Paul was surprised to discover that some of the Christians in Corinth did not believe in the resurrection from the dead, as we learn in today’s second reading (1 Cor 15:12, 16-20).
Paul couldn’t comprehend how people could identify themselves as Christians and, at the same time, doubt that the dead rise. For Paul, it was logical that if there wasn’t any resurrection from the dead then Christ Himself hadn’t risen.
Furthermore, some of these same people had come to the faith through Paul. Paul and other apostles had preached that Christ rose from the dead: “We believe that Christ died and rose again” (1 Th 4:13). If Christ rose, then those who believe in Him should also rise: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies” (Rom 8:10).
Those people who denied the resurrection must have thought that Paul and those who preached that Jesus was raised were “misrepresenting God” (1 Cor 15:15).
Why did they continue to associate themselves with the Christian community? If Jesus didn’t rise, then Christianity didn’t make sense, as Paul insists: “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
Their brothers and sisters who died believing in Jesus must certainly have perished. Those who maintained hope in Jesus despite many difficulties have wasted their time: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
We cannot prove that Jesus rose from the dead. Nevertheless, Marcus Bockmuehl is among those scholars who assert that it is undeniable that something happened on that Sunday: “…it is a matter of historical record that something happened and that this changed the course of human history like no other event before or since” (The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, 203).
Why are Bockmuehl and others so certain that “something happened”? An obvious answer is the behavior of Jesus’ disciples. They ran away when Jesus was apprehended and hid after His death. Yet within a couple of days, they are reanimated, asserting that Jesus is risen! They held onto this conviction, even though they were beaten and persecuted and most of them eventually were killed for that conviction. If even one of them had denied it, their enemies would have promulgated it.
In his attempt to understand the situation in Corinth, Thomas Aquinas thinks that those who denied the resurrection of the dead may have thought that Jesus rose because He was a divine Person. However, Thomas points out that Jesus, who was a divine Person, rose in His human nature.
Thomas maintains that our resurrection is related to Jesus’ resurrection because Jesus is the cause of our resurrections: “… the resurrection of Christ is the cause of our resurrection” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary of the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 913).
Thomas doesn’t mean that Jesus merited our resurrections through His resurrection, because, in rising, Jesus entered into His glory and no longer merited, as He did through the time of His death. Thomas proposes that Jesus merited our resurrections through His death.
For Thomas, the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection isn’t because Jesus is the exemplary (the example) cause of our resurrections. Thomas insists that Jesus is also the “efficient cause,” the one who actually causes our resurrections.
St. Augustine wrote that “The Word made flesh vivifies and raises the dead” (Commentary on John). Thomas concludes from this statement: “Therefore, it is clear that if Christ rose, the dead also will rise” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 913).
Thomas accepts that Jesus, in His humanity is not able to raise the dead since rising from the dead surpasses human nature. Only the infinite power of God can raise the dead but this also applies to Jesus, in His divinity: “Inasmuch as God or the godhead is in Christ, Christ is the exemplary and efficient cause of the resurrection of the dead through His humanity, as through an instrument of His divinity … the flesh of Christ or the humanity is not said to produce an effect of infinite power, inasmuch as it is flesh or humanity, but inasmuch as it is the flesh and humanity of Christ [who is also divine]” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 914).
Our resurrection takes place according to God’s plan: “Since God is the principal cause of our resurrection, but Christ’s resurrection is the instrumental cause, our resurrection follows Christ’s resurrection according to God’s arrangement, which directed that it happen at such a time” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 915).
Some people have wondered whether we would rise if Christ had not become incarnate, died and rose? Thomas answers: “God directed the resurrection of the dead to occur in that manner; yet another manner could still be found by God, if He willed” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 916).
Paul appealed to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:14, 17).
Thomas Aquinas points out that the Christians have experienced the cleansing of sin: “Faith cleanses from sins: ‘He cleansed their hearts by faith’ (Ac 15:9). If, therefore, our faith is in vain, which would be the case if Christ has not risen, because you did believe that He arose, your sins are not forgiven. And this is what he says: ‘You are still in your sins’ (1 Cor 15:17)” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 921).
Thomas thinks those who doubted the resurrection of the body believed in the immortality of the soul. Thomas’ answer is important because he emphasizes the natural connection between the soul and the body, which is characteristic of Thomas: “If the resurrection of the body is denied, it is not easy, rather it is difficult, to sustain the immortality of the soul. For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it, contrary to its nature and by accident. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 924).
Plato and his followers believed that the soul longed to be freed from the body. Thomas insists: “The soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man, and my soul is not I; hence, although the soul obtains salvation in another life, nevertheless, not I or any man. Furthermore, since man naturally desires salvation even of the body, a natural desire would be frustrated (Commentary First Corinthians, 924).
Paul realizes that some Christians may have thought thought it was sufficient to follow Christ in this life, as better way of living. Paul responds: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
Thomas summarizes this argument: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, it follows that nothing good is possessed by men except in this life alone; and if this is so, then those who suffer many evils and tribulations in this life are more miserable. Therefore, since the apostles and Christians suffer many tribulations, it follows that they are more miserable than other men, who at least enjoy the good things of this world” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 923).
Thomas allows that in a certain sense the Christian life is preferable to life without even a limited faith, “We Christians would be not more miserable than other men, because those who are in sins undergo greater labors. But of the good and just it says in Gal (5:22): “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Commentary First Corinthians, 925).
Thomas affirms: “Evils in this world are not to be sought as such, but inasmuch as they are directed to some good. But the apostles and Christians have suffered many evils in the world. Therefore, unless they were directed to some good, they would be more miserable than other men. Either they are directed to a future good or to a present good; but they are not ordained to a future good, if there is no resurrection of the dead. But if they are ordained to a present good, this is either the good of the intellect, as philosophers of nature suffered poverty and many other evils, in order to know the truth” (Commentary First Corinthians, 925).
“Or it is a good of morals, as moral philosophers suffered many evils to acquire virtues and fame. But neither can they be directed to this, because if there is no resurrection of the dead, it is not regarded as virtuous and glorious to wish to renounce all pleasant things and undergo the punishments of death and contempt; rather it is considered folly. And so it is clear that they would more miserable than other men” (Commentary First Corinthians, 926).
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20)
Thomas reflects: “Christ’s resurrection is related to that of others as the first fruits to those that follow, for they exceed the latter in time and superiority or worth; therefore, he says: He arose, not as the others, but as the first fruit, i.e., first in time and dignity: “The first born of the dead” (Rev 1:5). The first fruits, I say, of those who have fallen asleep, i.e., of the dead who rest in hope of the resurrection. From this can be inferred the conditional statement previously made, because we say and it is true, if Christ Who is the first fruit of those that sleep, arose, then also all others asleep” (Commentary First Corinthians, 927).
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/