Jesus offered a new prayer full of deep gratitude: “Peace.”

Now I don’t have much familiarity with dead dinner guests, but I know a thing or two about gratitude. I’ve spent the last fourteen months researching, practicing, and writing about gratitude for my book “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.” One thing I learned – maybe more than anything else – is that gratitude and tables go together. Even today, in a deeply divided America, slightly more than half of us say grace when we sit at a table to eat.

It’s interesting that the disciples were locked in that dining room. Why? Because they were afraid. And in their fear, Jesus shows up, breathes on them, and speaks “peace.” And just like that, their fear evaporates.

Image courtesy of HarperOne

In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that fear and gratitude don’t exist in the same parts of our brains. Fear resides in the amygdala, the “reptilian” part of our brain. Feelings of gratitude activate our neo-cortex, the front of the brain with our “higher thinking” and more recently evolved capabilities. Indeed, researchers now believe that gratitude and fear cannot exist at the same time – that gratitude actually processes fear, effectively driving fear out, taming it, giving us human beings the possibility of acting with courage, hope, joy, compassion.

So when Jesus shows up at that table on the evening of the empty tomb in the room where a feast had become a funeral, a new table is set. It’s a table of gratitude – the gifts of God for the people of God – with the power to drive out fear.

The second appearance of Jesus is not about “Doubting Thomas.” It isn’t about dogma or the kind of belief that expresses itself in a creed. It is a story of thanks. It’s a story about Jesus showing up–yet again–at the dinner table to cast out fear and transform us into a people of gratitude.

Thomas, of course, doubts because he wasn’t at the meal. He didn’t receive the table blessing, the gift of peace that Jesus brought his grieving friends. Thomas wasn’t a grateful guy. He remembered what was lost. He was probably afraid. He was certainly sad. So, he said, “Can Jesus really be alive?” Thomas was still living in fear, unwilling to enter into a grateful journey toward a new reality. Like his Jewish forefathers, his doubt echoes: “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”

Fun fact: Almost all of the post-resurrection appearances involve eating and food. In the fifty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, Jesus shows up at meals and at tables, even in some cases, asking for food! And every time he does, there would be a prayer. Because that is what Jews did – said thank you at the beginning and at the end of every meal. Gratitude. Table grace.

All this makes me think we’ve missed something important about Easter. Protestants are often accused of skipped over Good Friday too quickly in an attempt to get to Easter. But I wonder if we skip over Maundy Thursday too fast in our hurry to get to Good Friday. We’ve underplayed Maundy Thursday’s dinner table in favor of Good Friday’s suffering on the cross. What if the main story isn’t the violence of Friday, but the feast of Thursday?

We always read the dinner table from the cross. But what if we read the story the other way and understood the cross through the experience of the table?

What if the story starts on Thursday? The Last Supper is the final meal of the age that is (the age of injustice, oppression, debt and sin) and the First Feast of the “age to come” (the age of God’s reign of peace and justice). We are “passing over” from the rule of Caesar to being the children of God, from the bondage of slavery to the freedom of serving others. The table is set for the new world, we offer grateful prayers, and our exodus is at hand.

But, of course, Caesar doesn’t want this to happen. The religious hypocrites, the authorities who are complicit with Caesar’s reign, don’t want this to happen. The powers of this age want to destroy the table of gratitude, the table set by God. So comes Friday’s execution, Caesar’s violent attempt to destroy the table forever and to keep us enslaved. Not living in grateful wonder, but in perpetual fear.

Jesus is dead. The disciples return to that room to remember and mourn what almost was. But God says, “No more!” God is out of patience with history’s Pharaohs and Caesars and injustice and hunger and oppression and violence and death and the whole thing. And so, Jesus rises. The tomb is empty.

And where does Jesus go? Does he return to Calvary’s hill and point and shout, “Look, the cross!” No. Jesus rises and goes back to the dining room to offer a table of peace with gratitude in perpetuity. And just before the credits roll in the story, gratefulness banishes fear and thanksgiving replaces grief.

What a story! One might even call it “good news.”

Image courtesy of Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass (Phd, Duke University) is a scholar specializing in American religion and culture. She is the author of 10 critically-acclaimed books, including “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

54 Comments

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  • I think ALL the resurrection stories are about having your eyes and ears and heart opened to see the essence of peace, of goodness (of Jesus/God) in the kindness of strangers, in the comraderie of a shared meal, in hope and gratitude for what we have. You can see how the doubting Thomas story fits. It is and was never about the literal physical appearance/resurrection of Jesus, it was about keeping what he stood for alive within us.

  • The said Thomas doubting story fails rigorous historic testing and therefore is only a nice myth.

  • Avery interesting analysis, though I would not elevate Maundy Thursday above Good Friday even as I see the author’s point. I view the elements o Passion Week as a single organic whole, each element is necessary for the proper function and outcome so sought by God.

  • And here I’d thought the “Doubting Thomas” story had been simply a means of shaming anyone who questioned Jesus’ resurrection, and doubling down on the requirement that belief be based solely on faith, with no verification involved. (In fact, verification is disparaged.) 

  • From the reference:

    Crossan analysis:

    Item: 386

    Strata: III (80-120 CE) (added explanation-late publication as Jesus died ~ 33CE

    Attestation: Double

    Historicity: -, (added explanation, negative historicity, i.e. historically nil)

    See Professor Crossan’s studies published in his The Historic Jesus for added details. A copy is posted on Google Books.

    See also Professor Gerd Ludemann’s studies published in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years pp. 581-582.

  • And from Professor Gerd Ludemann, in his
    book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 416,

    “Anyone looking for the historical
    Jesus will not find him in the Gospel of John.” The doubting Thomas story only appears in the NT in John’s gospel, 20:24-29

  • I love that you spend so much time replying to your own posts. It’s nice that you always have someone to play with. But I do hope you get out of the house now and then or, at least, that mom makes you come down from the attic every once in a while for milk and cookies. Mustn’t spend all day at the keyboard!

  • I was responding to Dave ‘s question. And I spend no more than 30 minutes a day on this and other reality sites.

  • Check the name next to the little arrow. That’s who you’re replying to.

    Keep trying. I have faith in you. I mean, you’ve clearly mastered cutting and pasting links, so I’m sure you can conquer replying to the right person as well.

  • The reply to Dave was in two parts. To get the second answer properly aligned, I had to reply to myself . I am sure Dave followed it properly. Bottom line: the doubting Thomas story is not historic no matter how you view the replies.

  • Bottom line: you’re a broken record and in need of something else to occupy your time.

  • “Reality of the truth.” As opposed to what, the non-reality of the truth? Redundant much?

    You seem to fancy yourself some crusader for truth, but all you do is spout the same stuff over and over again in a venue where you’re either preaching to the choir or just annoying people of faith who’ve long since dismissed you as an intellectual wanna-be incapable of original thought.

    Your shtick never changes. You parrot the works of agnostic academicians but never offer any original or pertinent analysis of your own to support your argument. You’re like every college freshman who comes home at Christmas and annoys their parents with their new found knowledge: “Gee, Dad, you don’t know nuthin’. Professor Ludemann says…”

    I don’t mind that you’re agnostic (atheist, whatever.) What I mind is that you have only one pitch and we’ve seen it over and over again. If you really want to promulgate what you believe, then up your game!

  • Bottom line: you spout the myths and embellishments of the NT. I reiterate the findings of rigorous historic testing of said book. Get back to us when you peruse said testing results instead of mouthing the words of red neck evangelicals . Time allotment is up for the day.

  • Cite one “myth or embellishment of the NT” that I’ve ever spouted, or one example of me mouthing the words of any evangelical, redneck or otherwise. It’s never happened. Not once. But knock yourself out trying to find it.

    I represent no point of view but my own. I formulate my own opinions and then defend them. You should try it. It really is more fun than just regurgitating the thoughts of other people.

    By the way, thanks for trotting out the old “rigorous historic testing” line again. It’s been a few minutes since you last used it, so you were about due.

    This has been fun but I’m moving on. Until next time, when you lug your proverbial accordion out of the closet and bore us with your one and only song. Yet again.

  • The disciple with whom I most relate, the Caravaggio painting on the header that I love and a homily that I will file away to reread often with gratitude. Thank you Dr Bass.

  • Gene felt that Bible Chronology represented his “Doubting Thomas” experience of the “proof” of the Bible & Christianity being the “one True Religion”. Bible Chronology & The Scientific Method by E W Faulstich.
    http://biblechronologybooks.com/

  • The main theme of the Gospel according to John is the deity of Jesus Christ. The Thomas story is the climax to this Gospel when Thomas exclaims, ” my Lord and my God!” alluding to the Shema and now including Jesus in it. John wants his readers to come to the same conclusion about Jesus as Thomas did.

  • Diana Bass – named for Ishtar Queen of Heaven – may have ben to seminary and college but sh esure ain’t learned much Christianity?
    She call the ACCOUNTS of Jesus appearing stories’ – like The Magic Unicorn I suppose – and then fails to note that when Jesus appeared he had obviously materialised a body for a short while.
    She also believes herself evolved from a monkey by referring to the sensing part of our brain ‘reptilian.’
    The she follows the old Satanic lie about Jesus dying on Friday when obviously he died on Thursday in order for HIS BODY to be in the tomb/grave three night: Thurs, Fri, Sat?
    Her sneering finale: One might call it good news!’ shows that though she wasted many years and dollars at seminary and collge she learned nothing.
    As Jesus said of people like her: Their eyes are dim and their ears are blocked.’

  • it was! Jesus came back to see Thomas out of love and friendhsip to convince and encourage him.
    Thomas was so encouraged that he preached the gospel to pagans until eventually some who worshipped Satan’s imaginary god Kali – the sweet coloured sugar – martyred Thomas with a spear.
    Diana Bass has a head stuffed full of theology but not much Gospel Truth.

  • get a Bible and using your fingers count how many night are between Friday night and Sunday morning…then you will realise you have been as dumb as Bass and most preachers.

  • Irrationals like Irrational Conclusion seem to prefer the lies and stupidities of redundant professors to the truth of The Bible?

  • Irational Conkers think that using big words to make idotic pretentious arguments is a sign of learning and understanding while the fact is he prefer the lies of men – like himself – rather than Bible truth.
    Irational Conkers no doubt believes in a previous existence he was a fly on the wall at that supper and knew that Jesu sdid not turn up – because he does not know and would not recognise Jesus!
    Irational Conkers just hate the Bible and knowing that soon the clouds will part and Jesusand his angels will come slaughter all the Irationals…

  • Lots of non sequiturs there, where what you cite doesn’t support your conclusion at all.

    As a simple case in point, calling something a story ≠ calling it fictional (ref). Such faults of reading comprehension could explain your blatant violation of Luke 10:27–37.

  • If you understood how Jews viewed the counting of time during the period in question, you would realize that for accounting and narrative purposes, a portion of a day counts as a day.

  • Poor Misti,
    takes issue with everything that doesn’t accord with her Planet of Apes learning.
    Misti get a good KJV Study Bible and learn to read it.

  • Sure does and I’m sure the Jews could count their 24hour periods as starting at nighfall so no way could Jesus have been put in his tomb on Friday afternoon.
    But as at the time Jesus was the same as a Nephilim so the Bible account is above the understanding of most and especially those who think Jesus took the thief on a trip to Paradise.

  • I referenced counting methods, not calendars. For example, some frameworks start a count at 1 instead of 0, where a partial is counted as a whole.

  • If you believe that’s pertinent here, then you should be walking away and shaking the dust off your feet. Since you’re not, you’re violating it yourself.

  • Grow up Misti, and try to understand what being a believer is all about let alone being able to understand logic.

  • Yet it’s described in terms of evening and morning, not in terms of the number of hours.

    Telling a person to “grow up” because you disagree with them is a rather juvenile tactic, itself. I’m not sure I’ve seen it since elementary school.

  • What do you think being a believer is all about, then, if not ἀγαπάω of others as you do yourself and of God over all else (cf. Matthew 22:37–40)?

  • Please clarify your characterization of Jesus “as a Nephilim.” A citation of evidence would also be welcome.

  • I could cite evidence all day but it would be above your level of understanding as shown by your inability to fail to understandboth truth and the Bible.

  • Not at all. Humanism is older than the USA, though sometimes under another name due to language shifts, and childishness has existed for as long as there’ve been children.

    Christian humanism has been around for a long time. It’s not a bad thing, and there’s no denial of the supernatural involved.

    Regardless, your comment is entirely off-topic. Even if you meant to accuse me of “being a childish humanist,” that’s ad hominem and strawman fallacies. That would also mean you assume being a humanist is necessarily a bad thing, despite the fact that the term can merely describe someone who heeds James 2:16.

    Moreover, such hurling of insults is reviling, which is expressly stated in Scripture as evidence a person is not in Christ (cf. I Corinthians 5:11, 6:10). You claim to be in Christ, yet you ignore His example. Titus 3:10 is coming to mind.

  • Such a smug response does not demonstrate superior knowledge or biblical skills on your part. My question was sincere, and in more than 40 years of bible study, I have never heard anyone refer to Jesus as a Nephilim, so it is not unreasonable to request a source of evidence. The failure to provide such evidence does not reinforce your claim…rather it weakens it. Further, the plainly insulting tone of your response hardly represents the kindly spirit of a mature devotee’ of Christ. For my part, if my initial difference with you over the question of the Three Days Jesus spent in the earth was dismissive, I express both my apologies and regrets.

  • why don’t you try do some thinking about the Nephilim instead of childishly getting upset with me?

  • I’m simply trying to understand how you equate Jesus with the Nephilim, and I would like a scriptural quotation to support that argument. I’m quite able to parse scripture when its not conflated with an interpretation that doesn’t fit the context.

  • if you have been reading the Bible 40 years but cannot see how Jesus was like a Nephilim then you need to read Jeremiah 5:21
    ‘Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, Who have eyes but do not see; Who have ears but do not hear.

  • Disqus is still promoting atheism and blocking any informative posts that show how silly atheistic beliefs are.
    It is a sign of the End Times.

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