I began this series on the atonement with a question about whether or not the crucifixion of Christ was God’s active will, or His permitted will. The Cathechism provides the answer from the Catholic perspective:
CCC600 To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: “In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.
We see a similar passage from the Westminster Catechism (Presbyterian) when it answers the question “How did Christ humble himself in death?”
“Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.”
Consider the contrast between the two. In the Presbyterian view, God becomes one of the actors in the passion along with Judas, the disciples who ran, Pilate, the persecutors of Christ, the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness. In the Catholic view God allows these actors to move forward with acts that “flowed from their blindless.” He is not one of them.
This is one last aspect of Protestant “penal substitution” atonement theology which needs to be addressed. This is the distortion of the image of our Father.
In his book “Introduction to Christianity,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), gives us this insight:
“Thus it should now be also plain that with the Cross it is not a matter of an accumulation of physical pain, as if its redemptive value consisted in its involving the largest amount of physical torture. Why should God take pleasure in the suffering of his creature, indeed his own Son, or even see in it the currency with which reconciliation has to be purchased from him? The Bible and right Christian belief are far removed from such ideas. It is not pain as such that counts but the breadth of love than spans existence so completely that it unites the distant and the near, bringing God-forsaken man into relation with God. It alone gives the pain an aim and its meaning.
Basically this also answers the question with which we started, whether it is not an unworthy concept of God to imagine for oneself a God who demands the slaughter of his Son to pacify his wrath. To such a question one can only reply, indeed, God must not be thought of in this way.”
Indeed, God must not be thought of in this way.
Within Sacred Scripture, Jesus gives us a perfect image of who the Father is. We find this in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). We see within this parable that the father does not deny his son the free will to leave his home. The father’s position regarding his son never changes. And when his son returns, there is no “payment” that must be negotiated before he will accept him back. His joy simply overflows upon his son’s decision to return. This is our Father.
The issue with the Prodigal son is the same issue with us. It’s the battle within himself to recognize the truth and his willingness to repent and return to his Father’s house. Sacred Scripture provides us this insight:
”And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’” (Luke 15:14-19)
The prodigal son had an experience with the glamour and allure of sin. It can look really good at the onset. That package can come well wrapped, pretty paper and bows, glamour and glitz. Sin distorts the truth, can be very alluring and deceptive, and can blind us to the consequences of our actions. It looks really good until we get stuck in it with no apparent way out.
The prodigal son did not recognize his predicament under the bondage of sin immediately. It is possible to live with the pigs indefinitely and not realize it. At some point the prodigal son had an “awakening” moment. He experienced the reality of the consequences of sin – it was “unmasked.” Sacred Scripture said this occurred when he “came to himself.” Some translations say “when he came to his senses.” This is the result of a work of grace in his life.
The crucifixion of Christ reveals to use the true nature of sin. It is sin “unmasked.” That this perfectly just and holy man who did nothing but love us and speak the truth receives this from us – this shows us an accurate picture of how truly ugly, evil, and inhuman all sin is. Did you know that Plato writing about 350 years before Christ said that if a truly just man ever appeared in the world he would be crucified? Another excerpt from Pope Benedict’s book “Introduction to Christianity”:
“The Cross is revelation. It reveals, not any particular thing, but God and man. It reveals who God is and in what way man is. There is a curious presentment of this situation in Greek philosophy: Plato’s image of the crucified “just man”. In the Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world…. According to Plato, the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed, Plato goes so far as to write: ‘They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.’
The fact that when the perfectly just man appeared he was crucified, delivered up by justice to death, tells us pitilessly who man is: Thou art such, man, that thou canst not bear the just man – that he who simply loves becomes a fool, a scourged criminal, an outcast. Thou art such because, unjust thyself, thou dost always need the injustice of the next man in order to feel excused and thus canst not tolerate the just man who seems to rob thee of this excuse. Such thou art.“
The crucifixion of Christ reveals to us both who we are under the bondage of sin, and the depth of God’s love for us. Knowing what will happen to him, Christ yet chose to become man, and the Father who has loved him for all eternity was still willing to send him. Christ is willing to accept the full brunt of our sin in order to enable us to see the reality of what sin is and what it does. The crucifixion should bring us to our senses, enable us to see the truth of what man is like apart from God, to reject sin, to seek God and to return home to the Father who has never changed in His perfect love for us. It is only through the mystery of the cross we can break the bonds of slavery to Satan and to sin. It is only through the mystery of the cross that we can come to know the reality that God doesn’t love us because of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, Christ’s sacrifice is because he loves us.
St. Abelard tells us that “The spectacle of Christ’s spotless life, and obedience even unto death endured for us, was the most persuasive argument God could make for withdrawing us from the service of sin, and making us to meet His grace.” As we reflect on the passion and death of Christ, may it truly change us. May we allow the grace that flows from Christ’s passion to awaken in us the knowledge of the truth, and to create a burning desire in us to return home to our Father, who awaits with open arms.
We adore you O Christ and we praise you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
A wonderful way to begin our reflection:
Bishop Barron on “Why Did Jesus Have To Die The Way He Did?”