Christ’s Atonement: More Than Just Payment for Sin

One sunny autumn day, as I was taking a walk throughout my neighborhood, I spotted a man whom I had never met before, and who I knew did not live in the neighborhood. After briefly talking, he reached into his pocket and handed me something. It was a dollar bill with a picture of Benjamin Franklin and the number 1,000,000 printed on it. I knew right away that it was fake. Yet, when I turned it around, I saw something printed on it:

Here is the million-dollar question: Will you go to heaven when you die? Here’s a quick test: Have you ever lied, stolen, or used God’s name in vain? Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If you have done these things, God sees you as a lying, stealing, blasphemous adulterer at heart, and the Bible warns that God will punish you in a terrible place called hell. But God is not willing that any should perish. Sinners broke God’s Law and Jesus paid the fine. This means that God can legally dismiss the case: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Then Jesus rose from the dead, defeating death. Today, repent and trust Jesus, and God will give you eternal life as a free gift. Then read the Bible daily and obey it. God will never fail you.

Many Catholics in this situation may have read this and thought it was a lovely sentiment, completely in line with what they have heard at Mass or read in the Bible or the teachings of the saints or the Catechism or heard or saw in Catholic media outlets. Yet any Catholic who has studied theology, particularly when studying Church history, soteriology (the study of the Church’s view on salvation), and systematic theology, will recognize that this sentiment manifests not just a vague nice sentiment, but rather a specific understanding of what took place in Christ’s death and resurrection.

The above quote contains a view rooted in the concept of penal substitution, which states that Christ took upon Himself the punishment that rightfully belonged to humanity. While this view is not, in and of itself, contrary to any defined Church teaching, it was never adopted as a normative view of the atonement within Catholic theological circles.

However, penal substitution is quite popular among many Protestants and is often tied with several other uniquely Protestant ideas and doctrines. John Calvin, for example, in Book II, Chapter 16, section 2 of his famed work The Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that “sinners, until freed from guilt,” are “always liable to the wrath and curse of God, who, as He is a just judge, cannot permit His law to be violated with impunity, is armed for vengeance.” As a result of God’s anger at our offense, Calvin states that in the period between the fall and the time of Christ, God considered humanity His enemy, and we were under God’s curse, as per Romans 5:10 and Galatians 3:10-13. We were, in Calvin’s words, “a complete alien from the blessing of God” and a “slave of Satan.” No matter how much God let His wrath come upon humanity, it was not enough to placate His just anger. Only with Christ were the yoke of sin and the corresponding punishment lifted. As Calvin wrote:

[T]hen Christ interposed, took the punishment upon Himself and bore what by the just punishment of God was impeding over sinners; by His own blood expiated the sins which rendered them hateful to God … [and] by this intercession appeased His anger[.]

Because the anger God had toward man was taken out on Christ – and in a sense “dumped onto Him” on the cross – Jesus stood in for the elect (those God had predestined for salvation) and took upon Himself their just punishment, thereby fulfilling the precept of divine justice on their behalf and allowing God to have mercy on them and grant them the grace whereby they attain salvation.

It is true that through sin, humanity incurred the anger and punishment of God and put itself at odds with God – and thus generations of Christians, even within the Catholic tradition, used language similar to that of Calvin independently of and prior to Calvin. But to say Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was merely a means of satisfying divine anger is an oversimplification of the biblical and early Christian view of the nature of Christ as the One who gave Himself up for the forgiveness of sins, and of the entire biblical logic underlying the notion of making sacrifices for the forgiveness sin.

Let us look first to Scripture to see the dynamic and multifaceted nature of the atonement. We see this in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 3: St. Paul here states that up until the coming of Christ, the Jews were privileged with having God’s most direct utterance to humanity, the Law, which foreshadowed or prophesied the coming of Christ. Yet the Jews, as St. Paul writes, should not view themselves as morally or spiritually superior simply because they possess or follow the Law. This is because, as St. Paul writes in verse 20, the Law cannot make us righteous in the sight of God, but rather, through our constant failure to observe the Law, the Law can only serve as a witness of human sinfulness.

In verse 21, St. Paul writes how the righteousness of God, whereby humans are made righteous, is made manifest “apart from the Law,” in and through Jesus Christ. Thus, we “are justified freely through redemption in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). The reason why the Law could only point toward righteousness but could not actually bring us to a righteous state, whereas Jesus could serve as cause of our being made righteous, is because Jesus was one “whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by His blood, to prove His righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously forgiven” (Romans 3:25). Jesus is thus “an expiation” put forward by God for the forgiveness of sins.

The language of Jesus’ death serving as an expiation – that is, something offered to make amends with another or to obtain forgiveness – became the basis of the penal substitution theory. What does it mean for Jesus to be “an expiation”?

The term used by St. Paul for “expiation” is hilastērion. This phrase is closely related to the Greek term hilaskesthai, meaning “to appease” or “to propriate.” This implies that Jesus’s death was a ransom from the anger and punishment of God. Yet, as the Catholic biblical scholar Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. pointed out in his commentary on Romans, this doesn’t do justice to the larger theology of St. Paul, nor to the Old Testament backdrop to St. Paul. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the term hilaskesthai refers to God’s pardon. In other areas, it refers to ritual acts done to obtain God’s forgiveness, yet these acts were seen not as appeasing or placating the divine wrath, but rather as the recommitment of the people of God to the covenant relationship and to the removal of any obstacles in said relationship. This same Greek term even refers to the mercy seat (that is, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant) – for example, in the Greek translation of Leviticus 16:2, 11-17. Thus, one may conclude that Jesus, as the new mercy seat, serves as the vessel of God’s mercy, insofar as through His death and resurrection the covenant is renewed, and anything that serves as an obstacle to humanity’s relationship with God is definitively removed, something that could not be done by the Law. As Fr. Fitzmyer wrote, “Christ crucified has become the mercy seat of the new dispensation, the means of expiating (wiping away) the sins that have estranged human beings from God.”

One may also look to Galatians 3:13-14 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us so that the blessing promised to Abraham would come to the Gentiles in Jesus Christ, so that by faith we may receive the promise of the Holy Spirit[.]” What St. Paul is saying is that, according to the Law (Deuteronomy 27:26), anyone who disobeys God’s law is to receive God’s curse. As St. John Chrysostom points out in his homily on Galatians 3, no one can perfectly keep the Law, and thus all were subject to God’s curse. Jesus freed us from this curse by taking upon Himself another curse, for, also according to the Law (Deuteronomy 21:23), anyone who died as a result of the death penalty by way of being hanged was to receive God’s curse. Through this we were set free in order to receive the promises of the Holy Spirit.

What we were freed from is not the anger of God, but rather the Law. Fr. Fitzmyer, in a commentary on Galatians, says Christ died through the Law, and thus died to the Law. Jesus lived as one under the Law, and He in His death fulfilled the Law. Since through participating in or cooperating with God’s plan of salvation, we participate in the death of Christ, we, too, in Christ, have died to the Law, and thus have made the transition from a state of being under the Law to living in the Spirit. Humans, being fallen, sinful creatures, could not but disobey the Law, and thus incur God’s curse; Jesus, through dying on the cross, also incurred God’s curse, but in doing so, He fulfilled the Law, thereby freeing us from the curse that had fallen upon us.

All of this points toward the reality of Christ’s death as being not merely an event wherein someone is punished by God on behalf of all of humanity, but rather as the means through which God radically recreates humanity, purifying it of its sin and restoring His relationship with creation. We get a sense of this in St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. According to Athanasius, Jesus’s divinity made His humanity incorruptible, so that death could not conquer it. So, through subjecting Himself to death, Christ absorbed death, and defeated it, which is seen explicitly through His resurrection. In his own words:

But He [Christ] takes that which is ours, not simply, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, ignorant of man, pure and unmixed from intercourse with man. … And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, He offered it to the Father, doing this in His love for human beings, so that, on the one hand, the law concerning corruption in human beings should be undone … and that, on the other hand, that as humans had turned towards corruption, He might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death[.] … For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason He takes to Himself a body capable of death, so that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection.

As St. Athanasius says, “for the trophy of victory over death was this [resurrection] being shown to all and all being persuaded of the removal of corruption effected by Him[.]” One of the central elements of the atonement for Athanasius was the victory over death, by which ontological corruption was destroyed. Sin is, or leads to, ontological corruption, since sin is a turning away from God, the source of all being and existence. It is for this reason that death is the punishment for sin, and thus Athanasius asserts that God was motivated to save us from sin, “lest what He had created should perish and the work of the Father should be in vain[.]” This concept of the death and resurrection of Christ being a victory over death, and the renewal of man on an existential level, was a major theme in patristic, and to a certain extent, biblical, texts, and it remains a popular theme among Eastern Christians to this day, as can be seen in the famous Byzantine Easter hymn Christos Anesti (“Christ is Risen”), the opening lyrics of which are “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death.”

By the Middle Ages, many thinkers had moved toward the notion of the atonement as Christ making satisfaction for our sins on our behalf. St. Anselm, in his work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) asserted that the purpose of human life is to offer honor and homage to God. Through sin, we fail to do so, thus we become indebted to God. Moreover, not only does sin cause us to become indebted to God, but it also spiritually binds us, preventing us from being able to pay off the debt. From a spiritual perspective, things got so out of hand for the human race that only God had the capacity to pay off our debt, yet the debt fell upon humanity, not upon God. Thus, God, in His mercy, assumed human nature so that His divinity could act in and through His humanity to pay off the debt we owed. This Christ did in His death.

Death is the punishment for sin. Christ, through dying, paid off the debt we owed God.

St. Thomas Aquinas takes on a similar perspective in his treatment of the atonement in Part III of the Summa Theologicæ. Aquinas says the value of Christ’s death was of so much greater value than our sin that Christ not only paid off our debt to God, but also merited favor with the Father, and it is on the grounds of these merits that God extends His grace to humanity.

The vocabulary of the Scholastics, though heavily influential in Catholic theology (particularly in the Latin Tradition), created the framework for the rise of the theory of penal substitution. The notion of Christ paying off humanity’s debt to God and making satisfaction for sin was reinterpreted by many Reformers, especially of the Calvinist tradition, as meaning that Christ paid off the debt of God’s punishment, and thus the atonement means, according to this tradition, that Christ placated the divine wrath. In many ways, this developed from an oversimplification of certain elements of the Medieval Christian views concerning the atonement, which were later read into biblical and patristic texts.

In biblical texts, we see Christ’s death treated mostly as the fulfillment and renewal of the covenant, the fulfillment of the Law, and the grounds on which God grants us the grace of justification. In biblical and patristic texts, we also see a strong emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection as God using death to defeat death. In the Medieval and early modern era, we see a shift in emphasis toward situating Christ’s death within the context of the larger process by which humanity pays off its debt to God incurred through sin and merits salvation. While humanity did incur the wrath and punishment of God through sin, Christ’s death was not so much the placating of that wrath; rather, Christ, through His ministry, death, and resurrection, restored the relationship between God and man.

It is through the lens of all of this that the Catholic Church has traditionally interpreted the theological implications of Christ’s death and resurrection. Penal substitution, at its root, is thus an over-simplification of this larger tradition.

As we meditate upon the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection through this Easter season, and look to Scripture, the Church, and the great saints of history for deeper insight on this topic, let us realize that at the bottom of the Cross is a paradox through which God’s plan of salvation is made known. Through dying the dishonorable death of one falsely accused of blasphemy and insurrection, Christ made manifest His glory as the God-man. Through suffering the death of one marginalized and outcast by society, Christ made manifest His nature as the King and Lord of creation and of the Church. What seemed like a defeat for God and a victory for sin and death was in fact a victory for God and a defeat for sin and death. To use the words of St. Paul, this makes the Cross “a stumbling block” and “foolishness” for those who lack faith, yet for those who have faith, it is the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:18-25).

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