Christ, the Cross & Salvation: Common questions and misconceptions answered

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.

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.

St. Thomas Aquinas

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.

Descent Into Limbo, Andrea Mantegna, 1468

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. 

Summa Thelogiae

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.