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Pulse
4 December 2023

One of the most interesting debates in the history of Christian theology has to do with the significance of the wounds of Christ.

At the Crucifixion, Jesus sustained five wounds – on his hands, his feet and at his side. As John 20:24-28 makes clear, these wounds remained on the body of Jesus after he was raised from the dead.

According to this passage from John’s Gospel, when the disciples told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, Thomas, who was not with them when the resurrected Christ appeared, did not believe their testimony. ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe’, Thomas reportedly said (John 20:25).

One week later, Jesus appeared once again to his disciples. Jesus instructed Thomas who was together with the rest of the disciples to ‘put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe’ (20:27).

Cured of his unbelief, Thomas exclaimed: ‘My Lord and my God!’

Theologians as diverse as Justin Martyr (2nd century), Thomas Aquinas (13th century) and the magisterial Reformers (16th century) have written on the significance of the wounds of the risen Jesus. The wounds of Christ have also been for centuries the focus of Catholic devotion and piety.

More recently, theologians who write on the issue of disability have used the wounds of Christ to support their view that disabled Christian will be resurrected with their disabilities. Just as the wounds of Jesus remained on his body after he was raised, so the disabilities of disabled persons will remain with them after the resurrection – so the argument goes.

Related to the question regarding the significance of the wounds of the risen Jesus is the debate about whether these wounds are temporary or permanent. In other words, while it is evident that the wounds continue to be visible on the body of the risen Christ, will they remain on his body after he has ascended into heaven?

In this brief article, we will glean some answers to these questions from the writings of a theologian who has given considerable attention to them, namely, Cyril of Alexandria (376-444).

Most of Cyril’s discussion about the wounds of Christ can be found in his Commentary on John, although he also addressed this topic in other writings such as his Letter to Acacius, Bishop of Scythopolis.

This issue is not a matter of vain curiosity for Cyril but one of great theological importance. It has to do with the ontology of the resurrection of Christ, and how the whole economy of salvation has been effected through the history of the incarnate Son: his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For Cyril, the first significance of the marks of crucifixion on the body of the resurrected Christ is that of identity. The Jesus who appeared to the disciples after he has risen from the grave is the same Jesus that hung on the cross on the hill called Calvary. Even more specifically, the body that Thomas touched was the self-same body that ‘was crucified, died and was buried’, to borrow the expression of the Nicene Creed.

Cyril explains that through the story of Thomas we ‘might be unshaken in our faith that the very body that hung upon the cross and suffered death was quickened by the Father through the Son.’ Furthermore, the physicality of the body – evidenced by the presence of the wounds of crucifixion – shows clearly that the risen Christ:

… was no phantom or ghost, fashioned in human shape, and simulating the features of humanity, nor yet as others have foolishly surmised, a spiritual body that is compounded of a subtle and ethereal substance different from the flesh. For some attach this meaning to the expression “spiritual body”.

 

However, Cyril, unlike those who have written on this before him, recognises the theological problems raised by the continued presence of the wounds on the body of the risen Christ. How can the resurrected body of Jesus, which is incorruptible, bear the marks of crucifixion, which are indicative of corruption?

In attempting to answer this important question, Cyril provides a corrective to the view of modern theologians writing on disability who insist that disabilities remain in the resurrection. The great Alexandrian theologian asks whether the lame will be raised with a maimed limb or the blind will be raised without sight.

His answer – contrary to the assertions of some modern theologians – is a resounding ‘No’. Cyril appeals to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as the Scriptural basis for his position. For in that letter, the apostle writes categorically that ‘that which is sown in weakness will be raised in power’ and ‘that which is sown in dishonour is raised in glory’ (1 Corinthians 15:43).

This brings us back to Cyril’s original concern, namely, whether the presence of the marks or wounds that remain on Jesus’ resurrected body suggest the presence of corruption or corruptibility. His answer is they do not because the wounds signify rather the marvellous salvation that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Cyril explains that the wounds that remain on the body of the ascended Christ are purposed to point to:

… the meaning of the mysteries concerning himself to the rulers, principalities and powers above, and to those who commanded the legions of angels, he appeared to them also in the same guise that they might believe that the Word that was from the Father, and in the Father, truly became man for our sake, and that they might know that such was his care for his creatures that he died for our salvation.

 

To be sure, not every theologian would agree with Cyril about the permanence of the wounds of the risen Jesus. The great Genevan Reformer, John Calvin, for example, has argued that the wounds that remain on the body of the resurrected Christ would disappear after he had ascended into heaven. This is because their main purpose is to convince the disciples that the resurrection has indeed taken place.

Thus, while Calvin acknowledges that the Gospel of John clearly indicates that the wounds remain in the body of the resurrected Christ, he insists that their presence is temporary and for a very specific purpose. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Calvin argues that

… if any person should infer from this, that Christ still has the wounded side and pierced hands, that would be absurd; for it is certain that the use of the wounds was temporary, until the apostles were fully convinced that he was risen from the dead.

 

Be that as it may, even though the theologians of the Church throughout its long history may disagree on some matters about the scars of Christ, the majority of them recognise their soteriological significance.

The most moving reflection on the wounds or scars of Christ comes from the pen of that great Doctor of the medieval Church, Thomas Aquinas. In his magisterial work Summa Theologiae, Aquinas writes:

Christ knew why he kept the scars on his body. He showed them to Thomas who did not believe until he touched and saw them. So too will he show them to his enemies to convince them by his proclamation of truth itself: Look at the man whom you have crucified. You see the wounds you have inflicted. You recognise the side which you have pierced: it was opened by you for your own benefit, yet you did not wish to enter therein.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.