The Catholic View of Salvation

Was Christ's Death Enough?


In Is There a Scriptural Basis for Purgatory? I addressed part of a question ask by a reader regarding the biblical basis for Purgatory. As I showed, there are indeed passages in the Bible that underlie the Catholic Church's doctrine of Purgatory. That doctrine is also supported by the Church's understanding of the effects of sin and of the purpose and nature of Christ's Redemption of man, and that takes us to the second part of the reader's comment:

Where does JESUS tell us that His death only atoned for SOME of our sins, but not all? Did He not tell the repentant thief that ”TODAY you will be with me in Paradise?” He didn’t mention anything about spending time in purgatory or any other temporary state of being. So, tell us why the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus’ death wasn’t enough & that we have to suffer, either here on earth or in purgatory.

Christ's Death Was Enough

To begin with, we need to clear up a misunderstanding: The Catholic Church does not teach, as the reader claims, that Christ's death "wasn't enough." Rather, the Church teaches (in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas) that "the Passion of Christ made sufficient and more than sufficient satisfaction for the sins of the whole human race." His death removed us from our bondage to sin; conquered death; and opened the gates of Heaven.

We Participate in Christ's Death Through Baptism

Christians partake of Christ's victory over sin through the Sacrament of Baptism. As Saint Paul writes in Romans 6:3-4:

Know you not that all we, who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death? For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.

The Case of the Good Thief

Christ did indeed, as the reader notes, tell the repentant thief that "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). But the thief's circumstances are not our own. Hanging on his own cross, unbaptized, he repented of all of the sins of his past life, acknowledged Christ as Lord, and asked Christ's forgiveness ("remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom"). He participated, in other words, in what the Catholic Church calls a "baptism of desire."

At that moment, the good thief was set free from all of his sins and from the need to make satisfaction for them. He was, in other words, in the same state that a Christian is immediately after his baptism by water. To turn again to St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Romans 6:4: "no penalty of satisfaction is imposed on those who are baptized. Through the satisfaction made by Christ they are wholly set free."

Why Our Case Is Not the Same as That of the Good Thief

So why aren't we in the same position as the good thief? After all, we've been baptized. The answer lies once again in Scripture. Saint Peter writes (1 Peter 3:18):

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.

We are united to Christ's one death in baptism. So was the good thief, through his baptism of desire. But whereas he died right after his baptism of desire, we lived on after our baptism—and, as much as we may not wish to admit it, our life after baptism has not been without sin.

What Happens When We Sin After Baptism?

But what happens when we sin again after baptism? Because Christ died once, and we join in His one death through baptism, the Church teaches that we can only receive the Sacrament of Baptism once. That is why we say in the Nicene Creed, "I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins." So are those who sin after baptism destined to eternal punishment?

Not at all. As St. Thomas Aquinas comments on 1 Peter 3:18, "man cannot a second time be made of like form with the death of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. Therefore those who, after baptism, sin again, must be made like to Christ in his suffering, through some kind of penalty or suffering which they endure in their own persons."

Reconciling With Christ

The Church bases this teaching on Romans 8. In verse 13, Saint Paul writes, "For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live." We shouldn't look at such mortification or penance strictly through the lens of punishment, however; Saint Paul makes clear that this is the way in which we, after baptism, are united to Christ. As he continues in Romans 8:17, Christians are "heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him."

Christ Speaks of Forgiveness In the World to Come

Regarding the final bit of the reader's question that I haven't yet addressed, we saw in Is There a Scriptural Basis for Purgatory? that Christ Himself did speak (Matthew 12:31-32) of forgiveness "in the world to come":

Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.

Such forgiveness cannot occur in Heaven, since we can only enter into the presence of God if we are perfect; and it cannot occur in Hell, since damnation is eternal.

Yet even if we did not have these words from Christ, the doctrine of Purgatory could stand full well on the other passages from Scripture that I discussed in "Is There a Scriptural Basis for Purgatory?" There is much that Christians believe that is found in Scripture but that Christ Himself did not say—think only of the various lines of the Nicene Creed.