agnostic: "christ didn't suffer enough"
Edward R. Benet
(first published on Catholic Stand, 17.10.2020)
My father-in-law’s friend, Richard, is a good man. If you didn’t know which religion he professed, you might be inclined to think he was a Christian. A couple of years ago, when my father-in-law was unwell and in isolation, Richard expended great effort to visit him regularly over a period of many months. During that time, my wife and I quoted Matthew’s Gospel to him: “I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you do it to me” (Matthew 25: 36,40). Yet, Richard is agnostic. He keeps an open mind on the existence of God and on the truth of Christianity, but he is still plagued by doubts. Recently, he expressed one of these doubts to us as follows. If the suffering of Christ is really to redeem all of humanity, then it needed to be a lot more than it actually was. Sure, Richard appreciates that the suffering of the passion was enormous, but he is bothered by the fact that so many other people have even greater sufferings, excruciating agonies that last months or even years. To Richard’s way of thinking, if Christ is really to bear the burden of all of humanity, then his sufferings would need to be the greatest of all time.
My friend, Thomas, is Protestant. He, too, is an upright man, finding daily sustenance in his attachment to Sacred Scripture. In fact, his reverence for the Bible is quite extraordinary. Unlike Richard, Thomas has no problem in accepting that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for the salvation of all. However, he would have a difficulty – as most Protestants do – in accepting the Catholic belief that the Eucharist involves participation in the sacrifice of Christ. “Christ died once for all”, Thomas would say. “Can’t Catholics accept that this one sacrifice is complete and sufficient for the redemption of humanity?”
So who is right, here? Is Richard correct in thinking that there is something lacking in Christ’s suffering? Or is Thomas justified in saying that Christ’s sacrifice lacks nothing, but Catholics behave as if were incomplete and insufficient?
The Standard View: Christ had the greatest capacity for suffering
In my first email reply to Richard, I gave the “standard” answer that Christians of many denominations would probably find acceptable. This is the view that Christ - being divine as well as human - would have suffered to a degree completely impossible for a mere human. Jesus had an intimate relationship with his Father and would have felt the horror of evil in a much more acute way than we who are tainted by original sin. Christ would have understood, in a manner impossible for us, the tragedy that occurs when humans rupture their filial relationship with God. In fact, being divine as well as human, Jesus would have been capable of unimaginable spiritual agony when confronted by the sin and suffering of others. Therefore, during the agony in Gethsemane, we can assume that his spiritual suffering could, by itself, have exceeded the collective sufferings of the rest of humanity. Some fathers of the Church and spiritual writers (Catholic as well as Protestant) believe that Christ in Gethsemane foresaw all the sins that would be committed until the end of the world, and joined himself spiritually with all the sufferings of the innocent throughout history.
Whether or not Christ’s suffering in the Garden included this explicit foreknowledge, we can still appreciate how his divine nature would have given him an acute sensitivity to the sinfulness and infidelity of humanity. He would have recoiled, as no mere human could, at our betrayal and ingratitude. In other words, even if the sufferings of Christ are not comparable quantitatively (in terms of physical extent or duration in time) with the sufferings of many historic individuals, nevertheless it exceeds all other suffering qualitatively.
In his reply to my email, Richard accepted the point - in theory. He admitted that the divinity of Christ would indeed have meant that his sufferings were greater than those endured by any other human. My easy “victory” in this debate brought me little satisfaction, however. The real problem with Richard’s position - although he didn’t explicitly mention it in his message - is that he does not actually accept that Christ is divine, and no intellectual argument about suffering is going to change that.
Having completed this mini-discussion on suffering and then forgotten the whole subject for a while, I later realised that my answer to Richard was woefully deficient. A better answer not only tackles the agnostic’s complaint that Christ didn’t suffer enough, it also responds to the Protestant’s contention that Catholics “continue to sacrifice Christ” on a daily basis, even though his one sacrifice was already complete two thousand years ago.
The “Already” and the “Not Yet” of Christ’s Salvific Suffering
Let’s be clear: Jesus has already won the victory over sin, suffering and death. He has ascended to the right hand of the Father where he resides in glory. We profess this belief every time we recite the Creed. Thus far, we have no argument with Thomas. However, the belief is more nuanced than that because it is also perfectly clear that sin, suffering and death are still holding sway in quite spectacular fashion in the world in which we reside. How are these two elements to be reconciled? Christ’s victory is “already” won, but has “not yet” been fully worked out in the lives of the redeemed. In fact, the mission of the Church is to bring Christ’s victory to full and final realisation. In the life of the Church, the “already” and the “not yet” are in constant co-existence. There is no contradiction here. Indeed, how can it be any other way? Christ has died for all and it is up to each one of us, with our free will, to receive the grace of redemption that is being offered to us through the Church. The Church on earth will be in a state of incompletion until the last believer at the end of time receives salvation.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
How is this point relevant for the question of whether or not Christ suffered enough to redeem humanity? As we know all too well, the Church in history continues to suffer with Christ. But it is not correct to say that Christians do all the suffering whilst Christ’s sufferings are already over. It is not simply the case that Jesus is “up there” in glory, while we suffer in isolation “down here”. In a very real sense, Christ is suffering with us. This is part of the “already” and “not yet” of the passion and cross.
The Crucifixion and Resurrection Transcend History
If Jesus is already in glory with the Father, how can he suffer with us still? To approach this question, the passion, death and resurrection must be understood as the fathers of the Church and the great spiritual writers have understood them - as cosmic events that transcend any particular time-frame. There is a sense in which these earth-shattering moments stand outside of history, or, better, there is a sense in which all of history is being gathered by the Lord into the embrace of these events. When I suffer now, or endure something willingly as a sacrifice to the Lord, my offering is gathered up with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and made perfect. Whenever anyone is in agony or despair, Christ is suffering with them. He has united himself to them. If, in addition to the physical and mental burden of suffering, they offer their agony to the Lord, then they join with him in the garden of Gethsemane and upon the cross, bringing him consolation. As St Paul says: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Colossians 1, 24).
However, even if a person is not in a position to offer his suffering explicitly to Christ, this doesn’t mean that Christ is not accompanying him anyway. We can appreciate this point most clearly in cases where the innocent suffer. In the 1950s, Elie Wiesel wrote Night, a book recounting his horrific experiences in Auschwitz concentration camp. On one occasion, the inmates were forced to witness the execution of a young boy. As the boy hung in agony from the gallows, the voice of a prisoner behind Wiesel kept repeating, “Where is merciful God, where is he?” Wiesel, from within himself, heard the answer, “Where is he? This is where - hanging from this gallows”. Different commentators have reflected on this answer in different ways. Fulton Sheen’s response was that God does not send evil or suffering, but he sends Christ so that he is always with humanity when we suffer. Despite appearances, the Lord is not indifferent to the agony of this boy, but endures the agony with him. Though his thought was infected by the Jansenist heresy, there is still validity in the famous sentiment of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) when he remarked: “Jesus will be in agony, even to the end of the world”.
The Self-Offering in the Eucharist Transcends History
This takes us to the contention of Thomas that our belief in the Mass implies that Catholics demand that Christ suffer continuously, as if the one sacrifice of Calvary was not enough. Here, however, Thomas fails to appreciate the cosmic significance of the sacrifice of Christ and the way it transcends the particular historical moment in which it took place. Fulton Sheen used to say that during the Mass “the veil is parted” and we find ourselves standing on Calvary. On this, it is worth quoting him at length:
“What is important at this point is that we take the proper mental attitude toward the Mass, and remember this important fact, that the Sacrifice of the Cross is not something which happened nineteen hundred years ago. It is still happening. It is not something past like the signing of the Declaration of Independence; it is an abiding drama on which the curtain has not yet rung down. Let it not be believed that it happened a long time ago, and therefore no more concerns us than anything else in the past”. (Fulton Sheen, Calvary and the Mass).
A little analogy might help. Imagine that you are playing football with the family in the back garden. You do an amazing dribble and score a spectacular goal. “Wouldn’t it be great”, you say, “if there existed a wonderful machine by which, in moments like these, I could be transported supernaturally to the stadium where my favourite team are playing, right onto the centre of the pitch, and my flash of brilliance could contribute to my team’s effort towards victory? My team have been playing rubbish as of late and could do with some supernatural help”. Incredible as it might seem to non-Catholics, the Mass is that type of wonderful “machine”. During the Eucharistic prayer, I am transported to the great stadium at the very moment of the biggest game of all time – Mount Calvary on the first Good Friday. Actually, it is not so much that I am borne to the great stadium on match day, but that the great stadium is borne into my life, and into my very body at the moment of communion. Christ has already won the greatest battle of history, it is true, but now he is concretely winning it in my flesh, with my participation.
Richard had a problem with the claim that Christ’s sufferings are sufficient for the redemption of humanity. His difficulty stemmed from the observation that other people suffered more. But Christ’s suffering - even though in one sense it is over and the victory is won - transcends and embraces all the suffering of history. The Father has willed that Christ be present in all human suffering. Thus no-one in the end suffers more than him because he has entered so deeply into our condition that he bears all of our suffering with us until he end of the world.
Thomas had a difficulty with the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, and thought that we were trying to sacrifice Christ on a daily basis, as if his original suffering was not sufficient. Here again, however, Jesus’ sacrifice transcends history and embraces every re-presentation of that sacrifice in the celebration of the Mass. It is not that we continue to sacrifice Christ on a daily basis, but that our daily celebration of the Eucharist partakes of that one sacrifice of Christ.
Passion and Eucharist: a unified event around which all of history is being gathered
Hopefully it is clearer now how the Catholic view answers the sincere difficulties expressed by these two good men, Richard and Thomas. In response to Richard, not only has Christ suffered “enough”, but he has suffered everything - “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53,5-6). In response to Thomas, we acknowledge that the suffering of Christ on Calvary was sufficient, but this is not an event fossilized in time. Christ’s sacrifice of self-offering embraces all of history, and this is never more true than when we participate in that offering during the celebration of the Eucharist. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10,16). Thus, curiously, we have responded to the two opposite criticisms of the agnostic and the Protestant with one and the same answer: Christ offered himself for our sins by taking on himself the entire burden of humanity’s sin and suffering until the end of time. That Christ’s self-offering transcends the particular historical events of two thousand years ago is demonstrated above all by the fact that we participate in this one sacrifice every time we celebrate the Eucharist. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11,26).