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?
One 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)