Last Sunday we heard the familiar Gospel story of "Doubting Thomas" who, upon seeing the risen Christ, went from skeptic to believer and proclaimed to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Indeed, this is one of the most powerful and direct evidences for the doctrine of the deity of Christ, or the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man.
But for groups that deny the deity of Christ, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Iglesia ni Cristo, even this passage is not enough to convince them. While most of these groups won’t go so far as to say that Thomas was just wrong when he called Jesus God (as an Iglesia ni Cristo pastor once did when debating Karl Keating), they will offer other implausible explanations for this passage.
Thomas Just Went OMG!
Some critics say that Thomas was simply so overcome with joy that he didn’t know what he was saying. Thomas’ words were allegedly on par with someone exclaiming, “Oh my God!” after seeing a loved one narrowly avoid being hit by a car. Aside from the fact that in first-century Judaism it was a grave sin to take the Lord’s name in vain, this explanation is implausible for two other reasons.
First, at other times in Scripture we are explicitly told when the apostles say something they don't mean. After Jesus’ transfiguration Peter impulsively says that he will build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In response to this exclamation, Luke notes that Peter did, ”not know what he said," (Luke 9:33) while Mark says of Peter, "He did not know what to say, for they were terrified," (Mark 9:6). Secondly, Thomas didn’t just blurt out “Oh my God!” in the same way a teenager might text OMG! to a friend. The Greek of John 20:28 literally reads, “The God of me and the Lord of me!” (ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou)
Finally, Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t say Thomas was not speaking to Jesus because in their official New World Translation of the Bible John 20:28 says, “In answer Thomas said to him: “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas didn’t merely say, “My Lord and My God!” He said it to Jesus.
Misreading the Greek
Other critics claim that the language Thomas used was not an address to Jesus but rather a prayer or exclamation to God the Father. They say we can know this because John does not describe Thomas using the special Greek case for direct address called “the vocative case.” In English this case is implied in the context of a sentence while in Greek you identify it through spelling. This case is what makes a simple recitation of a name like “Fred” different from speaking to someone, or saying “Fred!”
These critics claim that if John wanted us to think that Thomas made a direct address to Jesus then he would have used the vocative case. Since Thomas uses the more standard "nominative case" he must have simply been acknowledging God the Father and praising him for the Lord's return. He was not addressing Jesus with the titles "Lord" and "God."
Even if we set aside the fact that Thomas was probably speaking Aramaic and not Greek, this argument still fails because it is common in New Testament Greek grammar to address someone using the nominative case. In fact, in the entire New Testament there is only one verse (Matthew 27:46) where God is addressed using the vocative case (see Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 58). Everywhere else in the New Testament God is addressed using the same nominative case that is found in John 20:28.
For example, in Revelation 4:11 the twenty-four elders say to God the Father, “ho kurios kai ho theos hemon” or “our Lord and God.” Notice that the Greek words for “Lord” and “God” (kurios and theos) are the same words found in John 20:28 but no one would say the elders are not addressing the Father in this passage. This shows that the use of the nominative case does not prove a phrase is not a direct address to another person.
Jesus has a God!
Finally, some critics claim that a few verses earlier Jesus admits that he is not God and so Thomas could not have, even in principle, thought Jesus was God. They point out that when Jesus met Mary Magdalene after his resurrection he said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” (John 20:17).
How can Jesus be God if he has a God? The main assumption behind objections like this one is that God can only be one person. According to the critic, Jesus can’t be God because Jesus calls another person God. Therefore, it must be that person, or the Father, who is God. But if God is more than one person, then the Son can both acknowledge his Father as God while still being God himself.
Remember Jesus not only had a fully divine nature, he had a fully human nature. Part of what it means to be human is to acknowledge God and to worship him. In his human nature Jesus gave thanks and praise to the Father as his God. In fact, notice that in his exchange with Mary Magdalene Jesus makes a distinction between “my Father” and “your Father” and “my God” and your God.” Jesus never says “our God” or “our Father.”
This implies that Mary Magdalene and the other apostles have God as a Father in a different sense then Jesus has God as a Father. Specifically, they (and us) have God as an adoptive father (Romans 8:15) while Jesus is the one and only Son of God who shares in the divine nature (John 1:18).
Jesus Let Thomas Mean What He Said
So we have good reason to think Thomas’ address was neither a random outburst nor a prayer to God the Father. Thomas meant to address Jesus as his Lord and his God. What makes this passage powerful evidence for the deity of Christ is that Jesus does not correct Thomas.
Whenever a human being in the New Testament is mistaken for being God, the worshipped person corrects those who are worshipping him. When the Greeks in Lystra mistook Paul and Barnabas for the gods Zeus and Hermes, the two men tore their garments. They reminded the crowd that they were humans too and implored them to worship the true God who made heaven and earth (Acts 14:14-15).
In Revelation 19:10 the apostle John falls to his feet to worship an angel but the angel briskly tells him, “Don’t do that!” In the Book of Acts King Agrippa accepted the crowds praise that he was God and for his failure to redirect that praise to God, “he was eaten by worms and died,” (Acts 12:23).
Yet, in spite of all of this, Jesus did not correct Thomas.
This should lead us to the conclusion that, when it came to Thomas’ statement to Jesus calling him, “My Lord and My God," there was nothing that had to be corrected. If that is the case, then we should imitate Thomas and not be afraid to address Jesus with the same statement.