A phrase common in English is “Doubting Thomas” and this has come to colour our understanding of the encounter between this Apostle and the Risen Lord. Of course, doubt is part of the story. St. Thomas must see to believe … he must have evidence. Jesus readily agrees to his request but then comments that there is blessedness in believing without the need for such evidence.
There is, however, I believe another dimension to St. Thomas’ response and this has nothing to do with doubt. Not unreasonably St. Thomas needs to know that this really is Jesus whom he is seeing and no ghost. The handling of the wounds confirms Christ’s identity because it is a recognisable physical manifestation. Had Jesus appeared in His risen form as a ghost then neither Thomas nor we ourselves would have been impressed … simply because ghosts are not exceptional. Believe in them or not, ghosts have littered the history of human experience for millennia. If Jesus, or an entity claiming to Jesus, had appeared as a ghost then this would have been no true resurrection. It would simply have been the natural lingering on of a restless spirit.
There are a number of groups then, and indeed now, who would much prefer to think of Jesus as a ghost rather than have him fully resurrected, body and soul. The first group are much like the Athenians who scoffed at St. Paul’s preaching of the resurrection in the Agora (Acts 17:19-34). Many Greek philosophers at the time were dualists. The physical realm was not the true realm as Plato had taught but merely a poor shadow copy of an ideal spiritual realm. That Jesus, being God, should have been raised from the dead with a physical body was just plain absurd. Most sceptics today, however, deny the spiritual realm and are thorough-going materialists. As such they observe that “dead men don’t walk.”
Those who believe that dead men do indeed walk, we can call these spiritualists, see no point in the spirits being, as they see it, “weighed down” with bodies, transformed or not. Some of these spiritualists have a very dim view of the body; even to the point of regarding it as unworthy of heaven; some worse still, like the Gnostics of old, think it evil, to be cast aside as soon as possible.
Now Judaism, the Church of the Old Testament, had a very different take on all this. Being neither materialists nor spiritualists, our forefathers taught that human life in its fullness was an embodied existence in which body, mind and spirit were one living soul. At death the spirit separated from the body and although the spirit of that person remained safe in God, one could not speak of a recognisably human afterlife until the resurrection. At this point the spirit and body would once again be one but in an utterly transformed reality … still recognisably the original person but full of God and no longer subject to death. This, along with all his fellow Jews St. Thomas believed … and so should we. The body really does matter. Matter matters. A ghost, a disembodied spirit, just won’t do. There is no victory over death in that. Only when the body is raised will there be true resurrection. And this was the astonishing thing, Jesus was already raised, long before the End Times. Still, St. Thomas had to be sure that this was no ghost ... then he would believe. He touched the wounds and then he knew. Then only could he truly exclaim: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). This is not therefore a question of doubt but a necessary (for St. Thomas at least) confirmation that this really was Jesus raised from the dead and not something or someone else. Things, after all, are not always what they seem.
Let us go back now to those materialists and spiritualists whose assumptions about human life are so contradictory to the gospel. We must be alert that the infections of their heresies do not poison the Christian mind. Some poisoning I believe has already taken place. So often I hear those claiming to be Christians, some even more outrageously claiming to be Orthodox, who think that life in the world is so wicked that we need to live wholly inside the Church rejecting human attachments and obligations. We need St. Thomas to expose this deadly invasion of Gnosticism so that we can be personally alert and take counter measures.
In some ways I think that materialism … and by this I mean the “nothing buttery” of those who claim that we are “nothing but” chemicals … is less dangerous than its polar opposite, spiritualism and its dualistic disparaging of matter. A person who believes that the human body is only a complex arrangement of organic chemicals might experience a certain sort of bracing confidence that he has demystified the Universe but eventually he may come to see that he cannot account for life in all its beauty without a less shallow interpretation of the breadth and depth of human experience; especially sacrificial love. He has hope.
A spiritualist, however, believes that matter, physicality and the body is a barrier, a hindrance to discovering God. Embodied human life in this world with its social, political and personal dimensions is a snare, not to be exposed to the life of the Spirit. Spiritualists have nothing to say to the day to day concerns that face ordinary families because heaven is the only thing that matters. The Risen Christ, however, stands on the shoreline cooking fish for the weary and hungry disciples. He does care for life in the body because the body, quickened by the Spirit of God, IS life! So God is concerned about our family life, our jobs, our daily troubles and joys, issues of poverty and environmental degradation. It is His beautiful world. He made it. He loved it and He redeemed it. He has in store for this world and for our bodies a glorious resurrection future; literally a New Creation. Touching the wounds of Christ as St. Thomas did validates this insight, even celebrates it. God has appeared in the flesh; now flesh will appear in God and the Cosmos itself will burn with a glory revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. All wounds will heal but we shall still touch even if we have need no sight to believe. God will be all and in all. Then we shall all know, and rejoice or perish depending on whether or not we have learned to love.