Was it absolutely necessary for Jesus to be brutally crucified on a Roman cross in order to redeem humankind? Could God have chosen some other way? Perhaps. But I cannot think of a better way.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
14 April 2019
It is Palm Sunday. On this day the Church recalls the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem to accomplish his Paschal Mystery—the saving passion, death and resurrection of our Lord. Imagine how Jesus must have felt as he entered the city on a donkey: Any joy would be tempered by fear. He knew some of the Pharisees, scribes, chief priest and the Sanhedrin were plotting his death. He knew that his final hour had arrived. Darkness would prevail—for a time. All too soon, he would be arrested, persecuted in a mock trial under the leadership of the high priest Caiaphas, spat on, beaten, and mocked. He would be scourged from head to heal and left on the brink of death by Roman soldiers at the command of Pilate. He would be mockingly robed in purple and hailed as “King” by his enemies. And he would be condemned to a criminal’s death by crucifixion—the most brutal, heinous form of execution ever devised by man.
Have you ever asked the question, was it necessary for Jesus to die that way? Was his crucifixion required?
St. Thomas teaches that the crucifixion of Jesus was necessary, but not absolutely. God could have chosen to redeem humankind and open the way of salvation through some other means. But God chose what he chose. Why? St. Thomas teaches that the crucifixion of Christ was necessary in the sense that it was most fitting. To understand this, we’ll have to go back to the dawn of time.
Recall that first Eve then Adam sinned gravely against God in the Edenic Paradise. They transgressed the limits of human freedom seriously, in such a way so as to attempt to install themselves as gods without God. We call this first sin “original sin.” There are a lot of bad things that happened as a result of it. Original holiness and justice was lost, human death entered the world, and all of Adam and Eve’s posterity (that’s us) are now deprived of sanctifying grace, to name a few. This last bad effect is probably the worst of all. Why? Because it meant that humankind could not inherit heaven.
The damage was severe. Eternal life in communion with God and the possibility for heavenly glory was lost.
Every sin, in a sense, is an infinite offense against God. Every sin, no matter how small it may be, is contrary to God’s infinite and perfect goodness. It is easy to see that humankind itself could not possibly repair the damage of all of its slight yet giant sins against Almighty God. It was impossible for us to repair the damage and restore the relationship.
If God were to simply ignore our sins and, with a wave of his divine hand, proclaim all forgiven, it wouldn’t work out too well. It would not repair or restore anything but rather paper it over. It would be treating the just and the unjust the same. It would be to ignore the differences in the gravity of sin. It would make God himself unjust to do such a thing. And acting with injustice is something God can never do.
We needed a redeemer. But a mere man could not possibly reconcile humankind with God. So, God had to act.
The Son of God was sent on a mission into the world, where he became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Son of God assumed an individual human nature to himself and became man while yet remaining fully God. The incarnate Son of God—born Jesus of Nazareth in the little village of Bethlehem—took on flesh and, in doing so, raised us into the heavens. The incarnation of the Son of God is the first moment of our redemption. But it is not the last moment.
To complete his mission, Jesus Christ voluntarily offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sin, offering his human will in perfect and loving obedience to the will of God the Father. This he did out of perfect love. Love for the Father and love for his brethren. Jesus accomplished what no mere man could. As Pope St. John Paul II taught, God brought his justice to bear on sin through divine love—and the instrument he chose was the cross. Although the cross is an instrument of torture, it became, by Jesus’ perfect act of love, an instrument of love, redemption and salvation.
Jesus offered himself out of love. No, God did not punish the innocent Jesus in our place, for that, too, would make God unjust; but rather God chose the perfect offering of love to reconcile us to himself. And his Son willingly chose the same, for God is one. God is Love.
Christ crucified has left kings, rulers and lords speechless. Christ crucified shakes us at the foundations of our being. It proves God’s immense, indescribable love for his children in a singularly unique, uncompromising, and astonishing way. Christ crucified changes us. It remakes us. He redeems us.
All humankind—past present and future—is redeemed before God the Father by the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Our Lord Jesus has paid the price for sin. He has opened the way to salvation.
But not everyone is saved. While all are redeemed, salvation is a different matter.
Jesus himself makes it clear that only a few, those who pass through the narrow gate, will attain eternal life:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
What must we do to be saved? Contrary to what some of our Protestant brethren teach, salvation is not a “one time, once and for all” event. Salvation is not automatic and made forever certain by saying, “Lord, you are my personal savior.” That it’s a little more complex than that is itself what scripture teaches:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Mt 7:21-23)
Jesus’ saving passion, death and resurrection opens the gates of heaven; it opens the way of salvation and makes it possible. But we must appropriate this priceless gift to ourselves. How do we do that?
Repent, be baptized (see 1 Pet 3:21; Mt 28:19; Mk 16:16; Acts 2:38), have faith in Christ and cooperate with his grace all the days of your life. Live the life of holiness and virtue. Live out the life of public worship in the community of the Church as a member of Christ’s body. Attend Mass each and every Sunday and other holy days of obligation. Receive the Eucharist—the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ—in a state of grace, worthily, as we find St. Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 11:27 ff. Live as an intentional, committed disciple, not a part-time, lackadaisical Christian who presumes on heavenly glory without merit, on the life of unending happiness and love without sacrifice, on eternal life apart from the Cross of Life.
If we should fall into mortal sin (grave sin committed with knowledge and full consent), then at that moment we have lost sanctifying grace and eternal life. At that moment our relationship with God is destroyed and our soul is in peril. What’s the solution? It’s very simple and easy, actually. It’s called the sacrament of Confession. This sacrament of forgiveness restores our relationship with God and Church, it confers the gift of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace, it makes us once again whole and integrates us into the body of Christ. A good confession transforms one from lost to saved, from wicked to saint.
The goal is a personal, intimate relationship of communion with Christ, for he is the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). If that is where we’re at, if we are in him, then we can be assured our hope in the promises of Christ will be realized.
Did Jesus have to die a brutal death on a Roman cross? Could God have redeemed and saved us in some other way?
St. Thomas says, “yes.” God could have saved us in some other way.
But there could be no better way.
No other way that clearly communicates the astonishing level of love God has for his lost children is possible. God chose the best way. He chose the way that would capture our attention, shake us at our foundations, move us to repentance, and prove without question his indescribable love.
Christ crucified is the greatest possible sign of God’s love. But it’s not simply a sign. It’s a reality. A saving reality.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.