The Monstrosity of Christ's Resurrection

I think about Jesus’s wounds a lot. Not in a “devotion to the Five Holy Wounds” kind of way, but in more of a “what the hell?” kind of way. Two of the four Gospels insist that, in his Resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ bears the wounds of crucifixion. You could even say that John makes something like a moment of awkward humor out of it: Thomas setting out his hyperbolic conditions for belief (“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe”) and then Jesus opening his tunic to call Thomas’s bluff with a still-lanced abdomen (John 20:25).

The invitation to touch, whether in Luke or in John, carries a further and bizarre implication: that although Jesus’s wounds persist as wounds, he no longer appears to suffer from them. They can be poked or prodded and Jesus is not portrayed so much as wincing or taking a sharp inward breath. He carries on the conversation, as though he has just invited the disciples to run their fingers through his hair. Nor do the wounds seem to “disable” him (to use a loaded word). In both Luke and John, he is depicted standing and walking evidently without trouble. In both he is depicted breaking bread and passing out servings of fish. John even has him engaged in a bit of sea-shore charcoal grilling.[1]

In Luke’s account of the resurrected Lord, Jesus offers his mutilated appendages as proof of identification. “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.” He also offers them as palpable evidence that he is bodily present, rather than some kind of specter or apparition. “Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Luke 24:39). Now, maybe this is taking Christ’s verbiage too literally, but the suggestion that they can see he has both flesh and bones implies some rather gnarly injuries. Of course, when one inspects the tender tissues involved in hands and feet (or, I guess, wrists and ankles, or whatever), the prospect that they should bear the weight of a grown man fighting against gravity in order to breathe certainly implies we are not just talking about four tidy puncture wounds. “Gore,” is the word that comes to mind.

All that poking and prodding raises other implications as well. For one thing, none of it is portrayed as inducing further bleeding that might leave Jesus to chum the sands of Galilee as he moved about. I might note, furthermore, that doctors with un-sanitized hands and instruments have killed no less than two American presidents (James Garfield and William McKinley) who might have otherwise survived assassination attempts.

Sure, the disciples might have engaged in the Jewish custom of ritual hand washing before some of these encounters, but still it is notable that in the forty days that Jesus reportedly spent with the disciples before his Ascension, no sepsis or gangrene or other infection set into these possibly-quite-serious open wounds. Evidently, as St. Paul has it in I Corinthians 15, Christ was “raised incorruptible,” unsusceptible to putrefactions even when exposed to the rather rustic environs of first-Century Palestine for several weeks. We speak sometimes of suspended animation, but Christ evinces something like “suspended decomposition.” No crumbling zombie, the living body of the risen Lord has remarkable integrity for someone who has had their bodily integrity so seriously compromised.

And none of the foregoing yet touches on the resurrected Christ’s . . . shall we say, “loose” relationship to the usual continuities and constraints of space and time. Appearing and disappearing and reappearing, passing through walls, and traversing improbable distances all feature. The plodding narrative continuity (if not always coherence) of the various Gospel reports is fairly ruptured by Jesus’s resurrected tendency to sprinkle his presence around Judea and Galilee as he sees fit.

And that is when his disciples can even recognize him. As often as not, Jesus appears as a stranger to his nearest and dearest, only to be recognized in or just before disappearing from view. Indeed, if his resurrected life were just somehow “other” to our present state—dazzling with pearly transfiguration, for example—so that the disciples struggled to recognize their friend, rabbi, and Lord altogether, we might be facing a more straightforward consideration. But the plain sense of the scriptural reports is that Christ renders himself inscrutable by some kind of choice, only to later give himself in a more perspicuous modality.

Whether this uneven distribution of his presence or veiling and unveiling of his identity is meant to serve some pedagogical or, I suppose more precisely, mystagogical purpose, the Gospel texts do not editorialize one way or the other. Indeed, they all succumb to a certain terse and episodic fragmentation in their effort to communicate the Resurrection experience to which the Apostles would testify. St. Paul offers a list of to whom the risen Lord appeared (including a crowd of 500 at one point) and in what order, but that is about it.

At one level, this should not be that surprising. It underlines the intrinsic inadequacy of experience qua experience, how it always remains to ask what that experience meant, and how experiences that suggest any sufficient profundity of meaning remain for a good little while only minimally expressible. The fragmentary, sketchy, terseness of the Gospel reports might just be what we should expect from the moment of greatest revelatory density in the whole cosmic unfolding. After all, absent some intimation of what God means by that experience, that event, the Resurrection is no Resurrection at all, but only a highly improbable resuscitation.[2]

But back to those wounds. Wounds that remain, in all their grisliness, to remind—again, in St. Paul’s words—that Christ’s death was dishonorable and impotent. Wounds as fresh and little-healed as any suffered by the abused, the tortured, the lynched. Wounds, in their suspended decomposition, that will now remain sempiternally immediate to the scathing that produced them. Wounds that, though they do not bleed, or stink, or pain the Lord, or impair him in any way, nonetheless always present us with the Lamb who, while at once slain since the foundation of the world, has always also just been crucified. Wounds that, in their aforementioned solidarity with every wound borne under the sin of others, bespeak a victimization that has ended, but only just.

I alluded above to the Apocalypse of John. In its opening lines, the author calls Jesus “first born of the dead” (Rev. 1:5). Resurrection, you see, is not a unique or singularly miraculous fate reserved for Christ alone, but—in continuity with certain Judaic apocalyptic expectations—a fate that Catholics expect for every human being. The disciples’ experience of the risen Lord was not just a culminating encounter with the fullness of God’s intention for the incarnate Word, but also a preliminary, a preparatory foretaste of the terminal divine intention for certainly our species and very probably the cosmos in its entirety. As St. Paul wrote,

For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:52-55).

But at a speculative level, this seems like it must be wrong. St. Paul himself admits as much: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Cor 15:50). Should not that immaterial, and so incorruptible part of us, that essentially spiritual and intellectual aspect be that which is properly united to God in our final destiny? And even if, as St. Athanasius had it, the surd of sin and evil introduces quote-unquote “spiritual corruption” into our souls, initiating spiritual disintegration and death, would not then our redemption in the divine Word, whose “impress” we have marred, ultimately effect a primarily spiritual reintegration, an immaterial re-composition in us?[3]

What could such a reintegration, really a re-creation ex nihilo (except now from the nihil of our sin), what could this restoration mean except, as Kierkegaard had it, to at last rest transparently on the Spirit, on the pure and complete intellectual power that established us, that gave us rise to begin with?[4] Should not our spiritual spark, our little light find rest at last, absorbed into the perfect and eternal blaze of divine knowledge and love? Is it not an unfitting—even monstrous—thing to propose that the perfection of that which is potens omnia facere et fieri should once again find itself pinned to time and space by a body?

St. Paul admits, “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” when he speaks of this transformation from a corruptible, dishonorable, impotent form of embodiment to our new, incorruptible, and honorable embodiment clothed in power. But I think the difficulties above can be ameliorated when we consider, albeit speculatively, what truly human spiritual union with God’s redemptive knowing love might entail. For we humans know and choose with our bodies. “Intellect grasps form in phantasms,” as Aristotle put it.[5] What we know and what we choose we first sense or at least imagine. But—and here I admit I leap across a number of premises—to know the ultimate meaning of my life once sin has marked it with the inexplicability of a deviated freedom means to know the infinite singular intention of the Creator God for the whole cosmic order within which my life unfolds.

It is to know, for example, that universal good, elevated by supernatural grace, for which God permitted sin. What God means by such an intention, what God intends by such a value, I am confident we do not have bodies proportionate to such an insight. What this-wordly experience could occasion it? Furthermore, who has the nerve to ratify such a tremendous and awful decision, that the fullness of the world should have this shape and no other? “Have you an arm like that of God, or can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 40:9). Can we even murmur such a terrible “yes” to the world? Obviously not. Not with this body, no matter how fit and strong and able and whole, let alone one set upon by the infirmities that, if we live long enough, come for us all.

Have you ever seen an old man’s toenails? No, if we would knowingly and freely join the chorus that praises the Lord of Hosts at the end of all things, we will plainly still need a body but one of a novel and surprising quality. One re-made proportionate to the task. And so this speculative need—hope, really—for a body of another proportion might render less monstrous our Christian hope for the Resurrection in its full bodily scope.

We would do well, though, not to get the speculative cart before the theological horse. The Resurrection is always a doctrine founded in apostolic testimony before it is a speculative theorem. The speculation only has its significance in answering questions that arise in the wake of affirming the doctrine. If you might be convinced that a mode of transformed embodiment is a fitting way to understand what knowing God face-to-face would entail, I still will not have proved either the Beatific Vision, let alone the Resurrection, whether Christ’s specifically or the general Resurrection of Christian hope. And that such a spiritual or heavenly or eschatological body is entailed in one’s Christian hope in no way diminishes the gratuity of receiving such a body. Even just biologically speaking, none of us are agents of being the bodies we are now, so it would be very strange indeed to think we could demand them of the Lord in the next life.

But I have wandered from the wounds again. I think there is a double sense in which we give Christ his wounds. There is the first, violent, senseless sense in which we, humanity, give Christ his wounds, by the vile and meaningless act of crucifying him. And no doubt we give him these wounds from out of a nature disfigured by sin. Hurt people, we all-too-blithely say, do hurt people. But this deepens, rather than clarifying or explaining the negative mystery of Christ crucified. It only opens a gate to the wider vista of that act’s dark absurdity. And it is the unintelligibility of that act which the Resurrection—understood in its properly theological sense—renders meaningful not in itself, but extrinsically, gratuitously, and mysteriously, now in the positive sense. It is, for example, to this extrinsically-received-meaning that each crucifix has its theological reference. 

But human beings are not just injury-inflicters. We are, as I intimated above, also injury-sufferers. We are not just victimizers, but also victims. And as Christ is in solidarity with every victim, so every victim is saved from the mute malignance of every victimization by Christ’s Resurrection. In and through him, it returns their lives, their hopes, the very passionateness of their being to them, imperfectly now, but perfectly in the perfection of time. This is at least part of the hope offered in the resurrected Christ testified to by the Apostles in and through Scripture. But I cannot escape how that witness includes the depiction of his wounds, those wounds that do not bleed, or stink, or pain the Lord, or impair him in any way with which we began and which we have taken as (at minimum) an intimation of our own embodied destiny.

So, I find myself stuck with the rather odd conviction that our risen lives will be nonetheless wounded lives. Surely, of course, like the Lord we will not suffer our wounds nor be impeded by them. We will, after all, be clothed in honor, incorruptibility, and power as St. Paul had it. We will not sleep eternally in suspended animation, but I wonder if we might live eternal life in what above I called suspended decomposition. Hear me clearly, though: I do not mean to say that our afflictions, insofar as they were victimizations, will be redeemed or made “worth it,” a price we have gladly paid for the prize of eternal life in God. No. No. No. Three times I must say, “No.” Ivan Karamozov should have well disabused us of that fallacy.

Rather, I only mean to suggest that our wounds will remain ours, extrinsically and gratuitously and mysteriously receiving not just some meaning, but even and perhaps especially dignity. I am suggesting that, as raised but unhealed, our wounds will be—too again invoke St. Paul’s terms—honored. I am suggesting that when Emperor Constantine (however else we might assess his legacy) greeted Bishop Paphnutios of Egypt by reverentially kissing the socket of an eye gouged out in violent persecution, that he may have prefigured a commonplace greeting in resurrected life.[6]

Rather than recoiling in disgust or shuddering in self-pre-occupied body-horror, I wonder whether in the general Resurrection we might lovingly, tactilely honor one another’s risen, unhealed wounds. And, in turn, that we might not hide them from one another in shame, but instead offer them as Christ did, as now integral to our identity, our irreducible personhood, and now no longer evidence that someone else tried to erase or deny it. Perhaps to the unspiritual eyes of this life the suggestion seems gory, grisly, even ghastly, but I have tried to explore here how that might be a misperception, a failure at first to recognize our resurrected selves. Does not the suggestion, at least, make our hearts burn within us?

I said above that I think we give Christ his wounds in two ways, but I have neglected yet to name the second. The first is obvious, well-attested, but the second has really just recently occurred to me. For vulnerability to wounding belongs to our nature and the eternal Son could not be wounded without having assumed it. And every wounding that results from victimization belongs to a creaturely failure that the One through whom all things were made cannot commit. Therefore, such wounds are doubly ours. Thus, we give them doubly to the Incarnate Word. He doubly receives them and, indeed, receives them unto death. But in Resurrection he doubly returns them to us, both as the sign of our salvation, but—I am venturing, anyway—also as newly, really, and once again our own, now incorruptible, dignified, and empowered.[7]

[1] What here in Texas I am not allowed to call “barbecue.”

[2] Apologists take note.

[3] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated and edited by John Behr (Crestwood, NY: SVS (2007).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (Princeton, NJ: PUP, 1980).

[5] Aristotle, De anima, III, 7, 43ib 2.

[6] Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2012), 91.

[7] This essay was first delivered as a talk for Dr. Anne Carpenter’s “Catholicism and Monsters” mini-conference on April 8, 2022.

Featured Image: Photo taken by Palickap, sculptural group of Sorrow over Dead Christ (1463) by Niccolò dell'Arca, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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