One of the hardest group of people to evangelize to Catholicism isn’t atheists, but agnostics. Atheists, after all, at least start out believing in objective truth; they firmly believe that objectively, there is no God. Harder to pin down are agnostics, who may or may not believe in God and may or may not believe he’s part of our lives if He does exist.
There’s another type of agnostic, though, and that’s the person who yearns to believe, but struggles to embrace the seemingly grotesque truth about our faith: that God donned humanity, grew up among us, and then allowed himself to be tortured to death to redeem us. All so we have the chance to be with him for eternity after death. This truth, which is second-nature to the believer, is a lot to swallow, especially if you didn’t grow up in a Christian family. I remember sitting in RCIA a decade ago as our priest explained these things to me. I thought then, “Wow! Who needs drugs when you can just trip on this mind-blowing Catholic stuff?”
Then about a year ago, my husband and I had an agnostic friend ask us two questions, which reminded me again of my time in RCIA:
1. Why couldn’t God forgive humans without subjecting an innocent person (Jesus) to horrific suffering?
2. If a price had to be paid for all the bad things humans ever did in the past, present, and future, why would the death and suffering of one being be enough to pay for so many sins?
In other words, “Why the Cross?”
Could God have forgiven us without subjecting Jesus to the Cross? Of course. And though we can’t know all the reasons God elected to redeem humanity this way, we can guess at a few good reasons he thought this was the perfect way to accomplish redemption.
The primary reason, undoubtedly, was to show us his great love for us: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” In our culture, we bandy about the word “love,” but there are different kinds of love. There is sexual love (eros), family love (storge), and brotherly love (philos). The highest form of love is self-sacrificial love, or agape. This is the highest and most perfect expression of love.
To show us what agape is, Jesus gave his own life to redeem us. Agape requires self-sacrifice; there is simply no way you can say you love someone but not be willing to sacrifice for their benefit. People try, but we intuitively sense that love is properly and most fully expressed through actions, not words.
Could God have just infused the knowledge of his love for us into our minds? Yes. But by entering the steam of time, living as one of us, and giving us the perfect example of agape on the Cross, he enables us to freely choose to believe—or not. God is the consummate gentleman and he will not force himself on anyone. If he “beamed” the truth into our brains or wrote it across the sky, our free will would arguably be overwhelmed and diminished. The Cross, while strongly compelling, enables us to accept the truth or not. To accept his love or not.
As for why it had to be graphic and extreme…keep in mind that although God used Jesus’s suffering and death to accomplish redemption, the Cross was not HIS instrument of torture—it was ours. To ask why God “had to” subject Jesus to that suffering forgets that humans were ultimately culpable for Christ’s torture and death. God may have chosen to accomplish redemption through this suffering, but it doesn’t mean he’s responsible for it.
There could be many reasons why God chose to accomplish redemption through such a gory, hideous event:
- For God to take on a body, then have that body tortured, conveys that he shares our suffering, our loneliness.
Compassion means “to suffer with.” It’s an enormous comfort to know that no matter what I suffer in life, I can go to Jesus (God) and he will have compassion for me because he himself endured it, too. How many of us feel closest to the friend who has shared our suffering? Or conversely, feels bereft and lonely when we realize someone without our particular experience just does not “get” what we’ve endured?
2. The Cross conveys the strength of God’s love for us, to see him innocently suffer and die that way.
Say you are sentenced to die and a person steps forward to take your place. This alone would express agape for you. But that love would be conveyed more forcefully if the person volunteered for a particularly gruesome death. If he took your place in front of a firing squad, he loves you. If he takes your place on a cross, he really loves you. If he takes your place on a cross after a full day of extreme torture, he REALLY loves you. See the difference?
3. The torture and death of Jesus symbolize the horror of sin and that truth could not be conveyed symbolically through a more palatable event.
We hear of suffering all over the world and we weep for the victims of sin, especially those who are victimized by others’ sin. But the horror we see in this world, as hideous and dark as it is, is still but a veneer of the true spiritual ravages of sin.
In the book, Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans, author Malachi Martin describes a priest who had been sent by the bishop to exorcise another priest. The possessed priest had opened himself to demonic influence by participating in New Age practices. The exorcist, however, suffered his own doubts about the faith; he fancied himself an intellectual and over time, had decided the Church was wrong about this or that. Jesus said if the blind lead the blind, they’ll both fall into a pit. Which is why the exorcist soon found himself fighting off his own possession.
The description in the book is the perfect example of how little we understand the true horror of sin. To the other people in the room, the exorcist appeared to be a priest on his knees, praying fervently. Yet his soul was engaged in the most horrific, agonizing conflict with the demon. He suffered profound spiritual pain and anguish as the demon tortured him with his lack of faith and pride. The priest ultimately fought off the possession, but not without unimaginable spiritual scars.
In his mercy, God and his holy angels protect us from the most profound consequences of sin in this life. It can be easy to become casual about our sin–until we look at the Cross. And not the sanitized versions that hang in our churches, but Jesus as we saw him in The Passion: an innocent man beaten, tortured, humiliated, and nailed to a tree out of human apathy, envy, and hatred. Even that grisly Cross, however, did not fully represent the horror of what Jesus endured because of our sins.
But really, how could just one death–even Christ’s grisly, torturous murder–pay the penalty for all sins for all time? It has to do with dignity: When we offend God, we offend a being whose dignity is beyond measure. Think about the difference between kicking a dog and kicking a person. Which has the greater dignity? Consequently, which offense would require more to make amends and satisfy justice? The greater the dignity of the person we offend, the greater penalty justice demands to set that offense to rights. Our laws reflect this, which is why we have stiffer penalties for someone who murders a person versus killing an animal (abortion excepted, of course).
Not only does God have an immeasurable, incomparable dignity, but he’s infinite. Thus, justice would demand that we make infinite amends to God. The best way to look at this is to imagine that when we offend God, we offend a person who goes on forever, for all eternity.
How could we ever be finished making amends if God never ends? This is why only God himself–Jesus–could truly pay the penalty for human sin. We are finite creatures without the ability to truly make satisfaction for offending the infinite God. Jesus, however, possesses both a human and a divine nature.
What we saw happen on the Cross represents a mere shadow, a powerful but still ultimately weak symbol, if you will, of the suffering Christ took on to atone for the sins of all mankind. If you’ve ever endured grief, you know what I mean. Externally, friends and loved ones see a grieving person whose tear-stained, wrecked face conveys her sorrow. But spiritually, they cannot begin to comprehend the depths of your pain. It was the same on the Cross: As terrible as it was, the physical pain Our Lord endured paled in comparison to the overwhelming spiritual horror of sin he took on himself to redeem us.
The human part of Christ naturally feared the pain he would endure during his Passion and death. But it wasn’t just the physical pain he endured that made the infinite satisfaction necessary to reconcile us to God, but also the spiritual pain he endured when his divine nature made infinite atonement for our sins.
Each time you look at the Cross, remember: Our Lord endured unimaginable physical and spiritual pain because he loves you immeasurably. Why the Cross? One word: love. As Catholic convert Scott Hahn said so beautifully, “Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe, because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”