Thomas Hardy, the great 19th century novelist, was an avowed cynic in regard to spiritual matters. Under the influence of contemporary skeptics, he disavowed his early faith in God. In fact, he went so far as to write a poem titled “God’s Funeral.” In it, Hardy depicts himself as an onlooker to a funeral procession. It has marchers dressed in black and a funeral bier, upon which is stretched out a strange figure. At times, he writes, it is “man-like” but also “phantasmal” and “various,” being surrounded by an “amorphous cloud of marvelous size,” and “at times endowed with wings of glorious range.”
It is God. The funeral attendants are former believers. They have, with great heaviness, come to conclude that their beloved Deity is dead. They had invented Him themselves in order to console themselves amid the hardships of life, and had come to depend on Him for assurance, purpose, and hope in a difficult world. But modern wisdom had come along, and, in its cold light, God had been slain—not literally killed, but revealed at last to be unreal, no longer an object of sincere faith, and thus “dead” to their hopes.
Possibly the most curious feature of the poem, though, is Hardy’s own response. At the end, when the procession has passed him by and Hardy has convinced himself that God can no longer be alive, he portrays himself as doing something startling: he joins the procession of mourners and “mechanically follows with the rest.”
What would Hardy want with a dead God? What could be more useless? Yet Hardy was, in his own words, “puzzled twixt the gleam and gloom.” Convinced that modern skepticism had buried God, he could not bring himself to rejoice in that fact. No, instead he became a permanent agnostic—partly convinced that God could not exist but continually lamenting and wishing that somehow that horrid eventuality could be escaped. Not surprisingly, Hardy was not a very happy man.
Thomas number two
Of course, Hardy was not the most famous Thomas. That honor goes to the disciple. He is traditionally remembered as “doubting Thomas,” the one disciple who refused to believe that Christ had really risen from the dead. He comes in for a bit of a hard ride on that account: popular thought holds that he was of a naturally cynical disposition, too hard-headed and hard-hearted to accept good news unless it was confirmed to his satisfaction. But I don’t think we do our brother Thomas any justice when we treat him that way. I want to suggest that maybe there was more to Thomas than mere skepticism.
We have ten New Testament references to Thomas. Three of them are simply in lists of the disciples. Seven of them are in John. Four are in the single famous incident in chapter 20, but there are three others, in chapters 11, 14, and 21. It is in the context of these three other references that I believe we need to view the events of chapter 20. Putting all the information together, we get a rather different picture.
The first action recorded about Thomas is a stunning declaration of his loyalty to the Savior. The occasion is the death of Lazarus. Jesus is staying beyond the Jordan, out of reach of the homicidal authorities in Judea. For two days, the Lord has done nothing about His friend’s passing, and His disciples have been thinking that the threat of death has prevented Him. Then suddenly, Jesus declares His intention to go to Bethany. His disciples protest: the authorities would surely plot some sort of violence. (Indeed, these suspicions were entirely correct: vv. 47-53.) But Jesus is determined to go. The disciples hesitate.
It is Thomas who rallies them: “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” Are these the words of a skeptic? Surely not! Thomas is devoted to the Savior, willing to lay his own life on the line. There is nothing cynical about such a sacrifice. Indeed, “Greater love has no man than this…”
Our second reference to Thomas is in chapter 14. Jesus is delivering a hard message to His disciples: He will soon depart from them, and they cannot follow. Peter declares, “Lord,…I will lay down my life for You.” Given what we already know about Thomas, you can imagine how his heart echoed Peter’s plea. But then Jesus drops the bombshell: you are not going to be faithful, you are going to deny Me (13:38). Silence falls across the room—a pause. Then Jesus speaks: “Do not let your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My house are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you.”
Thomas’s heart bursts. He exclaims, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how do we know the way?” There’s no cynicism in the question. Thomas loves the Lord and wants to be with Him. He just doesn’t understand. And, once again, he trusts the Lord: he does not leave, neither do we have any expression of doubt from him.
What happened to Thomas? What was it that converted him to the skeptic of John 20? Of course, we cannot know for certain, but I think it was simply this: shattered hope. Thomas had truly believed in Messiah. He had committed his entire being to the Lord. What sense, then, could Thomas make of what had happened? He had seen his Lord vilified, humiliated, tortured, and crucified. He had personally witnessed God’s funeral. He had seen Hope die.
What was left? Some kind of pointless belief in the unbelievable? Some sort of Thomas Hardy self-delusion? Why would any sincere believer want that? No, Thomas himself had been deeply wounded. What had been the point of giving up everything to follow a murdered Messiah? How was this the hope of Israel? And where was the Father when His Son was dying? Where now was that dwelling of sweet fellowship that the Lord had so recently promised? How could there be a future anymore, when the bright Center of all hope had been buried in a borrowed grave?
When you’ve been hurt like that, you don’t easily believe again. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, and shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Thomas was not going to be fooled again. It would take a very great deal to resurrect his hope. Certainly the apparently blind optimism of his fellow disciples would not do it. Nothing less than the seeing with his own eyes the evidence of genuine crucifixion and the touching of his own hand into the gaping wound on Jesus’ side would bring Thomas to trust again. But can we blame him? Would we have been any more ready to believe in such an unbelievable turn of events?
Sometimes skepticism is only skin deep. People put up resistance to the knowledge of God not because they do not want to be convinced, but because they do. However, they do not want to be convinced easily. They don’t want to be misled, tricked into a belief that is naïve, unfounded, and foolish, and which will let them down. But really, they want to believe.
This should be a great encouragement to the present-day Christian who feels himself or herself beset on all sides by skepticism. A doubting spirit may be genuine, or it may be a strategic obstacle set up by a would-be believer who is more self-protective than cynical. For that reason, we Christians should never back off our confession when we are challenged. Instead, we should go forward in faith, firmly confident that God is the Author and Possessor of truth, and that honest inquiry pursued diligently will inevitably reveal that God has been right all along.
A funny thing about “the gleam and gloom”: light banishes darkness, but darkness never banishes light. Doubt is temporary, truth is permanent. Genuine faith can sustain itself through doubt—not by denying doubt’s existence but by accepting it and holding off judgment in conviction that the Truth will always, inevitably vindicate Himself to the eyes of faith.