With the exception of Peter and Paul, we have more information on the subsequent life of Thomas than on any of the other apostles. Most of the material comes from tradition. For a disciple with a doubtful reputation, he certainly left behind a variety of regions that name him among the founders of their ancient traditions of faith.
The account in John’s Gospel gives us the most glimpses of Thomas, but they come within the last few weeks of Jesus’ ministry. Apparently his character traits became more obvious under the growing pressure of opposition. Keenly aware of the danger waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem, Thomas voiced the outlook that must have been on all their minds when he said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16). Perhaps more clearly than the other disciples, Thomas thought that if their hopes of a kingdom with Jesus as the leader fell through, death would result. Jesus’ frequent references to His death may have confused some of the disciples, but it seems to have unsettled Thomas.
Our next glimpse of Thomas comes during the Last Supper when he reacts to Jesus’ comforting words about His Father’s house. Thomas reveals that his heart is indeed troubled when he blurts out, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). We can be grateful for Thomas’s boldness, for it allowed Jesus to make one of His clearest claims about His role as Lord and Savior: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Thomas’s third outburst came the evening of Resurrection Sunday (or very early on Monday). Jesus had appeared to ten of the disciples on Sunday evening, with Thomas as the only absentee. Perhaps he was reacting differently than the rest of the disciples to the news that Jesus had arisen. They gathered, but Thomas stayed away. When informed of Jesus’ visit, Thomas responded with daring doubts:
The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
A week later, that dare was met. Jesus appeared before all of them, and Thomas’s doubts vaporized as he declared, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Jesus used the occasion to make another crucial point about the nature of faith: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
The passion Jesus awakened in His disciples drove them out to bless thousands who would not have the privilege of seeing, but would believe the testimony of those gladly willing to lay down their lives for their convictions. Once Thomas left Jerusalem, there’s no evidence that he ever returned. He left his doubts behind. He headed for the ends of the earth. He undoubtedly found that Jesus was true to His promise of companionship to the end.
Thomas traveled north and east from Israel, passing through Babylon and Persia and making an impact for the gospel as far as the southern regions of India. Long-standing traditions about his journeys far beyond the boundaries of Roman control remain even today. Many of the places and kings associated with Thomas that were thought to be merely legendary have been confirmed by independent historical and archeological studies. Undeniably, developed civilizations lay beyond the horizon to the east, and Jesus’ words, “to the ends of the earth,” must have constantly echoed in the apostles’ minds. The trade routes he would have used have existed for thousands of years. Portuguese mariners and explorers in the sixteenth century reported evidence of Thomas’s ministry, including a sizeable band of believers known as the St. Thomas Christians. The fact that Thomas has been so uniquely connected with India among the apostles makes a strong case for his ministry there.
Various versions of Thomas’s martyrdom agree that he ran afoul of the Hindu priests who envied his successes and rejected his message. Thomas was speared to death. The location of his tomb can still be visited in Mylapore (Meliapore), India.
This is just one of the stories told in VOM’s new book FOXE: Voices of the Martyrs (Second Edition). CLICK HERE to order your copy.
Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, says that Israel’s experiences of pain as recorded in the Old Testament are answered by God’s actions. He hears their cries of pain and responds. Hope in ancient Israel was expressed by “the relentless insistence that social hurt is not permanent, that oppression is not for perpetuity” (Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme, and Text, 7). Israel believed that God would change things abruptly (“an inversion of circumstances”). It is a radical idea—that the present is not permanent and that there is genuine hope for the future. Things will change because God will change them. It was an optimism based on the intervention of God into human history. His kingdom would come and it would last forever. The kingdom of God has come in Christ, and will be consummated when he comes again.
The lesson for us is that the pain and hurt of persecution, which can be experienced in many ways (physical abuse, social ostracizing, harassment, oppression), is not the final word. As Christians endure the worst that the enemy can give, we are aware that their day is coming when all pain will cease and all things will be made right.
A major part of this hope is the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the promise that we too will be resurrected from the dead. That is a glorious hope, but it is also a sustaining, a strengthening, and a comforting. Our bodies may be killed but they will not remain dead. We will receive a new and glorious resurrection body—a spiritual body. Richard Wurmbrand remarks:
"Paul's belief in God, and his confidence in resurrection, and his hope in eternal fellowship with Christ, did not produce a life of comfort and ease that would have been satisfying even without resurrection. No, what his hope produced was a life of chosen suffering. Yes, he knew joy unspeakable. But it was a "rejoicing in hope" (Romans 12:12). And that hope freed him to embrace sufferings that he never would have chosen apart from the hope of his own resurrection and the resurrection of those for whom he suffered. If there is no resurrection, Paul's sacrificial choices, by his own testimony, were pitiable." (The Triumphant Church, 43).
The Christian hope is categorically different from the skepticism and pessimism of the world. It is also categorically different from those idealists who think that society will get better only through social and economic means, through human ingenuity regardless or instead of the help of God. It is hard for them, I would think, to remain optimistic in the present situation in the world. The Christian optimism is based not on the temporal events of this world, which seem increasingly cruel and barbaric, but on the final defeat of evil and the restoration of justice only found in Christ Jesus.
For the Christian, hope is in Jesus Christ, who was, and is, and is to come (Revelation 1:8). He is the only hope for all humankind—the ONLY hope. He is someone you can count on, especially when it appears that all is lost and the world thinks it is crushing our lives and spirits. Evil will, in fact, be crushed, and righteousness will prevail.
For that reason we are greatly encouraged and we have realistic hope, even in the face of persecution.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
Each month VOM produces "The Jesus Freaks Minute," a daily radio-PSA that shares the stories of the persecuted church with Christian radio listeners all over the United States and around the world. Here's the script for one of the spots that will air next month, a spot entitled Wurmbrand on Forgiveness:
[LYRICS:] What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak? What will people do when they find that it’s true?
[TODD:] Richard Wurmbrand, founder of The Voice of the Martyrs, saw the martyrdom of many Christians in Kenya in the late 60s. He quotes one wife standing near the grave of her husband. She said, “My husband asked me to tell all his murderers that he goes to heaven loving everybody whole-heartedly. He has forgiven all, because Jesus loves them.”
Inspired by that widow, Wurmbrand suggested we all make a “written list of all who have ever wronged you. Write over it in large letters, ‘Jesus loves them.’ Then burn the list and forgive them once and forever.”
[YOUR TURN:] How do you forgive when it seems impossible to do so? How hard is it to see those who've wronged you through the lens of Jesus' love for them?