Monthly Archives: March 2014

Why Did Christ Die?

The late atheist Christopher Hitchens once complained that the Christian God was a kind of celestial dictator, “Greedy, exigent . . . and swift to punish the original sins.” I have known others to reject Christianity on similar terms.  For such skeptics, nothing is a greater obstacle to Christian faith than the doctrine of the crucifixion. Why, for God’s sake, would God demand the death of his only Son?

crucifixionOne source of confusion is that Protestants and Catholics do not agree on the answer to this question. Many people only know the  traditional Protestant answer, in which the notion of God’s vengeance or wrath plays a prominent role. The Catholic Church takes another view, with a primary emphasis upon God’s love, and a different understanding of those biblical passages that seem to ascribe wrath or anger to God. Once you understand these differences, the crucifixion appears in a starkly different light.

Growing up Protestant, I learned that my sin moved God to anger and that His wrath had to be appeased by blood sacrifice. Protestants teach that God actively punishes Christ in the crucifixion, and in the descent into hell.   It is a vicarious punishment. God agrees to punish an innocent victim, treating him as if he were guilty of my offense. In exchange, I get off scot-free.

Consider Calvin’s explanation:

In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance . . . Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.  (Institutes 2.16.10)

Not surprisingly, many people approach this doctrine with a kind of horror. How can justice be satisfied by the punishment of an innocent man? What kind of God would demand such a sacrifice?  But this is not how the Catholic Church understands the death of Christ. To begin with, the Church teaches that God is impassible. He does not change, which means that he does not experience passions like hate or anger. Biblical language about God’s wrath can only be understood metaphorically. It is a way of expressing the absolute distinction between God’s holiness and our sin.  (For a discussion of how Catholics truly predicate love of God, but anger only metaphorically, see here.)

Secondly, the Church rejects the idea of vicarious punishment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this plain, “Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned.” (CCC 603)  Not only would such punishment be unjust, it would also express a very defective view of Christ’s divinity.  God the Son cannot be at enmity with God the Father, nor does the Father reject him. Even on the Cross, Christ never failed to be in perfect union with God the Father. (See the Catechism, again, paragraph 603).

How, then, does the thing actually work? The key is to consider Christ’s death in light of the incarnation. The two doctrines cannot be separated. Throughout Scripture and tradition, we learn that Christ became incarnate not just to die, but that we might be joined to his divine person.  St. Peter says that we become “participants in the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4). St. Athanasius famously remarked, “He became man so that we might become god.”  The priest prays in the Mass, ” “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Christ, through the incarnation, entered into perfect solidarity with the human race. And his union with Christians is so close that Paul speaks of our physical bodies as members of Christ. (1 Corinthians 6:15) When Christ submits to death, there is a real, though mystical, sense in which we also die. Our old way of life is done away with and the resurrection power of Christ is infused. (St. Paul teaches this in Romans 6).

Christ’s whole life was also one of self-emptying. It was humble, self-giving. His ultimate act of loving surrender was in handing himself over to be killed by those who hated him. In this, he perfectly fulfilled his own divine law, ” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39)   Such love and surrender is infinitely pleasing to God. St. Paul again, “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place.” (Philippians 2:8)

In Catholic teaching, Christ’s death is a sacrifice in the sense that he offers up something of value – namely, his own human life.  It is analogous the the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. The worshiper under the Mosaic covenant gave up something of value (a heifer, a goat, a lamb, even grain) in token of thanksgiving, reparation, or satisfaction.   There was no idea that God punished the victim for the sins of the worshiper,  no imputation of sins. The offering was rather a sign of the sincerity of the penitent.  (Remember the words of David, “ I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” 2 Sam. 24:24) 

In this sense, Christ’s sacrifice was of infinite merit. The merits of Christ’s passion are then infused into us, from the head into his members.  The Council of Trent taught that they enable us to do meritorious work, to satisfy the the divine command. The Roman Catechism taught that Christ’s satisfaction “gives to man’s actions merit before God.”

Finally, Christ died in order to leave us with a memorial sacrifice that we might perpetually offer to God in thanksgiving.  “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)  The Second Vatican Council taught that the Eucharist is “the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium) It is a joyful gift, an offering of love whereby we join ourselves and our works to the self-giving love of Christ.

Catholics do not deny that the crucifixion was a sacrifice, nor that it was substitutionary.  Christ made an offering in our place. What Catholics deny is the element of penal substition. This idea does not do justice to the biblical idea of sacrifice.  It also suggests an anthropomorphic view of God, insofar as God acts out of vengeance. St. Paul said, ” May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14) The cross of Christ is our glory, not our shame. It remains for us the ultimate mystery, but one of divine love, not hatred or wrath. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Why Would Anyone Want to be Catholic?

I heard from a woman last week who watched a PBS documentary on the Vatican. The show was little more than a sensationalistic “hit piece,” meant to defame the Church as much as possible. Propaganda, pure and simple. But it was effective propaganda. After watching, the woman asked me, “Who, on earth, would ever want to be Catholic?”

confused pope

Well, me, for one. I joined the Church at the height of the media frenzy over abusive clergy. I had my eyes wide open and I can say honestly that the scandal did not deter me from becoming Catholic.  And I am not alone. I know countless men and women who have made an honest investigation of the Church’s claims and have embraced them even in the face of a non-stop media assault on the integrity of Catholicism.

The reasons are really not that hard to understand. The Church is not a cult of personality. When I became Catholic, I was not committing myself to the integrity of this or that Catholic leader. I was joining myself to a communion of saints and sinners that extends backwards in time to the Church’s foundation and forward to the end of time. It encompasses all the faithful joined to Christ, living and dead. In heaven, purgatory, and on earth. When I became Catholic, I knew that in some ways I was shaking hands with St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) or St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) more than with some abusive priest in Boston.  Ultimately, I was seeking to join myself to Christ. For as St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “He who beholds the Church really beholds Christ.”

Since the late 1980s, more and more Protestant clergy, leaders, and intellectuals have embraced the Catholic Church. This is something the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus predicted in his book The Catholic Moment: the Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. (1990) Neuhaus saw clearly that only the Catholic Church had the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual resources necessary to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. Writer Joseph Bottum has explored how this has played out since Neuhaus, how Catholic ideas and influence have come to dominate religious discourse in the public sphere. (See his new book An Anxious Age: the Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.) Historian Philip Jenkins explains that anti-Catholicism has become the last acceptable prejudice precisely because Catholicism represents the leading opponent to secularism, relativism, and atheism. (See his book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.)

This last point is worth emphasizing. One reason for the all-out media frenzy against the Church is that the Church represents the most articulate, well-reasoned, thoughtful response to the errors of atheism and relativism. This is not to deny that Catholics have done things deserving censure. But the sins of Catholics do not merit the disproportionate attention they receive in the media. Can you imagine the public outcry that would result if PBS published a hit piece on the sins of ….. ?  (Fill in the blank with the name of any politically-protected constituency.)  No, the Catholic Church remains a target because she reserves the right to speak with boldness to the whole of man’s existence, and she does so with a loud voice.

Even within the world of Protestant thought and culture, more and more leaders have come to realize that they must rely on the leadership and spiritual patrimony of Catholicism in order to confront the contemporary crisis. Protestant historian and theologian Mark Noll believes that contemporary Protestantism is impoverished, and sees at least a selective return to Catholic tradition as the answer. In an article for First Things, Noll writes:

Whenever evangelicals in recent years have been moved to admonish themselves and other evangelicals for weaknesses in ecclesiology, tradition, the intellectual life, sacraments, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, or historical consciousness, the result has almost always been selective appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition.

Catholicism offers a profound tradition of moral reasoning, a visible and audible Magisterium that can speak this tradition to the world, a sacramental holiness that transcends the merits or failings of any individual, and the witness of two-thousand years of saints and martyrs. There is nothing like it anywhere.

I don’t expect all Catholics to be perfect. (I’m sure not.) But the Church expects me to be perfectible. I didn’t join the Church because Catholics are all sinless, but in order to get rid of my sins. Oscar Wilde once said that the Catholic Church is “for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”  Today, the Church may not be respectable in the eyes of the world. It certainly is not respectable to PBS. But to millions of us converts, it offers things far more valuable: the truth about our origin and destiny in God, and a credible claim to deliver that destiny.  Through the Church we have received grace – faith, hope, and charity through Our Lord Jesus Christ.