Many people find the Christian doctrine of Redemption rather difficult to accept. Various questions are typically raised against it. Does God demand suffering in satisfaction for sin? Does God inflict suffering on the innocent? Does the divine mission of Christ the Redeemer really make sense from the moral point of view? Don’t the moral principles that the Catholic Church teaches, such as the principle of double-effect, explicitly require us to condemn the divine intention to redeem mankind through the Passion of the Christ? In willing that the Christ should undergo his Passion in order to make satisfaction for our sins, did God thereby will that a good effect be obtained by means of an evil effect? Did God intend the evil effect directly as a means to our salvation? And if God did directly intend it, then did he not have a morally evil will? How can such a God be a loving God? And when he permits the innocent to suffer, does he expect them just to accept it as his divine will for them?

In ethics and in civil law, we typically distinguish between direct and indirect voluntariness. That which is directly willed is voluntary in itself, while that which is only indirectly willed is voluntary only in cause. Often our actions have unintended effects, and sometimes these are foreseen. No one is ever morally permitted to will evil directly, but often we must permit unintended but foreseen evil effects from actions that are morally good in themselves. In natural-law ethics, the principle of double-effect is the guide to discerning on a case-by-case basis whether an unintended but foreseen evil effect of a good action is morally justifiable and permissible. There are four conditions that must be satisfied: (1) the act which is directly willed must be good in itself or at least indifferent; (2) the intended good must not be causally obtained by means of the unintended but foreseen evil effect; (3) the evil effect must only be permitted, not intended or directly willed; and (4) there must be a proportionately serious reason for permitting the unintended but foreseen evil effect. If any of these four conditions cannot be met in a particular case, then the act is morally wrong, but if all the conditions are met, then the act is morally praiseworthy.

An example from medical ethics would be the action of a doctor who permits the death of an unborn baby as an unintended but foreseen evil effect of a surgery necessary to save the life of its mother, or who permits the death of the mother as an unintended but foreseen evil effect of a surgery necessary to save the life of her unborn baby. In either case, the act is morally good because the good effect is not obtained by means of the evil effect, and saving the life of the one person is proportionate to permitting the death of the other person. The mother may morally choose either to preserve her own life for the good of her family, or to sacrifice her own life as necessary for the sake of preserving the life of her unborn baby. In the latter case, the mother and her doctor foresee that she will die from the operation to save her unborn baby, but they do not intend her death. The life of the one is saved, but not by means of the death of the other. The death is willed only indirectly, as an unintended consequence of the justifiable medical procedure, and if it turns out that there is a way to save both the mother and the baby, then the doctor will very happily do so.

As St Thomas Aquinas explains, if God had wanted to redeem us without requiring the Passion of Christ and providing satisfaction for our sins, he could have done so [1]. Strictly speaking, not even the Incarnation of a divine Person was necessary for our Redemption. According to St Thomas, the Passion of Christ was required by God only in the sense of being foreknown, preordained, and prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. And Christ’s Passion was preordained and prophesied by God without being directly willed by God, so it satisfies the principle of double-effect. It was necessary for Christ to suffer and to die for our sins, as it was written of him, but not because God willed his Passion and Death as an evil means to a good effect.

It could be argued that the Passion of Christ was also necessary as a matter of justice, to make full satisfaction for our sins. St Thomas, however, believes that God could have saved us without making any satisfaction for our sins. In his view, this wouldn’t have been unjust, since a person can mercifully overlook a personal trespass and waive any satisfaction for the debt. Other theologians, such as Benedict XVI, argue that God could not have justly saved us without making full satisfaction for our sins, since the infinite insult to God in mortal sin can be rectified only by an infinite act of atonement. [2]  But God in his infinite mercy is free to waive this just requirement, and as Catholic Christians, we are free to believe either theological position in this ancient debate. Any forgiveness without full restitution could be construed as enabling evil conduct. This would certainly be true of forgiveness which does not require contrition and a purpose of amendment. But St Thomas maintains that when a person does have true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment, then he or she can mercifully be forgiven without the requirement of making full restitution, as in the parables of Jesus where the father forgives the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and the compassionate king initially forgives the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35). In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis writes:

“In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy. We know these parables well, three in particular: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the father with two sons (Luke 15:1-32). In these parables, God is always presented as full of joy, especially when he pardons. In them we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon.”

“From another parable, we cull an important teaching for our Christian lives. In reply to Peter’s question about how many times it is necessary to forgive, Jesus says, ‘I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven times’ (Matthew 18:22). He then goes on to tell the parable of the ‘ruthless servant,’ who, called by his master to return a huge amount, begs him on his knees for mercy.  His master cancels his debt. But he then meets a fellow servant who owes him a few cents and who in turn begs on his knees for mercy, but the first servant refuses his request and throws him into jail. When the master hears of the matter, he becomes infuriated and, summoning the first servant back to him, says, ‘Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (Matthew 18:33). Jesus concludes, ‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’ (Matthew 18:35).”  (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus §9)

God did in fact forgive the debt which we owed him but were unable to pay, and he did so by becoming man and by making full restitution as man for our sin. Specifically, God chose to accomplish our liberation through his perfect obedience, as man, to the divine will, and by his perfect forgiveness of those who treated him unjustly. Through the obedience and mercy of the one man, Jesus Christ, all who have true faith in his word, a firm obedience to his commands, true contrition, and a firm purpose of amendment have all their trespasses against God forgiven. Those who have been forgiven are called in turn to forgive those who trespass against them.

“If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice. We must pay close attention to what Saint Paul says if we want to avoid making the same mistake for which he reproaches the Jews of his time: ‘For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified’ (Romans 10:3-4). God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgement on all of us and on the whole world, because through it he offers us the certitude of love and new life.”  (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus §21)

In requiring Christ to undergo the Passion, God was not directly intending an evil in order that we might be saved. And he did not directly will the Passion of Christ for any other just reason, for example so that the world would see his sacrificial love, although this was in fact another good effect that came from Christ’s obedience. God is not a utilitarian. He permitted the Passion of Christ and accepted it as satisfaction for our sins, but he did not will it directly as a means to any good end. God did not intend that people commit unjust acts toward Christ, and Jesus desired that people would respond in kind to his love. If they had acted justly, as they ought to have acted, the Passion of Christ would not have happened. In the accounts given in Sacred Scripture, some of the people directly involved in the Crucifixion of Christ seem to be invincibly ignorant, while others seem to be vincibly ignorant and thus directly culpable, but only God knows. We all stand in need of divine forgiveness, and Christ gives it to us even when we should have known and done better.

When Christ prays to God the Father “Not my will but thine be done,” he is not implying that the Father directly willed that he suffer. God never directly wills that anyone suffer injustice or that anyone commit injustice. And if St Thomas is correct, then we could have been saved simply by God willing it into existence, rather than by Christ’s Passion. But God permitted the suffering and death of Christ for a proportionately serious reason, namely to preserve the freedom of those who directly willed his death, and to make perfect restitution for our offenses. And that restitution is the specific sense in which Christ’s Passion is the cause of our salvation.

Even if Christ was not required in strict justice to make such a perfect sacrifice for our salvation, it was still fitting for him to do so and was the greatest revelation of his love for us. It was also the greatest revelation of God’s respect for human freedom, even when it entails permitting great evil. Christ did not directly intend or want to suffer or die, but he did permit himself to be tortured and killed unjustly. He would have preferred to save us without harm to himself and without becoming the object of unjust acts made against him, but the freedom of our fallen human nature and the fallen angels unfortunately would not allow it. And God foresaw that his only begotten Son would be treated unjustly by human rulers. God also preordained that this human abuse of freedom and injustice toward Christ would be the cause of our salvation, but God did not directly want it to happen. It was our will that Christ should suffer and die. It was not God’s will, except indirectly insofar as God foresaw what would happen and permitted it.

God did not directly cause his only begotten Son to suffer, and God does not directly cause us to suffer as his adopted sons and daughters, but he does ask us to accept unavoidable suffering and injustice as Christ did, making every effort to help others to turn away from evil and act in accord with truth and justice. God never wants anyone to commit murder or to do anything morally wrong, but God always wills to preserve the freedom of those who do evil, and he always brings a greater good out of the evil that he permits. It can be difficult to trust God and to accept the evil that he permits and that we cannot avoid. The greater good that God brings out of an evil act is never accomplished by means of the evil act; the greater good is always accomplished in spite of the evil act.

Christ is the model of perfect love and perfect obedience to God the Father. In order to imitate Christ as his blessed Mother and other faithful disciples did, we must accept the evil and unjust things that happen to us and we cannot avoid, and all the unfortunate difficulties that we encounter, knowing full well that God could have prevented them and spared us of the suffering that they cause us, but also knowing that in permitting them God will bring some greater good out of it, both for ourselves and for others. This acceptance does not mean that we should ever condone unjust acts or abusive conduct in others, but it does mean that we must strive to forgive those who trespass against us as Christ forgives those who trespass against him. We must often judge the unjust actions of others, hold them accountable, and call them to true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment, but at the same time we must not presume to judge or condemn their hearts, and we must strive to forgive even those who should have known and done better. Then we must be generous to them as God has been generous to us.  This is the path of mercy, to which Christ has called us.

“The Lord Jesus shows us the steps of the pilgrimage to attain our goal: ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back’ (Lk 6:37-38). The Lord asks us above all not to judge and not to condemn. If anyone wishes to avoid God’s judgment, he should not make himself the judge of his brother or sister. Human beings, whenever they judge, look no farther than the surface, whereas the Father looks into the very depths of the soul. How much harm words do when they are motivated by feelings of jealousy and envy! To speak ill of others puts them in a bad light, undermines their reputation and leaves them prey to the whims of gossip. To refrain from judgment and condemnation means, in a positive sense, to know how to accept the good in every person and to spare him any suffering that might be caused by our partial judgment, our presumption to know everything about him. But this is still not sufficient to express mercy. Jesus asks us also to forgive and to give. To be instruments of mercy because it was we who first received mercy from God. To be generous with others, knowing that God showers his goodness upon us with immense generosity” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus §14)


[1] (Summa Theologiae III, q. 46, a. 2)

[2] See Chapter 5.3 of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, translated by Philip J. Whitmore and published in English by Ignatius Press).

Image: The Crucifixion – painting by Fra Angelico. Image in the public domain


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Tracy Jamison is a Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a secular Carmelite (OCDS) and a professor of Philosophy at Mount St Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology (MTSM). Tracy and his wife Joyce met in a Protestant seminary and have been happily married for over thirty years.

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