Saint Thomas, Not “Doubting Thomas,” Preaches the Gospel in India

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St. Thomas is commonly known in the church as “Doubting Thomas.” Let me tell you the rest of the story. All of the Gospels record a final, Great Commission of Jesus to His disciples. In John’s gospel he records those powerful words of Jesus to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

However, John records that Thomas was not with them that evening (20:24). When Thomas heard about the appearance, he famously declared that unless he saw the nail-scarred hands of Jesus and put his finger into them and into His sword-pierced side, he would not believe (20:25). Because of this declaration, Thomas has become known as Doubting Thomas. It seems that the church has sometimes forgotten that one week later, when Thomas himself saw the risen Lord, he made the most powerful declaration of the deity of Christ found in any of the Gospels: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).

Although there are important traditions surrounding the ministries of all the apostles, we will focus this highlight on the St. Thomas mission to India, which is one of the oldest and strongest traditions in church history. The earliest record of the mission of Thomas to India is found in an early manuscript known as the Acts of Thomas, which dates around the turn of the third century. This manuscript records a dramatic moment where the eleven apostles all gathered in Jerusalem and divided the known world into various regions. They then cast lots to determine where each of them would go. India fell to Thomas. According to the account, Thomas objected, saying that because of his “weakness of the flesh” he could not travel. However, Christ appeared to him in a vision and promised to be with him.

Thomas eventually traveled by ship to India along one of the well-established trade routes to India, arriving in AD 52. He preached the gospel in various locations in India and finally suffered martyrdom in India and was buried near modern day Chennai. Although the Acts of Thomas has problems, many historians accept the basic historical nucleus of the account. The Western tradition has a number of corroborating references, and there is also archaeological evidence from India, as well as an independent Indian tradition that chronicles precise numbers of people healed from various diseases and maladies and detailed accounts of those who were converted, including what caste they were from. These sources also give a rich description of the circumstances around the martyrdom of Thomas.

The specific details of these traditional accounts are not nearly as important as the core historical claim that, even if we cannot speak with certainty regarding any of the details, St. Thomas brought the gospel to India in the first century.

This vignette from mission history is important for our study for three reasons.

First, the Thomas tradition highlights the multi-directional mission of the early church. This tradition represents the oldest documented account of the church in Asia beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Paul’s missionary journeys, as recorded in Acts, detail the movement of the gospel further into the West. There is no parallel account to the book of Acts that tells the story of the gospel’s advance into the East. Therefore, very few Christians who read the book of Acts realize that at about the same time that Acts 19 records the apostle Paul preaching in Ephesus, the apostle Thomas is preaching the gospel in India. The book of Acts is not intended to give us a comprehensive picture of the entire early Gentile mission, but rather highlights the spread of the gospel to the seat of the Roman Empire. It is important for you to realize that, from the beginning, the spread of the gospel was multi-directional.

Second, the tradition of Thomas also underscores the importance of recognizing the multiple layers of Christian tradition that are often present in Asian Christianity. The apostolic tradition of Thomas is but the first of a series of initiatives into India. The apostolic tradition of Thomas is followed by the arrival of Syriac Christians bringing an Eastern liturgy in the fourth century. This is followed years later by major Roman Catholic initiatives beginning with the arrival of Francis Xavier in 1542. Later, India receives Protestant missionaries with  the arrival of the Lutheran missionaries Ziegenbalg and Plütschau in 1706. These are all examples of distinct traditions, all of which coexist in India until the present day. Diverse expressions of Christianity arrived at different times in different parts of India, and they all interacted in various ways, not only with the Hindu traditions, but also with the various Christian traditions as well.

Third, the presence of Christianity in ancient India also highlights the difficulties in speaking without qualification of Hinduism as the “indigenous” religion of India. Some accounts of Christianity in India leave the impression that Christianity in India is a movement that coincides with the British colonial presence in India. It should be remembered, however, that  the early religious forms of what is today known as Hinduism came from migrating Aryans who originated outside of India. There are many people groups in India who were Christians for centuries before the British presence in India.

In conclusion, the Thomas tradition reminds us that although the apostle Thomas may have come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ a week after the other apostles, he went on to become one of the greatest cross-cultural missionaries of the first century. We should not keep calling him Doubting Thomas. Instead, we should call him “Believing Thomas” because he not only gives us the most explicit declaration of the deity of Christ in the Gospels (“My Lord, and my God!”), but he ends up bringing the gospel farther than any of the other apostles and even gave his life as an early Christian martyr. What a great story! If you have had a difficult chapter in your life, as Thomas did, don’t stop believing that God still has a wonderful plan for your life!

how_god_savesIf you enjoyed this article, you’ll enjoy the forthcoming book, How God Saves the World: A Short History of Global Christianity by Timothy Tennent. Rather than exploring the history of global Christianity through a long series of countless names and events, Timothy Tennent presents this remarkable journey in the three-act model of a true epic play. This is the perfect succinct, storied history of the global christian movement that honors and illuminates indigenous churches and their lasting impact on the kingdom of God. You can pre-order your copy from our store here.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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