In a fit of boredom and curiosity I was perusing through some of the blogs which I have linked to at the bottom of my blog, and I stumbled recently upon an argument by Ben Wallis, a friend of mine, against the idea that there was any morally sufficient reason for Christ to die on the Cross. It was perhaps more of a challenge than an argument: a challenge offered to Christians to provide some apologetic for why Christ had to die on the cross. At the time I responded in two distinct ways, and people can find that discussion here. However, I also thought that the second argument I offered was worth posting on my own blog here, so I will reiterate it.
Although given my Baptist and Evangelical background I find myself naturally (or perhaps habitually) gravitating towards the typical Anselmian view, I have come to recognize that this view requires nuance which I had not, before becoming Catholic, recognized. As I pointed out in the comments:
This presents itself as a puzzling question, but I think a satisfactory answer can be got to a number of ways. The first is to take the basic Anselmian line (that the God-man had to die for the sins of mankind in order to redeem man, because God’s justice demands satisfaction). However, one must recognize that religious language here, at least on a Catholic view, is analogical, and therefore justice is here being spoken of properly by analogy. That doesn’t mean that the Anselmian view isn’t, strictly speaking, ‘true’, it just isn’t intended in quite the same sense as a legally binding contract (for, if Jesus, in the strictest legal sense, died for the sins of mankind, then God would owe man salvation on pain of being unjust). Instead, this view recognizes that human intuitions with respect to ‘justice’, enshrined in our social institutions (however primitive), reflect an ultimate awareness of some standard of justice (and implicitly fairness and judgement). Thus, when Christ comes to save man by dying on the cross, God is establishing a covenant with man which appeases God’s justice, (that is, justice itself as a principle) and at once allows God to be merciful – two attributes which would otherwise be thought to conflict.
Moreover neither Augustine nor Aquinas believed that Christ’s death was ‘necessary’ in the strictest most straight forward sense, and they both appealed to divine propriety and “appropriateness” to explain the event on Calvary.
So the question is simply this: if God could have brought the faithful into heaven (which here will just be a participation in the mystery of the divine life of the trinity – thus the unconfused Beatific vision), even in the case that he had not sent Christ to die on the cross, then why did he send Christ to die on the cross? In other words, imagine two logically possible worlds:
W: The faithful are received into heaven, and God sent Christ to die on the cross
W’: The faithful are received into heaven, and God did not sent Christ to die on the cross
Take W to be the actual world for the sake or argument; one has to ask why God did not choose to actualize W’ instead of W, since there seems to be needless suffering in W which is easily avoided in W’. Of course, the word needless is obviously vague, and it is that word which imports the problematic assumptions which lend this objection it’s initial force (at least initial force if one cannot see through it immediately). The common-sense response from a Christian perspective is to say that it was necessary for Christ to die on the cross for our sins, in order to satisfy the justice of God, which is intrinsic to his nature rather than arbitrarily imposed. However, the sense in which this sense of ‘necessity’ holds is identical to the sense in which ‘Baptism’ is necessary (which continues to be the Church’s language). In other words, it is logically possible for God to effect salvation and forgiveness (to satisfy his own justice) by some other means. Now, perhaps arguments could be offered against this conclusion – but for the sake of argument I will grant it to the opponent of the Christian faith. Although the language I adopted in the comments was Ben’s, all one has to do is replace W with A (for ‘actual world’) and W’ with H (for hypothetical) and one can make sense of my argument:
Consider that in both A and H people have free will, and are more-or-less the same as people are today. In world H, whatever God did do, he did not exemplify his solidarity with man, nor his complete love for man, to its fullest degree, since there is no fuller expression than the incarnation, in combination with the crucifixion and the resurrection, for God’s love. This is at least plausible given what we know about Love: love always fights for the good of the other, and disregards the good of the self when/where the other is concerned. Love identifies with the other and draws us out of ourselves. etc etc.
Given all of this as background, it seems plausible that on A more people come to be saved (i.e. come to Love God and die to themselves – their self-ish-ness). Given that Free Will is a factor, of course it is logically possible for H and A to have the same number of people who are saved, as it is possible for H to have more people who are saved. However, if we should consider the set of all possible H worlds, against the set of all possible A worlds, it would be sufficient if A worlds had on average more people saved than H worlds did. Even if the increase was minimal, it would not be negligible (and indeed, I can’t think of any good reason why it would be negligible). Therefore, a Christian might want to argue that God chose to actualize A precisely because it yielded, on average (given all possible A worlds) more saved people.
Of course, the argument here might become tricky if one were to argue that the set of A worlds and the set of H worlds are both infinite sets, but that problem isn’t necessarily a defeater.
Alternatively, one can always fall back on reasons of appropriateness alone, since perhaps God freely chose to exemplify his love in the fullest way possible as an act of free will, just as when he created the world.
The crucial premise is really that there is no richer or more ‘appropriate’ way for God to exemplify self-sacrificial love to us than by the actualizing something proximate to the Christian story, involving the incarnation and the self-sacrificial death. The most loving act which is conceivable (of praying genuinely, with a broken heart, for those who were killing him, while giving himself entirely into their hands) was accomplished for us by God. This is the prayer which in the Satanic Bible, not to mention Nietzsche, elicits so much derision (Nietzsche construes it as the most hate-filled act in the history of the world, and the act than which nothing could be more despicable). I think Nietzsche is on to something: although I think he radically misunderstands ‘hatred’ and ‘morality’ in general, still he is right to say that the Christian story actualized on Calvary is that than which no more extreme example of self-sacrificial love could be conceived. If this is true, then the argument I presented above seems to hold true, precisely because most W worlds have more people being saved than W’ worlds.