Why did Christ suffer the Passion? St. Thomas Aquinas believes that the Passion was not absolutely necessary as God could have done otherwise but it was necessary in a certain sense, within God’s plan of our salvation: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15) (3a. 46, 1). Within God’s plan, Jesus’ death leads to eternal life for us.
Thomas maintains that the Passion was part of a process culminating in the exaltation of Jesus, as Luke attests: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter His glory” (Lk 24:6).
According to the Evangelists, Jesus’ death fulfills the Old Testament prophecies. For instance, Luke writes: “The Son of Man indeed goes as it has been determined” (Lk 22:22). Likewise, Luke asserts: “These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled… Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Lk 24:44, 46) (3a. 46, 1).
Thomas believes that Jesus’ death fulfills both justice and mercy. With regard to justice, Thomas reflects St. Anselm’s thinking that satisfaction for sin is needed because of the majesty of God and the proper order of the universe (Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man and the Virginal Conception and Original Sin, I, 15).
But, even in justice, Thomas sees God’s mercy: “Since humanity could not satisfy the sin of human nature, God gave us His Son to satisfy for us: ‘They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by His blood’ (Rom 3:24-25) (3a. 46, 1, ad 3).
Thomas believes that saving us through the Passion of Christ is more merciful than if God had just remitted our sins: “And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. Hence it is said: ‘For God, who is rich in mercy because of the great love He had for us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ’ (Eph 2:4) (3a. 46, 1, ad 3).
Rather than emphasize the suffering in itself, Thomas stresses Jesus’ interior “love and obedience” as His “gift” to the Father:
He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity, from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement for man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured. And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world’ (3a. 48, 2).
Thomas offers five reasons why Jesus’ Passion was suitable for delivering the human race. He states: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and in that lies the perfection of human salvation; Paul says ‘God commends His charity to us, for when we were still sinners…Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8) (3a. 46, 3). Notice that Thomas affirms that our perfection lies in recognizing God’s love for us and responding with love.
Thomas proposes a second reason: “In this way, He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation: ‘Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps’ (1 Pt 2:1)” (3a. 46, 3). In His death, Christ offered us an example, how we should live our lives and bear our difficulties, humbly, in a steadfast way and with justice.
According to Thomas, Christ not only freed us from sin but also gave us grace that justifies us and opens eternal life for us: “Christ, by His Passion, not only delivered us from sin, but also merited justifying grace for us, and the glory of bliss” (3a. 46, 3). Thomas explains: “By Christ’s Passion we have been delivered not only from the common sin of the whole human race… but furthermore, from the personal sins of individuals, who share in His Passion by faith and charity and the sacraments of faith” (3a. 49, 5).
Another reason for the Passion is that when we consider Jesus’ death, we are reluctant to sin: “By this, we are all the more bound to refrain from sin: ‘You were bought with a great price. Therefore glorify God in your body’ (1 Cor 6:20)” (3a. 46, 3).
Thomas says that Christ’s Passion has given us “greater dignity… as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death: ‘Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (3a. 46, 3).
Thomas affirms that, for these reasons, it was more fitting that we should be saved “by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s will” (3a. 46, 3).
Thomas maintains, as did the Fathers of the Church, that Jesus’ Incarnation and all His actions are salvific: “From the beginning of His conception, Christ merited our eternal salvation; but on our side there were some obstacles, whereby we were hindered from securing the effect of His preceding merits: consequently, in order to remove such hindrances, ‘it was necessary for Christ to suffer’ (3a. 48, 1, ad 2).
In the second volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict calls attention to Jesus’ anguished cry on the Cross, as not only the cry of Jesus, as an individual, but, rather Jesus’ cry is the cry of His whole Body. According to the Pope, Jesus’ cry on the cross includes the anguish of all people, past, present and future:
He prays as ‘head,’ as the one who unites us all into a single common subject and incorporates us all into Himself. And He prays as ‘body,’ that is to say, all of our struggles, our voices, our anguish, and our hope are present in His praying… now in a new way, in fellowship with Christ. And in Him, past, present, and future are always united (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (Nairobi: Paulines, 2011), 164).
Thomas, likewise, considers Jesus’ action as the “head” of the body:
Grace was bestowed upon Christ, not only as an individual, but inasmuch as He is the Head of the Church, so that it might overflow into His members; and therefore Christ’s works are referred to Himself and to His members … Consequently Christ by His Passion merited salvation, not only for Himself, but likewise for all His members (3a. 48, 1).
Thomas explains that Jesus’ Passion causes the forgiveness of sins in three ways. The first is “by way of exciting our charity… it is by charity (love for God) that we procure pardon of our sins: ‘Many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much’ (Lk 7:47)” (3a. 49, 1).
The second reason relates Jesus as the head to His body:
Christ’s Passion causes forgiveness of sins by way of redemption. For since He is our head, then, by the Passion which He endured from love and obedience, He delivered us as His members from our sins, as by the price of His Passion… For just as the natural body is one, though made up of diverse members, so the whole Church, Christ’s mystic body, is reckoned as one person with its head, which is Christ (3a. 49, 1).
The third reason relates to Jesus’ divinity: “Thirdly, by way of efficacy, inasmuch as Christ’s flesh, wherein He endured the Passion, is the instrument of the Godhead, so that His sufferings and actions operate with Divine power for expelling sin” (3a. 49, 1).
In the Old Testament legislation, an unclean object makes a clean object unclean. Pope Benedict explains that Jesus’ death reverses this process:
When the world, with all the injustice and cruelty that make it unclean, comes into contact with the infinitely pure one- then He, the pure One, is stronger. Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of the infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counterweight to all wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the vast mass of evil, however terrible it may be. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (Nairobi: Paulines, 2011), 175).
In a similar way, Thomas affirms that Christ’s love was greater than sin: “Christ’s love was greater than His slayers’ malice: and therefore the value of His Passion in atoning surpassed the murderous guilt of those who crucified Him; so much that Christ’s suffering was sufficient and superabundant atonement for His murderers’ crime” (3a. 48, 2, ad 2).
Christ overcomes death and evil by undergoing them: “Just as Christ was not obliged to die, but willingly submitted to death so as to vanquish death by His power, so neither did He deserve to be classed with thieves; but He willed to be reputed with the ungodly that He might destroy ungodliness by His power” (3a. 46, 11, ad 1).
Especially when we emphasize Jesus’ self-offering, we may overlook the Trinitarian aspects of the redemption. St. Thomas reflects:
Christ’s blood or His bodily life, which is in the blood, is the price of our redemption and that life He paid. Hence both of these belong to Christ as man; but to the Trinity as to the first and remote cause, to whom Christ’s life belonged as its first author, and from whom Christ received the inspiration of suffering for us. Consequently it is proper to Christ as man to be the Redeemer immediately; although the redemption may be ascribed to the whole Trinity as its first cause (3a. 48, 5).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. In this case, it is the third part of the Summa, questions 46, 48 and 49, and various articles. If the reference is a reply to an objection that had been raised earlier, the reference will offer “ad…” with the number of the objection.