Before Thomas saw the risen Christ, he would not believe the report of the other disciples who said they saw Him alive. But then Jesus appeared to Thomas as well, and he believed. Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
It’s important to note that “believed” is in the aorist tense. Contrary to popular interpretation, Jesus is not referring to those in the future who would believe He rose from the dead without having seen Him alive, but to those in the past who believed He rose from the dead without having seen Him alive. This is important to the discussion we have had on this blog about why the disciples waited so long to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. For Jesus to say there were people in the past who believed in His resurrection without having seen Him alive requires that the apostles/disciples were proclaiming the resurrection prior to Pentecost! If they had not been proclaiming the resurrection, no one except for those to whom Jesus had appeared to would believe in His resurrection. Of course, we don’t know how many people the disciples told about the risen Christ, or who they told (only previous followers of Jesus, or unbelievers as well), but this passage is evidence that the disciples did not wait until after Pentecost to begin proclaiming the resurrection. That proclamation only intensified and widened after Pentecost.
While the direct object of Jesus’ words were past believers, the principle is equally applicable to future believers. It’s as though John is using Jesus’ words to Thomas to speak to skeptics who argue, “It was all very well for Thomas to believe given His experience with the risen Christ, but you can’t expect me to imitate that kind of faith unless I have the same kind of experience/evidence Thomas had.” John counters this argument by pointing out that there were individuals before Thomas who believed without experiencing what Thomas experienced, and Jesus considered them blessed for having done so. Empirical evidence is not necessary for faith in Christ’s resurrection.
This passage is often used by those who oppose apologetic arguments for the resurrection of Christ. They argue that if God’s blessing is given to those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection without seeing, then not only are apologetic arguments in behalf of Christ’s resurrection unnecessary for evangelism, they actually rob people of the blessing that comes through faith. This is a misinterpretation of the passage. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who believe without evidence,” but rather, “Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.” He is not pronouncing a blessing on those who believed in His resurrection without any reason to do so, but those who believed without actually seeing Him alive in the flesh; He is not pronouncing a blessing on those who believe without any evidence for believing, but those who believe without empirical evidence like Thomas had. While we have many reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead, we are doing so without having actually seen Jesus, and thus we are blessed.