A popular “clever” response to Christianity on social media is to say, “If you don’t sin, then Jesus died for nothing.” The joke is as clever as it is new, which is to say, not particularly—Ricky Gervais, creator of the British version of The Office, was using it back in April of 2014. And like the American adaptation of Gervais’s show, it’s not funny enough to warrant eight years of recycled humor.
Long before this was a clever “gotcha,” it was a serious theological objection that did a tremendous amount of damage. Grigori Rasputin, the “mad monk” (or “holy devil”) who was a spiritual guide to Russian tsar Nicholas II’s family, used a version of it to seduce women more than a century ago. As Robert Massie explains, Rasputin offered his own “personal doctrine of redemption: salvation is impossible unless one has been redeemed from sin, and true redemption cannot be achieved unless sin has been committed. In himself, Rasputin offered all three: sin, redemption, and salvation.”
Rasputin didn’t originate this misunderstanding of the gospel, either. As far back as the first century, we find St. Paul answering a version of it in his epistle to the Romans: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (6:15). If that wasn’t clear enough, he also says of those who ask, “Why not do evil that good may come?” that “their condemnation is just” (3:8).
Given that this is a grave misunderstanding, just what is it that it gets wrong about Christianity?
For one thing, it gets the nature of sin wrong. God doesn’t—and can’t—desire (or demand) that we sin. Now, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine are clear that God permits sin: “Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his works, unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” But he can’t will it, in the sense of desiring it or ordering it. After all, all sin involves “disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397) and is “an offense against God” (CCC 1871). It’s logically impossible for God to will sin, in the sense of ordering us to disobey him. To say God wills sin is akin to saying he demands to be disobeyed. That’s not just immoral; it’s an incoherent mess.
The idea also underestimates our own sinfulness. We have sinned, we do sin, and we stand in need of a savior. As St. Paul laments, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19), and even the “righteous man falls seven times, and rises again” (Prov. 24:16). So even if you did need to sin for Jesus’ death to be worth something, you’ve already checked that off the to-do list innumerable times.
Finally, the idea that “if you don’t sin, then Jesus died for nothing” gets the cross wrong. There’s an interesting (and hotly debated) question among theologians: If Adam and Eve had never sinned, would Christ still have become incarnate? Admitting that “there are different opinions about this question,” Aquinas argues no, Christ wouldn’t have, since the Incarnation is a response to the Fall. He quotes a scriptural commentary that “there was no cause of Christ’s coming into the world, except to save sinners. Take away diseases, take away wounds, and there is no need of medicine.”
But Blessed John Duns Scotus and others argue that yes, God the Son still would have become incarnate even if Adam (and even Satan!) had never sinned. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, Scotus’s position is that “the Incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation,” and so “it is not conditioned by any contingent fact but is God’s original idea of ultimately uniting with himself the whole of creation, in the person and flesh of the Son.” In other words, while “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), this isn’t the only reason that Christ came.
Whether you side with Aquinas or Scotus, one thing is certainly true: the cross is about a lot more than “only” forgiving sins. And here, those two great thinkers agree. Aquinas says that “many other things besides deliverance from sin” were accomplished in Christ’s death on the cross, and he lists five. First, the cross is a sign whereby man knows “how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return.” Second, it gives us a perfect example of “obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion.” Third, “because Christ by his passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss.” Fourth, to deter us from sin, as St. Paul says: “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). And finally, because it “redounded to man’s greater dignity.” That is, it was through man that sin entered the world. But instead of scrapping mankind as a bad idea, God redeems us through a man, Jesus Christ. So Christ’s incarnation and cross serve as a vindication of the human species.
All of this is to say that although Christ may or may not have come into the world but for sin, and although one of the aims of the Incarnation and the cross is the forgiveness of sin, the mission of Jesus Christ (including his death on the cross) is about even more than this. His goal was (and is) that we should “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and in the words of St. Irenaeus, “the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God” (quoted in CCC 460). Those who sinned greatly, like St. Peter and St. Mary Magdalene, know the depths of God’s mercy in a special way (see Luke 7:47). But those who didn’t, like the Virgin Mary, still receive the full benefits of this divine plan.