Why is the Risen Christ still wounded? In the Gospel of John, the Apostle Thomas states that he will not believe in the Resurrection, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side” (John 20:25). Eight days’ later, Jesus himself appears and invites Thomas to carry out his test, to which Thomas answers with an affirmation of Christ’s divinity: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
From this exchange and other instances, such as the mentions of Jesus showing the disciples his hands and his feet (Luke 24:39-40) and his hands and his side (John 20:20), the clear message of Scripture is that the Risen Christ has the same body that was crucified, glorified but still bearing the wounds.
Moreover, St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae agrees with the arguments of St Augustine of Hippo and Pope St Gregory the Great that these wounds have never been removed, implying also that Christ still carried them with him during the Ascension. This conclusion concurs also with the vision described in the Book of Revelation, which includes a reference to the Lamb “standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). One of the most famous of all Christian works of art, the Van Eyck altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (c 1432), depicts this vision of Christ as risen although wounded in the glory of heaven.
But why? As a teenager, with a sense of the mystery of the Catholic faith greatly deepened by the liturgy of Holy Saturday, this was a puzzle that I pondered more than once. Crucifixion was so terrible a death that it has become the basis of the word “excruciating” to describe agonising pain. Indeed, it is striking that the cross did not become a common Christian symbol until after direct experience of crucifixion had ceased, following the abolition of the practice by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, in 337. When someone is raised from the dead after crucifixion, it would not normally be regarded as good to retain the wounds that contributed to this torturous death. Why then, I thought as a teenager, does Jesus choose to continue to bear these wounds?
The power of God to work miracles is clearly not the issue, certainly once one has accepted the reality of the Resurrection itself. Some people have difficulty believing in the possibility of miracles rather for the same reason that they have difficulty in believing in the possibility of free will, namely that they think of laws of physics like invisible and unbreakable tramlines along which all matter is constrained to move eternally. But if you think of the world as more like a garden rather than a machine, full of all kinds of beings with their own powers of causation, and with a small subset of the associated actions regular enough to be described by laws, then the notion of intervention does not seem so difficult. After all, I can exercise free will and choose to catch an object falling under the law of gravity, so it is not at all unreasonable to think that God can also intervene in the ordinary course of nature. From the appearances of the Risen Christ, God has intervened by rising from the dead after crucifixion. Healing the wounds of this death would seem comparatively much easier. So why, then, has God refrained from doing so?
In the context of Christ’s revelation to Thomas, the straightforward answer is that the wounds are evidence in at least two senses. First, they are evidence of the fact of the Resurrection and to the glorified state of Christ’s body, given that he is alive even with wounds that would normally be mortal. Second, the wounds are also evidence that this is the genuine Jesus who died on the Cross and not an impostor. I only appreciated this aspect when I visited the cathedral at Orvieto in Italy. There is a fresco there by Luca Signorelli which seems to show Jesus in the centre, surrounded by a crowd and working miracles. It is only slowly that one realises that there is something wrong, that there are horrible things happening in the distance of the picture. Gradually, one also realises that the Christ-like figure in the foreground is not Jesus but an impostor, as is indicated by the title of the fresco, Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (1499–1504).
The clearest indication that this person is not Jesus is that the counterfeit Christ, or perhaps the Devil standing behind him, points to his heart but has no wounds. One broader lesson is that the various false prophets and antichrists that have arisen since the time of Christ, however they imitate him in other ways, do not imitate him in his love or the sacrifice for us that is a consequence of that love.
So as evidence, the wounds are powerful and effective, but why do they persist? Why does Christ even carry these wounds into the eternity of the new heavens and new earth? The patristic writers and Aquinas concur that the wounds are not defects in Christ’s risen body but increase the glory and comeliness of his body, as trophies of his power and victory over sin and death. And these wounds will have a central place at the Last Judgment, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 that all will one day see the one whom they have pierced. For those who have chosen to be Christ’s enemies, destined to depart from him forever into hell, the wounds will serve as a condemnation. Aquinas quotes Augustine’s prediction of their sentence: “Behold the man whom you crucified; see the wounds you have inflicted; recognise the side you have pierced, since it was opened by you and for you, yet you would not enter.”
For the saints, destined to live with Christ forever, the wounds will have a diametrically opposite implication. For through their union with Christ, the saints take their glorified life from him while he takes sin and death from them. And the wounds signify how that sin and death has been hammered out forever on Calvary.
At least one further lesson can be drawn that is directly relevant to our lives here and now. As Christians, anointed as co-heirs of Christ, we are called to love with him the things that he loves, and sacrifice with him the things he sacrifices. CS Lewis stated that, in this life, we are writing the title page of what we will be in eternity, and Scripture is emphatic that anyone who wants to live a divine life in Christ will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). If we are faithful, we can therefore expect to suffer incidental damage in the form of wounds of one kind or another. Augustine, in his City of God, argues that these wounds will remain in eternity, not as disfigurements but radiant with spiritual beauty. We have no need to be afraid, but only to keep on walking.
Fr Andrew Pinsent was formerly a particle physicist who worked on the DELPHI experiment at CERN. He is now a priest of Arundel and Brighton diocese and Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford