Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 42


The Doubt of Thomas

Preached Easter Day, March 27, 1853

Note: missing page 416

  Frederick W. Robertson

"Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” - John 20:29


The day on which these words were spoken was the first day of the week. On that day Thomas received demonstration that his Lord was risen from the dead. On that same day a week before, Thomas had declared that no testimony of others, no eyesight of his own nothing short of touching with his hands the crucifixion marks in his Master’s body, should induce him to believe a fact so unnatural as the resurrection of a human being from the grave. Those seven days between must therefore have been spent in a state of miserable uncertainty. How miserable and bow restless none can understand but those who have felt the wretchedness of earnest doubt.

Doubt moreover, observe, respecting all that is dear to a Christian’s hopes. For if Christ were not risen, Christianity was false, and every high aspiration which it promised to gratify was thrown back on the disappointed heart.

Let us try to understand the doubt of Thomas. There are some men whose affections are stronger than their understandings: they feel more than they think. They are simple, trustful able to repose implicitly on what is told them-liable sometimes to verge upon credulity and superstition. but take them all in all, perhaps the happiest class of minds: for it is happy to be without misgivings about the love of God and our own eternal rest in Him. “Blessed,” said Christ to Thomas, “are they that have believed.”

There is another class of men whose reflective powers are stronger than their susceptive: they think out truth-they do not feel it out. Often highly gifted and powerful minds they can not rest till they have made all their grounds certain: they do not feel safe as long as there is one possilility of delusion left: they prove all things. Such a man was Thomas. He has well been called the rationalist among the apostles. Happy such men can not be. An anxious and inquiring mind dooms its possessor to unrest. But men of generous spirit, manly and affectionate, they may be: Thomas was. When Christ was bent on going to Jerusalem, to certain death, Thomas said, “Let us go up too, that we may die with him.” And men of mighty faith they may become, if they are true to themselves and their convictions: Thomas did. When such men do believe, it is belie fwith all the heart and soul for life. When a subject has been once thoroughly and suspiciously investigated, and settled once for all, the adherence of the whole reasoning man, if given in at all, is given frankly and heartily as Thomas gave it-“My Lord, and my God.”

Now this question of a resurrection which made Thomas restless, is the most anxious that can agitate the mind of man. So awful in its importance, and out of Christ so almost desperately dark in its uncertainty, who shall blame an earnest .man severely if he crave the most indisputable proofs?

Very clearly Christ did not. Thomas asked of Christ a sign: he must put his own hands into the prints. His Master gave him that sign or proof. He said, “Reach hither thy hand.” He gave it, it is true, with a gentle and delicate reproof-but He did give it. Now from that condescension we are reminded of the darkness that hangs round the question of a resurrection, and how excusable it is for a man to question earnestly until he has got proof to stand on. For if it were not excusable to crave a proof, our Master never would have granted one. Resurrection is not one of those questions on which you can afford to wait: it is the question of life and death. There are times when it does not weigh heavily. When we have some keen pursuit before us: when we are young enough to be satisfied to enjoy ourselves-the problem does not press itself We are too laden with the pressure of the present to care to ask what is coming. But at last a time comes when we feel it will be all over soon-that much of our time is gone, and the rest swiftly going. And let a man be as frivolous as he will at heart, it is a question too solemn to be put aside-Whetber he is going down into extinction and the blank of everlasting silence or not. Whether in those far ages, when the very oak which is to form his coffin shall have become fibres of black mould, and the churchyard in which he is to lie shall have become perhaps unconsecrated ground, and the spades of a generation yet unborn shall have exposed his bones, those bones will be the last relic in the world to bear record that he once trod this green earth, and that life was once dear to him, Thomas, or James, or Paul. Or whether that thrilling, loving, thinking something, that he calls himself, has indeed within it an indestructible existence which shall still be conscious, when every thing else shall have rushed into endless wreck. Oh, in the awful earnestness of a question such as that, a speculation and a peradventure will not do: we must have proof The honest doubt of Thomas craves a sign as much as the cold doubt of the Sadducee. And a sign shall be mercifully given to the doubt of love which is refused to the doubt of indifference.

This passage. presents two lines of thought.


I. The naturalness of the doubts of Thomas, which partly excuses them.

II. The evidences of the Christian Resurrection.


I. The naturalness of the doubts of Thomas.

The first assertion that we make to explain those doubts is, that Nature is silent respecting a future life. All that reason, all that nature, all that religion, apart from Christ, have to show us is something worse than darkness. It is the twilight of excruciating uncertainty. There is enough in the riddle of this world to show us that there may be a life to come; there is nothing to make it certain that there will be one. We crave, as Thomas did, a sign either in the height above or in the depth beneath, and the answer seems to fall back like ice upon our hearts-“there shall no sign be given you.”

It is the uncertainty of twilight. You strain at something in the twilight, and just when you are beginning to make out its form and color, the light fails you, and your eyelids sink down, wet and wearied with the exertion. just so it is when we strain into nature’s mysteries, to discern the secrets of the great hereafter. Exactly at the moment when we think we begin to distinguish something, the light goes out and we are left groping in darkness-the darkness of the grave.

Let us forget for a moment that we ever heard of Christ, what is there in life or nature to strengthen the guess that there is a life to come? There are hints-there are probabilities-there is nothing more. Let us examine some of those probabilities.

First, there is an irrepressible longing in our hearts. We wish for immortality. The thought of annihilation is horrible: even to conceive it is almost impossible. The wish is a kind of argument: it is not likely that God would have given all men such a feeling, if He had not meant to gratify it. Every natural longing has its natural satisfaction. If we thirst, God has created liquids to gratify thirst. If we are susceptible of attachments, there are beings to gratify that love. If we thirst for life and love eternal, it is likely that there are an eternal life and an eternal love to satisfy that craving.

Likely, I say: more we can not say. A likelihood of an immortality of which our passionate yearnings are a presumption-nothing higher than a likelihood. And in weary moments, when the desire of life is not strong, and in unloving moments, there is not even a likelihood.

Secondly, corroborating this feeling we have the traditions of universal belief There is not a nation perhaps which does not in some form or other hold that there is a country beyond the grave where the weary are at rest. Now that which all men everywhere and in every age have held, it is impossible to treat contemptuously. How came it to be held by all, if only a delusion? Here is another probability in the universality of belief And yet when you come to estimate this, it is too slender for a proof: it is only a presumption. The universal voice of mankind is not infallible. It was the universal belief once on the evidence of the senses that the earth was stationary: the universal voice was wrong. The Universal voice might be wrong in the matter of a resurrection. It might be only a beautiful and fond dream, indulged till hope made itself seem to be a reality. You can not build upon it.

Once again: in this strange world of perpetual change, we are met by many resemblances to a resurrection. Without much exaggeration we call them resurrections. There is the resurrection of the moth from the grave of the chrysalis. For many ages the sculptured butterfly was the type and emblem of immortality. Because it passes into a state of torpor or deadness, and because from that it emerges by a kind of resurrection-the same, yet not the same-in all the radiance of a fresh and beautiful youth, never again to be supported by the coarse substance of earth, but destined henceforth to nourish its etherealized existence on the nectar of the flowers-the ancients saw in that transformation a something added to their hopes of immortality. It was their beautiful symbol of the soul’s indestructibility.

Again, there is a kind of resurrection when the spring brings vigor and motion back to the frozen pulse of the winter world. Let an one go into the fields at this spring season of the year. Let him mark the busy preparations for life which are going on. Life is at work in every emerald bud, in the bursting bark of every polished bough, in the greening tints of every brown hillside. A month ago every thing was as still and cold as the dead silence which chills the heart in the highest regions of the glacier solitudes. Life is coming back to a dead world. It is a resurrection surely! The return of freshness to the frozen world is not less marvellous than the return of sensibility to a heart which has ceased to beat. If one has taken place, the other is not impossible.

And yet all this, valuable as it is in the way of suggestiveness, is worth nothing in the way of proof It is worth every thing to the heart, for it strengthens the dim guesses and vague intimations which the heart has formed already. It is worth nothing, to the intellect: for the moment we come to argue the matter we find how little there is to rest upon in these analogies. They are no real resurrections, after all: they only look like resurrections. The chrysalis only seemed dead: the tree in winter only seemed to have lost its vitality. Show us a butterfly which has been dried and crushed, fluttering its brilliant wings next year again-show us a tree plucked up by the roots and seasoned by exposure, the vital force really killed out, putting forth its leaves again, then we should have a real parallel to a resurrection. But nature does not show us that. So that all we have got in the butterfly and the spring are illustrations exquisitely in point after immortality is proved, but in themselves no proofs at all.

Further still. Look at it in another point of view, and it is a dark prospect. Human history behind and human history before, both give a stem “No,” in reply to the question-Shall we rise again?

Six thousand years of human existence have passed away; countless armies of the dead have set sail from the shores of time. No traveller has returned from the still land beyond. More than one hundred and fifty generations have done their work, and sunk into the dust again, and still there is not a voice; there is not a whisper from the grave to tell us whether indeed those myriads are in existence still. Besides, why should they be? Talk as you will of the grandeur of man, why should it not be honor enough for him, more than enough to satisfy a thing so mean, to have had his twenty or his seventy years’ life-rent of God’s universe? Why must such a thing, apart from proof, rise up and claim to himself an exclusive immortality?

Man’s majesty! man’s worth! the difference between him and the elephant or ape is too degradingly small to venture much on. That is not all: instead of looking backward, now look forward. The wisest thinkers tell us that there are already on the globe traces of a demonstration that the human race is drawing to its close. Each of the great human families has had its day-its infancy-its manhood-its decline. The two last races that have not been tried are on the stage of earth doing their work now. There is no other to succeed them. Man is but of yesterday, and yet his race is well-nigh done. Man is wearing out, as every thing before him has been worn out. In a few more centuries the crust of earth will be the sepulchre of the race of man, as it has been the sepulchre of extinct races of palm-trees, and ferns, and gigantic reptiles. The time is near when the bones of the last human being will be given to the dust. It is historically certain that man has quite lately, within a few thousand years, been called into existence. It is certain that before very long the race must be extinct.

Now look at all this without Christ, and tell us whether it be possible to escape such misgivings, and such reasonings as these which rise out of such an aspect of things. Man, this thing of yesterday, which sprung out of the eternal nothingness, why may he not sink, after he has played his appointed part, into nothingness again? You see the leaves sinking one by one in autumn, till the heaps below are rich with the spoils of a whole year’s vegetation. They were bright and perfect while they lasted: each leaf a miracle of beauty and contrivance. There is no resurrection for the leaves-why must there be one for man?

Go and stand some summer evening by the river side: you will see the mayfly sporting out its little hour, in dense masses of insect life, darkening the air a few feet above the gentle swell of the water. The beat of that very afternoon brought them into existence. Every gauze wing is traversed by ten-thousand fibres which defy the microscope to find a flaw in their perfection. The omniscience and the care bestowed upon that exquisite anatomy, one would think, can not be destined to be wasted in a moment. Yet so it is: when the sun has sunk below the trees its little life is done. Yesterday it was not: to-morrow it will not be. God has bidden it be happy for one evening. It has no right or claim to a second, and in the universe that marvellous life has appeared once and will appear no more. May not the race of man sink like the generations of the mayfly? Why can not the Creator, so lavish in His resources, afford to annihilate souls as he annihilates insects?

Would it not almost enhance His glory to believe it?

That, brethren, is the question; and Nature has no reply. The fearful secret of sixty centuries has not yet found a voice. The whole evidence lies before us. We know what the greatest and wisest have had to say in favor of an immortality; and we know how, after eagerly devouring all their arguments, our hearts have sunk back in cold disappointment, and to every proof as we read, our lips have replied mournfully, that will not stand. Search through tradition, history, the world within you and the world without-except in Christ there is not the shadow of a shade of proof that man survives the grave.

I do not wonder that Thomas, with that honest accurate mind of his, wishing that the news were true, yet dreading lest it should be false, and determined to guard against every possible illusion, delusion, and deception, said so strongly, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”


II. The Christian proofs of a Resurrection.

This text tells us of two kinds of proof: The first is the evidence of the senses-“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.” The other is the evidence of the Spirit-“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Let us scrutinize the external evidence of Christ’s resurrection which those verses furnish. It is a twofold evidence: The witness of the Apostle Thomas, who was satisfied with the proofs-the witness of St. John, who records the circumstance of his satisfaction. Consider first the witness of St. John: try it by ordinary rules. Hearsay evidence, which comes second-hand, is suspicious, but St. John’s is no distant hearsay story. He does not say that be had heard the story from Thomas, and that years afterwards, when the circumstances had lost their exact sharp outline, be had penned it down, when he was growing old and his memory might be failing. St. John was present the whole time. All the apostles were there: they all watched the result with eager interest. The conditions made by Thomas, without which be would not believe, had been made before them all. They all heard him say that the demonstration was complete: they all saw him touch the wounds: and St. John recorded what he saw. Now a scene like that is one of those solemn ones in a man’s life which can not be forgotten: it graves itself on the memory. A story told us by another may be unintentionally altered or exaggerated in the repetition; but a spectacle like this, so strange and so solemn, could not be forgotten or misinterpreted. St. John could have made no mistake. Estimate next the worth of the witness of Thomas: try it by the ordinary rules of life. Evidence is worth little if it is the evidence of credulity. If you find a man believing every new story, and accepting every fresh discovery, so called, without scrutiny, you may give him credit for sincerity; you can not rest much upon his judgment: his testimony can not go for much. For example, when St. Peter, after his escape from prison, knocked at Mark’s mother’s door, there went a maid to open it, who came back scared and startled with the tidings that she had seen his angel or spirit. Had she gone about afterwards among the believers with that tale, that St. Peter was dead and alive again, it would have been worth little. Her fears, her sex, her credulity, all robbed her testimony of its worth.

Now the resurrection of Christ does not stand on such a footing. There was one man who dreaded the possibility of delusion, however credulous the others might be. He resolved beforehand that only one proof should be decisive. He would not be contented with seeing Christ: that might be a dream: it might be the vision of a disordered fancy. He would not be satisfied with the assurance of others. The evidence of testimony which he did reject was very strong. Ten of his most familiar friends, and certain women, gave in their separate and their united testimony; but against all that St. Thomas held out skeptically firm. They might have been deceived themselves: they might have been trifling with him. The possibilities of mistake were innumerable: the delusions of the best men about what they see are incredible. He would trust a thing so infinitely important to nothing but his own scrutinizing hand. It might be some one personating his Master He would put his hands into real wounds, or else hold it improved. The allegiance which was given in so enthusiastically, “My Lord, and my God,” was given in after, and not before scrutiny. It was the cautious verdict of an enlightened, suspicious, most earnest, and most honest skeptic.

Try the evidence next by character. Blemished character damages evidence. Now the only charge that was ever heard against the Apostle John was that he loved a world which hated him. The character of the Apostle Thomas is that he was a man cautious in receiving evidence, and most rigorous in exacting satisfactory proof, but ready to act upon his convictions when once made, even to the death. Love, elevated above the common love of man, in the one-heroic conscientiousness and a most rare integrity in the other-who impeaches that testimony?

Once more: any possibility of interested motives will discredit evidence. Ask we the motive of John or Thomas for this strange tale? John’s reward-a long and solitary banishment to the mines of Patmos. The gain and the bribe which tempted Thomas-a lonely pilgrimage to the far East, and death at the last in India. Those were strange motives to account for their persisting and glorying in the story of the resurrection to the last! Starving their gain, and martyrdom their price.

The evidence to which Thomas yielded was the evidence of the senses-touch, and sight, and hearing. Now the feeling which arose from this touching, and feeling, and demonstration, Christ pronounced to be faith: “Thomas, because thou hast seen, thou hast believed.” There are some Christian writers who tell us that the conviction produced by the intellect or the senses is not faith: but Christ says it is. Observe, then, it matters not how faith comes-whether through the intellect, as in the case of St. Thomas-or through the heart, as in the case of St. John-or as the result Of long education, as in the case of St. Peter. God has many ways of bringing different characters to faith: but that blessed thing which the Bible calls faith is a state of soul in which the things of God become glorious certainties. It was not faith which assured Thomas that what stood before him was the Christ he had known: that was sight. But it was faith, which from the visible enabled him to pierce up to the truth invisible: “My Lord, and my God.” And it was faith which enabled him through all life after, to venture every thing on that conviction, and live for One who had died for him.

Remark again this: The faith of Thomas was not merely satisfaction about a fact: it was trust in a person. The admission of a fact, however stublime, is not faith: we may believe that Christ is risen, yet not be nearer heaven. It is a Bible fact that Lazarus rose from the grave, but belief in Lazarus’s resurrection does not make the soul better than it was. Thomas passed on from the fact of the resurrection to the person of the risen: “My Lord, and my God.” Trust in the risen Saviour-that was the belief which saved his soul.

And that is our salvation too. You may satisfy yourself about the evidences of the resurrection; you may bring in your verdict well, like a cautious and enlightened judge; you are then in possession of a fact, a most valuable and curious fact: but faith of any saving worth you have not, unless from the fact you pass on, like Thomas, to cast the allegiance and the homage of your soul, and the love of all our being, on Him whom Thomas worshipped. It is not belief about the Christ, but personal trust in the Christ of God, that saves the soul.

There is another kind of evidence by which the resurrection becomes certain. Not the evidence of the senses, but the evidence of the spirit: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” There are thousands of Christians who have never examined the evidences of the resurrection piece by piece: they are incapable of estimating it if they did examine: they know nothing about the laws of evidence: they have had no experience in balancing the value of testimony: they are neither lawyers nor philosophers: and yet these simple Christians have received into their very souls the resurrection of their Redeemer, and look forward to their own rising from the grave with a trust as firm, as steady, and as saving, as if they had themselves put their hands into His wounds. They have never seen-they know nothing of proofs and miracles-yet they believe, and are blessed. How is this?

I reply, there is an inward state of heart which makes truth credible the moment it is stated. It is credible to some men because of what they are. Love is credible to a loving heart: purity is credible to a pure mind: life is credible to a spirit in which ever life beats strongly: it is incredible to other men. Because of that such men believe. Of course that inward state could not reveal a fact like the resurrection; but it can receive the fact the moment it is revealed without requiring evidence. The love of St. John himself never could discover a resurrection; but it made a resurrection easily believed, when the man of intellect, St. Thomas, found difficulties. Therefore “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness,” and therefore “he that believeth on the Son of God bath the witness in himself,” and therefore “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Now it is of such a state, a state of love and hope, which makes the Divine truth credible and natural at once, that Jesus speaks: “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.”

There are men in whom the resurrection begun makes the resurrection credible. In them the Spirit of the risen Saviour works already; and they have mounted with Him from the grave. They have risen out of the darkness of doubt, and are expatiating in the brightness and the sunshine of a day in which God is ever light. Their step is as free as if the clay of the sepulchre had been shaken off: and their hearts are lighter than those of other men; and there is in them an unearthly triumph which they are unable to express. They have risen above the narrowness of life, and all that is petty, and ungenerous, and mean. They have risen above fear-they have risen above self’. In the New Testament that is called the spiritual resurrection, a being, “risen with Christ:” and the man in whom all that is working has got something more blessed than external evidence to rest upon. He has the witness in himself: he has not seen, and yet he has believed: he believed in a resurrection, because he has the resurrection in himself The resurrection in all its heavenliness and unearthly elevation has begun within his soul, and he knows as clearly as if he had demonstration, that it must be developed in an eternal life.

Now this is the higher and nobler kind of faith-a faith more blessed than that of Thomas. “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.” There are times when we envy, as possessed of higher privileges, those who saw Christ in the flesh: we think that if we could have heard that calm voice, or seen that blessed presence, or touched those lacerated wounds in His sacred flesh, all doubt would be set at rest forever. Therefore these words must be our corrective. God has granted us the possibility of believing in a more trustful and more generous way than if we saw. To believe, not because we are learned and can prove, but because there is a something in us, even God’s own Spirit, which makes us feel Light as light, and Truth as true-that is the blessed faith.

Blessed, because it carries with it spiritual elevation of character. Narrow the prospects of man to this time-world, and it is impossible to escape the conclusions of the Epicurean sensualist. If to-morrow we die, let us eat and drink to-day. If we die the sinner’s death, it becomes a matter of mere taste whether we shall live the sinner’s life or not. But if our existence is forever, then plainly, that which is to be daily subdued and subordinated is the animal within us: that which is to be cherished is that which is likest God within us-which we have from Him, and which is the sole pledge of eternal being in the spirit-life.