St. Thomas Aquinas is Right: The Crucifixion Should Disturb You

Adriaen Backer (1635/1636-1684), “The Elevation of the Cross”
Adriaen Backer (1635/1636-1684), “The Elevation of the Cross” (photo: Public Domain)

Last week we discussed the three pivotal moments in salvation history, which are truly built around the life of Christ. They are the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

Having discussed the Incarnation from the point of view of St. Thomas, pointing out how completely ridiculous it was for God to choose to become man, we move to the next disturbing teaching within our faith, the Crucifixion. And it is just that: disturbing!

Why should the Crucifixion disturb us? Well, it seems to sanctimoniously destroy our faith, and I guarantee for those days up until He appeared to them once more, this is what the Apostles and other believers felt.

Just like I mentioned with the Incarnation, the revelation of how disturbing this all is did not come to me until someone put the facts into clear words: God was killed by those He came to save. “Whaaat?” is all I could think to myself. First, God died? Another contradiction! That’s the things about Gods: they don’t die. But this one did. But (I’m talking to myself at this point) He didn’t just die, He was killed!

How does someone kill a god?

Wait… How does someone kill THEIR GOD? Like I said: disturbing. I digress.

While learning to defend my faith, I found it paradoxically comforting that the very thing that would appear to destroy our faith and render this “Christ” a fraud, is actually a great reason to believe the testimony of the first Christians.

What I’m saying is, if the first Christians wanted to recruit more rapidly to their cause to believe in a God who became man (an absurdity in itself), wouldn’t it seems infinitely more likely that they would devise a story about a God that rules in the ways most people would be provoked by? Surely, if a group of frauds made up a religion, it would contain stories of great worldly virtue, perfect strength, and unstoppable sovereignty.

But that’s not what happened and it’s completely preposterous. St. Thomas once again would agree: this is the least likely course of action.

With that, Thomas answers a multitude of questions regarding the final passion of Christ, and I would like to discuss two of the greatest which help unravel the mystery of the Crucifixion.

Was his suffering necessary and efficient? In other words, did He have to die? That deserves two answers. The purpose of His death was to obtain the salvation of all mankind (John 3:17). Now, God is omnipotent, which means he can do anything He wants. If God wants to wave His hand over the earth to wipe it clean, He could. In fact, He actually did just that in Noah’s Flood, a prefiguration of the Sacrament of Baptism (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1219). So it was not absolutely necessary. However, it was necessary from another aspect: its relativity. This moves us to—and is better explained in—the next question.

Were there more suitable means? In other words, did he have to suffer so much?

God did not have to suffer, rather, He chose to suffer. Proper to God’s nature is His univocal omnipotence. At the same time, proper to God’s perfect goodness is His perfect love. A perfect love goes to the extreme reaches of human understanding to will the good of another, and then a step further. Through His perfect love He does not just want converts and followers: He charges mankind with sainthood! He entrusts men with the judgment of angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). He loves the world with such undying devotion that He gave over His only Son to the hands of those who wished for His barbaric death (John 3:16). As an unequivocal demonstration of His love for us, He chose the most horrific death possible. His death was not purposed for mere correction: He sought brilliant inspiration!

The answer to the question is, if God’s intent was to die for every sin, procure every merit on behalf of mankind, and bring forth every man and woman to the awe and sheer beauty of the cross, then no, there was no more suitable means.

For more on Christ’s passion from the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, see Summa Theologica Part 3, Question 46