Does Isaiah 53 Really Teach Penal Substitution?

by Alvin Yalong Rapien

Penal Substitutionary Atonement has often been caricatured as “Divine child abuse”: God, the Father, punished and condemned Christ, the Son, for the sins of humanity. The longer explanation of this logic goes something like this: sin must be punished to satisfy the wrath of God and/or the justice of God and since the wages of sin is death, Christ (the one who took upon our sins) must be put to death and was punished by the wrath of God. By believing in the Gospel, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, and we are considered “justified” in God’s sight.

This form of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (“PSA” from here on out) is anti-Trinitarian because it pits the angry Father God against the loving Son of God. However, a more theologically coherent explanation of PSA can be found in John Stott’s The Cross of Christ:

The Bible everywhere views human death not as a natural but as a penal event. It is an alien intrusion into God’s good world, and not part of his original intention for humankind… Throughout Scripture, then, death (both physical and spiritual) is seen as a divine judgment on human disobedience… [Christ] came back into our world in order to govoluntarily to the cross… Jesus Christ, who being sinless, had no need to die, died our death, the death our sins had deserved.  (Stott, 65)

The wrath of God, according to Stott, is directed towards evil, not the Son.

Christ, working in unison with the Father, lays down his life of his own accord (John 10:18). The wrath of God, according to Stott, is directed towards evil, not the Son. The Father and the Son work together to take away the sins of the world:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that God’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement… And the person God offered was not somebody else, whether a human person or an angel or even his Son considered as somebody distinct from or external to himself. No, he offered himself. In giving his Son, he was giving himself.  (Stott, 174)

God’s wrath is taken away because sin is destroyed in Christ’s death, not because the wrath was placed on Christ. Christ took upon our sins and died, thus paying the penalty of our sin (penal) in our place (substitutionary) so that God and humanity may be reconciled (atonement). A key passage for PSA is Isaiah 53:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions,crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all… Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. (Isaiah 53:4-6 and 10, NRSV; author’s italics)

The language in the above passage appears to reflect the beliefs of PSA: it was the will of the Lord to crush him (penal) for our iniquities (substitution), a punishment that made us whole (atonement), etc. Stott and other Reformed Evangelical theologians constantly refer back to Isaiah 53 as an elaborate Old Testament discussion regarding atonement.

Eastern Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) theologians, who draw their theology from the Church Fathers, widely reject any form of PSA

However, it is debated whether PSA originated in the Early Church, medieval scholastic theology, or the Reformation.Eastern Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) theologians, who draw their theology from the Church Fathers, widely reject any form of PSA: “Foreign to the Eastern Churches is a version of atonement theology in which Christ’s suffering on the cross satisfies the offense of human sin to the divine majesty and justice. Christ suffered not to pay a debt to justice” (Thomas, 186). This assertion seems to go against the teaching of Isaiah 53, though there are some Orthodox theologians that challenge this critique. However, which Isaiah are we talking about?

The NRSV translation, like most Protestant Bible translations, draws largely from the Masoretic Text (MT), the definitive Hebrew translation of the Old Testament. Our oldest manuscripts of the MT dates to the 9th – 10th Century CE.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are dated anywhere between the 2nd century BCE and 1st Century CE, found at Qumran also had Hebrew manuscripts, confirmed the preservation of some of the Hebrew manuscripts, though not without some significant textual differences. However, our most complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in its entirety come from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Why is this significant? Even though Hebrew is the original language of the Old Testament, they may not represent the oldest or original textual editions of the Old Testament. There is also the Aramaic Targums (“Targum” is Aramaic for “translation”). The Targum of Isaiah is difficult to date, but is representative of Judaic interpretations of Isaiah. How does the Greek and Aramaic compare to the Hebrew?

The Septuagint reads:

This one bears our sins and suffers pain for us, and we accounted him to be in trouble and calamity and ill-treatment. But he was wounded because of our acts of lawlessness and has been weakened because of our sins; upon him was the disciplined of our peace; by his bruise we were healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; a man has strayed in his own way,and the Lord gave him over to our sins… And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow. If you offer for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived offspring… (Esias 53:4-6 and 10, NETS translation by Moisés Silva, emphasis mine)

The Aramaic reads:

Then he will beseech concerning our sins and our iniquities for his sake will be forgiven; yet we were esteemed wounded, smitten before the Lord and afflicted.  And he will build the sanctuary which was profaned for our sins, handed over for our iniquities; and by his teaching, his peace will increase upon us, and in that we attach ourselves to his words our sins will be forgiven us.  All we like sheep have been scattered; we have gone into exile, every one his own way; and before the Lord it was a pleasure to forgive the sins of us all for his sake… Yet before the Lord it was a pleasure to refine and to cleanse the remnant of his people, in order to purify their soul from sins; they shall see the kingdom of their Messiah, they shall increase sons and daughters, they shall prolong days; those who perform the law of the Lord shall  prosper in his pleasure… (Isaiah 53:4-6 and 10, Isaiah Targum [Chilton, 103-104], emphasis mine)

All three renderings have the language of substitutionary atonement (as in expiation), but the penalaspect is much more present in the Hebrew.

While there are many textual differences, we will focus on one textual difference: where the Hebrew states “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain”, both the Greek and Aramaic states that the “Lord cleanses”. However, the subject of the cleansing is different between the Greek and Aramaic. In Greek, it is “him”, the Suffering Servant, while in the Aramaic, it is “the remnant of his people”. All three renderings have the language of substitutionary atonement (as in expiation), but the penal aspect is much more present in the Hebrew. The Greek and Aramaic focus more on the healing aspect, constantly re-emphasize the role of cleansing in this passage and downplay the penal and propitiatory dimensions compared to the Hebrew text.

This presents us with plenty of difficulties: what translation is authoritative for Christian theology? Jesus spoke Aramaic, while the New Testament writers often quoted from the Septuagint along with variations that are paralleled in the Hebrew manuscripts. The issue with Isaiah 53, particularly the verses in view, is that it is only explicitly quoted twice in the New Testament: Matthew 8:17 and Acts 8:26-40. However, even these passages do not discuss the theological implications of Isaiah 53, outside of identifying Jesus as the Suffering Servant.

So does Isaiah 53 teach PSA? The Hebrew text tends to lend itself to that view, but the Greek and Aramaic seem to resist that particular interpretation. There are plenty of other dimensions of this topic that we do not have room to discuss: Isaiah 53’s relationship to Isaiah’s larger theology (as well as Old Testament theology), Reformed theological hermeneutics, Atonement theories, the interpretation of Isaiah 53 throughout Christianity, etc. Though, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Originally at
Used by permission

Works Cited

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *