Last week I outlined some of the key reasons why I cannot accept a penal substitution understanding of the cross. In other words, I do not believe that what happened at the cross was God punishing Jesus in our place. Now don’t misunderstand me. That does not mean I reject the idea of Jesus dealing with sin, nor does it mean that I don’t see sin as a problem. If anything, I don’t think penal substitution thinking takes sin seriously enough. It believes that if it is punished, it is finished. That is naïve. Certainly, I think the cross illustrates God’s forgiving our sin, but not through punishment. Invariably, this stance leads to the response: “What about Isaiah 53?”
It is a fair enough question, and I hope that in my response you read no disdain for anyone who might ask it. When I point out the problem with the question, I am not suggesting any sort of deficiency on the part of any of the people who ask it. What I am suggesting, is that the very fact that this question is posed at all, and the manner in which it is posed, speak to how deeply we have been enculturated into a problematic Protestant way of thinking about God. My intent in writing what I am about to write is not to insinuate anything untoward about those whose theologies are pegged on this framework, because I do not believe that many (I am not for a moment suggesting all) of the adherents of penal substitution thinking are even aware that it is merely one of many “Christian” frameworks. There is neither blame nor shame to be attached to being shaped by the philosophical and theological cultures into which you were born and naturalised. My intent is to help people see the frame (and hopefully, as a result, its limitations). So please read my approach to the Isaiah 53 question from that perspective.
My first point would be this: any time your response to a theological question – as a Biblical inerrantist – is: “What about the verse that says…”, you are making important and fatal concessions (fatal to your argument, that is; hopefully not fatal to you). Let me explain. There are really only two likely motives for asking the question. The first is that your question comes from a position of assuming that Scriptures speak with one cohesive voice, and that any theological position that is espoused in one part of it must naturally find resonance in other parts. In other words, you are attempting to make each verse integrate with every other verse. But the very fact that you need to ask the question implicitly concedes the juxtaposition of one verse with another in a way that suggests that contradictions between them already exist. And they do. The Bible, comprised as it is of many different voices, speaking from a multiplicity of historical, political, socio-economic and cultural contexts, contains – understandably – many contradictory perspectives on God.
To such people, my response is this: there is no necessity for Isaiah 53 to agree with every other part of the Bible, unless one sees the Bible as speaking with one perfect divine voice. Personally, I have found the Bible to be a much more beautiful collection of books, with a lot more to offer, now that I am reading it on its own terms – acknowledging its humanity – instead of trying to force it into the Inerrant and Infallible box. You can be comfortable with the contradictions: they enrich understanding when you don’t deny them. The truth is that you have been choosing one Biblical depiction of God over another all along, even if only unconsciously. Everyone does it. Your very question tacitly concedes that. Perhaps you are just worried that you may be choosing the wrong one because you fear the punishment that the Protestant church (not God) has promised for unbelief. But you have other choices. There are other ways of looking at the same texts.
The second assumption that might be motivating the question is this: that certain verses “trump” other verses. In effect, what is being said is this: “Assuming we are both using the Bible to defend our positions, my verse should be accorded greater weighting”. And if that is the case, then you have conceded that all Bible verses are not equally valid, which – from an inerrantist point of view – is impossible, because God, in effect, authored all of the Bible, and so each idea it contains must be considered equally important to every other one. It is because of this that such ridiculous concepts as “all sins are equal” have crept into Christian thought.
As an aside, and I mention this in love, not derision, even Biblical inerrantists do not regard every law as equally valid. While they may intellectually hold that all sins are equal, they do not live that conviction (rightly, in my opinion). Even inerrantists choose which parts of the Bible have value – it is evident in their lifestyles: if they really believed what they said they believed – that because they have proceeded directly from the mouth of God, and God never changes, every prohibition is as serious as every other one– they would live very differently. I do not see, for example, too many modern Christians unduly concerned about ensuring that their denim jeans are 100% cotton, so as to avoid the prohibition against wearing clothing made from two different fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), or who – upon finding mildew in the shower – call the local pastor to block up the entrance to the house for seven days, until the house can be made clean, or even, in extreme cases, assisting the pastor to tear the house down and transport the material outside of the city if the mildew doesn’t clear (Leviticus 14: 37-47). I know nobody (mercifully – and I advocate strongly against it) who stones unruly children. And why not? Because at some level we recognise that many of these laws and prohibitions lose validity outside of their cultural and historical contexts. There is no need to feel guilty about recognising that.
What I find sad is that when it comes to using one verse to trump another, when it comes to prioritising the importance of the ideas presented in the Scriptures, we always tend to favour the ones that depict God as violent and retributive over the ones that insist God is loving and merciful. The biggest tragedy for me is not that there are parts of the Bible that depict God as violent and monstrous. It is that we value those parts more.
The truth of the question around the Isaiah 53 passage is this: at no point in the gospels is it ever explicitly stated that God was punishing Jesus for our sins. Equally puzzling is that in all the sermons recorded in Acts, where the apostles “preached the gospel”, any direct mention of penal substitution is absent. Surely that is telling? If “preaching the gospel” for the disciples does not equate to teaching penal substitution, how can penal substitution be justifiably cojoined with “gospel preaching”? Penal substitution can only be inferred from certain Biblical texts; it is never made explicit. And surely if it not explicit in the Bible it must be considered unBiblical? Jesus himself never even hints at a punitive God, even in predicting his death. The God that Jesus preaches is merciful and loving, and there are no conditions attached to receiving grace.
When Jesus quotes the Scriptures, he omits the references in those Old Testament passages to a vengeful God every time. Contrast Jesus’s descriptions of God as the Shepherd with the one in Isaiah 53:
“All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”
In Jesus’ parables, the only obligation the sheep have is to be found. There is never a suggestion that they need to be punished as a condition for their return. This would be consistent with Jesus’s hermeneutical approach: God and violence are consistently decoupled in Jesus’s use of Scripture. And to use a frankly dubious interpretation of one Old Testament passage to justify penal substitution and in so doing trump the teachings and ethics of Jesus seems illogical at best and spurious at worst.
That said, I do not believe that it is accurate to read Isaiah 53 through the lens of penal substitution theology. It is easy to overlook the fact that the Isaiah 53 we read is an English translation of a Greek translation of the Hebrew text, as transcribed by somebody other than Isaiah, probably a fair amount of time after Isaiah spoke the original words. And at each level of translation, the translator filters the text through (probably) his (not being sexist) own preconceived understanding and cultural paradigms. An idea I first encountered in the work of E. Robert Ekblad is that the Greek translation of Isaiah 53, the one that the apostles used, differs (in some places) quite substantially from the original Hebrew text. For example (and there are many – this is not an isolated example), in verse 10, the Hebrew translates as:
“Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering…”
but the Greek has, “The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if you give an offering for sin…”
Clearly, whomever was responsible for the Greek translation felt deeply uncomfortable with the idea of charging God with punishing the servant, and with taking delight in the servant’s suffering. And this discomfort was so intense that the translator felt moved to make the verse (and many others beside) say pretty much the exact opposite. For me the point here is not to debate which of the versions is really “God’s Word”. The point is that theology evolves over time. Different people understand God differently, according to where and when they are, and the fact that the apostles adopted this Greek version – probably knowing the Hebrew version full well, being Jewish – suggests that they had no problem with that concept. They had no issue with making the Scriptures say something different if they believed it presented a more accurate picture of God. And the picture of God they chose to see could not be reconciled with violence.
Indeed, this is borne out in the lived ethic of the early church, where the emphasis was on community, on right relationships, on doing whatever it took to pursue social justice, even if that meant giving up everything they owned. And if you will permit me a little rant, that is what I find so repulsive in the modern church. We are so obsessed with penal substitution and holiness codes (and only selected bits, at that – like the sexual prohibitions – not the fungus and fashion ones), and with seeking hedonistic spiritual experiences through music or charismatic speakers or ‘manifestations of the Spirit’ that we really care nothing for the pursuit of true issues around justice, the ones that Jesus actually found important – social justice that centres on the suffering of the marginalised – like addressing racism or toxic masculinity or homophobia.
But even if we do want to stick rigidly to the original Hebrew version of Isaiah 53, we are presented with a number of issues that preclude an interpretation that favours penal substitution. Sure, if you focus narrowly on individual verses you can cobble together something that legitimates penal substitution. But that is not a responsible way to engage with a text – removing the details from the context of the whole and reading select bits in isolation. The trajectory of the entire passage is that what the servant is suffering is unjust. The whole story is about unjust suffering. Not for a moment is it suggested that what is happening to the servant is an expression of justice, divine or otherwise. What is presented is that we perceive it as divinely ordained. The suffering servant is presented as a scapegoat, somebody onto whom the people are wrongly and cruelly directing their hostility. The servant is presented in this passage in the same way any other Biblical scapegoat is – Job, Joseph, David, Abel, Jesus – as one unjustly persecuted. If Jesus is to be likened to the suffering servant, it is in that light: not as one justly punished, but as one wrongly and unjustly persecuted. And as is true of any scapegoat, we try to justify our violent impulses by suggesting that they are divinely ordained. Read carefully what the passage says:
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We considered him stricken by God. It is our assumption. Maybe even our invention. It is much easier to live with lynching somebody innocent when you can convince yourself it was God’s will in the first place. It is typical of the scapegoating process.
And the “But” also suggests that it was not God who was responsible for this: we thought it was God but actually, his suffering was a results of our transgressions. We lynched him so that we could find a kind of peace. We blamed him for everything that was wrong with us – heaped our sins onto him – as we have always done with scapegoats – and killed him to assuage our guilt, to alleviate social tension, all in the name of God. If you read the whole account – from Isaiah 52 onwards – it is very clear where God’s sympathies lie.
Most of us can agree that what Isaiah 53 depicts is some form of scapegoating violence. Where we differ is that Penal Substitution holds that this is acceptable to God. But I would contend that, as it is throughout the Scriptures, God identifies with the victim, not with the persecutors. The general trajectory of the Scriptures is to side with the victim and oppose scapegoating violence. And that in itself should make us question a penal substitution reading of the passage.
So what about Isaiah 53? I would sum it up like this: I accept that the passage can be useful as a justification for believing penal substitution, but it is equally useful for arguing against it. As with any text, the interpretation of it that we adopt is more a reflection of ourselves than it is of the text. But critical for me is this: Isaiah 53 is just one small part of the Scriptures. It does not stand in splendid isolation. Even if the writer of this passage intended to describe God punishing the servant (and I think that reading has flaws – not least because the passage is clear that the servant’s treatment is unjust, not a form of justice), we need to acknowledge that this would be pretty much the only passage in the whole of the Bible that comes close to suggesting that God punished Jesus. That is not explicitly stated anywhere. God’s grace, however, and unconditional mercy are referenced frequently. Isaiah 53 can be interpreted in a number of ways – the penal substitution reading is certainly not a universally accepted one in contemporary scholarly circles. Any reasonably open-minded exploration into the Christian and Jewish scholarship around the text will bear me out. So if we are reading Isaiah 53 to justify penal substitution, we must bear in mind that we are choosing to prioritise that reading of it over various other – and infinitely more numerous and explicit – Scriptures that speak to a God of restoration and peace. Reading Scriptures invariably involves selecting the parts that suit our needs – whether those are conscious needs or not, and whether or not we are even aware that we are doing so.
I certainly do not judge anybody for the cultural conditioning that shapes how they read texts. But once we realise that our readings are not neutral, that we always see texts as we are not as they are, we are compelled to ask ourselves why it is that we are selecting the type of God that we do when we prioritise certain Scriptures over others. Why do we need God to be violent? Why do we consistently default to finding Old Testament Scriptures to challenge the peace ethic and enemy-loving teachings of Jesus? That is the far more important question. When we can begin to answer that, we are on the way to discovering the narrow path.