Part 15: Grand Finale on the Cross of Jesus

The following is the last installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

In the last two installments of this series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice, I have been inviting our readers to ponder more deeply the mystery of the Cross. Responding to some excellent feedback I received from two of our readers ("Jack" and "EJ"), what I have endeavored to show is that the "multi-dimensional mystery" of Christ's saving work, especially in His Passion and Death, needs to include (but is not limited to) the doctrine of "penal substitution": the doctrine that God in Christ, out of His merciful love for us, took upon Himself, in our place, the penalty due to our sins, so that, as St. Paul wrote: "Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1).

One of my favorite exponents of this aspect of Christ's saving work is St. Alphonsus Liguori. In his "Reflections and Affections on the Passion of Jesus Christ," he wrote:

The Son of God, the Lord of the universe, seeing that man was condemned to eternal death in punishment of his sins, chose to take upon himself human flesh, and thus to pay by his death the penalty due to man. ... "But how is this?" continues St. Augustine. How is it possible, O Saviour of the world, that Thy love has arrived at such a height that when I had committed the crime, Thou shouldst have to pay the penalty? "Whither has Thy love reached? I have sinned; Thou art punished." (Chapter 1)

Our loving Redeemer, having come into the world for no other end but that of saving sinners, and beholding the sentence of condemnation already recorded against us for our sins, what was it that he did? He, by his own death paid the penalty that was due to ourselves; and with his own blood cancelling the sentence of condemnation, in order that divine justice might no more seek from us the satisfaction due, he nailed it to the same cross whereon he died (Col 2:14) (Chapter 14)

Now, to finish this series, I will address, again, comments from my good dialogue partner Jack.

A while back you asked two excellent questions about the mystery of penal substitution, and I don't want to quit this series before attempting an answer to them. (This will take our readers even deeper into the theology of the Cross, for those who are brave enough to keep reading!)

1) In essence, you ask, if EJ and I agree with the many saints (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. John Paul II) that Christ offered to the Father a "super-abundant" satisfaction for sin (i.e., He more than made up for our sins, and in fact merited an infinite ocean of saving and sanctifying graces for us all), then how do we make sense of that on the penal substitution theory? You wrote: "Punishing a person more than is deserved is not 'super-abundant satisfaction,' it is cruelty." But you are assuming that EJ and I are pushing penal substitution alone as the complete explanation for everything that Christ accomplished that relates to Divine Justice. Not so.

To be sure, there is a mystery here that we cannot fully fathom. What I think we do know from Scripture and Tradition is that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23), both as an inevitable consequence and as a just punishment for sin. Thus, to betray God's infinite love (as every mortal sin does) on the scales of His commutative justice surely deserves a relatively infinite penalty: the penalty of irrevocable bodily death and everlasting spiritual death - that is, complete alienation from God (see my more detailed discussion of this matter in part 5 of this series). Jesus Christ substitutes Himself for us on the Cross by experiencing there in His body and soul - and thereby paying for us - the equivalent of that penalty, so that those who are in loving and faithful union with Him do not have to pay that penalty themselves. Our Savior's act of loving "penal substitution" takes care of our moral debt to God. When we are united to Him by repentance and faith, it clears our account and wins our pardon.

Nevertheless, a cancelling of debts and a full pardon for the past, on its own, still does not obtain for us all the graces we need to be fully sanctified and to merit everlasting life. Anyway, if suffering and dying for us was all that was needed to save us, then God could have saved the world simply by allowing His Divine Son Incarnate to be cut down in the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem!

Here, I think, is where the "satisfaction" theory of Christ's saving work comes in strong. Jesus not only died for us: He lived for us. From cradle to grave, He offered His whole life as one continuous act of love for His heavenly Father, and for us. Since this was an offering of a divine person in human flesh, it was a sacrifice well-pleasing to the Father, and its meritorious value before the scales of Divine Justice was infinite and super-abundant for its purpose. As a result, when we are spiritually united with Him through repentance and faith, we can receive all the graces we need for sanctification and eternal life. Indeed, by His whole-life offering, Christ has merited all the graces needed for the sanctification of the entire world and the coming of the new heavens and the new earth portrayed in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), the heavenly kingdom that abides forever.

Granted, this is still just a theory, not a defined doctrine of the Church. The Church has wisely refrained from issuing many detailed doctrinal statements on the various elements of Christ's saving work because the Atonement is, indeed, a "multi-dimensional mystery." She has therefore given Catholic theologians a degree of latitude to piece together the mosaic in different ways (and other Catholic theologians might want to integrate "penal substitution" and "satisfaction" theories somewhat differently than I have attempted to do here). Nevertheless, insofar as I have at least attempted an integration - as I think St. Thomas Aquinas also tried to do, in his own way - then it seems to me this is a more fully "Catholic" approach then opting either for satisfaction or penal substitution alone.

2) Jack, you also ask in what sense Jesus actually paid the penalty in our place that we deserve for sin. After all, you point out, by dying for us, Jesus does not actually take away from us the necessity of eventual bodily death (we die bodily anyway) and on the Cross He did not actually experience "spiritual death" ("the complete separation from God as experienced by the damned"). So, you rightly ask: In what sense did He really suffer the punishment for sin - "physical" and "spiritual death" - in our place?

Great questions!

First, with regard to bodily death: Yes, we all still have to suffer bodily and die (or almost all. In Scripture there seem to be some exceptions, such as Enoch, Elijah, and possibly Moses, according to the Jewish reading of the last chapter of Deuteronomy combined with the Transfiguration story in the New Testament). As a result of Christ's Passion and Death, however, our dying has been transformed, and it no longer has dominion over us. Christ suffered it in our place as a temporal punishment for sin, so that for those united with Him in the Holy Spirit, death is transformed into a refiners fire, a furnace of His sanctifying love.

For the followers of Christ in a state of grace, therefore, dying is no longer experienced primarily as a necessary and just punishment for sin. Rather, it has been transformed into a process that can purge our hearts of pride and self-sufficiency, so that we are finally enabled to "let go" and entrust our lives fully to our Lord, in penitence and faith. Our souls are thereby prepared for heaven, and any remaining "temporal punishment" due for our sins is remitted.

For the small number of Christ's disciples who have already attained, before the moment of death, a complete union in faith and love with the Heart of Jesus on the Cross, bodily death is no longer needed for such spiritual "purging" or to clear away any remaining "temporal punishment" for sin. As a result, their dying can be fully offered up in love, in union with the merits of Christ's Agony and Passion, as a co-redemptive offering for the needs of the Church and the whole world.

And at least for one of us, whose soul was always without any stain of original and actual sin, there was no necessity of death at all. She alone received the full benefit of the merits of the saving life and death of Jesus Christ.

As for Christ experiencing "spiritual death" for us: Indeed, He cannot experience an alienation from God that is the exact equivalent of eternal damnation (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 603). But I would argue that He experienced something in some ways even worse on the Cross, and thereby shared in a unique way in our "waywardness of sin" (CCC, 603).

The 20th century spiritual writer Simone Weil discussed this subject in depth in her writings. She argued that Christ entered into the very depths of human suffering on the Cross. In His Passion, Jesus underwent the three-fold abandonment that characterizes total human affliction: painful abandonment of His bodily life, abandonment by His friends, and seeming abandonment by God Himself. He even lost the sense of the presence of His heavenly Father at the very moment He most needed Him. Indeed, His affliction was even greater than ours could ever be, because His agony was that of a completely pure and righteous soul - conscious as neither Job nor the author of the Psalms of Lamentation could be of the seemingly inexplicable silence of God in the face of suffering and death. Hence, as He was dying, Jesus called out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"(Mk 15:34). Weil puts it this way:

There is no real affliction unless the event which has seized and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all of its parts, social, psychological and physical. ... Affliction constrained Christ to implore that he might be spared; to seek consolation from man; to believe he was forsaken by the Father. ... (Waiting on God. Routledge, and Kegan Paul, 1951, pp. 64-65)

Weil goes on to describe another aspect of such total affliction, which relates directly to our subject here:

Affliction hardens and discourages us because, like a red-hot iron, it stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust, and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement that crime logically should produce but actually does not. ... "Christ ... being made a curse for us." It was not only the body of Christ, hanging on the wood which was accursed, it was his soul also. In the same way every innocent being in his affliction feels himself accursed. (1977 Fount edition, pp. 80-81)

Weil roots this sense of being cast off by God in the realization that one suffers from some blind mechanism or unalterable set of circumstances of God's universe. Those innocently struck down by accident or disease suffer in this way. So do those trapped in the often blind, confused course of human events (such as wars, revolutions, etc.). Such total affliction, she says, makes one feel as worthless as a crushed worm. It cuts oneself off from all that had previously sustained and affirmed one's human dignity. And it includes the sense of being cast off by God because it is His universe that causes the affliction. In a similar way, Jesus experienced the utter absence of God on the Cross in His affective faculties and could only cry out in the darkness. But again, Jesus' sense of alienation from God at that moment was even greater than ours could ever be - even greater, in a sense, than that of the damned - because it happened to One who knew He had been utterly faithful to His Heavenly Father.

Moreover, as many of the saints teach, what inundated His soul with even greater sorrow was the foresight of how little His suffering would avail for so many, how many would refuse to believe and return His love despite His agony and Passion for them. The feeling of the absence of His heavenly Father in the face of these overwhelming afflictions must have been all the more painful because it was completely undeserved.

As I see it, this is the Cross of "spiritual death" or "alienation from God" that Jesus Christ bore for us and that remains ever before God's gaze for all eternity. Does it fall short of a real participation in the separation from God experienced by the damned? I don't think so. Our Lord's cry of abandonment on the Cross was certainly analogous to that sense of separation from God, and I would suggest, in some ways even more painful than that separation. Moreover, it was fitting as a work of atonement by "penal substitution," because a spiritual experience of alienation from God is what damned souls have induced in themselves, by their abandonment and betrayal of God's merciful love. Taken into the Sacred Heart, and offered up in love for us to the Father, this "spiritual crucifixion" of the Son of God fully compensates Divine Justice, pays the penalty we deserve, remits our mortal sins, and wins our pardon.

The Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen summed it up so well in his classic Life of Christ that I can think of no better way to close this series of articles than with his words (from Chapters 39 and 49):

Sinners can show a love for one another by taking the punishment which another deserves. But our Blessed Lord was not only taking the punishment but also taking the guilt as if it were His own. ...

In taking upon Himself the sins of the world [Jesus Christ] willed a kind of withdrawal of His Father's face and all Divine consolation.... This particular moment He willed to take upon Himself that principal effect of sin which was abandonment.

Man rejected God; so now He willed to feel that rejection. Man turned away from God; now He, Who was God united personally with a human nature, willed to feel in that human nature that awful wrench as if He Himself were guilty. ... In that cry were all the sentiments in human hearts expressive of a Divine nostalgia: the loneliness of the atheist, the skeptic, the pessimist, the sinners who hate themselves for hating virtue, and of all those who have no love above the flesh; for to be without love is hell. It was, therefore, the moment when leaning on nails He stood at the brink of hell in the name of all sinners. As He entered upon the extreme penalty of sin, which is separation from God, it was fitting that His eyes be filled with darkness and His soul with loneliness. ...

Christ's cry was of abandonment which He felt standing in a sinner's place, but it was not of despair. The soul that despairs never cries to God....The emptiness of humanity through sin, though He felt it as His own, was nevertheless spoken with a loud voice to indicate not despair, but rather hope that the sun would rise again and scatter the darkness.

Here's the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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Check out part 14 in Dr. Robert Stackpole's 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice.
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