Reconciliation and The Prodigal Son

“For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

Some Christians reading these words over the last few centuries have gotten the wrong idea.  They’ve put this Scripture together with Jesus’ cry from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  Plus they’ve added to the mix the Apostle’s Creed assertion that Jesus “descended into hell.”  The result is a huge misunderstanding.

It goes something like this.  The sin of the human race called down the punishment not only of physical death and suffering but also spiritual death, total separation from God which is what  hell is all about.  Jesus bore this punishment in our place.  This means that he took our sins upon himself to the point that he actually became sinful and abhorrent to the Father.  He was thus truly abandoned by God on the cross and spent three days in hell, with the rest of the damned.

Let’s unravel this wrongheaded idea.  Last week we discussed the true significance of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  This week we need to clear up the other two misunderstandings.  First, there is 2 Cor 5:21.  In Hebrew, the same word means both “sin” and “sin offering,”   What Paul is really saying is not that Jesus became sinful, but that he became a sin offering.  This kind of sacrifice was understood as compensation or restitution to God to make up for offending him through sin.  Honor and glory that God deserved had been withheld from Him; in the sin offering, perfect, costly animals, the most valuable possessions of the typical Israelite, were paid back to God in reparation.

The Passover Lamb had to be perfect, without blemish, and his bones could not be broken (that’s why Jesus legs were not broken like the two thieves, John 19: 32-37).  Jesus did not become sinful; he was the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by canceling them out through a sacrifice of overwhelming value.  His self-offering was an extravagant gift.  It consisted of all the love, humility, and obedience that human beings owed to God but had unjustly withheld from him for centuries upon centuries.

The Father is not a blood-thirsty tyrant whose wrath is appeased by the suffering of Jesus.  He is the loving Father in the story of the Prodigal Son who respects his son’s freedom too much to force him to stay, or to send a posse after him once his sins led him to the brink of despair.

The Prodigal Son walked away in arrogance.  He would himself have to travel the road back in humility.

Adam, Eve and all of us walked away in pride.  We, their sons and daughters, would have to walk back in humility.  Trouble was, we couldn’t, so deeply had we been wounded by sin.  So God became man and walked the road for us, though it turned out to be the way of the cross.  Perfect humility.  Perfect love.  Perfect suffering.  Relentless and undeterred by every conceivable stumbling block and snare that hell could put in its way.  That is what redeemed us and paid the debt of our sins.

But what about the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed “he descended into hell?”  The word used for hell means not the inferno of the damned (Gehenna), but the abode of the dead known as Sheol, Hades, or Limbo.  The meaning of this is simple– he truly experienced the separation of his soul from his body.  It was no drill.  He really died.  For us.  For me.  It was love to the bitter end.

So Jesus is the conquering hero, not the scapegoat.  His free gift of unconquerable love is what atones for our sins.  And the Fathers rushes out to meet him in love, clothing him (and us) with the resurrection.

The passion, then, is all about love.  For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son who would lay down his life for not only his friends, but even for his enemies.

Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D.


Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For info on his resources and pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 800.803.0118.

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  • The above story is about Israel, the younger son is the ten tribes to the north, and the elder son are the two tribes of the south. Both went into exile, the southern tribe return from physical exile but remained in spiritual exile. Christ came to end the spiritual exile of the twelve tribes.

  • waynergf

    “Last week we discussed the true significance of ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.’ ”

    Where? I can’t find this article anywhere on CatholicExchange.

  • krby34

    The explanation was actually a part of Dr. D’Ambrosio’s article posted two weeks ago at Catholic Exchange. Remember that this article was originally published in Our Sunday Visitor and is reprinted here with the Author’s permission. The orders and references may be out of sink.

    Here is the article and link for you:
    The Transfiguration and The Cross

    I hope it works for you. I remembered that he had referenced it earlier but could not remember the details and wanted to read it again so flipped back and discovered the same as you. I then clicked on the by-line for the article and got a list of recent submissions and remember the reference in his comments on the Transfiguration.

  • Grandpa Tom

    Christ decended into Hell to deliver the souls who were resting in Abraham’s bosom. Prior to the passion, and because of Adam’s sin, heaven was closed, and those good souls that had faith, and the first example of faith is Father Abraham, are said to find rest after death in Abraham’s bosom (Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theo. Supp. Q. 69 Art. 5). In Luke 16:22 it says; “And it came to pass that the begger died, and was carried by angles into Abraham’s bosom, ect.” St. Thomas clarifies that after the passion, Abraham’s bosom is taken to mean Heaven, where the good souls find eternal rest and happiness with visions of God.
    St. Thomas further explains at Pt. III Q. 52, that is was fitting for Christ to descend into hell when the devil was overthrown by the passion to deliver the captives detained. Christ preached to the unbelievers, not to convert them, but to shame them for their unbelief, and to show them His Glory. When Christ descended into hell, He delivered the Saints, and the Holy Fathers who were waiting there simply because of original sin. In “The Dialogue Of Saint Catherine Of Siena,” St. Catherine also tells of Christ’s descent into limbo for the Fathers of the Church. In her Treatise on Prayer she explains even the Devil and his demons renders praise and glory to God by being His servents by being insturments of justice toward the dammed.
    In The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.) it reads: Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is alseep. The earth trembled, and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began…. He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desireing to desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve….”I am your God, who for your sake have become your son….I order you, O sleeper, to awake, I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”
    In “The Divine Comedy” by Dante, in Paradiso, while touring heaven Dante sees Adam and Eve. Canto XXVI:
    And said my Lady: “There witin those rays,
    Gaze upon its Maker and first soul (Adam),
    that ever the first virtue did create.”
    In Canto XXXII (Saints in the White Rose):
    The wound that Mary closed up and anointed,
    She (Eve) at her feet is so beautiful,
    She is the one who opened it up and pierced it.
    He (Adam) who upon the left is near her (Mary) placed
    The Father is, by whose audacious tastes (forbidden fruit),
    The human species so much bitter tastes.
    According to Dante’s poem, Adam sits on Mary’s left, while Eve sits at Mary’s feet in the Saints of the White Rose. Adam and Eve’s burial site is in Hebron, Gaza (Palestine), in a Islamic Mosque.
    Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57