A reader asks: “Why did the disciples not recognize the Risen Christ at first? This…
Why did Christ wait so long to deliver us?
Question: If there were no original sin, would Christ still have come to save us? And if so, why did the Lord wait so long to come?
— Connie Mercer, Washington, D.C.
Answer: As to your first question, St. Thomas Aquinas (in the Summa Theologiae) states that there are different opinions on the matter. He also notes that God’s power is not limited, and therefore God could have become incarnate even if sin had not existed. However, St. Thomas believes that if man had not sinned, then the Son would not have become incarnate. He writes: “Since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been” (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Question 1, Article 1).
However, as others note, though the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin, the Incarnation also offers more than is required to remedy sin — namely, an increase in human dignity (because God joined our family), God’s visitation to us and the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise. He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place.
But had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, he could have done so in other ways. It seems to me that St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.
As to the second question regarding the length before his coming, St. Thomas provides sensible answers that address aspects of the question we might not have considered. Let’s look at three of his reasons: “First, on account of the manner of man’s sin, which had come of pride; hence man was to be liberated in such a manner that he might be humbled and see how he stood in need of a deliverer. … For first of all God left man under the natural law, with the freedom of his will, in order that he might know his natural strength; and when he failed in it, he received the law; whereupon, by the fault, not of the law, but of his nature, the disease gained strength; so that having recognized his infirmity he might cry out for a physician, and beseech the aid of grace” (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Question 1, Article 5).
In other words, quick solutions to problems do not always permit proper healing to take place. Most parents know that if they solve every problem a child has, important lessons may be lost. It is often beneficial to live with our questions for a while so that the answers are more appreciated and more effective.
In the same section, St. Thomas continues: “Secondly, on account of the order of furtherance in good, whereby we proceed from imperfection to perfection. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 15:46-47): ‘Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual. … The first man was of the earth, earthy; the second man from heaven, heavenly.'”
And here is a principle that grace builds on nature and it is our nature mature slowly, individually and collectively.
Finally St. Thomas adds: “Thirdly, on account of the dignity of the incarnate Word, for on the words (Galatians 4:4), ‘But when the fullness of the time was come,’ a gloss says: ‘The greater the judge who was coming, the more numerous was the band of heralds who ought to have preceded him.'”
Here then is underscored the dignity of the Son of God, that many should precede him, announcing him. There was also a need for us to be prepared to meet him, so that we would not miss him or refuse him when he came. As Malachi says, “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, Before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day; He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction” (Mal 3:23-24). Those who were prepared were able to abide the day of the Lord’s coming and heed his call.