On Easter Sunday itself, so far as I can tell, the ones who saw Jesus were Mary Magdalene (John 20:14), an assembly of the disciples (John 2:19), Cleopas and an unnamed disciple walking on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-15), and Simon (Luke 24:34). John notes one conspicuous absence from the company of disciples on Easter evening: Thomas (John 20:24). This is, of course, nothing new to us: we know the story of Doubting Thomas (or think we do). But what I had never noticed was this:
And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. (John 20:26)
I know how I used to imagine this story: Thomas shows up Monday morning, everybody tells their story, he expresses skepticism and then–BAMF!–Jesus pops up right on cue: “Here’s your proof, doubter!” Only that’s wrong: Thomas did not see Christ for eight days. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, unless there’s something wonky and first century about their reckoning of days. (There may be, as anyone who’s tried to figure out how Friday night to Sunday morning is three days can attest.) So Jesus didn’t pop up on cue: Thomas’s skepticism went unanswered for eight days by nothing but his friends’ testimony.
That wasn’t very Hollywood of Jesus, was it? But then He doesn’t make decisions based on our conceptions of dramatic timing. He chose not to appear in blinding glory at the height of drama, accompanied by a swelling chorus of angels doing their best “Thus spake Zarathustra” impressions. Why not? Because He isn’t a wish fulfillment. He keeps His own time.
And can you imagine how the disciples felt for eight days, sharing their single encounter with the risen Lord to “Penn and Teller” Thomas?
“We saw Him in the sealed room, and Simon saw Him at home, and Cleopas saw Him in Emmaus, and Mary saw Him in the garden!”
“Really? How’d He get around so fast?”
After eight days, maybe they doubted too. What if it had been a hallucination, a dream, a demon? And why wasn’t He there with them, if He was alive? For eight long days.
And poor Thomas! The rational man, the strong man, who kept his head when all around were losing theirs (Kipling!). Did he pity his friends? Scorn them? Did it seem to his skeptical mind like the worst of torments, to be the only one in the room who would admit the truth, that their master was dead? Was he wracked by loss and despair every time they tried to convince him, every time he had to say the truth again, affirm again that his worst fear had come true and that all was finally, irrevocably lost? Did Thomas curl his lip or did he weep?
So Thomas endured eight days of wrangling and railing, mourning and sullen silences. And to what purpose? We may never know, certainly not on this side of reality. But I will suggest a reason. Jesus knew Thomas needed those eight days. Thomas was, from what we know, a skeptic. Would he have believed his own eyes if he’d seen Christ on Easter? Perhaps while Jesus stood before him, but would he have doubted later and thought it was a dream, the fantasy of his distraught mind? He did not trust the others, and he might not even have trusted himself in that moment. Instead, Jesus gave him eight days: eight days for Thomas’s world to adjust, for him to give up all hope and accept Christ’s death. And that was when Jesus appeared–after He had killed all of Thomas’s faith.