Questions Answered


“Last Judgment” painting (artist unknown) in the Church of the Mother of God,
Kazan, Russia

Question: I’ve read, though not in any real depth, the two schools of thought: One that Jesus became man primarily so as to suffer as man, and die for the redemption of each one of us. The other being that the Son of God most likely would have come as man even if He didn’t have to redeem the world. Which one is true?

Answer: This is an interesting theological question, and one which unfortunately has occupied a good deal of argument over many centuries. The basic disagreement seems founded on a misunderstanding. There are larger questions involved, and those are, perhaps, more important than the answer itself. The Church has never made a judgment on the correct answer to this, and it remains a legitimate subject of theological speculation and argument.

The Franciscan school of thought has generally been characterized by the opinion that Christ would have become incarnate, even had man not sinned, simply from love for the human race. One may ask how this befits the truth and justice of God. One may also question why God would have taken flesh when it was, in no sense, necessary. Why would the infinite God subject His person to such an ignominious death as the cross if there were no need for such a thing? Man would be able to experience communion with God, and go to heaven without such a terrible suffering inflicted on the divine person of the Word. Though it is true that God is infinitely good, and that goodness is diffusive of itself, whatever good might be gained from this seems absurd. God’s freedom to do such a thing is beyond dispute, but his freedom is not logically contradictory or absurd.

The other side of this dispute is the Dominican school represented by Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas takes up this question under the rubric of its fittingness, as is true of all things in the Incarnation. The reasons for the Incarnation are hidden in the infinite wisdom of God. There is no proof of them. The fact of the Incarnation is held on faith alone. Still, God is not capricious or absurd, and so the question of the necessity of the Incarnation is introduced to try to discern if there are probable arguments which can be given for this. This is why the term “fitting” is used. What it expresses is that there is more reasonability and truth than the human mind can discern in this particular choice of God which has been revealed to us, than in any other possible choice he could have made that we can think of.

St. Thomas discusses the issue in Summa Theologiae, III, question 1, article 2 and 3. Here he makes a distinction between what is absolutely necessary, and what is relatively necessary. Something is absolutely necessary when it is the only way of obtaining the desired effect. In this way, the Incarnation is not absolutely necessary, for God is omnipotent, and so could have accomplished His will for man in many other ways. Relative necessity, on the other hand, is a means to obtain an effect which is better and more reasonable. This is because the Incarnation is more conducive to encouraging the human race to the goodness of virtue through the imitation of Christ as the perfect man, and to avoid sin when man realizes the dignity of his nature.

This is also the most intelligent way to redeem the human race from sin because, though sin is finite from the point of view of the person sinning, it is infinite on the part of the offended party, God. Only the infinite God could make infinite reparation; and since man committed the sin, only man could make such reparation.

Given the fact that the Incarnation exceeds the grasp of the human mind, all we can affirm in our theological reasoning is what has been revealed to us by God. Scripture always represents the Incarnation as ordained for the salvation of the human race in order to free us from the effects of Original Sin, and all resulting personal sins. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”(1 Tim. 1:15) St. Thomas maintains that it is not absurd to say that God could have become incarnate anyway, but that it is “more” reasonable to affirm, and to hold only what Scripture tells us: that if there had been no sin, there would have been no Incarnation. Salvation from sin is, thus, the only motive we know of, and it is best not to speculate further.

The theological dispute over the centuries has, in some ways, been based on a misunderstanding of this opinion. St. Thomas does not say it is impossible—and others could hold it would have happened anyway—but only that this is the only motive we know of, and our theology should be so formed.


Question: Does confession/absolution of sins in the sacrament of penance mean they will not be mentioned in the general judgment?

Answer: The teaching of the Church on the subject of the judgment is clear. There are two judgments—one of which is particular, which happens after death; and the other, which is general, at the end of time in the resurrection of the dead. The basis of both of these judgments is the merit which the person has gained in this life through his or her cooperation with grace. The amount of charity with which one has acted in each deed is the source of the depth of the enjoyment of heaven. God is the ultimate reward, and He is infinite; but whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. The capacity of the human soul to receive the infinity of the divine light in the intellect is based on the capacity formed by loving actions of the will while on earth. The principle of judgment is thus not how difficult a person’s life has been, but how loving. This love is proved in good works, and so the standard on which judgement is based is clear in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc. The judge is Christ, in his human nature, to whom it has been given by his Father.

Some modern theologians have held that the only real work which any human being does which merits heaven is at the “moment of death” which is mysteriously between the actual moment clinical death is pronounced on the soul, and the soul leaving the body, which can be as long as a few hours later. This is absurd though. Christ is clear that whatever we have done for the least of His brethren, we have done for Him. Every act of charity is sufficient to merit heaven.

In the particular judgment, which occurs after death, the soul secretly is declared worthy of heaven or hell by a personal encounter with Christ. Purgatory, of course, leads to heaven. The soul enters eternal rest or damnation as a result. Though the soul is perfectly happy, or eternally unhappy, man has not yet participated in this judgment but only the soul. The soul is not man because the body is a part of the substance of man.

The second judgment then occurs at the end of time, when the dead are raised in their flesh to life, and the body is rejoined to the soul. At this time, there will be a general judgment, also pronounced by Christ. This judgment will include the whole of assembled creation, and will no longer be private but public. Again, the judge will be Christ, and the standard will be charity, but now all the hidden deeds of both the elect and the damned will be proclaimed. “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Lk. 8:17) As is the case with the particular, hidden judgment, this will include not only virtuous deeds but sins.

The external proclamation of sins will add to the suffering of the damned, because even their most hidden sins will not be known. All their secret betrayals, and hidden lusts, will be publicly known. Such is not the case with the elect though. Their hidden sins will also be proclaimed, but this will add to their happiness, and show the greater mercy and glory of God, because this will demonstrate the power of His love, which can raise up spiritually, through grace and forgiveness, even people who are sinners.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. When it was stated that God would have come into the world even if man had not sin I had a bit of resistance to that conjecture if you will but then it was stated that we stick to the fact as revealed in sacred scripture that God came into the world to die to the sin of the world and thereby redeem man from sin and death.

    This written work was easy to follow and it was authentic and very sobering .

  2. (This comment is regarding the primary motive for the Incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ…)

    Said with great respect, but also with a bit of (dry) humor, it should perhaps be noted that Fr. Mullady, OP, is a Dominican… Actually, I don’t think that the disagreement between the speculative theology of the Franciscan and Dominican schools regarding the primary motive for the Incarnation, which in the Franciscan school is sometimes referred to as the “Franciscan thesis” on the “Absolute Primacy of Jesus Christ”, can or should be characterized as a misunderstanding of the position of St. Thomas Aquinas… Clearly, as Fr. Mullady notes, St. Thomas does not state that Christ COULD not have become incarnate for any other reason than for the redemption of mankind. Equally clearly, we know that mankind HAS sinned… However, the conclusion that it is thus “best not to speculate further” is essentially a “judgement call”, which logically depends on whether or not there is, in fact, sufficient reason TO speculate further! To take a pertinent example: Sufficient reason could arguably be had in order to prove various Catholic dogmas concerning the position of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mind of God before the creation of the world (which has repercussions regarding her Immaculate Conception, Assumption, Mediation, and even Coredemption), and ultimately concerning the Person of the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself (against heresies such as Monothelitism and Monophysitism). That is why, as Fr. Mullady correctly observes, the Church has not yet made a definitive statement regarding this question. That is also why saints and doctors of the Church can be found on either “side” of the question (St. Thomas Aquinas on the side of the Dominican school, and St. Lawrence of Brindisi on the side of the Franciscan school, for example)…

    In any case, I would argue that this state of affairs is not due to a “misunderstanding” between the OP and the OFM schools (certainly not in the case of the doctors just mentioned, who were very smart), but rather is due to a true “disagreement” (though certainly a friendly one) about whether it is, in fact, best NOT to speculate further, or whether it is, in fact, best TO speculate further!

    Unfortunately, Fr. Mullady, OP, rather severely mischaracterizes the Franciscan school when he asks: “Why would the infinite God subject His person to such an ignominious death as the cross if there were no need for such a thing?” While the Franciscan school does indeed maintain that Christ would have become INCARNATE for love of mankind “even if mankind had not sinned” (this very wording can be found in the writings of St. Lawrence of Brindisi), it is BY NO MEANS a part of the Franciscan thesis that Christ would have DIED on the cross if mankind had not sinned! Such an assertion would indeed seem absurd, as Fr. Mullady states (even that said, though, we don’t know the Mind of God)…

    To reiterate: The assertion that Christ would have DIED on the cross even if mankind had not sinned is not what the Franciscan thesis suggests at all. (I.e., “Incarnation” does not equal “death”.) Rather, what COULD have been, had mankind not sinned, with the Incarnate God-Man Jesus Christ walking physically beside us in a world in which sin and death would have no part, “neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man!”

    From the Franciscan point of view, this is truly the great TRAGEDY of sin…

  3. An interesting argument and comments. I come from a Mormon background where it was stated in a General Conference no less that Christ “had” to come to earth and receive a body in order to gain His salvation. The Mormon theology is that without a body no-one can enter the Mormon Celestial Kingdom. When I saw the question in HPR I was immediately shocked to think that the Catholic Church might have entertained such thoughts also. After missing a few heartbeats, I was comforted to see that the question was not “had” to become incarnate (an absurdity if you understand the teachings on the Trinity – of course as far as anyone can), but rather would He choose to come down, and if so, why. I find articles like this – on a periodic basis – to be very thought provoking and always accompanied with a spark of insight.