Date of Award
Spring April 2017
Master of Arts
School or College
Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts
The concept of “atonement” in the doctrine of salvation is one of the most fascinating and challenging areas of theology. There are so many theories in the historical development of the doctrine of salvation. Those theories are varied with some mutually compatible and others not. They offered many different interpretations on the death of Christ. Besides all these, there raises a question, what is the real purpose of the death of Christ? Undoubtedly, there is a hidden rich theological meaning behind the suffering and death of Jesus. Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross? This is a perennial question for many, specifically for young Catholic people today. What is the significant meaning of his suffering and death? Was Christ’s suffering and crucifixion really God’s plan? How is Christ’s death on the Cross related to the Christian understanding of salvation today? To answer these questions in the context of modern believers, especially young Catholic people, who are preparing to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this paper comparatively examines the question: Is Jesus’ death on the Cross a satisfaction for the sins of humanity or a demonstration of God’s love? Since this paper has focused on the life and thought of young Catholic people, at various points I do attempt to engage the theological understandings of the doctrine of salvation. In other words, though the focus is on dogmatic theology it also has a contextual focus. While providing a more meaningful interpretation of the death of Jesus for young people, I would like to make a claim that as a “God-Man,” Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem humanity; but at the same time, his death on the Cross was a more powerful affirmation of the love of God for humanity. That is, the atonement of Christ is both the satisfaction of our sins and the demonstration of God’s love.
Atonement is a vast subject, implicating the whole field of theology. There are biblical metaphors of atonement and there are theological theories of atonement. This research paper deals with the latter. It is of doing historical theology in a systematic perspective. There are historical theologians who each had something valuable to say in their time. Among those theologians, I would like to examine two theories of atonement, such as Anselm’s satisfactory theory and Peter Abelard’s moral influence theory. I will also discuss a feminine perspective of atonement using the imagery of San Juana de la Cruz and Julian of Norwich. Finally, I address the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where the sinner enjoys the forgiveness of sins and the gift of divine love. Ultimately, I argue that dying to sin and rising to new life in the Sacrament of Reconciliation has its foundation in the atonement of Christ’s suffering and death. This atonement is best understood for young people as “atonement of love,” an Anselmian and Abelardian that is expressed through feminine imagery of God as a mother always caring, loving, embracing, sacrificing and willingly suffering for her children.
This research paper is divided into four chapters. The first chapter defines the term “atonement” and discusses the “satisfaction theory” of Anselm. It discusses how to understand the manner in which the forgiveness of human sins is related to the death of Christ on the Cross. The second chapter studies the Cross as a demonstration of God’s love. In the view of Peter Abelard’s “moral influence theory,” this section explains why and how Christ’s death is to be understood as a demonstration of the love of God. The third chapter analyses the “maternal imagery” of Juana de la Cruz and Julian of Norwich’s reflection on the Passion of Christ through a feminist perspective. While critically evaluating these theories, the fourth chapter addresses how the Sacrament of Reconciliation itself can be renewed through the atonement theology, which holds together Anselm, Abelard and feminist theology.
To my understanding, Calvary is full of mystery and contradiction, and our minds cannot fully cope with Christ on a Cross, yet there is a central message, and it is the message that Christ has reconciled the sinful humanity with God. Through his forgiving and suffering love, specifically by his divine will of reconciliation, this divine embrace has become proximate to every human life. In this divine reconciliation, can we compartmentalize his suffering and death in a constraint particular view? It may not, and should not. It has diversity of characters in its nature itself. In such a situation, can we conclude – Christ’s suffering and death is only for forgiveness of sins? Or can we say that is it only a demonstration of God’s love?
I would rather say that in the Cross both the love of God and forgiveness to humanity go hand in hand. They are inseparable in the suffering and death of Christ. We should take careful notice of the motive and the means of God’s redemption. It is God’s own steadfast love that moves his action to redeem the world and humanity in Christ. It is out of his abundant love for his creation and his creatures. To sum it up, in view of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, love is not an option that we may or may not accept, but a definite debt that we must pay. Hence, I would say that as a “God-Man,” Christ paid the required satisfaction in order to redeem humanity, but at the same time, his death on the Cross was also a more powerful affirmation of the love of God for humanity. Therefore, Jesus’ death on the Cross is the pattern and an example to be followed. Christ’s atonement served many other good purposes – including showing solidarity with humanity in the sufferings which he causes us to endure for good reasons, giving us an example of how to live, revealing to us important truths.
Finally, the theological understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death is a concrete foundation of Christian moral living. In light of this, Anselm’s satisfaction theory and Abelard’s moral influence theory both offer a critical resolution to the young people in this modern situation. That is, “love and forgiveness” is the foundation of Christian moral living. This interpretation of “forgiveness” and “love” may help them to find the real meaning in following Christ, who suffered and died on the Cross. The constructive thinking of Christ’s suffering as related to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I believe, may help the young people to form the structure of their new lives in Christ. The brutal suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross, undoubtedly, touches every aspect of the lives of believers. Those who believe, specifically the young people are thereby animated to be a witnessing community in loving engagement with the modern world, through the power of Christ. It is in this sense, I suggest, that Christ’s suffering love and forgiving love might be proclaimed and witnessed in this world. The God who revealed his love in Jesus Christ is the God who shows a particular concern for those in need, and that his children are called to translate love into action on behalf of the needy. I believe true love can only be with actions and in truth.
Selvam, Raja, "Is Jesus’ Death on the Cross a Satisfaction for the Sins of Humanity or a Demonstration of God’s Love? A Theological Understanding of Atonement in Relation to the Sacrament of Reconciliation?" (2017). LMU/LLS Theses and Dissertations. 318.