Explain conflicts in Scripture: Jesus suffered once for all; when man sins the whole community suffers.
The verses that are being considered here include the following: that Jesus suffered once for all is related to us through 1 Peter 3:18, with similar words being found in Romans 6:10 and Hebrews 7:27. Meanwhile, the reality that when man sins the whole community suffers is a statement of St. Paul in
1 Corinthians 12:26 (in reference to the Church as the Body of Christ with many distinct members). Insofar as both references are concerned with the reality of suffering may lead us to see them in conflict. However, the context of each verse reveals that there is no conflict here, as there is a distinction between the sufferings that Jesus embraced and the present sufferings that we each endure.
Surely all suffering is the result of sin – rooted in the original sin of Adam that disrupted the harmony and order of God’s creative work. Suffering for its part was never willed by God. In justice, all sin must be accounted for – that is, the “debt” of sin must be paid. God, in His mercy, wills to forgive us our sins, and He accomplishes such through Jesus’ willing embrace of our human condition and offering of Himself as that payment or atonement for sin. Such an act of atonement for sin can only be made by one who has no sin and is numbered amongst sinners (among the human race). Thus, in His taking on of our humanity, Jesus willingly identifies with humanity while remaining fully God (and free from sin). Consequently, the suffering of Jesus once for all in His singular act of accepting the suffering of the cross so as to pay the debt of sin accomplishes this atonement – as His offering of self as God has the power to destroy the sins of all from beginning to end – even those sins that were still to be committed in the future.
That Jesus suffered once for all is therefore firm in that He who is God is effective in offering His gift of self from all eternity. However, in our own lived experience, it goes without saying that our own past, present, and/or future sufferings are very real. Whether these times of suffering are directly linked to sin (our own sin or those of
another that directly or even indirectly hurt us) or they are the consequence of fallen creation due to the original sin (such as sufferings that occur because the world is decaying and passing away, leading to our physical suffering, or those sufferings that result from natural disasters, for example), it is easily discerned that individual sufferings do affect and weaken the whole body. Such suffering of the community in no way renders Jesus sufferings as incomplete. Likewise, since Christ suffered once for all in no way means that we are not subject to suffering – as again the evidence from our experience shows that we indeed are subject to suffering. Rather, the words of Paul simply acknowledge that in our call to be one with Christ, our sins do have an impact on the entire body – and not merely on the one who sins. As relates then to Jesus’ suffering, even these sins that effect the whole body are among those for which Christ died – and suffered once on behalf of all. Thus, these two uses of suffering are not in conflict; they are of different contexts, wherein the one (the sufferings that Christ endured) were experienced in bringing about the victory over the other (the sufferings that result from actual sins).
As a further note, this connection of our real sufferings in connection with the one time embrace of suffering by Christ is why Paul goes on to say in Colossians 1:24 that he himself rejoices in his own sufferings for the sake of them as it makes up for “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church,” as by our embrace of sufferings we are able to share in the saving work of Christ on behalf of others, strengthening the whole body.