As we stand around a burial site, we realize that we are losing a loved one and part of our world is coming apart. St Paul’s words that “the corruptible frame takes on incorruptibility and the mortal immortality” hardly cross our minds. Yet Paul believes that the person who had died will rise.
A number of people of various faiths, and even some people without explicit faith, have the idea that the soul, that spiritual spark which animates us, continues on in some form. Because Christians speak of “souls” (e.g. “saving my soul”), we might assume that the survival of the soul is what we mean by “eternal life.”
However, Christians believe not only in the survival of the soul but also in the resurrection of the body. Thomas Aquinas recalls St. Augustine’s commentary on Genesis [12.35]: “The soul, inasmuch as it is separated from the body, is imperfect, not possessing the perfection of its nature, and so existing separately it is not in such beatitude as it will be when united to the body in the resurrection” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 1013).
Of course, we readily see that our bodies lead us into many of our sins. However, Thomas Aquinas reminds us also that the good we do is by means of our bodies. For this reason, Thomas affirms that the resurrection of the body is related to God’s justice: “… for the necessity of divine justice, so that those who have done good or evil in the body are rewarded or punished likewise in the same bodies” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1013).
Thomas also sees the resurrection of our bodies as our “conformity” with the Risen Christ: “ … for the conformity of the members to the head, so that ‘just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life’” (Rom. 6:4) (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1013).
According to Paul, the “corruptible” takes on incorruptibility, in other words, this particular body takes on incorruptibility. A person doesn’t rise with a new body but with his or her own body, as Thomas explains: “The same numerical bodies will rise and the same men will be the same numerically in the state of incorruption and immortality, in which they are now” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1014).
Thomas realizes that in itself it is impossible for a corruptible body to become incorruptible. He affirms that the body will share in the incorruption of the soul: “I say that the incorruption of resurrected bodies will be given from another principle, that from the nature of the bodies themselves, namely, from the glory of the soul, from whose beatitude and incorruption all beatitude and incorruption of bodies will be derived…. when … it will be firmly fixed by the glory of the soul, it will be incorruptible” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1015).
Many people consider such an idea as preposterous, yet Thomas insists that the future resurrection of the body will not be by nature itself but by the intervention of God’s own power: “Since the renewal and the resurrection will occur by divine power, we say that bodies will be the same numerically, since the individual principles of that man are nothing other than this soul and this body” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1015). Thomas insists the risen person will be “nothing other than this soul and this body.”
Thomas affirms: “In the resurrection the soul too will return the same numerically, since it is incorruptible, and this body will be the same numerically from the same dust from which is was dissolved, restored by divine power; thus it will be the same numerical man who rises” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1016).
Paul appeals to a “saying of Scripture,” which Thomas acknowledges is hard to trace, although it may be an altered combination of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory. O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor 15:54).
Thomas notes that Paul is speaking the words of a risen person: “The Apostle, therefore, speaking of the victory of Christ over death, as if established in some special joy, takes upon himself the person of resurrected man, saying, Where, O death, is your victory?” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1016).
Paul connects death to sin: “The sting of death is sin and sin gets its power from the law” (1 Cor 15:56). How does the law increase sin? It seems that before the giving of the law to Moses, with its explicit precepts, there might have been some ambiguity or lack of understanding of sin. Paul expresses this same idea in other places: “Law came in, to increase the trespass” (Rom. 5:20); “But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness” (Rom. 7:8).
Thomas asserts: “Sin is not removed by the Law, but rather the power of sin is the Law, i.e., an increase in the occasion; that is to say, not that it impels to sin, but that it gives an occasion for sin and it does not confer grace, from which concupiscence to sin was roused all the more” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1020).
Paul asserts: “Thanks be to God who has given us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57).
Thomas reflects: “Therefore, because the sting of death is destroyed, not by the Law, but by the victory of Christ, acts of thanksgiving are rendered to God. And this is what he says: But thanks be to God, namely, I give thanks, or we give thanks, to the one who gives us the victory, over death and sin, through Jesus Christ, not through the Law” (Commentary of the First Corinthians, 1022).
Thomas recalls other instances in which the Scriptures express “thanks” for the “victory” that we experience: “And this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4); “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25); “For God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Rom. 8:3).
The victory over death is by the power of God.
Thomas reflects that belief in the resurrection should encourage the Christians to lives of goodness: “And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also” (1 Jn. 4:21); “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men” (Gal. 6:10); “You know that your toil in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/