With all the evil and suffering in the world, how does the less than twenty hours of the Passion of our Lord atone for all of the evil of human history? Many new Christians hear the saving message that Christ died to save them upon the Cross. But, how exactly does this one action redeem the collective evil of every personal sin ever committed or ever to be committed?
Christ died on the Cross to redeem mankind. He saved us by giving His life freely for us. This is the foundation of the Church’s teaching on salvation, and it is a true, historical event. The crucifixion of our Lord took place at a certain time, in a certain place, with the involvement of certain people. The Passion of our Lord begins with the agony in the garden in the middle of the night on Thursday and ends with His last breath on the Cross around 3 p.m. the next day.
The Bad News and the Good News
To understand the Good News, we have to understand the problem: the Bad News. The Bad News is that when Adam and Eve let their trust in God die in their hearts, they allowed sin to enter the world. God loved us into existence and gave us free will, and we freely chose to disobey Him. This original sin of Adam and Eve is what we are freed from in the Sacrament of Baptism, but we are still inclined to sin because of our fallen nature. This is the Bad News: we are sinners in need of a savior.
The Good News is that God sent His only begotten Son to share in our humanity so that we could one day share in His divinity. By becoming one of us, Christ shared in our mundane human existence. He got tired and hungry. He slept. He wept. God became man. And this God-man, Jesus Christ, showed us the example of true humanity.
The Perfect Sacrifice of the Cross
Then, at the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus willingly went to the Cross. This was the will of the Father, that God would show the depths of His love for mankind by offering His Son as a willing victim. As Victim, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. As High Priest, He is also the one offering the sacrifice. And it is from the Cross that we see His kingship on full display, His willingness to serve His people even to the point of death.
In the Old Testament, the people of God offered a lamb or goat as a sacrifice in atonement for their own personal sins. This is where we get the term scapegoat. The sheep or goat metaphorically took upon itself the sins of those offering sacrifice and was slaughtered. Jesus, as the Victim, did more than the sheep or goat. St. Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).” The perfect Victim was not metaphorical. As the Almighty God, He was able to actually take the sins of all mankind upon Himself and nail them to the Cross.
As the High Priest, Jesus is offering the one, perfect sacrifice to the Father in atonement for the sins of the whole world. He is the one and only High Priest. Every Catholic priest, to this day, shares in Christ’s Priesthood. In fact, at Mass, they act in the Person of Christ the Head of His Body. In other words, at the Mass, Jesus is offering His one sacrifice of the Cross once again. This sacrifice of Christ is unique and it surpasses all other sacrifices. It is this sacrifice that is presented once again at every celebration of the Eucharist, what we also call the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
As God, Jesus is able to offer a perfect sacrifice. As man, He is able to offer a true sacrifice on behalf of all mankind. This is why Jesus became man; so, they He could buy us back from sin and death. He is the bridge between God and man. By His death, the way to Heaven is open to us once again. The first sin of Adam has been set right by Jesus, the new Adam.
Then, three days after His death, Jesus rose from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit and conquered sin and death once and for all. This is the culmination of the Good News and why we celebrate Easter in such a big way! The Resurrection of Christ is the promise that we do not have to be slaves to death. The war against the forces of evil is over, but the battle for each soul rages on until Christ comes again.
The Problem of Evil
One of the most compelling arguments against the existence of God is the problem of evil. It is a true problem, because there is no rational solution. As believers, we can say, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).” The fact that God brings good even out of evil is a beautiful reality, but the problem of evil still remains one of the strongest emotional obstacles to God.
The atheist J.L. Mackie believed that if God knew all, then He would know that evil is in the world. If He was all-powerful then He could prevent it, and if He were all-good then He would want to prevent evil. Yet, evil still exists, therefore, according to Mackie, God must be “impotent, ignorant, or wicked.”
First, to His being all powerful: if God forced His creatures to be good, then they would be without free choice. If God allows evil, it is only because He knows that He can draw an even greater good out of it, even if we cannot understand with our limited perspectives. And to His being all-good, we know that God created us to be reasonably happy with Him in this world and perfectly happy with Him in the next. To this last point, this means that God’s goodness may not be readily understandable to our limited perspective.
Most importantly to this discussion about the Cross of Christ, the power, knowledge, and goodness of God means that suffering is not without value, if it is united to the Cross. This is known as redemptive suffering.
It is very easy to believe that there is more evil in the world than good. We need only watch the evening news to buy into this lie. Evil exists because of the free choice of man. Yet, there is still suffering that cannot be explained by free will. For example, terrible diseases, natural disasters, and so forth are in the world. We know that we may never understand the greater good that comes from these, but how can suffering have value?
“By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive passion (CCC 1505).” In moments of affliction, suffering, and pain, we can offer these experiences as prayers when we unite them to the perfect Cross of Christ. Our sufferings then are transformed into grace for ourselves and others. We can “offer up” our sufferings for others, and it can even bring us spiritual healing and peace.
Tying It All Together
Christ gave up His life on the Cross out of love for His body, the Church. Suffering is a part of our human existence and Christ knows that because He has been there before us. No matter the anguish or grief we are going through, Christ is able to truly empathize. This work of redemption is made present in the world first and foremost through the Holy Mass. The Cross of Christ is made present once more at every Mass and the grace of that saving action is offered perpetually for the whole world.
In our own lives, the fruits of redemption are extended to us by our own openness to the Sacraments. In Baptism and Confirmation, we die to ourselves and take on the Cross and then we are raised to new life in Christ, by the power of His death and Resurrection. Then, in the Eucharist, we are united to the triumphant Christ. This is only possible, in God’s grace and providence, because of His willingness to go to the Cross.
The Passion of our Lord may only have lasted temporally less than twenty hours, but the merits of Christ on the Cross and the grace that continues to flow from the Cross are everlasting. It is impossible for us to see all the good that God has done, and so we trust in Him, even in the valley of the shadow of death. In our limited human perspective, we have to accept the gift of the Spirit of wisdom to begin to see things from God’s perspective.
May we all be filled with God’s grace to understand with St. Teresa of Avila that, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”