Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? - Catholic Courier

Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?

Q. I have been a Catholic all my life, but I have never really understood why Jesus had to die for our sins. Couldn’t God have just forgiven us? (Eagan, Minnesota)

A. Your question is one that has occupied theologians over the entire history of Christianity. I side with your position: God is God, and he could have done anything he wanted.

What is clearly the church’s teaching (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 615) is that “Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” But whether that atonement had to occur in the way that it did has been a matter of theological debate.

One theory, sometimes referred to as “substitution,” “satisfaction” or “ransom” theology, was championed by St. Anselm in the 11th century.

He believed that Christ’s sacrificial death was necessary in order to liberate humanity from sin and restore communion with the Father, that the blood of Jesus was “payment” to God for human sin. (The manner of Christ’s death reflected Old Testament sacrifices, where a lamb was burnt in offering and then later consumed by the worshippers.)

Anselm’s theology prevailed, even though it was challenged by scholars such as Peter Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm, who insisted that Christ’s death on the cross had been an act of love, not payment.

Even St. Augustine, 700 years before, had reservations and asked in his De Trinitate: “Is it necessary to think that being God, the Father was angry with us, saw his son die for us and thus abated his anger against us?”

A fair number of modern-day scholars, too, find the satisfaction theology bothersome because of the way it images God. What kind of loving God, they argue, would demand such horrific suffering from his own Son in order to secure divine justice?

What seems to me a reasonable explanation is this: God decided to send Jesus to live among us, to be fully human so that he could teach us and show us the ways of the Lord. Once he became human, death was inevitable; and because his teaching challenged both the religious and secular authorities of his day, a violent death was likely.

So we are, in fact, redeemed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but we are not compelled to believe that God deliberately willed the suffering of his Son. Jesus asked at Emmaus (Lk 24:26): “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Yes, it was necessary — but not because God willed it to happen exactly in that way.

Q. Recent polls indicate that some 70 percent of Catholics in the United States (and 66 percent in Ireland) do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but rather a symbolic presence.

I happen to be one of them. I am Jesuit-educated, and I have written to my pastor with my question but have been greeted with stone silence. If these polls are even halfway true, why is this elephant in the room never addressed or even mentioned in church? Are we all condemned to hell for this belief? (Duxbury, Massachusetts)

A. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are not determined by plebiscite. That is to say, what is fundamental in determining the core content of the Catholic faith is not how people feel, but what Jesus said. And for that, we go to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Jesus has just multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed 5,000 people, and the crowds are in awe. The very next day, Jesus says something that turns out to be very controversial (Jn 6:35, 51): “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” People are shocked and ask: “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).

Even his followers are horrified. Christ has every opportunity to pull back and explain. “Wait,” he might have said, “I was only speaking figuratively.”

Instead, he presses the point, watching as people start to drift away: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:54-56).

Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus reaffirms this teaching in language that is virtually identical.

Polling data varies widely regarding this teaching. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, found in a 2011 survey that 63 percent of adult Catholics believe that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

But as I said at the start, polling data is largely irrelevant, except to this extent (as your question suggests): If a fair number of Catholics do not subscribe to a long-held and central article of faith, the church should doubtless do more to proclaim and explain that teaching.

As to your last line, about the consequences of not believing, one thing is certain: No one is going to hell who sincerely follows the dictates of his own properly formed conscience. So why worry about that? Why not focus instead on determining what Jesus taught?


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com.

 

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