Doubting Thomas and the Polar Express

What’s your favorite Christmas movie? Whatever it may be, you’re sure to want to share it with the teenagers in your life. Watch the Rooted blog this holiday season, where we are uncovering the gospel in some of the all-time great Christmas films. We’ll help you keep Christ at the center of your Christmas celebrations, at home and at church. Enjoy!

My family has long loved the children’s books by Chris Van Allsburg. His stories have a bit of an edge to their plots. He’s not shy about including some serious suspense, either. That’s certainly true of The Polar Express, both as a book and as a movie.

The story opens on Christmas Eve when a boy, perhaps about 12 years old, is listening out for the sounds of Santa’s sleigh while doubting that he really does exist. We can see that as he is maturing, the absurdity of a Santa Claus has begun to plague his analytical mind. And who has not been there at a certain point in their childhood?  We come to a point of doubt in the man in the red suit, and more importantly, we might also question our unseen Father in heaven. We want to believe, but we suddenly know too much to take it as a logical fact.

Just as our unnamed boy is falling asleep, he is awakened by the sound of a huge train stopping in his front yard. The Conductor of the Polar Express urges the boy to climb aboard. He tells our young hero that sometimes seeing is believing, and sometimes the truest things are those which we cannot see. The Conductor seems to know the heart of this boy: his doubts are robbing him of his belief in Santa. After declining the Conductor’s proffered ticket and his invitation to board, something in the boy causes him to change his mind and run after the departing train. With the help of the Conductor, he makes it aboard.

This sounds much like the exchange between the disciple Thomas and the resurrected Jesus.

Thomas, who is not with the other disciples when they first see the resurrected Jesus, will not believe without proof: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nail, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Responding to Thomas’ doubt, Jesus demonstrates his personal love and persistent patience: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!'” (John 20: 24 – 29).

Our “hero boy” (as he is billed in the movie credits) in the The Polar Express is in the same place of doubt as Jesus’ disciple Thomas. Santa Claus did not make sense. A resurrected dead man, even Jesus, did not make sense. Both of them need to see in order to believe. They need the empirical data.

As the story line continues in The Polar Express, our hero boy, just like Thomas, is given exactly what he needs. He steps onto the train because the Conductor made an irresistible invitation, and so begins his journey towards assured belief. On the ride there are other children, one a very bright “can-do” sort of girl who is totally on board (note the pun, please), and a sad little fellow named Billy, from the literal “wrong side of the tracks,” who chooses to stay isolated and alone in another car on the train. Like all of us on our spiritual journey, we step forward with our doubts, or our enthusiasm, and even with our hurts and disbelief.

Perils come quickly on this train ride. Hero boy loses the girl’s ticket and ends up following the faint light of a hobo on the top of the train as it is speeding towards its destination of the North Pole. Hero boy’s life is in real danger. The hobo affirms hero boy’s doubting nature, then saves him from falling off the roof of the train. The hobo describes himself as a ghost. He comes and goes like one, too, but he always appears in time to save hero boy from a disaster, or from his doubts. Behaving much like the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, the hobo can never be pinned down, but it’s best to do whatever he says

The train makes it, miraculously, to the North Pole, the residence of Santa Claus. There are more perils and obstacles before the three principal characters arrive in the presence of Santa, but they finally see him, and Santa sees them. Hero boy’s first vision of Santa is in the reflection of one of Santa’s sleigh bells. Upon seeing Santa’s reflection, hero boy believes, and for the first time he can hear the bell ringing. Little Billy, who had acknowledged to his new friends that “Christmas never worked for me,” is transfixed by Santa and the present he spies on Santa’s sleigh, tagged with Billy’s name on it, loaded on the sleigh before he believed. For our “can-do” girl, she is full of joy that her belief is not in vain. She is the disciple who did not have to see to believe, but for whom seeing is amazing.

The children are returned to their homes safely, though not one of them is the same person they were when they boarded the train. Christmas morning our hero boy finds what he thought he had lost on the ride home- Santa’s sleigh bell- wrapped and under the tree. His parents don’t know where the gift came from, but what matters is our hero boy can still hear its ring. Like our friend Thomas, who came to a belief based on faith rather than sight, hero boy can hear even when he is not in the presence of Santa.

I take heart in the stories of doubting Thomas, and hero boy, because of my own doubts. I am so grateful for Jesus, my conductor, who invites me on board his train just as I am. He even provides my ticket. His Holy Spirit has shown up in the most unexpected ways and saved me from falling off time and time again. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit point me to that place where God himself dwells, the place where I will see Him face to face.

Watch The Polar Express with your teenagers this Christmas season. The story mirrors the gospel while reminding you of your own journey to belief. You will find reassurance that your doubts are no match for the reality of a living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Conversation Starters:

With whom do you most closely identify in The Polar Express? The boy? His parents? The can-do girl? Billy?

What do you think the tickets required for boarding are representing? (Keep in mind the conductor stamps them with words unique for each one on the train).

What are some of the perils you have had in your own journey? (No one is too young to answer this question!)


Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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