That’s what we call him. That’s what he’s remembered for. When the rest of the apostles told Thomas that they had seen the resurrected Christ, he didn’t believe them. He said that he wouldn’t believe until he had some tangible proof, until he had placed his hands in the wounds of Jesus. Then he does get to see Jesus, and he immediately believes. And Jesus rebukes him mildly, saying that those who believe without having to see first are blessed.
And for this exchange, Thomas goes down forever as Doubting Thomas, as if that were the defining, overarching characteristic of his life.
But that doesn’t quite seem fair to me.
First of all, I think you could argue that Thomas didn’t show any less faith than the other apostles. John 20 records that Peter and John believed after entering the empty tomb and seeing Jesus’ burial linens piled on the ground. Later, in John 20.19-24, Jesus appeared to Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles except Thomas. The rest of the apostles had the benefit of seeing first hand the type of tangible proof that Thomas was seeking, while Thomas just had to rely on the testimony of others.
Should Thomas have believed the other apostles? Sure, but the fact that he didn’t doesn’t automatically make doubt the primary characteristic of his life. Like the rest of the apostles, as soon as Thomas saw the evidence for himself, he immediately believed in the resurrected Lord.
Another, more admirable picture of Thomas that is often forgotten is found earlier in the Gospel of John, in chapter 11. Here, Jesus receives word that Lazarus is gravely ill, so He decides to return to Judea to see him (and ultimately raise him from the dead). The problem with this plan is that Jesus has just come from Judea, where the Jews had previously tried to stone Him. The disciples try to talk Him out of His plan, but Jesus is determined, and Thomas bravely speaks up to the other apostles, saying, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.”
I would argue that this picture of Thomas—a man of courage and determination—is the defining characteristic of his life, and it is also supported by extra-Biblical historical accounts. Following the Great Commission of Jesus to make disciples of all the nations, Thomas is believed to have evangelized in the Malabar coast of India. Strong early tradition holds that he was martyred by spearing in Madras in AD 72—he died for Christ, just as he was willing to do so many years before.
It’s not hard to find Christians who, like Thomas, experience moments of doubt. After all, until the hope that we have in Christ becomes reality, I think some degree of doubt is an inherent part of faith. And while Jesus did take a hard stance against the willful unbelief of the Pharisees, He seemed understanding of genuine doubt (see His reaction to John the Baptist in Matthew 11).
But Thomas overcame his moment of doubt, and once he made up his mind on what he believed, it seems clear that he stood by his convictions and devoted his life to following Christ.
Unfortunately, I think it’s much harder to find Christians who also possess that characteristic of Thomas—the courage to follow through with our convictions, and the willingness to live our lives for Christ and, if necessary, to die for Him. I think it’s safe to say that the Church, and the world, could do a whole lot worse than to have a few more Thomases running around.