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Fr Flader Q&A: Christ’s death, our Redemption

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A detail of Christ Crucified, by 17th Century artist Diego Velázquez. The painting is now held in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Photo: ©Museo Nacional del Prado

“Dear Father, why did Christ choose to die on the cross in order to redeem us? Couldn’t he have redeemed us in some other less painful way?

I was very happy when you, a primary school girl, asked me this question. It reveals an understanding of the need for redemption and also a love for Christ, in not wanting him to have had to suffer for our sake.

The answer to your question is simple. No, Christ did not need to die in order to redeem us. But we did need to be redeemed. As a result of the original sin of Adam and Eve, mankind had incurred, so to speak, a debt before God and man alone could never have repaid the debt. God had to cancel it. Mankind had offended God by original sin, and only God could forgive it.

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But God could have cancelled the debt in many ways. It was up to him. He could have sent a legion of angels, with the blaring of trumpets and flashing of lights, to declare mankind redeemed of sin and the debt cancelled.

St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, in answer to the question of whether it was necessary for Christ to suffer for the deliverance of the human race, says that there are several meanings of the word “necessary”. “In one way it means anything which of its nature cannot be otherwise; and in this way it is evident that it was not necessary either on the part of God or on the part of man for Christ to suffer”.

A little later in that same article St Thomas goes on to say that neither was there any necessity of compulsion for Christ to die on the cross for our redemption: “It was not necessary, then, for Christ to suffer from necessity of compulsion, either on God’s part, who ruled that Christ should suffer, or on Christ’s own part, who suffered voluntarily” (STh III, q. 46, art. 1).

In the following article St Thomas raises the question of whether there was any other possible way of human deliverance besides the Passion of Christ. He answers by quoting St Augustine: “We assert that the way whereby God deigned to deliver us by the man Jesus Christ, who is mediator between God and man, is both good and befitting the divine dignity; but let us also show that other possible means were not lacking on God’s part, to whose power all things are equally subordinate” (St Augustine, De Trin. xiii; STh III, q. 46, art. 2). St Thomas comments that “speaking simply and absolutely, it was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than by the Passion of Christ, because ‘no word shall be impossible with God’” (Lk 1, 37; STh III, q. 46, art. 2). St Thomas also says: “God could have liberated mankind solely by his Divine will” (STh III, q. 46, art. 3).

If then it was not necessary for Christ to undergo his Passion, why did God choose this way to redeem us? St Thomas explains that it was fitting that it be this way: “That man should be delivered by Christ’s Passion was in keeping with both his mercy and his justice. With his justice, because by his Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race, and so man was set free by Christ’s justice; and with his mercy, for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, as was said above, God gave him his Son to satisfy for him” (STh III, q. 46, art. 1).

St Thomas goes on to explain that in Christ’s death on the Cross, many other things besides deliverance from sin resulted for our salvation: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return… Secondly, because thereby he set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation… Thirdly, because Christ by his Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss… Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin… Fifthly, because it redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death” (STh III, q. 46, art. 3).

In summary, while it was not strictly necessary for Christ to die on the Cross in order to redeem us, many great blessings came from his death and for that we should be very grateful.

Related:

Fr John Flader Q&A: Blessed Alexandrina da Costa

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