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1st Sunday of Lent, Year A | Why do we need a Saviour, anyway?


The Fall of Man, Hugo van der Goes, 15th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The first reading today goes to the heart of why we need a Saviour.  How many of us really understand Original Sin and can explain it to others?  I know I have trouble.  I have rewritten this blog post about four times and have almost given up.

  • The thing is, if we don’t understand how much God loves us, we won’t understand why sin is so terrible.
  • And if we don’t understand that sin has a seriously damaging effect on us and those around us, we won’t understand why we need a Saviour.
  • And if we don’t understand that we need a Saviour, we are at risk of losing out on eternal life.

One of my sons once asked me, “Why would I want to believe in a God who sends people to Hell for all eternity just because they don’t believe in him?”  That kind of misses the point.  And is heavy with irony, because this particular son loves gaming and you can virtually guarantee that most games on the market are replete with rules that reward with eternal consequences (within the confines of the game) the characters living in them.

But somehow, despite my efforts at catechesis, he has appropriated this distorted interpretation of Scripture, so amusingly described by the incomparable Edward Feser:

Many people seem to think that the doctrine of original sin says something like this: Adam and Eve were originally made for the eternal bliss of Heaven, but because they ate a piece of fruit they were told not to, they came to merit instead eternal torture at the hands of demons sticking pitchforks into them as they roast over hellfire.  Though Adam and Eve’s descendants had no part in their fruit-stealing, they are going to be held accountable for it anyway, and merit the same eternal torture (demons, pitchforks, hellfire and all).  For they have inherited a kind of guilt-carrying gene, which will automatically transfer them into the custody of the pitchfork-carrying demons straightaway upon death unless God somehow supernaturally removes it.  For some reason, though, this gene doesn’t show up in biological research, and its existence must be taken on faith.

The way my son has framed the question suggests that he has created in his mind an image of God that is petulant, angry and shallow.  It’s easy enough to get this sort of God-caricature from our increasingly secularist culture (which itself is growing increasingly petulant, angry and shallow), but it’s not what the Bible actually teaches.

A careful reading of the Genesis narrative (and the Catholic church does not ask you to take it literally) shows a God who has been exceedingly generous and loving to the first humans who have been ensouled.  First he has woven all of space, time and evolutionary history together to set up the conditions favourable to the existence of this Paradise in which he has placed them, and then he generously says:

God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful …
                Be masters of the fish of the sea …
                To you I give all the seed-bearing plants …

The Catechism tells us that God created man in his image and established him in his friendship (CCC 396).

God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27) 

There’s a building and a gathering in these lines that suggests a circle of love and communion between God and the man and the woman.  Ed Feser again:

… According to Christian theology, God offered to our first parents more than what was “owed” to us given our nature.  He offered us a supernatural gift.  Here it is crucial to understand what “supernatural” means in this context.  It has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, and the like.  What is meant is rather that God offered us a good that went above or beyond what our nature required us to have.  In particular, he offered Adam and Eve the beatific vision– a direct, “face to face” knowledge of the divine essence which far transcends the very limited knowledge of God we can have through natural reason, and which would entail unsurpassable bliss of a kind we could never attain given our natural powers.  He also offered special helps that would deliver us from the limitations of our natures – that would free us from the ignorance and error our intellectual limitations open the door to, the moral errors our weak wills lead us into, the sicknesses and injuries our bodily limitations make possible, and so forth.

By definition, none of this was “owed” to us, precisely because it is supernatural.  Hence while God cannot fail to will for us what is good for us given our nature, He would have done us no wrong in refraining from offering these supernatural gifts to us, precisely because they go beyond what our nature requires for our fulfillment.  Still, He offered them to us anyway.  But this offer was conditional. 

Indeed, God places limits on these first humans:

You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden.  But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die. (Gen. 2:17)

The death referred to is spiritual death, a separation from that friendship with God that is engendered by trust, obedience and submission to God’s wisdom and authority.

So how did Eve succumb to the serpent’s temptations so easily?  What on earth was she thinking?

  • I need to exaggerate and embroider what God actually said: “You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death.”
  • I don’t think God was telling me the whole truth. Was he even lying?
  • This serpent is one smart cookie. He sounds like he knows more than God.
  • It’s OK to change my mind like the wind. I’m a woman.  Let your no be yes and your yes be no.
  • I can’t resist this delicious looking, mouth-watering fruit! Who needs self-control?
  • I want to be thought of as wise, knowledgeable and god-like.

Wow, she sounds just like me.  And then there’s Adam.  Don’t get me started on him.  I’ll just refer you to Monsignor Charles Pope who does a superb job on both Eve and Adam.

Anyway, getting back to how Original Sin is passed on:

The penalty was the loss of the supernatural gifts they had been given and that their descendants would have been given, and a fall back into their merely natural state, with all its limitations.  In particular, it was a loss of all the helps that would effectively have removed those limitations — and worst of all, loss of the beatific vision.

Similarly, we inherit the penalty of original sin, not in the sense that we’ve got some “original sin gene” alongside genes for eye color and tooth enamel, but rather in the sense that the offer of the supernatural gifts was made to the human race as a whole through their first parent acting as their representative.  Inheriting this penalty from Adam is more like inheriting your father’s name or bank account than it is like inheriting his looks or his temperament.  (Modern Biology and Original Sin

I would like to emphasise the effects of sin even more strongly than Professor Feser, because I myself have often wondered about  why God can’t just take us all to heaven without all the palaver of atonement – and I have prayed for Him to give me more understanding in this area.  [This is the wonderful thing about being a Christian.  We’re not just believing something from 2,000 years ago, but are having real live conversations with Jesus in the present.]  And every time I have done so, God has in the few days following, made me acutely aware of some sin or other of mine which has caused great damage.  Suddenly all the trauma of some situation from the past has been dredged up and re-presented to my mind, to the point where I have called out to God, “OK, ok, stop.  I get it now.”

So if we don’t understand Original Sin, or even bog standard everyday sin, neither will we understand why it was necessary that Christ should offer his life in atonement for us.  When I say ‘necessary’ I don’t mean it in the logical sense, because God is not constrained by this or that method of saving us, but God is perfect Justice, and therefore something has to offset the debt that has been racked up by our sins.  St Thomas Aquinas explains it perfectly:

That man should be delivered by Christ’s Passion was in keeping with both His mercy and His justice. With His justice, because by His Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so man was set free by Christ’s justice: and with His mercy, for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, as was said above (III:1:2), God gave him His Son to satisfy for him, according to Romans 3:24-25: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. (Summa III:46:1)

… or as St Paul puts it in our second reading for this Sunday,

If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous … As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

Trust me, we can’t make ourselves fit for heaven, we can only get there by holding on to Christ’s hand.

Today’s readings:

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