St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas on the suffering and death of Jesus
Was Christ's suffering and crucifixion really God's plan or could our salvation have been achieved some other way and why did Jesus have to suffer as brutally as He did to accomplish our salvation? These questions are not new. Sixteen centuries ago St. Augustine addressed the same questions, and he noted that he was not the first theologian to discuss these issues. He wrote: "There are those who say 'What did God have no other way to free men from the misery of this mortality? No other way than to will that the only begotten Son [...] should become man by putting on a human soul and flesh, becoming mortal so He could endure death" Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ has focused the world's attention so vividly on the sufferings of Christ that the question is being asked again: If God could have chosen any path for salvation why did He choose one of so much blood, pain, and excruciating death? Does the manner of Jesus' horrifying death call into question the goodness and mercy of God?
This document addresses the questions which were addressed by two great Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, concerning God's plan for the salvation of humanity. These two great scholars asked themselves:
St. Augustine reasoned that there were two issues to be considered in the first question: Was there another way?
Issue #1. If the crucifixion of Jesus was the only means God could find to rescue man from sin and eternal death then he would have to be limited in His power and His wisdom.
Issue #2. But, if God preferred the cruel death of His Son over some other plan of salvation then God cannot be kind and merciful and good.
In some ways this is similar to the question posed by so many people down through the centuries concerning the question of why if God is a good God is there is suffering in the world He created? St. Augustine and other doctors of the Church like St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the dilemma by first defining the attributers of God. Sacred Scripture tells us God is full of power, grace, wisdom, covenant love, and compassion. If we believe our God is all-powerful, all wise, and full of mercy and compassion then we must reject the notion that He was limited in His choice of the means for our salvation. He could have indeed chosen another way other than the cross. God cannot be limited. St. Augustine wrote: Other possible means were not lacking on God's part because all things are equally subject to His power. [On the Trinity 8:10]. Writing nine centuries later in the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas agreed that of course God could have chosen another way. In his argument he quoted St. Augustine and supported Augustine's statement with a quotation from Sacred Scripture when he wrote: It was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than the Passion of the Christ and then quoting from the Gospel of St. Luke 1:37 he wrote: because nothing shall be impossible for God. [Summa Theologiae 3:46:2].
But then if we believe God is all wise, full of mercy, compassion, and love then we must acknowledge there must have been a good reason He chose the terrifying and bloody Passion of His beloved Son as the means for our redemption. St. Thomas noted that Jesus spoke of this Passion as a plan that must be fulfilled. As a matter of fact, in each of the Gospel accounts Jesus warns the Apostles on 3 separate occasions of His passion. In Matthew chapter 16 for example after Simon-Peter gives his confession of faith that Jesus was indeed the Son of God Jesus begins to prepare His disciples for the terrible coming events of His Passion in Matthew 16:21-23: "From then onwards Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to rebuke him. 'Heaven preserve you, Lord,' he said, 'this must not happen to you.' But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do." This is the first of 3 such warnings to the disciples and, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, there can be no question these and other passages clearly show this was absolutely God's plan for man's salvation. [Summa Theologiae 3:42:2]. Jesus fully understood the sacrificial nature of His death as His Father's plan as passages in John 10:16 and John 12:23-24. These and other passages clearly indicate this same understanding that the Son's self immolation on the altar of the Cross was the means by which man was to be redeemed. And, as St. Thomas also observed, after Jesus' Resurrection He confirmed this was God's plan to His disciples on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:24 "Then he said to them, 'You foolish men! So slow to believe all that the prophets have said! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory? Then starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself."
So if this was indeed the plan God chose what were the conditions that made Christ's Passion necessary? Both Aquinas and Augustine determined that this was the plan because God had set that plan into motion long before the Incarnation, and He had ordained that this was the way our salvation was to be accomplished. In other words, the crucifixion was the plan of salvation because before the Incarnation God had set certain crucial conditions in place that ordained that this was to be the way salvation would be accomplished and His foreknowledge of these events of the crucifixion were already revealed through divine revelation to the Prophets and were recorded in Sacred Scripture. In fact, that definitive plan of salvation began with the Fall of our first parents and the establishment of animal sacrifice as the one means of dealing with sin. Sin separated God's children from Him. There had to be a means to prevent eternal separation and that means became animal sacrifice. Man would confess his sins and the animal would die in his place; its blood coving the sin of the individual. In Leviticus 17: 11 God tells His people: "For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you for performing the rite of expiation on the altar for your lives, for blood is what expiates for a life." And the inspired writer of Book of Hebrews in 9:20-21 in referring to the Old Covenant blood sacrifices writes: "In fact, according to the Law, practically every purification takes place by means of blood; and if there is no shedding of blood, there is no remission." Blood as a means of remission of sins was a plan set in motion long before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Given these conditions both Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas concluded it was correct for Jesus to say that it was necessary that He suffer and die because the plan of God had been established and now that plan had to be fulfilled as it was prophesied by the holy Prophets of Yahweh in the inspired writings which had been faithfully handed down to the covenant people through the succeeding generations. That this was indeed the God ordained plan is what Jesus affirmed to the Apostles in the Upper Room during the Last Supper in Luke 22:21-22 when He told them: But look, here with me on the table is the hand of the man who is betraying me. The Son of man is indeed on the path which was decreed... and in Matthew 26:24 The son of man is going to his fate as the scriptures say he will... Consistent with this teaching on Resurrection Sunday Jesus affirmed all that had happened conformed with God's plan when He came to the Apostles in the Upper Room in Luke 24:44-47 Then he told them, 'This is what I meant when I said, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms, was destined to be fulfilled.' He then opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, 'So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
This is a teaching entrusted by Jesus to His Apostles. St Paul also affirmed that it was God's plan of salvation that the Christ should suffer and die for the salvation of man which was set in place before the Incarnation of Christ when he testified to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 26:22-23: And so I have stood firm to this day, testifying to great and small alike, saying nothing more than what the prophets and Moses himself said would happen: that the Christ was to suffer and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he was to proclaim a light for our people and for the gentiles. That this was God's plan was also the testimony of St. Peter to the Church in 1 Peter 1:20 where he wrote that God, knowing all things, had ordained this plan for man's salvation before the creation: He [Jesus] was marked out before the world was made and was revealed at the final point of time for your sake. That this is indeed God's plan is also affirmed by the denial of Jesus' request that He be spared the "cup of suffering" if it was possible when He prayed His final prayer to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane [see Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46] to let this cup pass from me. Denied this request Jesus submits to God's will with the words: My Father, if this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, your will be done! This submission to God's divinely orchestrated plan is evident as Jesus chastised St. Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter drew his sword to defend his Master against Temple guards and Roman soldiers sent to arrest Jesus [see John 18:11]. Jesus rebuked Peter saying, Put your sword back in its scabbard; am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?
But St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas also concluded that Jesus was not forced into His terrible fate by an uncaring, or cruel divine Father; rather God the Son's will was in perfect union with the will of God the Father as express by Jesus in John 10:30 when He told the Apostles "I and the Father are One!" Together God the Father and God the Son determined that the Son should come to us in our humanity and suffer for us. It is true that at Gethsemane His human nature recoiled in horror at the prospect of such suffering; He could not have been fully human and not felt that revulsion for suffering. However, since God the Son's will was perfectly conformed to the will of God the Father, Jesus submitted to the sacrifice Not my will but yours be done Luke 22:42. The writer of the Book of Hebrews records that Jesus endured the cross, not because He was forced to do so but rather for the joy that was set before Him in winning the victory over sins and death that He had come to achieve [Hebrews 12:2]. Rather than implying some limit to God's power, in that God only allowed men of evil intent to take His son and crucify Him; instead these Scripture passages affirm God's power and sovereignty in that God was the Master of these events!
After reflecting deeply on the question of God's power and authority over the cosmos, Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas came to the conclusion that because of His sovereign power God could have found another way to save humanity but that Jesus' making satisfaction for the penalty of our sins through suffering was in fact the way God chose in His wisdom to make possible our salvation. Augustine concluded We assert that the way in which God designed to deliver us by the man Jesus Christ, who is mediator between God and man is both good and befitting the divine dignity... [...] There neither was nor need have been any other means more suitable for healing our misery. [...] For what else could have been so necessary to build up our hope and to free the minds of mortals despairing because of their mortality than that God should show us how highly He valued us and how greatly He loved us? And what could be a clearer and more evident proof of God's great love than the Son of God--so undeserving of evil, should bear our evils. [On the Trinity, 8:10]. St Augustine went on to offer that anyone who meditated on Christ's Passion would experience an overwhelming sense of faith and hope. Augustine insisted that the Father had no greater or more valuable a gift to give humanity other than His Son and that's exactly the gift of love He gave us! Expressing this same belief St. Paul wrote in Romans 8:31-32: If God is for us, who can be against us? Since he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for the sake of all of us, then can we not expect that with him he will freely give us all his gifts.
St Thomas carried these observations further by pointing out that our reconciliation with God by uniting with Christ in His suffering was more than simple forgiveness. He wrote that in the Passion of Christ many other things besides deliverance from sin came together for man's salvation. Thomas listed 5 reasons why God's plan was the best plan.
When we recognize the debt He paid on our behalf, taking our sins upon Himself, we see that we are obligated to live as He has called us to live; avoiding sin contributes to our salvation, Because of Christ's Passion we are all the more bound to refrain from all temptation to sin. 1 Corinthians 6:20,
Augustine then asked the question, "couldn't the victory have been accomplished in a divine combat?" Assessing the implications of such a supernatural contest he concluded The devil was to be conquered not by the power of God but by His righteousness....for the devil through the fault of his own perversity had become a lover of power and a forsaker and assailant of righteousness....so it pleased God that, in preserving man from the grasp of the devil, the devil should be vanquished not by power but by righteousness. In the same way man, imitating Christ, should seek to conquer the devil by righteousness, not by power. [On the Trinity 13:13].
St Thomas and St Augustine decided that God's decision to have Christ suffer to save mankind was good and wise and rooted in indescribable love how much more deeply could that love have been expressed then through the willing sacrifice of His Beloved Son. What was there in the whole entire universe that was more valuable to the Father than the Son? And when was God's love for the Son greater than as He hung on the cross, the innocent victim offered up for the sins of man St Thomas wrote: It was more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ's Passion than simply by God's good will. And St Augustine concluded his thoughts on the Passion of the Christ this way: Why, then, shouldn't the death of Christ come to pass? Why shouldn't an all-powerful God have decided against innumerable other ways to free us in order to choose this death? For in this death, nothing was lost of Christ's divine nature, and from the human nature he took for Himself, how great a benefit was bestowed on us men!
Despite the pain and suffering of the Passion of His Son it must be recognized that the resulting everlasting glory of the plan God the Father chose far outweighed the horrors His Son had to endure for the result of His Passion was everlasting grace that overflows in immeasurable abundance to all of mankind, uniting His suffering to our suffering so long as we have to endure this world a sacrifice that is perfected for all time and freely given to all generations until He comes again in glory to raise the living and the dead.
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2002 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.
You may also be interested in the document:
How Should the Christian Respond to Personal Suffering?
Did Jesus Have to Suffer to Save Mankind?
Review of Bible Passages:
All Scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible translation and other quotations are from either St. Augustine's On the Trinity or St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae.
Wisdom from Sacred Scripture concerning God's Plan of Salvation:
Some key passages from Sts. Augustine [4th century] and Thomas Aquinas [13th century] on the Passion of the Christ:
St. Thomas Aquinas' 5 points which illustrate why God's plan was the best plan:
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2002 (on the Feast of St. Augustine) Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.