Was it necessary that Jesus rise in His human body? Was there any reason that He needed a human body? Couldn’t He have just returned to the Father in His divinity, having done everything humanly (and divinely) possible for us?
St. Thomas Aquinas offers five reasons why the Resurrection of Jesus’ body was necessary. We might easily pass over his first reason, that those who humble themselves for God’s sake should be exalted according to Divine justice (3a. 53, 1). However, this message is important for many people of the world, who try to live ethically and who work hard to help their families, despite great obstacles. Many people in the world make sacrifices following Christ, despite restrictions put on them for their faith. Many people are continually being frustrated in the efforts, sometimes by the circumstances in which they live as well as by other people. God is just. There is an old saying, “The wheels of God’s justice turn slowly but they grind exceedingly fine.”
Thomas’ second reason is that the Resurrection confirms our belief in Jesus’ divinity (3a. 53, 1). During His ministry, Jesus’ closest disciples were not quite sure who He was, although, at times, they would ask such questions as, “Who is this, whom even the wind and waves obey?” (Mk 4:41).
After the Resurrection, the disciples announced, “The Lord has truly been raised…” (Lk 24:34). The Hebrew name for Lord,’ādōn, and the Aramaic names for Lord, māré’ and māryā, were used for God in first-century Palestine. The disciples used these titles for Jesus.
Thomas affirms that the Resurrection gives us hope: “Through seeing Christ, who is our head, rise again, we hope that we likewise shall rise again” (3a. 53, 1). The deaths of loved ones leave emptiness in our lives. Jesus breaks through the insurmountable barrier of death and promises us that He will bring us with Him. His Resurrection answers the desire of all people, to live forever.
According to Thomas, the Resurrection sets our lives in order: “As Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4); “Christ, risen from the dead, dies no more… Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:9, 11).
We might think that we are hopelessly stuck in negative ways of thinking and acting, out of which we cannot release ourselves. We assume that our lives will necessarily continue this way. Through His Resurrection, Christ breaks these invisible chains and frees us from patterns we thought were invincible.
Because of the tremendous love demonstrated in Jesus’ Passion and death, we may think of Jesus painful death as the source of our salvation and His Resurrection as the happy conclusion after all had been completed. Thomas assures us that the Resurrection is also an essential component to our salvation:
The fifth reason is in order to complete the work of our salvation: because, just as for this reason did He endure evil things in dying that he might deliver us from evil, so was He glorified in rising again in order to advance us to good things: ‘He was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification’ (Rom 4:25) (3a. 53, 1).
Thomas explains: “Christ’s Passion wrought our salvation, properly speaking, by removing evils; but the Resurrection did so as the beginning and exemplar of all good things” (3a. 53, 1 ad 3).
What are the “good things”? Perhaps, some of them are identified by Thomas’ reasons for the Resurrection: ultimate justice for every person seeking the good, an appreciation of Christ’s identity, hope for our own future and that of those we love, and the possibility of living in a good way without being entangled by our own and others’ sinfulness.
Thomas elaborates more on the salvific effect of the Resurrection:
Two things concur in the justification of souls, namely, forgiveness of sin and newness of life through grace. Consequently as to efficacy [power], which comes of the Divine power, the Passion as well as the Resurrection of Christ is the cause of justification of both the above. But as to exemplarity [example], properly speaking Christ’s Passion and death are the cause of the forgiveness of guilt, by which forgiveness we die unto sin: whereas Christ’s Resurrection is the cause of new life which comes through grace or justice… But Christ’s Passion was also a meritorious cause (3a. 56, 2 ad 4).
Thomas seems to relate the forgiveness of our sins with the Passion while the Resurrection is especially related to the “new life which comes through grace or justice.” “Justice” would mean the justification, that is being right, before God. Through the graces of the Resurrection, we are enabled to live in a new way, the way of the Gospel.
According to Thomas, the resurrection of our bodies is related to Christ’s Resurrection:
Christ’s Resurrection was in the first in the order of our resurrection. Hence Christ’s Resurrection must be the cause of ours: ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life’ (1 Cor 15: 20-22)… The Word of God first bestows immortal life upon that body which is naturally united with Himself, and through it works the resurrection in all other bodies (3a. 56, 1).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. In this case, it is the third part of the Summa, questions 53 and 56, and various articles. If the reference is a reply to an objection that had been raised earlier, the reference will offer “ad…” with the number of the objection.