19 For a rebuttal of the penal substitution theory of Christ’s sacriﬁce, see O’Collins, Jesus Our Redeemer, 133 60.
(5) The Letter to the Hebrews, our longest New Testament sacriﬁcial treatment of Christ’s death and exaltation, strongly emphasizes something different: the sacriﬁcial death of Jesus puriﬁed or expiated the deﬁlement of sin. Even then, Hebrews does not reduce the impact of his sacriﬁce to a cleansing from the ‘pollution’ of sin. It also interprets that sacriﬁce as sealing a new covenantal relationship between God and human beings (e.g. Heb. 9: 15; 12: 24). We return below to what Christ’s sacriﬁce did both towards expiating sin and bringing a new covenant of love. (6) Christ’s loving acceptance of his passion leads to a further, key element in his priestly sacriﬁce. Physical pain and other forms of suffering simply as such do not atone for sins and effect human redemption. ‘Suffering as such’, Aquinas argues, ‘is not meritorious.’ Only insofar as someone ‘suffers willingly’ can suffering become ‘meritorious’ (STh. 3a. 48. 1 ad 1). Only because Christ ‘suffered out of love’ was his death a ‘sacriﬁce’ (3a. 48. 4 ad 3). (7) This sixth point ties in closely with a further conviction: the sheer quantity of suffering that Jesus was to endure in his atrocious death does not decide the value of his self-sacriﬁce. The Letter to the Hebrews invokes his sufferings (Heb. 5: 7–8) but, unlike Mel Gibson in his ﬁlm The Passion of Christ (2004) and many before him, makes no attempt to highlight the amount of those sufferings, apart from the horrendous, central fact of his dying by cruciﬁxion (Heb. 6: 6). Gibson concentrated on the physical suffering endured by Christ, in order to bring out the enormity of human sin. But the sheer amount of that sacriﬁcial suffering is far less important than the identity of the One who suffered to save a world enormously damaged by sin; that identity is underlined by Hebrews right from its opening verse. (8) A ﬁnal reﬂection in support of reading sacriﬁcially the death (and resurrection) of Christ takes us beyond Hebrews to the Gospel narratives. In responding to two major objections (‘Did Jesus commit suicide?’ and ‘How could God collaborate in the slaying of his Son?), we understand the death of Jesus to have come about through a mysterious convergence of divine love and human malice. Calvary was the inevitable consequence of Jesus’ commitment to his mission and the service of others, a commitment that he refused to abandon, even though his words and actions placed him on collision-course with those in power. By continuing his ministry, going to Jerusalem for his last Passover, and facing his opponents, Jesus indirectly brought about the fatal situation. In that sense he willed his death by accepting it rather than by deliberately and directly courting it. He paid the price for his loving project of bringing life to the world. Thus we can see how the self-sacriﬁcing death of Jesus was not due to his positive and direct will (or to that of his Father), but to the abuse of human freedom on the part of religious and political leaders whose interests were threatened by the uncompromising message of Jesus.20