The victory of Jesus Christ symbolized by the Cross and the empty tomb forever changed the course of history. And yet, despite it being one of the most well-documented historical events in the history of the world, there are still many questions that we’ll not have a clear answer to until we ourselves reach the gates of Heaven.
The Catholic Church is the earthly authority on matters relating to salvation; after all, Christ himself established her as such when he told St. Peter, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). This authority continues today through a long line of apostolic succession and the Magisterium of the Church. Even so, understanding the full picture of mankind’s salvation through Christ, often referred to as the Paschal Mystery, is a lifelong pursuit.
As a Christian, it’s simple enough to understand the “why” of Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (just see our recent article about Salvation History!). However, the salvific act of Christ begs other questions that may not be immediately apparent but could be a hindrance to others coming to know and understand who Jesus Christ is. To this end, we’ve provided brief answers to a few common questions and misconceptions that will hopefully help in revealing the fuller picture of the Paschal Mystery and how God leaves no stone unturned (no pun intended).
Why did Christ come when he did?
It’s clear when looking back at history that humanity was in need of saving long before Christ actually came. So why did it take God so long to send him? While the answer to this question is not definitive, there are two theories in particular about why Jesus came when he did, 2,000 years ago, that have earned some credence.
The first goes back to salvation history. Despite God giving his chosen people chance after chance to follow his law, they always fell short. As an extension of that principle, mankind will always fall short of God’s law because he is plagued by original sin, which is only compounded by actual sin. We cannot save ourselves; therefore God, in his infinite mercy and goodness, sent Jesus at the precise point in salvation history when it was most clear that a savior was needed.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul described this point in history as such: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal 4:4). St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Thelogiae, commented on this passage, saying, “God decreed everything by His wisdom. Therefore God became incarnate at the most fitting time; and it was not fitting that God should become incarnate at the beginning of the human race.” He continued: “Since the work of Incarnation is principally ordained to the restoration of the human race by blotting out sin, it is manifest that it was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Hence our Lord Himself says (Mt 9:12-13): ‘They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill . . . For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.’”
The second theory is that with the rise of the Roman Empire, Christianity had an ideal sociopolitical setting in which it could spread and flourish. Under Roman rule, much of the civilized world had unified monetary, military and linguistic systems. The Roman Empire was also quite tolerant of other religions – a bit ironic, when one considers Nero’s attempt to exterminate Christianity in the first century – but in a providential way, it was easier and safer for someone like St. Paul to travel around the Roman Empire and spread the Gospel. Add to these factors the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early third century, which enabled the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the developed world, and it’s hard to chock it up to mere chance that Jesus just happened to come at this point in history; on the contrary, a divine plan comes into clearer focus.
Why Jesus Came When He Did – Ascension Press Media, Summa Thelogiae
Were those who lived and died before the time of Christ saved?
On the flip side of the “when” question is the “who” question; specifically, whom of those who lived before the time of Christ were saved, if any? It’s an interesting question, and thankfully the early Church fathers, Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church can provide some insight.
The Fathers of the Church theorized that it was possible that some of those who lived before Christ had achieved salvation through his death and resurrection. While the Church teaches that faith in God and baptism are required for salvation, it has also maintained that there are hidden ways God can lead people to them. St. Justin Martyr, for example, wrote the following in 151 A.D.:
“We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the Logos of which all mankind partakes [John 1:9]. Those, therefore, who lived according to reason [Greek, logos] were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them … Those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason [logos] were wicked men, and enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live according to reason [logos], whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason [logos] are Christians. Such as these can be confident and unafraid.” (First Apology 46).
This view was shared by several of the early Church fathers, and it is likewise reinforced by the Catechism. CCC 637 states: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” Furthermore, Scripture tells of Jesus descending to the realm of the dead and preaching to dead (Eph. 4:9; 1 Pet. 3:18-20), and tradition holds that he preached to those dead who were to enter heaven. This “waiting room” which the righteous who died remained in until Christ’s Resurrection is sometimes referred to as the “Limbo of the Fathers,” which is derived from the Jewish concept of Sheol.
Is God Cruel for Willing the Death of his Son?
The short answer to this question is “no.” The long answer to this question is also “no.” The idea of redemptive suffering is difficult to explain to somebody who thinks suffering is meaningless, but perhaps the easier way to answer this question is by looking at it through the lens of Christ fulfilling God’s will for his life.
Scripture is clear about why Jesus was sent to earth; it’s spelled out in what is likely the most well-known Bible verse in history, John 3:16. Christ was sent to atone for the sins of man and reconcile man with God, or himself. In order for Christ to fulfill his mission, he had to die. Did God will his death? Yes and no. God did not desire for Jesus to suffer, but as Romans 8:32 tells us, “God hath not spared His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.” Christ willingly took on our sins and, through his obedience and love on the Cross, he merited salvation for us. This was Christ’s mission on earth; God’s will for Christ was to remain faithful his mission while on earth, and Christ’s mission on earth was to remain faithful to God’s will – even if that meant death on a cross.
The answer becomes clearer when looking at it through this lens: Jesus Christ laid down his life in the ultimate act of sacrificial love and redeemed the world through the unspeakably evil act of his Crucifixion – in a way, he brought the ultimate good (eternal salvation) out of the ultimate evil (man killing God). Jesus Christ is, therefore, the perfect example of love and of being faithful to God’s will in our own lives – the very crux of what it means to be a Christian.