The Sacrifice of the Cross - Meaningless Suffering?


Our creed declares that Jesus came down from heaven for us and for our salvation.

But why was that? This faith statement affirms that Jesus came for us. He became

man for all human beings. The second statement makes it equally clear that we

were in need of salvation. But what is this salvation that we needed? In English

this verb “to save” has both active and passive senses. We save – we save money,

we save time, we save stamps, we save for our holidays, etc. But we are also saved

– we are saved from embarrassment, from danger from running out of money, etc.

In the scriptures God is seen as the Saviour of Israel. He is the one who delivers

them in times of trouble and mortal danger. We see this in the many psalms which

offer praise to the God who frees them from the perils of the natural world around

them, from slavery in Egypt, victory in times of war, starvation and from the

punishment that their sins deserve. This was true also on the level of the individual

where God was the one praised for saving them from illness, abuse, persecution,

ruin and the other difficulties that come with being a human being in a human

community. Throughout we see the question that arises from this understanding of

salvation, the question: for what are the Hebrews saved? For what purpose?

Salvation from Evil and Chaos:

The story of Genesis was written as a proclamation of the greatness of God in

creation, setting him up to be the Divine Ruler of all that is. When God sees all that

he has made, he declares that it is good and this is an important statement of how

God views his creatures. They are fundamentally good (Gen 1:31). But there is

more to it than just an abstract goodness, for this creation story also tells us

something of the Creator as well. He is a benevolent God, one who has built a

purpose into his creation. Everything in it has meaning and is there because he

specifically wills it and desires that it be a part of his divine purpose.

This creation is not a one off act but is an ongoing reality in creation. God does not

just push back the waters of the chaos but he continues to push them back, holding

them back in order that creation may not just happen but continue to grow and

expand and fulfil its purpose. The same can be said for the darkness. Light is victorious over the darkness and continues to reign over it because of the ongoing guardianship of God.

In the midst of this cosmic struggle we find the man and the woman living in faith

and hope. They trust in the God who pushed back these waters to continue to hold

them back. It is this hope that enables them to get on with their lives. There is no

enmity, no distance, no sense of suspicion between God and his creatures. When

evil is spoken of in the Bible it is generally associated with the mythical creatures –

Leviathan (Is 27:1) or Rahab the sea monster who represents Egypt (Isa 3o:7; 51:9-

10; Job 26:12-13). If these creatures exist they exist in a state of living under the

control, domination and power of God. There is never a moment when they can act

in isolation and power. This is the source of hope that continues on throughout the

whole of scriptures and is the source of all hope that is found there. The God who

defeated the primeval forces will continue to defeat all who seek to destroy is


This comes out clearly in Isaiah 43:1-2; see also 42:5-6; 54:5):

But now, thus says the Lord, who created you,

O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the water, I will be with you;

in the rivers you shall not drown;

when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned;

the flames shall not consume you.

This is why in so many of the psalms we hear the people of Israel singing the

praises of God for they see in the creation around them the protecting and

sustaining hand of God at work (eg Pss 74, 89, 93, 95, 135, 136).

The New Testament picks up this same theme, that God saves us from chaos, from

confusion and from self-destruction. This is why Paul speaks of a new creation

(Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17) that is made possible in Jesus Christ. It is possible to see the

creation theme as providing the framework for the understanding of what

salvation means.

When God created he created all things as being good, well ordered and suitable for

the sustaining of life. This is what paradise means. When Adam sinned he “short

circuited” this divine plan and with it came chaos, excesses and disorder/disharmony. This is what is meant by the introduction of sin into the world. Where once human beings could live in creation confident in a sense of order, justice and a harmony between all creatures they now found themselves struggling with injustice, division and death. This is why Paul goes on to compare the consequences of the sin of Adam with the consequences of the obedience of

Christ. While sin introduced slavery, despair and death, Jesus restored freedom,

hope and life (Romans 5:12-21).

It does not take much to look around the world and our history to appreciate that

from which we need to be saved. It is all too painfully evident. Equally clear is

that it is only in Jesus Christ that we have any idea of what it means to be saved and

to understand that for which we are saved. It is only in Christ that we are a new

creation and only in Christ that the old world has passed away and a new creation

has begun. All that is now new is only new in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). It is only in

Christ that we can fully understand what the meaning and purpose of creation is

meant to be (Rom 8).

The Exodus as a model of our freedom from slavery in Christ:

It is the Exodus story that provides the central motif of the whole of the Bible (New

and Old testaments). It provides us with the story of the fundamental nature of

God. In looking back to the Exodus they see the deliverance of the Hebrews from

slavery in Egypt as the decisive moment that shaped the nation and their identity.

It was this even that shows them the will of Yahweh to save and the power that he

has to bring about this salvation and freedom.

The exodus story begins with God’s people enslaved in Egypt. With great signs

and powers, God hears their cry, raises up Moses, overcomes the Egyptians and

leads the people into the wilderness and freedom. There in the wilderness God led

them Mt Sinai and made a covenant with them. The Exodus is not just the name of

the book but an explanation of what is happening. It is about the move from

slavery to freedom and it is for this reason that it is essential in understanding much

of the Gospel stories of the saving works of Jesus.

It was this experience that led the people to believe in YHWH as a God who would

save them from all that sought to hold them down, break them and leave them in a

life of misery and pain. When Jesus proclaimed his message, he proclaimed it to a

people who were looking in desperation for some kind of hope for the future. He

reached out to the poor and the marginalized, to the sick, the dying, to the criminals

and to those who lived in dire and difficult circumstances. He offered to them a new kind of land of milk and honey, calling it the Kingdom of God. Entry into this

Kingdom was free. All that was required was a faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

He and his message were central to what was on offer. He spoke with an authority

that came from God and revealed to the people the will of his Father as it was to be

found in the scriptures. This, of course was why he was executed by the religious

leaders – he was a threat to the doorkeepers and the power brokers of the Hebrew


Revelation as salvation from ourselves and our inclination to sin:

In the opening lines of the Letter to the Hebrews we read the inspiring lines:

In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our

fathers through the prophets; in this, the final aga, he has spoken

to us through his son, who he has made heir of all things and

through whom he has made heir of all things and through whom he

first create the universe 91:1-2).

In other word, God has been revealing his presence and his purpose in everything in

creation and in history. For the person who has eyes to see and ears to hear, it was

possible to find the hand of God at work, bringing creation forward according to his

divine purpose. All of this saving activity can now be seen most clearly in Christ,

who was the goal of creation from the very beginning. As one writer puts it God

leaves fingerprints everywhere.

This is what revelation means. It is not just a collection of statements of truths. Revelation is about the communication of life, truth and the reality of creation. Langdon Gilkey writes of revelation under three headings:

Revelation, then, means the self-manifestation of the divine power

and meaning on which all depends and in and through which all

is fulfilled, that is to say, in our traditions, “God”. At its most

fundamental level, therefore, revelation means the communication

of divine power (being, life, health and eternal life), of the divine

truth (order, illumination, insight and meaning) and of the divine

love (mercy, forgiveness and renewing, reuniting love).

YHWH has revealed himself as a God of self-disclosure. Through the Law and the Prophets we come to know God’s plan for salvation and how he is going about bringing it to fulfilment.

This plan was revealed to Moses and to the Hebrews at Mt Sinai when God defined their relationship in covenant terms. He gave them the Ten Commandments which was a gift meant to assist them in not only ordering their own lives but in directing their feet into the path of righteous living. Time and time again we read in the prophets of the ways in which God intervened in their lives to deliver them from suffering, defeat, disasters and personal tragedies. The people knew and understood what kind of God they served and how they were to serve him.

In some ways one of the clearest examples of this is the Torah, the Law. It is a

divine gift that enables the people to walk in the light without falling – should they

choose to so walk. This is why in John’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed to us as the light

of the world. He is God’s gift to creation so that all men and women can follow the

path to salvation. Jesus speaks of himself in this manner: I am the light of the

world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the

light of life (Jn 8:12). In Jesus, the light shines in the darkness (Jn 1:5).

Understanding the sins of the world:

It is by looking at revelation in these three areas: creation, exodus and revelation

that we can see clearly that in the Bible, sin is given as a reality in our lives. We are

a people who needs to be rescued, a world that needs to be saved. Without this

salvation we would self-destruct. This sin is presented as not only a failure in

relationships (our relationship with God and our relationships with each other and

the rest of creation) but also as a destructive power in the world.

All relationships in the Old Testament are based on the idea of a covenant. These

were regularly made between nation and nation as well as between peoples, groups

and individuals (eg marriage, business arrangements). In the divine covenants, it is

always God who takes the initiative in establishing the covenant. It is God who

chooses Israel and it is Israel who must respond, accepting faithful obedience to the

terms of the covenant. Within the covenant there is an agreement that the Hebrews

must show to each other the same love, justice and mercy that God has shown to

them as a nation. As God, so the people. To break this covenant is to sin and this

sin is the sin of infidelity (which is why the prophets often use the metaphor of

marriage and adultery when talking about Israel’s sins). In broad biblical terms, to

sin is to refuse to live up to the love that God has shown.

God was seen to have entered into a covenant with Adam and Eve. They showed

their infidelity by eating the forbidden fruit. The broke the covenant and the

consequences are there to see. In the story of the Exodus we can see many similar examples. The people made for themselves a golden calf while Moses was on top

of the mountain (Deut 9:16ff). When he came down and saw what they were doing,

he threw the tables of stone to the ground and broke them. This symbolized the true

meaning of what was going on. They had broken the covenant because they were

unfaithful. This is the kind of theology that John picks up in his Gospel when he

speaks of people preferring the darkness to the light, remaining deaf and not hearing

what is being said by God through his Son. They close their eyes and shut up their

ears and so sin.

But sin is also a force in the world and so the sin of Adam forces us to ask:

are we sinners because we sin or do we sin because we are sinners?

When a person sins what happens is a bit like someone putting a match to petrol.

They ignite a power (sin) that is within us. Once we break the covenant demands of

faithfulness (made at our baptisms and reaffirmed at our confirmation and at each

and every Eucharist and Easter celebration) it is a bit like opening up Pandora’s box

– we release all kinds of consequences into our own lives and into the world in

which we live. As in the Greek Myth of Pandora we know that once these forces

are released, it is impossible, using our own resources, to get these evil spirits back

into the box:

I am weak flesh sold into slavery of sin. I cannot even understand

my own actions. I do not do what I want to do but what I hate.

When I act against my own will, by that very fact I agree that the

law is good. This indicates that it is not I who do it but sin which

resides in me. I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my

flesh; the desire to do right is there but not the power. What

happens is that I do, not the good I will to do but the evil I do not

intend. But if I do what is against my will, it is not I who do it, but

sin which dwells in me (Romans 7:14-20).

What is fascinating here is that for Paul sin exists as a kind of semi-autonomous

power – the power of darkness, the sin of the world. It is presented as being

something that resides within us from the moment we are born. This is why

theology today refers to this as original sin. This is our true state as human beings.

We live in a broken covenant relationship where we live estranged from God and

from others. Thus, going back to our earlier statement: we are sinners before we

even sin. Sin and death entered the world because of the sin of the first Adam

(Rom 5:12-21). Our state, however cannot all be blamed on Adam, for we all sin and so are all deprived of the glory of God (rom 3:23). Another way of looking at

this is to say that we are accomplices after the fact (Marthaler).

Was the Incarnation inevitable?

One of the ongoing battles in medieval times was over the question of whether or

not Jesus would have become a man if Adam had not sinned. Anselm led the

debate with his argument that he came down from heaven because of the face of

original sin. Some, however, took a different approach (eg. Duns Scotus) arguing

that the incarnation was an integral part of the original plan of creation – God would

have assumed human nature even if Adam had not sinned.

This latter position would seem to better reflect the thinking of Paul with his focus

on the saving power of Christ. One question that has been asked is whether Paul

became aware of the power of sin through his reflections on the saving works of

Christ or whether his reflections on the power of sin helped him to understand the

nature of the saving works of Jesus. One theologian offers an insight into this


The question is legitimate inasmuch as modern catechists might ask

whether to emphasize the positive aspect of what Christ brought us,

namely life, or the negative aspect of what Christ saved us from,

namely sin and death. Some theologians so stress the first seven

chapters of the letter to the Romans that they continually present

man as a sinner, while others so stress the following chapters of

Romans (where the more positive aspect is developed) that for them

man is the one redeemed in Christ. The first might more fittingly

exclaim, “we are sinners and Miserere is our song”. The

observation of the latter might be, “we are a paschal people and

Alleluia is our song (Eugene Maly).

This dilemma is difficult to resolve but it is probable that Paul did understand what

we are being saved FOR before he fully understood what we are being saved

FROM. The story of salvation in the Bible tells us that we messed up the gift of

creation. Our ancestors sinned. We sin. We lost control the reigns slipped from our

grasp and the horses were runaway. Without outside help we can no more regain mastery over our being and our destiny than we could get the Spites back into

Pandor’s Box. We needed a saviour to come in and right the situation (Marthaler).

Doing this in memory of me:

The Passion stories we find in the Gospel were among the first stories that were set

in place as a systematic account of what happened. One of the reasons for this

would have been the link between the Eucharist and the crucifixion. The

Eucharistic celebration is, above all else, a commemoration of the death of Jesus,

his resurrection and his ascension into heaven. The technical word for this is

anamnesis which means a calling to mind (1 Cor 11:24; Luke 22:19).

Anamnesis is about a representation of a significant event in the past. We use rituals and symbolism to re-enact that event and in sacramental ways, to make that event present and powerful to those engaged in the celebration. This is not the same as saying it repeated in the present. The crucifixion was a once only event that is made sacramentally present to each generation of believers.

The Last Super, as we read it in the Gospels was an anamnesis of the Exodus

events. Jesus gathered his disciples together for the traditional Passover meal. In it

they were recalling the circumstances of the covenant God had made with his

people Israel. This included the sprinkling of the blood of the lamb on the verandah

posts so that the angel of the Lord would pass over their houses on their way to kill

the babies of the Egyptians. It also called to mind the crossing of the Red Sea, the

manna, quails and water in the wilderness and moves to its climax with the giving

of the covenant at Mt Sinai. At the mountain Israel declared their faithfulness to

Yahweh their God and Moses sprinkles them with the blood of the bulls which had

been killed as a sacrifice. He declared: This is the blood of the covenant which the

Lord has made with you (Exodus 24:8). The entry into the land of milk and honey

followed on from this covenant.

Anamnesis is a liturgical term that comes from the Greek

word meaning commemoration or remembrance, a memorial.

In the Eucharist we use the words calling to mind.... because

what we are doing is fulfilling the command that was

received from Jesus himself and handed on to us through the

apostles – to do this in memory of me. In this prayer the

Church recalls the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

It is a memorial of the divine mysteries that are associated

with the actions of Jesus that were directed towards our

redemption. These are what are celebrating in the Eucharist.

This is not done by recalling or simply remembering what

happened but making those past events present in the

celebration. When we talk of anamnesis and the Eucharist we

stand there at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday.

At his Last Supper Jesus transformed the meaning of this Passover meal. With him

it became the meal of the New Covenant. He identified himself with the true lamb.

We read in the Gospel of John that Jesus was condemned to death at noon on

Passover eve (Jn 19:14) , the very hour at which the Temple priests began to

slaughter the paschal lamb for the feast. In Luke’s account we have an explicit

reference to this new covenant:

Then, taking bread and giving thanks, he broke it and

gave it to them saying: “This is my body to be given for

you. Do this as a remembrance of me.” He did the

same with the cup after eating, saying as he did so: This

cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed

for you (22:19-20).

The breaking of the bread symbolized his death and the link between the sacrificial lamb and the death of Jesus is made clear by Paul: Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us (1 Cor 5:7 and also John 19:20). His Exodus from this world brought with it liberation, freedom from human slavery to sin and the opening up of a new Kingdom (land of milk and honey). What is clear from the biblical accounts of the passion is that the early Church searched the scriptures for clues as to how they were to interpret what had happened to their Lord.

The Fulfilling of the Scriptures:

We find in John the important interpretive key: that the scriptures may be fulfilled

(Jn 13:18; 19:24,28). The early community understood that Jesus stood in a long

line of prophets who had gone before him and who were similarly rejected and put

to death (Matt 5:12; 23:29-39; Luke 6:23; 11:47-51; 13:31-35). The song of the

Suffering Servant from Second Isaiah is the first clear linking between the idea of a

persecuted prophet and the martyrdom of the innocent (Is 40-55). The righteous

one who must suffer became a significant theme in the psalms and we see that the

early Church community used psalms 22, 31 and 69 (Matt 27:34; Lk 23:46). The

fourth Servant Song (Is 52:13-53:12) develops the theme that the righteous one has

taken upon himself and the guilt of others; his suffering atones for the sins of his


References to the Old Testament are found throughout the New Testament but it is

in the letter to the Hebrews that we find the clearest link between the rites and

theology of the Jewish feast of atonement and the death of Jesus on the cross. When the humiliated Son had cleansed us from our sins he took his seat at the right

of the Majesty in heaven and is exalted above the angels (Heb 1:3-4).

Hebrews is a dense and powerful letter but its message can perhaps be simplified

and summarized in the following way ( B.Marthaler):

Jesus, offering sacrifice for our sins, plays the double role of faithful high

priest and sacrificial victim.

He was a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:11). Like

Melchizedek but unlike the priests in the line of Aaron, Jesus’ priesthood is

limited neither by term of office nor by death itself; it endures forever.

  • He is the one authentic priest in this world.

  • His sacrifice is once and for all time

  • Up to the time of Jesus’ death all attempts to conciliate God were inadequate because of the infidelity of those offering sacrifice and because God does not seek the blood of bulls and burnt offerings.

  • Like the prophets of old Jesus exposes the worthlessness of external worship when it is divorced from interior dispositions and moral living.

  • The sacrifices of the Old Covenant, based on the idea of substitution and representation, like the clay models of a sculptor, were rough drafts of the masterpiece to come.

  • Because he offered himself – his own blood – Jesus rendered the perfect sacrifice, not in the hidden precincts of the Temple but on the cross for all to see.

  • He now appears in glory “before God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24).

  • In his abasement, he is exalted and glorified.

  • All of this is perceived by faith.

The Rabbis had a saying there is no expiation without shedding blood. Blood was

seen as sustaining life and there was an identity between blood and life (Lev

17:11,14; Gen 9:4-6). The pouring out of blood was seen as a symbol for the

giving of one’s life. There was no forgiveness unless people invest something of

themselves in reconciliation. It requires much more than mere words. The blood

letting rituals that were so much a part of the feasts of the Passover and the making

of the Covenant (both of which were linked in the New Testament to the death of

Jesus) were a part of the rites of purification and consecration (Lev 16:1-9).

In the first Passover the blood of the lamb (which is specifically mentioned in

Revelation 7:14, 12:11) marked the homes of the Hebrews, sparing them from the

wrath of the angel of death. Some scholars refer to this as a rite of consecration,

separating Israel from the pagan world around them. They truly were a nation set

apart (Stanislaus Lyonnet). The image is similar to the one found in the book of

Ezekiel where the man in white marks the faithful Israelite with an “X” on their

foreheads. We see this again in the Book of Revelation where one hundred and

forty-four thousand are marked with a seal (Rev 14:1) that most likely arose from

their understanding of baptism.

It was the blood ritual that involved the people of Israel in the covenant sacrifice

and bound them into it. Moses poured the blood of the bulls on the alter of sacrifice

and then, once the people had agreed to faithfully live out the laws of that covenant,

he sprinkled the remaining blood on the people (Ex 24:3-8; Heb 9:19). It is this

historical event that provides the background for any reading of the accounts of the

Last Supper of Jesus: This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out

on behalf of many (Mar 14:24). These words make Jesus both the priest and the

victim. Christians in turn reaffirm their commitment to the new covenant – and all

of its demands.

St Paul picks up this theme when he declares: Christ our Passover has been

sacrificed for us. We are therefore to purge ourselves of the old yeast of corruption

and wickedness and celebrate the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and

truth (1 Cor 5:7-8).

The death of Jesus is spoken of as a sacrifice. There are two words used of

sacrifice. One word is propitiation and the other expiation.

Propitiation indicates the regaining of favour and the pacifying of the

anger of someone who has been wronged.

Expiation is a more neutral term, suggesting the making of amends and

the restoring of good relationships between people whose relationship

had been damaged. There is no sense of appeasement here.

We believe that God is aggrieved by our sins but this kind of language is meant to

indicate the kind of pain that comes from a parent who has been wronged by their

child. Whatever of the sin, God continues to love the sinner. St Paul attempts to

make this clear when he says that God’s anger does not need to be propitiated. He

says that what needs to happen is that it is our rebellion, our sinfulness that needs to

be expiated (Rom 3:24-26).

Paul does use the language of sacrifice in his attempts to explain the death of Jesus

but he also uses the word “purchase” (lutron in the Greek). He uses this in the

sense of a slave in ancient times buying his freedom: you have been purchased and

at a price (1 Cor 6:20). His argument goes this way. Adam had in effect

indentured (ie as a person bound over for a period of time to work as a labourer or

servant) himself and his descendants to a life of slavery to sin and to the law.

Christ however redeemed us, that is, bought back our freedom (Gal 3:13; 4:5). We

are now indentured to the Lord but not as slaves. We are indentured as those who

have been freed (1 Cor 7:23). Paul also says It was he who sacrificed himself for

us, to redeem us from all unrighteousness and to cleanse for himself a people of his

own, eager to do what is right (Titus 2:14).

St Anselm and the theory of ‘satisfaction’:

When Paul was writing about the freeing of a slave from indentured service he was

using a metaphor and like all metaphors it can easily be pushed too far. Medieval

theologians constructed a theory in which Satan was said to have certain rights over

creation. They held that Adam, in sinning, had sold himself and all human beings

after him to Satan. In this theory, God had to pay a ransom to Satan in order to free

us from his power. It was St Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1109) who

discredited this theory as giving too much power to Satan and belittling the power

of God.

Anselm developed an alternative theory known as the “theory of satisfaction” [

this theory holds that all humans had to make reparation for their wrongdoings] and

It is through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that the redemption of all humankind was accomplished. This redemption is both the deliverance from sin and the restoration

to the life of grace. It is itself the free gift of God’s mercy that our redemption was accomplished through the death of Christ. We do not say that his death was necessary for our salvation. What we can say is that it was the meritorious obedience “unto death” of Jesus who is the Christ that won this redemption for us. This obedience meant that he endured humiliation, pain, suffering and finally death. Although he was God he accepted the betrayal, the malice, the hatred and rejection that led up to his passion. Our redemption is brought about by the obedient acceptance of his death, a death that was brought about by our

sins. It was in his resurrection that we see and experience the victory over sin and death and the end of their power over us. “theory of penal expiation” [this theory places an emphasis on the punishment that is due to sin]. Anselm set out to show that God had to become human and die in the way that he did if we are to be saved from sin and death. Remember that Anselm lived in a time when principles such as freedom and equality were not even thought of. It was social status that determined what one’s responsibilities. The seriousness of a

crime was measured in proportion to the dignity of the person offended. To offend against the king or one’s lord was considered to be a greater offence than to sin against a fellow peasant, even if the act was exactly the same. At the same time there was little room for mercy in the social system. An apology was not enough, nor was a simple restitution.

When a Lord forgave an offense, he had also to exact some satisfaction by way of

repairing the slight to his honour and his name. This was all but impossible for a

vassal because of his inferior status. He could not repair the harm done unless he

had the backing, patronage and intercession of an equally powerful noble


In Anselm’s work Cur Deus Homo he argues that Adam’s disobedience offended

God. This sin also alienated both Adam and his posterity. All have sinned.

Humans were unable to repair this injustice because their inferior status was made

even worse by sin. It would not be fitting for God to simply forgive their sins for

that would allow the sin to go unpunished. In the words of Anselm, this would be

“unseemly” as it would put the sinner and the innocent person on an equal footing

before God. Further, God “owes it to himself” to see that proper reparations are

made to his honour. If he does not, then justice will not be served.

Anselm argues for the incarnation. He says that because sinners are human a human

must make satisfaction. On the other hand, God is offended and no one less than

God can make adequate amends. In this way justice is served. God shows his love

by sending his only Son to become a man like us, to suffer and to die as a human

being “for us” (on our behalf) sinners.

What made the death of Jesus different is that he willingly embraced it. Anselm

believed that death was a punishment for sin. Since Jesus was innocent of any sin,

his death was supererogatory – that is, above and beyond what was truly

demanded. Jesus showed himself willing to take the incarnation to the extreme

end, dying a painful death on the cross. He did this in order to establish a solidarity

with all men and women. It was this supererogatory death that went beyond the

reparation required and so made the necessary satisfaction for sin. Jesus, out of

love, suffered the consequences of our sins. In writing this way, Anselm avoided

the dangers of making the crucifixion a punishment that was inflicted by God.

This argument begins with the confession that Jesus became a man and died for us

and for our salvation. But there are major limits to this presentation for it focuses

on the death of Jesus as being the heart of the satisfaction and does not include his

life, ministry and resurrection. One also has to wonder about how this leaves God.

Do other revelations from him show him to be a God who pursues the re-

establishing of his honour with such vigour? It would also seem that God has

allowed himself to be caught up in laws and processes that are not of his making.

Why did the suffering and death of Jesus transform creation?

Not all were happy with Anselm’s theory and so pushed it even further. One such

school of thought was that of penal satisfaction (a theory that comes out of the

theory of substitutionary punishment). This theory holds that someone needed to

appease the anger of God. It argues that Jesus became the scapegoat, the object of

God’s anger and was punished by God on our behalf. We are presented with a

Jesus who stands before the Father at Golgotha. He is burdened with the sins and

guilt of each and every man and women in creation and is treated in accordance

with what these sins and this guilt deserves (Barth and Calvin). This view is based

on an interpretation of

Romans 5:6.....we were still hopeless when at his appointed moment Christ died

for sinful men...

And 2 Cor 5:14,15...and this because the love of Christ overwhelms us when we

reflect that if one man has died for all, then all men should be dead; and the

reason he died for all was so that living men should live no longer for themselves

but for him who died and was raised to life for them.

Today, however, scholars would be more inclined to read this anger of God as

being addressed to the sin and not to the sinner and certainly not against Christ. In

a Pauline writing that was circulated before the stories of the passion of Jesus were

put together and circulated, he teaches that Christ died for our sins in accordance

with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3). This quotation uses a particular formula for or on

behalf of and it is this formula we use in our creed: For our sake he was crucified

under Pontius Pilate. Neither Paul nor this creedal formula give reason to believe

that this suffering and death “for us” was meant as a way of deflecting the anger of

God. This is called the hyper formula and it is important because it highlights the

essence of what love is – living (or dying) for another. This stands as the very

opposite of vindictiveness. It takes us back to the words of Jesus: There is no

greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn15:13). This is

the same kind of message we have from the words of Jesus at the last supper: This

is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many (Mk


Theologians speak of the subjective dimension of salvation. In the messianic

kingdom, salvation comes through repentance and a change of attitude (metanoia).

This is possible, not through the efforts of believers themselves but because of the

victory of Jesus over sin and the powers of evil, which is what they refer to as the

objective dimension of salvation.

This is important for it means that whatever people think of Jesus, even if they do

not think about him at all, his death on the cross has meaning and impact on their

lives. This should not be understood in the same way as say an emergency room

doctor injects antibiotics, medicines and the like into an unconscious person who is

brought into the hospital after a road accident. This is why the subjective

dimension is so important. During his ministry on earth Jesus preached and

practised love and justice for all. In his death he showed us just how far he was

willing to go in order to order to show what this meant in the lives of those who

followed him as disciples. It is by his word, his very self and the example of what

he did that calls his followers to respond to God’s call to love.

The subjective dimension runs the risk of reducing salvation to a personal

acceptance, that it is only a reality if we believe it. In the New Testament it is

abundantly clear that both dimension are presented and both are important. We

read there that Jesus suffered and died for us and that we must repent and live

according to his teachings if we are to be saved.

The Cross: both a scandal and an absurdity:

One of the features of modern theologies of the cross is that they are not so

focussed on trying to bring all of the New Testament material together in a common

theology. They understand that different authors had different approaches and

understandings. In John, for example, salvation is shown as coming through the

person of Jesus. Paul has an emphasis on the works of Jesus, especially through his

sacrifice and by his paying of the price through his blood. But whatever of the differences between these and other writers some things stand out clearly in all of


a. Salvation is not possible apart from Jesus Christ.

b. By his suffering and death the innocent Jesus made amends to God on behalf

of others.

c. Obedience to the will of the Father and his love for humanity led him to

freely make reparation for sinners.

d. The objective value of the work of Jesus in no way exempts men and women

from the need to repent, seek forgiveness and enter into a new relationship

with God.

These grow out of two foundational biblical truths:

1. the fidelity and steadfastness of God’s love towards all human beings, even

when they sin.

2. God’s compassion – sympathy in the literal sense of solidarity in human

suffering that is grounded in the incarnation. As one author puts it, God

weeps with us in our pain.

A starting point in reflecting on human existence is that we all suffer and die. It is

constitutive of our human existence. We are weak and fragile creatures and both

suffering and death are unavoidable aspects of our daily living. This is why the

passion and death of Jesus are perhaps the clearest examples of his becoming fully


The Scriptures show us that all sin causes suffering in some way but that is not the

same as all suffering is caused by sin. Suffering sits in the conflict that exists

between what we could be, should be and were created to be and how we actually

exist in the world. In the way we understand our suffering we have an insight into

what it means to be fully human – a people on the way to....

The New Testament tells us that it is God’s plan to end suffering. We have men

and women who are called upon to repent of their sins and so be saved from

suffering. We also have God sending his only Son into the world in order to set up

his Kingdom on earth, a new kingdom where he shall wipe away every tear from

their eyes and there will be no more death or mourning, crying out in pain, for the

former world has passed away (Rev 21:14). For the person of faith this means that

in the presence of God evil and suffering have to give way to the divine.

The great Catholic theologian Edward Schilebeecks wrote that even for Christians,

suffering remains impenetrable and incomprehensible and provokes rebellion. Nor

will the Christian blasphemously claim that God himself required the death of Jesus

as compensation for what we make of our history. He is reminding us that it is one

thing to say that suffering is a part of our human existence. It is another thing

altogether to say that suffering is a part of God’s great plan for all. God does not

want the innocent to suffer. He does not send suffering. That is not the meaning of

the cross.

In the face of evil and suffering all logic fails and theologians need to avoid the

dangers of making it a kind of equal to good, as if it had some kind of right to exist

– if there is good there must also be evil. The New Testament does not offer us an

explanation of the meaning of evil but it does call on all Christians to strike out

against it, to resist it and where possible to eradicate it from the earth.

Schillebeeckx insists that we are not redeemed thanks to the death of Jesus but

despite it. It is impossible to reconcile human suffering and the existence of evil

with a loving God who is filled with goodness. Equally it is impossible for us to

comprehend the divine reason or purpose for the passion and death of Jesus.

Perhaps the best way to understand it is via the parable of the loving father (or the

prodigal son). The father here reflects the biblically revealed God in a better way

than to the theories of atonement. Even though it might have been against his better

judgment, the father in the story gave the younger son the means to seek his own

way in the world. We see the son doing his best to waste his inheritance and

destroy himself at the same time. While this was going on the father continued to

hope for a return. When the son does come to his sense, repents and returns home

the Father is there to welcome him. He runs out to meet the prodigal son. In this

story we see that he does not need to be appeased. The only one who needed

satisfaction was the elder brother who sat outside sulking.

The significance of the suffering and death of Jesus only make sense in terms of

what happened next. This suffering and death gave witnesses to the fact that in the

depth of mental anguish, loneliness, pain, suffering and when one’s life is on the

brink of despair and has reached its breaking point it is still possible to encounter

the presence of God. In the very act of dying – the moment when he gave himself

most fully for others – he was taken up by the Father.