Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was raised up on the third day–that’s the first thing most Catholics learn about the faith, and rightfully so.
It’s so important that St. Paul writes, “…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Corinthians 15:17-18).
But why exactly did Jesus have to die, and how did His dying wash away our sins? We cannot fully appreciate Christ’s tremendous sacrifice on the cross without understanding these reasons.
Why Do We Need Saving?
The first step in appreciating Christ’s sacrifice is to understand why mankind needed saving at all.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “God created man in his image and established him in his friendship. A spiritual creature, man can live this friendship only in free submission to God.”
That means Adam and Eve had the free will to live in friendship and submission to God their creator or to disobey and reject Him. They chose the latter after being tempted, placing their interests before God.
As a result, when they disobeyed and ate from the tree of knowledge, they lost the original grace with which God had created them, and original sin entered the world.
But what do Adam and Eve have to do with us, and why is the rest of humanity responsible for their actions?
It may not seem fair to be punished for the sins of our original parents, but neither is it fair that a child is born sick because its mother drank alcohol during the pregnancy. We all inherited the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin. We contracted original sin, which is essentially the death of the soul.
“By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC: 404).
As a result of this original sin, we are born with a soul that is doomed to die. This is why we need to be saved.
The Purpose of Christ’s Death
Despite Adam and Eve’s original sin and the resulting entrance of death into the world, God continued to love us infinitely for reasons that are incomprehensible to the human mind.
God could have saved us in any number of ways, but He chose to do so by sending His son to suffer and die on the cross. Instead of us having to foot the bill for Adam and Eve’s sin, Jesus would. By dying, He would be suffering our punishment for us and satisfying God’s divine justice.
If God could have saved us any way He wanted, why did He choose the seemingly hardest option of sacrificing His only son?
St. Thomas Aquinas came up with five reasons:
- By sacrificing His only son, God showed man how much He loves him. Having witnessed this unfathomable love, we are hopefully stirred to love God in return.
- By giving Himself up willingly to death, Jesus sets an example of humility and obedience to God. He accepted God’s will with courage and faith, and we are called to do the same. Where Adam disobeyed, Christ obeyed.
- Through His death on the cross, Jesus not only delivers us from sin but merits grace for us so that we may enter heaven.
- Christ’s great sacrifice makes us more bound to avoid sin. He didn’t buy our salvation with money but with His life. The least we can do is avoid sin.
- By dying on a cross, Jesus poetically flips the tables on Adam and Eve’s original sin. Adam fell into original sin by eating from a tree; Christ conquers sin by being crucified to a tree. In Genesis, the devil overthrows man; in the Gospels, Jesus overthrows the devil and saves man.
God chose the most painful way for Jesus to redeem us. This also serves as an example for us not to fear evil and suffering in life. Jesus endured the worst evil and suffering out of love for us. He leads by example.
We’ll never fully understand God’s reasoning in this life, but we know enough to discern God’s immense love and desire for us to be with Him. We should remind ourselves of this each time we are tempted to sin.