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Did Jesus have to die for our sins?

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Anselm believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus was necessary to restore humanity's communion with the Father, that the blood of Jesus was "payment" to God for human sin.

Father Kenneth
Doyle

Q. This year during Holy Week, I was particularly troubled by the traditional teaching that Christ had to die that painful death to atone for our sins. This seems to me to contradict Jesus' identity as a loving savior. Upon Googling the topic, I came across a column you did several years ago that seemed to give a straightforward and common-sense answer.

(I also benefited from reading a magazine article by the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, which explained that St. Anselm's 11th-century "satisfaction theology" was a product of the feudal society of his time; if you broke a law in those days, you had to pay something back to the feudal lord to restore order to society.) Do you have any further thoughts which could help comfort me on this issue? (Murphy, North Carolina)

A. I couldn't agree more with your discomfort at the view of St. Anselm. Anselm believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus was necessary to restore humanity's communion with the Father, that the blood of Jesus was "payment" to God for human sin.

This theory, though, has been challenged by other theologians over the centuries. In fact, one of Anselm's contemporaries, the scholar Peter Abelard, insisted that Christ's death on the cross had been an act of love, not payment.

And even 700 years before that, St. Augustine had indicated his reservations about such a theory; Augustine asked, in his "De Trinitate," "Is it necessary to think that being God, the Father was angry with us, saw his son die for us and thus abated his anger against us?" St. Thomas Aquinas, too, criticized Anselm's theory, saying that it took away God's freedom to be merciful. Theologians in our own day have also found difficulty with Anselm's view.

In the article you mention, Elizabeth Johnson speaks persuasively; she reminds us that, in the biblical story of the prodigal son, the father wouldn't even let his son apologize, saying instead, "It doesn't matter now. You're home. Let's have a party."

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in his "Introduction to Christianity" that Anselm's attempt to blend the divine and human legal systems can "make the image of God appear in a sinister light." And so -- thankfully -- none of us is compelled to believe that God deliberately willed the suffering of his Son.

Q. I am 28 years old and over the past 10 years, I have been in three serious romantic relationships, one of which reached the point where I became engaged. All three relationships ended for the same reason -- the inability to find common ground on issues of faith.

It is easy to move toward hopelessness, believing that I may never find anyone who will meet my standards (being Catholic, desiring an active faith life and willing to accompany me on that faith journey). I do still believe that God hasn't forgotten me, that I can put my trust in his timing and persevere in the midst of doubt. But can you offer any words of encouragement for someone in my position? (Sioux City, Iowa)

A. Well, right off the bat here is one encouraging thing: I just looked up the average age of people getting married in the U.S., and it's your age or above. So, you still have time! But seriously, I am impressed and edified by the values you prize in a marriage; if the ultimate goal of each of us is to, one day, be with God in heaven, then we want every major decision in our life to lead us in that direction.

And since you put such a premium on faith, I can't believe that God does not have something good in store for you -- and his timing is always better than ours! On a practical level, there are several dating services that invite users to comment on the role the Catholic faith plays in their life, and I have known couples who have found success in this way. Among such services are: CatholicMatch, Catholic Singles, Catholic Chemistry and Ave Maria Singles.

- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service



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