Catholic Atonement Explained

The conception of Christ’s atonement is a central issue which separates Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Christians from the heretical Protestants, who misunderstand both the Lord’s Incarnation and the all-loving nature of God. Namely, we do not believe, and it is a BIG mistake to believe, that God the Father demanded the cruel torture and death of His only Beloved Son –the worse sin mankind ever committed. No. God the Father does not demand sin. God the Father is not some wrathful “Germanic sky god” (e.g. Odin), and He did not demand the death of Jesus so as to satisfy some sense of ‘wrathful justice.’ To believe this (as most Protestants do) is a form of Arianism, in that it makes the loving nature of Jesus something distinct from the “wrathful and just” nature of the Father. Rather, the Father is “one in Being with the Son,” and He did not demand the cruel torture and death of the Son. Rather, WE are the ones who demanded the cruel torture and death of Jesus. The Father merely demanded that Jesus go to the ultimate human extent of loving us (i.e., “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for those he loves.”).

The best way to explain this mystery is to look at if from the point of view of the Bridegroom-and-Bride motif that runs all through Scripture. Jesus, the New and sinless Adam, is born as a man. However, He is not a man like the rest of us, since He is not fallen like the rest of us, but is completely without sin, which is what makes Him the New Adam. So, Jesus the New Adam has our human nature as it should be, but not as it is. Thus, something more needs to be done in order for Him to save us — that is, a “connection” (Covenant) needs to be made between us and the sinless New Adam. That Covenant will be a one-Flesh Covenant, just like a marriage covenant. Thus, the New Adam comes to us as the Bridegroom, and wishes to become “one-flesh” with us, the Bride. Now, it was quite possible for sinful mankind (the Bride) to accept the Incarnate Jesus just as He was, and so become “one flesh” with Him in holiness (i.e. this is how Jesus was able to give Himself to His followers in the Eucharist at the Last Supper — that is, before His passion and death on the Cross). Yet, since mankind as a whole would not accept Jesus and become “one flesh” with Him in holiness, Jesus was forced (by the demands of love) to become one flesh with us in sin. This is what was happening in the Garden of Gethsemane, and why Jesus was so upset — because He was taking our sins onto Himself; and for the first time in His human life, the sinless New Adam felt the guilt, fear, dirtiness, and desperation that is associated with sin — something He had no “knowledge” (intimate experience) of before. Because He, like His mother (and like Adam and Eve before the fall) literally had no idea what sin is like. And, as a still-sinless (guiltless) Person, He could clearly see the horror of sin – let alone the sins of ALL of us combined!

By taking our sins onto Himself, Jesus was then compelled to pay the price for them under the Law and that price was death. Thus, the sinless Bridegroom, becoming one-flesh with the Bride (sinful humanity) in the only way She would let Him become one-flesh with her, takes on her sins, and dies for her, thus completing His Incarnation and His solidarity with sinners, and making forgiveness in His Name possible for everyone. This is why Jesus had to suffer and die, and not because of some arbitrary standard of justice imposed by the Father, but because of our refusal to become one-flesh with Him in any other way.

Essentially, when we say that Jesus “took our sins onto Himself” or that He “became sin,” all that we mean is that the sinless New Adam united Himself to our sinful humanity in a very real but mysterious way. Yet, this by no means implies that He Himself became guilty of sin – whether our sins of a sin of His own. Rather, in an act of solidarity and Covenantal intimacy, Jesus stood where any one of us (or all of us) should justly stand before the Law of God — that is, as someone condemned to death (“death” being the wages of sin), and gave everything He could give as a human being (a perfect human being) — His human life — in order to redeem His fellow human beings –His Bride. This is what Adam should have offered to do for the sake of his bride Eve in the garden. But, instead of interceding with God for her (or offering to pay the punishment for her), Adam joined Eve in the guilt of sin. This is why Jesus had to come — why there had to be a Messiah Who could redeem, not one person (one bride), but all of us via an act of solidarity with us. And this is precisely how we can say. “Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”, so that we might be “reconciled to God by the death of his Son”. (CCC,407)

And this “solidarity with us sinners” (which is more than mere solidarity but a literal, one-flesh Covenant) is pointed to all through Jesus’ ministry, beginning with His baptism in the Jordan by John — an act in which He Who was all-holy submitted to a baptism of repentance when He had nothing to Personally repent for! That is precisely what anointed Jesus (with the Holy Spirit) as the Messiah, and what began Him on His road to the Cross. That is, in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, and so offering to equate Himself (His perfect and sinless self) with us sinners, Jesus, the New Adam, became what the first Adam failed to be — the intercessory Messiah, and Son of God in the truest sense – something only the eternal Son of God could do.

By Mark Bonocore

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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