“Christ suffered for you”(1 Peter 2:21). But how much did he suffer? To answer this question, many people reference the draconian Roman precision when it came to inflicting pain. The crucifixion was designed to inflict a severe amount of pain: nails, for example, were driven into major nerve pathways. And yet suffering is more than feeling pain. Suffering entails experiencing pain, or loss, as a human person. The pain reaches deep into our soul. It plays upon our intellect’s frustration when it cannot make sense of something that hurts. It plays upon our will’s agony at thwarted desire. So to consider the suffering of Christ, we have to consider Christ as a complete human being, a man with a body and a soul.
Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century theologian, was very interested in the role of Christ’s humanity in obtaining our salvation. He devotes a portion of his Summa Theologica to meditating on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In Question 46 of the Third Part, or Tertia Pars, he explores whether the pain Christ suffered in the Passion was greater than all other pain. Aquinas affirms that Christ suffered both sensible pain and internal pain. The sensible pain Christ suffered came from the bodily wounds of the Passion. The internal pain he suffered was due to the weight of human sin, including sorrow at those whose machinations put him to death. He also suffered internal pain at the prospect of death, which Aquinas says is “naturally horrible to human nature.”
Aquinas also affirms that Christ felt sensible and internal pain to the greatest degree possible. How can this be, if Christ was both a sinless human being, and innocent of his crime? Surprisingly, both of these features actually increased the pain Christ felt. There are several reasons for this:
- Because Christ was a perfect human being, he possessed a perfect body. This body was poised to feel pain most acutely.
- As a perfect human being, he also possessed a perfect soul. Human souls are made to know what is true and desire what is good. Christ’s soul functioned perfectly, and so, Aquinas says, Christ “apprehended most vehemently all the causes of sadness.” He knew the depth of sin perfectly, and his desire for goodness was wounded deeply by humanity’s rejection of God’s love.
- Finally – this is the one I find most amazing – Christ’s willing acceptance of his pain and sorrow for our salvation allowed him to experience the greatest degree of pain and sorrow possible. Christ accepted suffering and death in order to deliver human beings from sin. The Second Person of the Trinity didn’t just co-opt some unwilling human, Jesus, into enacting his plan of salvation. Jesus Christ desired our salvation perfectly as both God and man, with both his human will and his divine will. This perfect desire, born from a perfect divine love, was able to carry a greater pain and sorrow than can be found in all the world.Aquinas puts it this way: “The magnitude of the pain of Christ’s suffering can be reckoned by this, that the pain and sorrow were accepted voluntarily, to the end of men’s deliverance from sin; and consequently He embraced the amount of pain proportionate to the magnitude of the fruit which resulted therefrom” (ST III 46.6).
To understand how Christ’s perfect humanity and innocence could actually make him suffer more, consider a couple analogies.
The physical analogy: When a bodily limb is healthy, it responds readily to pain. If I put my hand on a hot stove, my nerves immediately send an impulse to my spinal cord, causing me to recoil my hand. This happens even before the message “Take your hand off the stove” reaches the brain! Conversely, a bodily limb is unhealthy when it cannot sense pain. In this same way, the perfection of Christ’s body allowed him to feel physical pain most acutely.
The spiritual analogy: It is often true that the deeper and purer the love one has for another person, the more deeply one suffers on behalf of that person. For example, a father who deeply loves a wayward son will feel a greater sorrow than a father who doesn’t care very much about what happens to his son. Or, an artist will mourn more if his own precious work is destroyed than if the work of another artist is destroyed. In this same way, the love Christ felt for his wayward creation allowed him to feel sorrow at its sin more deeply.
Aquinas’s analysis of Christ’s suffering indicates that the Passion of Christ wasn’t simply performative. Jesus didn’t “go through the motions” of suffering. He also didn’t somehow escape the depth of pain and sorrow because he was God. Instead, he embraced his suffering and lived it more deeply than any mere human ever could. It is from this authentic, full suffering that our salvation is born.