Every Good Friday, the question is raised again, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
A common answer, though not really the Catholic answer, says that Jesus is a substitute victim, an innocent, and infinitely holy person, the Son of God, who suffers the punishment which sinners deserve in their place, and thereby frees them from this just punishment they deserve. He thus allows them to receive a reward of eternal life they do not deserve. God the Father, being infinitely just, demands a sacrifice for sin, but also being infinitely merciful, sends His Son, Jesus, to offer the only sacrifice that could pay that infinite debt.
To many people skeptical of the Christian gospel, this makes no sense, and seems to show that God is cruel and arbitrary in dealing with offenses against himself, as well as being abusive toward His Son. It is reasonably asked, could not God just forgive our offenses, as he asks us to do to those who offend us? As anyone might, in mercy, turn the other cheek, or cancel a debt owed to themselves, it seems God could simply not be offended by an offensive act. And if God cannot simply cancel and forgive the injury to his infinite dignity, but satisfaction must be made for it, it is not clear how a third-party might provide the satisfaction for an offence committed by someone else. For, while one might justly pay for damage caused by another’s actions as when I was a boy and my father paid for a car window that I shot out with a bb gun, or a kind benefactor could pay a traffic fine or gambling debt for another. Judicial, punitive sentences imposed on the person of wrongdoers are not transferable. A good and just God cannot just declare the punishment imposed as a personal sentence on one or all people as having been satisfied by substituting one prisoner for another, just as nobody’s father can go to prison or be executed in the place of his son. To many a skeptic, it is unfathomable how it is supposed to be an act of justice for the innocent Son of God to bear the punishment of death in the place of disobedient human beings.
The Catholic position, as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, contends that the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not strictly necessary. God could have forgiven and redeemed us in some other way unknown to us. But, the cross of Christ is how God did choose to do it, and there are good reasons for it.
To be sure, Catholics believe that Jesus did suffer for our sins, and by his suffering, we are redeemed. But the cross of Christ does this as manifesting God’s love for us, as showing forth in a profound and supremely appropriate way the forgiveness God does wish to give freely. And further, Jesus’ suffering and death redeems and sanctifies humanity, for by it he realizes in his own human nature perfect love and obedience to the Father, and he becomes the means by which all who have faith in him can share in this perfect love and obedience.
In order to see how the cross is redemptive in a way that is not a substitutionary punishment, one needs to consider what we need redemption from. In his original plan for us, God made us for love, and not in just a human way, but as he loves, to share in his life in the Trinity of Love. That is heaven: loving God in the way God loves, and loving everything else God loves in the manner that He does: in the total self-giving willing of good for the other. But we, the human race, are not capable of this kind of love on our own.
Moreover, we failed at the love we are capable of. This was the first sin, and from it, all of us have been infected so that none of us loves humanly as we should. So, we “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Humanity, then, was (and left to itself, is) an enemy of God. As enemies, none of us can do anything to make peace with God since the offence against God, who is infinitely good and holy, is infinite. God is willing to forgive every sin committed, but human beings (prior to being redeemed) are not capable being friends with God, of acting in obedience to him. The only one who could make peace would be a man already at peace with God, who would do it on behalf of other humans. This Divine Mediator, the man Jesus Christ, does not just suffer what we should suffer. But his suffering is done in love, in perfect obedience to the Father, and so he does what no fallen human is capable of doing.
Left to ourselves, there is an infinite gulf between humanity and God, and it is a kind of debt and punishment, but it is made up for, not by an innocent third-party being punished in our place, but by God himself, as a man, acting with the loving obedience all people ought to give to God. Jesus, the Eternal Son of the Father, and God made man, by his perfect obedience to the Father (an obedience unto death, death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)) restores humanity to friendship with God. And being God, he rightfully inherits a place in the Kingdom of his Father (i.e. heaven). Or put in terms of love, Jesus perfectly loves the Father and atones for the lovelessness of mankind, and being God, is able to fulfill the purpose for which God made humanity: Jesus is able to love as God loves forever in heaven.
Jesus’ loving obedience in accepting the cross is an act of love, the most dramatic and revelatory act of the love that is God, which transforms the very sin which inflicts that cruelty and violence on him. The Jewish leaders, the people of Jerusalem who reject him, the Roman authorities who cynically use him, the soldiers who beat and ridiculed him, his disciples who deserted him, all are manifestation of human sin: your sins, my sins. But Jesus accepted this rejection, abuse, isolation, betrayal, brutal violence and made out of this our sin, his loving act. He, as it were, absorbs hate and sin with his infinite love and obedience, and thereby changes it. He makes of a cross of torture and execution, a means of loving those who are torturing and executing him, a means of displaying for all the world and for all time how completely and profoundly God loves those whom he created. And without such terrible sin, God could not have manifested the depth of his forgiving love. He could and does forgive, but there is no forgiveness without sin to forgive, and the horror of the sin which nailed Jesus to the cross is fitting (if not strictly necessary) to manifest the sublimity of God’s love and his wish for mankind to share in a life of that love forever (which is what heaven is).
Further, the manner of manifesting God’s love also redeems humanity. The cross of Jesus reconciles sinners to God, for those who accept what Jesus does on their behalf, in faith, are incorporated into him and participate in his saving act. His life of obedience to the Father becomes the life of obedience for everyone who, as his disciple, places their faith and trust in him. As St. Paul says, “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). As he shares in our humanity, we share in his divinity, and are empowered by grace to love our enemies with supernatural love, and bear our crosses as his cross.
In this way, the whole of Jesus’s incarnation, but as culminated on the cross, is precisely how we come to be sharers is his divine life (2 Peter 1:4). Through the cross, through our sin and hate and selfishness and pride, God, in Jesus, loves us sinners into becoming his beloved children, brothers of the Eternal Son of God. The cross of Christ heals our estrangement from God, not by satisfying the blood requirement of a vengeful deity, but by fulfilling on our behalf the plan and purpose for which God created free creatures, capable but failing of human love. Not only does Jesus’ sacrificial love overcome our failure to love, through faith and being incorporated into him himself, as members of his very body, we become sanctified and by his grace love with a super-human, divine love – the very Love between the Father and the Son which is the God’s own inner life, the life of the Holy Trinity.