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Why do we say that Jesus ‘rose on the third day’?

Renaissance master Pintoricchio’s fresco of “The Resurrection” in the Vatican's Borgia Apartments is seen in this photo provided by the Vatican Museums. (CNS photo/courtesy of Vatican Museums)


Question: The Nicene Creed says that Jesus “suffered death and was buried, and rose on the third day.” In Matthew, Jesus says “the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (12:40). However, I cannot find three days between Good Friday and Easter. Can you explain this?

Joan Metzger, DeKalb, Illinois

Answer: The text in saying “three days” does not necessarily mean 72 hours exactly. The Lord was in the tomb for one whole day, and parts of two others. The ancient Jews were comfortable in reckoning partial days as a whole day. Even in modern parlance, we can speak of time strictly or loosely. For example, I might say, “I was with my family last month.” By this I do not necessarily mean that I arrived there on exactly the first of the month and departed on the last day of the month. I might not even mean I was there a whole month, just that I was there for some time during that month. Thus Jesus was in the tomb for some part of three days, even if not three days exactly.

The concern about three nights is more complex, but has a similar solution. The Scriptures were written in Greek, but the words of Jesus were more likely spoken in Aramaic. The Jews would render the phrase “three days and three nights” as three “night-days.” Therefore, the text may be trying to express in Greek a Jewish idiom which, as noted, reckons partial days as whole days but also includes the night along with the day. Further, for us, a new day begins at sunrise; for the ancient Jews, the new day began at sundown. Hence the concept of “night-days.” Recall that the Sabbath for Jews starts on Friday at sundown, not on Saturday morning.

With these premises in mind, Jesus was in the tomb three days and nights, since Friday is “night-day one,” Saturday is “night-day two” and Sunday is “night-day three.”

Jewish understanding of heaven

Question: In 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions the “third heaven” (12:2). How is this to be interpreted?

Peter Tate, Long Beach, California

Answer: Jewish cosmology had some complexities too lengthy to detail here. But, broadly speaking, the Jews reckoned three “heavens.” The first heaven was where the clouds are and the birds fly. The second heavens was where the stars and planets are. The third heavens was where God dwells. Hence, when Paul says he was “caught up to the third heaven,” he means he was taken up or given an experience of the heaven where God dwells. He adds that he “was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (2 Cor 12:4). Hence, he experienced the glory of heaven.

It is interesting that he “heard” of joys unspeakable and glories untold, not that he saw them. Generally speaking, theologians do not consider it possible to look on the radiance of the Holy Trinity in our current state. The Old Testament often remarked in some form the impossibility of looking on the face of God (cf. Is 6:5). There are exceptions, such as Moses and Isaiah, but even then it is not clear that they saw the actual face of God (cf. Ex 33:23).

Mortal sins

Question: It used to be that some sins were mortal, period. Now it appears subjective. You have to believe it’s grave for it to be mortal. So, if a person doesn’t believe it is grave, is he off the hook?

James Jeson, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Answer: Three things are required for a person to commit mortal sin: The offense is a grave matter, there is sufficient knowledge of that, and there is full consent of the will. Hence there are “subjective” elements in determining the blameworthiness of a person.

When the Church teaches that certain sins can be mortal, it can only speak to the objective gravity of the matter. Sins such as blasphemy, sexual sins, killing other than in self-defense and so forth are mortal by their nature. However, one’s blameworthiness may be lessened by certain factors. A person may not know that ridiculing sacred things is blasphemous, and one may commit a violent act or sexual indiscretion in a moment of anger or passion. This may reduce their personal guilt. Older catechetical teaching emphasized the objectively grave nature of certain acts. Modern catechesis speaks more to one’s understanding and freedom. Clearly a balance must be found that does not easily dismiss guilt, but one that acknowledges that circumstances may lessen the degree of one’s guilt.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at Send questions to

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