By Erich Wallace
I hope you are well in the midst of such crazy times between the Coronavirus, the greater awareness of racial injustice in the world after the death of George Floyd, and the protesting and rioting that has since ensued. I began writing this blog before the death of Floyd and the protests that have followed, but I hope the words in it will spur us on to see each other as God sees us: equal before Him as imperfect people who are loved perfectly regardless of our race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other thing we may use to divide ourselves. I hope we will be encouraged to lay our lives down for each other as Christ did for us on the cross rather than to perpetuate hate and violence. That being said, the topic I am seeking to tackle this month is: “Why did Jesus Christ need to become a man and die on a cross?” The answer to this question is a complex one and ultimately a mystery, but I do believe there are some answers that can help us to better understand it and to grow in our love for Him and each other. The five main reasons I have found that Jesus Christ became man and died on a cross were (1) to take on the death that we brought on ourselves through sin so we might have eternal life, (2) to free us from the condition of being under the power of sin that we might grow in holiness and become like God, (3) to demonstrate his love for us by experiencing human suffering that we might know we have a God who we can relate to, (4) to give us an example of how we should live our lives, and (5) to show us that suffering is not meaningless. Let’s go!
To understand why Jesus had to die to take on our death, we must go back in time, long before Jesus walked the earth, to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve dwelled with God in harmony. We must look at where death came from: original sin. God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the Garden and over the animals that lived there; and they were to cultivate the Garden, to draw on its resources for their survival, and to be fertile and multiply. 1 All that they needed to survive and thrive was there, but God also put in the Garden the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and told Adam and Eve not to eat from it because “the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”2 We all know what happens next: yeah, they ate from the dang tree, and let’s face it, you and I would have, too. I can’t remember the last time I turned down a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, let alone the delicious looking fruit from a tree of knowledge of good and evil.
But, if Adam and Eve could die from eating from the tree, why would God put it there in the first place? And why would eating from it lead to death? God put the tree there to give humans free will, and I would like to quote C.S. Lewis as to why God would give us such a privilege:
“Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”3
Wow. Why don’t ya take a year or twenty to meditate on that sucker? I can wait…
But for real, why would Adam and Eve die by eating from the tree? That’s a little drastic, isn’t it? What the Scriptures are talking about here, though, is not only a physical death, but a spiritual one as well; i.e., a separation from God. You see, if we separate ourselves from God, we die because God is the source of life itself. Like in John 15: “I am the vine, you are the branches…” 4 What happens when you cut a branch off of the vine? It dies. Adam and Eve’s sin led to their death because it severed their relationship with God, creating a chasm between them and Him that they could not themselves restore because they were now imperfect, and God is perfect. Like a basketball player who shoots 100% for his/her first four games and then shoots 9/10 in their 5th game. No matter how many more shots they shoot and make for the rest of their season, they can no longer reach a 100% shooting percentage because they had that one miss. So what now? Are Adam, Eve, and we just done for good and totally unable to be in relationship with God anymore? No! Sins can be forgiven and relationships restored, but according to the Scriptures, only by the shedding of blood and death. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,”5 and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans says that “The wages of sin is death.”6 This is where sacrifice comes in and how we can start to understand Jesus’ sacrifice and death.
Sacrifice is something that is common to most religions throughout time, and the Jewish religion is no exception. Most people know that animals were sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people in Judaism. There were different types of sacrifices, but the way that bloody sacrifices that were performed to atone for sin worked was that the sinner would have to select an animal from their flock, typically a ram or a lamb, that was unblemished and without defect (because it was to take the blemishes and defects of the sinner upon itself); they would lead it to the altar of burnt offerings in the outer court of the Temple before the Lord; they would confess their sins, place their hands on the head of the animal to signify transferring their sins to it, and then proceed to slay it by making a deep cut into its throat. The next part is where the atonement really happened though; the priest would catch the blood of the animal (because blood was very sacred and represented life) in a bowl of some sort and then sprinkle it on the altar or on the people themselves. The blood would cover where the transgressor had figuratively placed his/her soul or the transgressor themself, forgive them of their sins, free them from the death which they brought upon themselves, and restore them to life.7 Does this sound familiar? Think of John the Baptist’s famous line: “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”8 He is speaking of Jesus. Jesus was to become the lamb that was sacrificed so that his blood might take away our sins, free us from death, and restore our relationship with God and only through His death was this possible because He was God, and He was unblemished, i.e. without sin. Before moving on from this though, I want to clarify a point on this in regard to something called Satisfaction Theology.
Satisfaction theology is a theory from medieval theologian St. Anselm of Canterbury that states that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice sufficient to satisfy the just demand of God the Father in relation to the sins of the human race but which has been interpreted by many to say that Jesus’ death was rather to satisfy the wrath of God which was stored up against the human race as if he were some “tin-pot dictator whose offended honor had to be restored, or a raging alcoholic parent whose anger needed to be quieted at all costs.”9 If this were the case, Protestant theologian N.T. Wright says John 3:16 would be heard more as: “‘For God so hated the world that he killed His only son,”10 not “For God so loved the world that He sent His only son.’” Bishop Robert Barron states on this topic:
“The Incarnation was not prompted by a desire for retribution, and the cross does not result in the restoration of a disturbed divine psyche. Rather, from beginning to end, God’s activity in Christ was marked, through and through, by love.” 11
St. Augustine said, “God’s merciful love is the cause, not the result of the satisfaction.”12 So yes, there is a truth that our sin does deserve a just death because God is perfectly just, but it is not that He is a bitter, visceral being who can’t deal with being wronged in a mature way. He is a God of love who desires our good and whose mercy triumphs over judgment. This is why He sent Jesus to die and to take on the death that we deserve because we chose death through our sins, and He wants to see us restored to life. Saying that, though, Jesus’ death not only takes on our death; it also gives us freedom from the power of sin and allows us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow in holiness and to become like God here on earth.
St. Athanasius said it well in the fourth century: “The Son of God became man, so that man might become God.”13 However, there is something in the way: the original sin of Adam and Eve left a stain on all of humanity which makes us concupiscent, a theological word which means to be drawn to earthly things (i.e., wealth, power, pleasure, and honor). We have a desire for God but are not naturally inclined towards filling ourselves with him, so we turn to selfishness, lust, overeating, overspending, not sharing, lying for our own gain, revenge, anger, and the list goes on, to satisfy us, ultimately always ending up in frustration.14 But Christ’s death on the cross not only overcame sin and death, but it also overcame the grip these powers have on us that enslave us.15 In short, Christ’s death has given us the ability to be free: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”16
If you have listened to any Catholic or Christian speaker in the last ten years, you know that the way secular society defines freedom is much different than the way God does. Society’s definition of freedom is to be able to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants to. Freedom in Christ is possessing the ability to control one’s desires and to say “no” to things that will be harmful and “yes” to things that will contribute to one’s good and the good of the Kingdom of God. In short, freedom is being able to say “yes” to the will of God without reserve through the power of the Holy Spirit. An example of the different kinds of freedom: an alcoholic may very well be free to go to the bar every night until 2am and drink as much as the bartender will serve them, but are they able to say “no” to their desires to drink? Are they able to skip the bar and go home and spend time with their family, or to go a whole day without needing a drink to steady their hands? Unlikely. They are not free. They are enslaved to their desires, much like you and I are, whether it be the inability to say “no” to those Peanut Butter Oreos before bed, to the fear of making a commitment, or to the worry of what people think of us (speaking for a friend). These too are why Christ died on the Cross and rose again. St. Anselm said, “The Son of God went all the way to the bottom of the muck of human dysfunction in order to recover the diamond (the image of God in us) and polish it to a shine.”17 Not only did Christ’s death on the Cross free us from death, it overcame the power of sin in our lives that we might grow in holiness and “become God.”
The last few major reasons why I believe Jesus became man and died on the cross are: to experience human suffering and show us that we have a God we can relate to, to give us an example of how to live, and to therefore make sense of our sufferings here on earth.
“If God is only divine, He can’t touch us; if only human, he can’t save us,” says Bishop Barron in his reflections on the Stations of the Cross.18 He is not a distant God who is far off, barking commands while not lifting a finger, but He is rather the best kind of leader who demonstrates his words through example. He allowed himself to experience the fragility of humanity and to be tempted as we are: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our sufferings, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.”19 He refrained from sinning because He knew if He sinned, His sacrifice on the Cross would be meaningless because He would no longer be an unblemished lamb. But because He experienced suffering, temptation, and the depth of human pain and dysfunction in His passion (His suffering and death), we know that He truly understands what we’re going through in our pain and suffering. We know that when we go to Him in prayer, He is near.
He also came into our humanity to show us how to live. He gave us directives in the Sermon on the Mount where he told us to be poor in spirit; that when we mourn, we will be comforted; to be meek; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be merciful, pure of heart, and peacemakers; and that if we are persecuted for following him, our reward will be great in heaven.20 He showed us that the greatest among us are not the ones who hold high positions and have great wealth, yet they rather are those who serve.21 He said that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for their friends, and then he did it.22
Lastly, God became man to show us that our sufferings are not without merit and that we are never alone in them. God does not prevent all suffering. This is evident because the world is full of it. But he did not spare his only-begotten Son of suffering, and He promised that He would be with us always, even until the end of time.23 The struggle to make sense of evil and suffering is the best argument against Christianity, but God shows us that suffering does not have the last word. He has gone before us into it, is with us in it, and that even though we are experiencing suffering now, we will not suffer forever if we give our lives to Him.24 He also allows us to unite our sufferings to His suffering on the cross and to offer it up for the good of others as a prayer. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”25 Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul Institute of Divine Mercy says this on the topic:
“St. Paul did not mean to say that there was something inadequate in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for our sins: what is ‘lacking’ is only enough Christians who are willing to serve and to suffer to bring the fruits of His redemptive love to others: through evangelism, through charitable action and through suffering.”
Therefore, suffering is not without meaning. It can be more meaningful than anything else on earth if done in union with Christ and offered up for the salvation and good of others. Pfewf! That was a lot!
To conclude, Jesus Christ becoming man, living life on earth, being killed on a Cross, and rising from the dead are the most important events in history. Everything revolves around them, and I hope you can see more clearly why God did what He did: to take on our death and open up the door to eternal life for us, to free us from the power of sin that we might become like God, and to show us that He is near to us, how we should live our lives, and that our suffering is not without merit. However, after all that, even though it seems we may know a lot about why Jesus had to become man and die on the wretched Cross, I would be remiss if I did not quote St. Anselm one more time as my hero Bishop Barron does and say, “Whatever man may know on this subject, there will always remain deeper reasons that are beyond him.”26
My prayer is that through these words you may experience the love of Christ more deeply by understanding what He has done for you.
God bless you all,
1 Genesis 1:26, 28-30
2 Genesis 2:17
3 Quote by CS Lewis: “God created things which had free will. That me…”
4 John 15:1-7
5 Hebrews 9:22
6 Romans 6:23
7 Sacrifice, Why did God require animal sacrifices in the Old Testament?,
8 John 1:29
9 The Cross of Jesus: God’s awful work of love – CNA Columns: Bishop Robert Barron
10 NT Wright: Christus victor vs penal substitution atonement // Premier Christianity
11 The Cross of Jesus: God’s awful work of love – CNA Columns: Bishop Robert Barron
12Doctrine of the Atonement
13 Are We Gods?
14 Quote by Robert Barron: “One of the most fundamental problems in the spi…”
15 NT Wright: Christus victor vs penal substitution atonement // Premier Christianity
16 Galatians 5:1
18 Word on Fire Show, podcast episode 226, Stations of the Cross w/ Bishop Barron, April 6, 2020
19 Hebrews 4:15
20 Matthew 5:3-12
21 Matthew 23:11
22 John 15:13
23 Matthew 28:20
24 John 16:33
25 Colossians 1:24