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Chapter 22: God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus’ Human Life

Question F: How does it come about that Jesus freely accepts death?

1. Jesus freely accepts death because in doing so he carries out his personal vocation. Yet if one thinks about it, this is puzzling for two reasons. First, how can death accomplish anything? This question will be answered in G, below, where it will be explained how Jesus’ death is redemptive. Second, how could accepting something carry out one’s vocation? Usually, the side effects of one’s choices are not the way one accomplishes one’s central purpose in life. Still, the present question will show that Jesus’ acceptance of death does just this, and will explain why his acceptance of death was inevitable given his faithfulness to his vocation.

2. Describing the death of Jesus, St. John writes: “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), ‘I thirst.’ A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19.28–30). One could hardly say more clearly that Jesus’ earthly life was not just ended but completed by his death. His life was not cut short by death; rather, just insofar as it was freely accepted, his death belonged to the main human act of his whole life. It best expressed and carried out his basic commitment. To the extent possible for any man, this act accomplished what Jesus had committed himself to.23

3. By affirming its intentionally redemptive character, Scripture and the teaching of the Church make it clear that in accepting death Jesus does carry out his personal vocation. The Creed affirms: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried.” The Church solemnly teaches that by his passion and death Jesus merited salvation for us and reconciled us to God in his blood (see DS 1347/711, 1513/790). It also teaches that the passion and death of Jesus made satisfaction to the Father, that is, somehow made up for sin (see DS 1529/799, 1689–90/904). This teaching is solidly based upon the New Testament, especially the Epistles of St. Paul.

4. For all that, Jesus’ death remains puzzling. Why did he have to die like this? Why should the Father have willed such a thing? One wonders precisely how Jesus’ dying was humanly fulfilling for him. It is comparatively easy to understand how other things he did fit into his personal vocation. But how did accepting death make sense in relation to the self-identity he had established by his basic commitment and refined by carrying out his personal mission? Was he in fact simply obeying the Father blindly?

5. It is important to be clear about what needs explaining here. Foreseeing that he would be killed, Jesus continued with his work and did nothing to avoid the consequences he foresaw. He accepted death but he did not choose it. (As was explained in 9‑F, one does not will accepted side effects in the same way one wills what one chooses.) Hence, the human act which needs explanation is not a choice by Jesus to kill himself, not a suicide, for there was no such choice; rather, it is his free acceptance of death (see S.t., 3, q. 22, a. 2, ad 1; q. 47, a. 1).

6. Before asking why Jesus humanly accepts death, a prior question should be considered. Why did the Word not become Incarnate as a nonmortal person? The answer is that this condition, so different from that of sinful humankind, would have negated the very purpose of the Incarnation. The race of Man is not simply lifted out of sin willy-nilly but, in Jesus, redeems itself in cooperation with God (see S.t., 3, q. 1, a. 1, ad 2; q. 46, a. 3; q. 50, a. 1). To reunite sinful humankind with God, the Word accepts the human condition as it is, to the extent he can do so—that is, in everything but committing sin. Thus he accepts all the effects of sin which are not aspects of alienation from God. In short, the Word becomes mortal flesh in order really to be one of us (see Phil 2.6–8; S.t., 3, q. 14, a. 1).

7. The question remains: How does it come about that Jesus freely accepts the death he suffers? To carry out his mission, Jesus had to present himself more and more openly as the redeemer for whom Israel hoped. But even the apostles did not fully understand what kind of redeemer he meant to be. Jesus’ emergence as a popular figure undoubtedly frightened the Jewish leadership and disposed them to cooperate in killing him. Moreover, in proposing to be a leader who engulfs enemies in love rather than destroys them, Jesus lost much of the support he had. Thus he was in an extremely vulnerable position.24

8. As question E explained, for both Jesus and his adversaries, their opposition was a matter of principle; neither side could compromise. Understanding evil as he did, Jesus could deal with violence only by suffering it; understanding evil as they did, his adversaries could deal with evil only by destroying it, unless they could keep clear of it in some other way. Thus, Jesus was ready to suffer death if necessary, and his adversaries were ready to kill him if necessary.

9. Jesus’ personal vocation demanded that he not avoid the decisive encounter in Jerusalem. Going there to celebrate the Passover and preach in the temple was important to him. Moreover, Jesus could not draw back even before the hostility of the religious leaders without abandoning them to their sins. This he would not do, for his personal vocation required him to call all Israel to repentance.

10. He went to Jerusalem for the last time knowing he would be killed. He could have remained away or, as the hostility grew intense, escaped before disaster befell him. Sooner or later, however, he had either to give up his work and go into hiding, protect himself by miraculous acts, or accept being killed. The first would have betrayed his vocation. The second would have nullified the point of the Incarnation, for a redemption depending on constant miracles would not be a human work as is one which in general accepts the human condition and its consequences, nor would it be suited to elicit a free human response. Thus, only the acceptance of death remains as an option compatible with Jesus’ faithfulness to his personal vocation.

The Synoptics tell us Jesus considered giving his life for others an essential part of his mission: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45; cf. Mt 20.28). Jesus repeatedly predicts his passion and death (see Mt 16.21–23; 17.22–23; 20.18–19; 26.1–2; Mk 8.31; 9.3l; 10.32–34; Lk 9.22, 44; 18.31–33). According to most of these texts, he also predicts his resurrection. The narrative of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper also makes it clear that Jesus meant to shed his blood to establish a new and lasting covenant between God and humankind, so that the alienation which is sin would be overcome and communion made perfect (see Mt 26.26–28; Mk 14.22–24; Lk 22.19–20).25

John has Jesus allude repeatedly to his death. The Son of Man must be “lifted up” (Jn 3.14). A time is coming when the dead will hear the Son of Man (see Jn 5.25–28). When he is lifted up, his divinity will be revealed (see Jn 8.28). “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10.17–18). The moment of death is the great hour of the life of Jesus; when it comes, he is glorified. Dying like a seed planted in the earth, he rises to a fruitful new life (see Jn 12.23–24).

23. For a good summary treatment within a Thomistic framework of the scriptural evidence concerning the causes and motivations involved in Jesus’ death, see Richard T. A. Murphy, O.P., “Appendix 3: Causes of Christ’s Death,” in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 54, The Passion of Christ (3a 46–52), ed. Richard T. A. Murphy, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 194–201. For a plausible interpretation which makes use of the concept of martyr, see John Downing, “Jesus and Martyrdom,” Journal of Theological Studies, 14 (1963), 279–93. If the conclusion is accepted, of course, it does not exclude Jesus’ acceptance of his death as a sacrifice, since that is in no way inconsistent with martyrdom.

24. See Kingdon, op. cit., 77–86; Dodd, op. cit., 130–38.

25. See Jeremias, op. cit., 276–99, for an exegesis of texts to show that Jesus announced his suffering and death and voluntarily accepted them in his role of Servant, offering himself in atonement.