The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Isaiah 53: proof of Penal Substitution???

(had not realized that we do not have the ability to ask our own Bob Wilson questions in his section. Perhaps we can shift this question there…)

Hi Bob:

As you may recall, I participate in a mens book club (about 10 or 11 of us) which meets every other month. This time we shall discuss a book which I recommended: the second edition of Baker and Green’s RECOVERING THE SCANDAL OF THE CROSS: atonement in the new testament and contemporary contexts

And already the pre-meeting chatter has started. There is disappointment that the book (I’m not asking you to comment on the book itself at all) fails to discuss Isaiah 53 (suffering servant) in much depth at all. Many believe that this passage is key Penal Substitution evidence…

The language is so rich and dense here:
Jesus taking our pain, bearing our suffering, punished by God (at least that’s how it seemed to us!) stricken, and afflicted…
…pierced for our transgressions…
…crushed for our iniquities…
punishment that brought US peace, was upon HIM!
…by HIS wounds WE are healed…
oppressed and afflicted – like a lamb to the slaughter…
— Yet it was the Lords will to crush Him - and cause Him to suffer…
(some versions say God was PLEASED to crush Him and put Him to grief! Yikes…)

So I’m wondering Bob how you handle this passage which has so much depth and anguish in it, yet is seen by so many as proof of penal substitution??



Brother Bob,

Thanks for the great question on Isaiah. My impression is that you rightly find that P.S. rests heavily on this great text, which sounds more like it than perhaps any N.T. text does. I wasn’t aware that questions could no longer be asked on my page? I’m on the road until I’m at Regent College in Vancouver on July 15, but I’m glad to address here what I can. Since you sense the phrases you quote amounts to Penal Substitution, perhaps you could clarify how you would define that (perhaps our difference is just on what to semantically call Isaiah 53; I try to spell out my understanding of what is claimed for the P.S. I question in my paper on P.S. Do note that I nor Green, nor McKnight doubt that Jesus’ death had huge “substitutionary” and sacrificial meaning; it is the penal emphasis that the need was for God to punish Jesus in order to justly exempt us from the consequences of sin’s penalty that so many evangelical N.T. scholars seem to be doubting).

Since I’m not home, I can’t attach it here. But on the O.T. paper on my page, the second attachment (What is the Developing Meaning of the Bible2.doc) is my longer original version, which closes on pages 13-15 with my appendix on Isaiah. About half of this offers my understanding of Isaiah 53. It’s feeble and won’t answer all the specific questions you may have, but it does try to spell out some of what I think are misinterpretations of this passage. As you examine my take on it, I would welcome your specific arguments concerning its’ inadequacy, or on the specific case for P.S.

Grace be with you,

“The chastening for our well being fell upon Him.”

The Hebrew word here is musar


discipline, chastening, correction

The NASB Strongest Exhaustive Concordance

Here’s another piece of evidence that the wrath Christ suffered was disciplinary comes from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 5:8-9

Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered
and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him

The purpose of discipline is to bring about obedience and make holy:

Hebrews 12:4-11

4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he scourges everyone he accepts as a son.” 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

I do believe that the wages of sin is death though. The penalty for sin is death. Jesus paid this penalty. So, I think it’s both/and not either/or.

Hello all,

I’ve recently being doing a good bit of primary research into atonement theories, particularly in the early Church Fathers. I found that the Fathers frequently cited this verse referring to the passion of Christ, but never in a penal sense. I can’t claim my research is entirely exhaustive, but I have yet to find an instance where the Fathers interpreted Is. 53 as God the Father striking the Son in punishment.

One reason for this is perhaps the difference between the Septuagint (which would have been used by the early Hellenistic Church and is the most quoted version of the OT in the NT) and the Masoretic Text. The verse that I think is key to making Is. 53 penal is verse 10, where for example the NRSV reads “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain”, but Septuagint reads “And the Lord desireth to cleanse(or purify) Him from His stripes.” I’ve seen at least one translation that says “purify by stripes” instead of “from”, but from seems to make much more sense in the context.

So it’s interesting to think about. But in any case my personal opinion is that argument for Penal Substitution relies quite heavily on this passage which is highly metaphorical.

I found the consensus among to Fathers to be that Jesus was “delivered up” because of sins, not to God to be punished, but rather to Sin, Satan, and Death. I believe that all of the substitution language in the Fathers, who frequently cited Is. 53, to be Ransom Theory and not Penal Substitution.

I’ll shift the question there (with a shadow topic link back here); and tag [tag]Alex Smith[/tag] to see if all our guest author sections are open for people to create threads to ask questions about.


The implication you draw from muscar that Jesus suffered to restore us seems to me plainly taught and accepted in most quarters. What I don’t see is that this means GOD needs to violently inflict “wrath” on someone in order to forgive or restore. The question that I think remains is How we are delivered by the ‘chastening’ or ‘punishment’ Jesus absorbed. My impression is that it is not so much because GOD needs to ventilate his anger on someone in order to be gracious, as it is that it addresses our own need to be changed. I would much rather identify God with the innocent suffering Jesus who freely absorbed the evil we dish out, than with the worldly establishments that tortured him (supposedly as God’s instrument of meeting his need for justice and wrath). Thus I would rather say that it was God`s will that Jesus reflect his forgiveness by absorbing the wrath and evil that sinners poured out.


I don’t believe that God inflicts His wrath directly. He does it by permitting evil men to have their way with Christ. This is also true with natural disasters. Satan and His demons are directly responsible for those things. God is ultimately responsible in that He permits such things (for morally sufficient reasons). Not all evil and disasters are God’s wrath though. But the Bible is clear that Jesus drank from a cup of suffering. This is always a cup of God’s wrath. The reason the suffering was so severe is because Christ was carrying the sins of all His people. That’s a lot of sin! We should expect the suffering to be so severe.

Here is an English translation of the Greek Septuagint which was translated from a different Hebrew text (possibly closer to the original Hebrew text) than the Masoretic text from which our Old Testaments were translated. The New Testament quotes from the Old were also translated either from this other Hebrew text or else from a Septuagint text itself. These NT quotes resemble our present copies of the Septuagint far more closely than they do the Hebrew Masoretic text.

Would you say that this translation of the Septuagint text is proof of penal substitution?

4 ¶ He endures our sins, and is pained concerning us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction.
5 But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed.
6 All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord delivered him over to our sins.
7 And he, because of his affliction, opens not his mouth: he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth.
8 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken away from the earth: because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death.
9 And I will give the wicked for his burial, and the rich for his death; for he practised no iniquity, nor craft with his mouth.
10 ¶ The Lord also is pleased to purge him from his stroke. if ye can give an offering for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived seed:
11 The lord also is pleased to take away from the travail of his soul, to show him light, and to form him with understanding; to justify the just one who serves many well; and he shall endure their sins.
12 Therefore he shall inherit many, and he shall divide the spoils of the mighty; because his soul was delivered to death: and he was numbered among the transgressors; and he endured the sins of many, and was delivered over because of their iniquities.

This is certainly a different translation, but parts of it I don’t follow. What do you think v. 9-10 mean? They don’t make sense to me.


Hi Bob

First though, thanks Jason P for moving this over here where it belongs. I think we should be taking more advantage of Bob W’s fine mind and thinking and that most naturally happens here.

Next, I really appreciate your comments on this AaronJ: I’ve had this sense for some time as well but never read enough to put flesh on the idea as you have. I’d hope you can keep us posted if this develops further for you.

Anyway Bob, not sure I can be too much more specific in my question as it was just a pretty much open ended recognition that many many Christians see/use Is 53 as highly Penal Substitutional in it’s essence and I just wondered how you handled that…

My own sense is that sure; it all seems to lend support to PS atonement – but ONLY if one assumes a western view of law and legal matters and simply superimposes them on scripture. That is an inordinate emphasis on sin and it’s solution as involving law, guilt, and punishment. All very structured, “legal” and impersonal. This is reading our own world into the text however (highly emphasized in the book I’m reading now (RECOVERING THE SCANDAL OF THE CROSS) and is far from the actual reality of the original writers and hearers.

As things have evolved, it happens that one of our newer members here has moved to FLorida and he’s contacted me (won’t give him away – but speak up man if you’ve a mind to!!) and we’ve met once and have had some interesting private exchanges. And, in addition to my current pondering of this passage, he asked me about it as well!
It seems appropriate for me to repeat here what I wrote to him privately. (I’m sure he won’t mind! – and incidentally, or maybe NOT so incidentally, his thinking very much is along the lines of what Paidion wrote!!! Very cool stuff!! Thanks Paidion!! – feel free to say more!!)

(And not to rekindle the protest about the notion that Christ’s death was not part of “God’s plan” … You responded to that beautifully in a previous conversation we had a bit back on your PS essay…)

So to repeat, there seems to be huge difference in what Paidion has offered and I’m thinking our solution lies here – at lease in part.

Thanks again Bob


(Bob is the original “Bob” – hence he’s Bobx1… just FYI for newcomers…)

Bob and Michael,

I don’t have adequate computer time, but I suspect the worst mistake with Isaiah 53 is reading “We considered him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But…” as endorsing that GOD somehow DID the smiting. Actually, the text suggests that they WRONGLY assumed that such suffering meant that this servant was being punished as a sinner by God. “But” it was Not God, but their sin in this this brutal attack which produced this suffering.

Saying Jesus dies “for” (because of, or in order to overcome) our sins does not logically require a penal interpretation. Where is it clear that God (even indirectly) is punishing Jesus for all sin? In essence, does he suffer because GOD (and His anger or justice) needs the satisfaction of afflicting someone? Or, because of what SINNERS do to Jesus, and God knows that in order to be what we’re called to be, WE needed this convicting demonstration of gracious love and forgiveness?

Very much agreed. Much of the gist of the chapter (not even counting LXX vs Masoretic) is based on the notion that we thought God was striking Him down, but in fact He was being struck down by our sins.


“We considered him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But…”

What this is saying is that we considered Him stricken by God as if He had done something wrong. But…

He was wounded for OUR transgressions…It was the will of the Lord to crush Him. He has put Him to grief.

The Father had his hand in it when evil men committed evil against Christ. The text is clearing up the misconception that Christ was stricken by God because He had done something wrong. This was not the case. He was wounded for OUR transgressions. Not because He had done anything wrong. God often uses the actions of evil men to carry out His wrath and then turns around and judges the very same people for their evil intentions:

“Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hand is My indignation.
I will send him against an ungodly nation,
And against the people of My wrath
I will give him charge,
To seize the spoil, to take the prey,
And to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
Yet he does not mean so,
Nor does his heart think so;
But it is in his heart to destroy,
And cut off not a few nations…
So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work
on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish
the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the
pomp of his haughtiness.” (Isaiah 10:5-7:12)

In this passage we have God’s holy intention of judging His people through the evil of Assyria - yet God holds Assyria accountable for her sinful attitudes. They meant evil but God meant it for good. God uses the sinful actions of the Assyrians for the good purpose of judging His people, and yet He judges the Assyrians for their evil intentions.

Greg Boyd, a defender of Christus Victor states:

Along the same lines, in the Christus Victor view, Jesus was afflicted by the Father not in the sense that the Father’s rage burned directly toward his Son, but in the sense that God allowed evil agents to have their way with him for a greater good. This is how God’s wrath was usually expressed toward Israel in the Old Testament (e.g. Jud 2:11-19; Isa 10:5-6). It’s just that with Jesus, the greater good was not to teach Jesus obedience, as it usually was with Israel in the Old Testament. Instead, God the Son bore the Father’s wrath, expressed through the powers, for the greater good of demonstrating God’s righteousness against the powers and sin (Rom 3:25) while defeating the powers and setting humans free from their oppression. - See more at: … QjWF3.dpuf

Being authoritatively responsible in the Servant being victimized by sinners: they didn’t force this to happen by their own power, God voluntarily set up the situation. But neither was God the one wrathing against the Servant.

On Gregory’s concept, the Father was wrathing against the Son (indirectly but that makes no difference to Gregory in principle); but then that wouldn’t explain why we are wrong to regard Him being stricken, smitten and afflicted of God: Greg is clear that he regards the Father still wrathing against the Son. “God the Son bore the Father’s wrath” etc. Which is schismatic to the Trinity, which Gregory otherwise affirms, and does no conceptual favors for unitarians in the long run either. (And is totally nonsense for modalists since there shouldn’t be distinct persons at all, much less one distinct person to wrath against the other.)

I’m a big fan of Gregory Boyd (in some regards), btw; and one of our mods is a personal friend of him who gets to go grill out every other weekend or so. :slight_smile: I dearly wish we could set up a discussion with him on the forum, but we haven’t been able to arrange it yet.

That’s because I already explained it. We are mistaken in thinking the Father was punishing Christ for HIS sins. He was wounded for OUR transgressions. The text is pointing out that Christ was innocent. It was the will of the Lord to crush Him. He has put Him to grief.

I’m not sure I understand. It was the human Jesus that died. Not the Divine Christ. The trinity remains intact.

Michael, Jason,

Wow, I am sympathetic to Most of what you each say, and left realizing the semantics of wrath here can be tricky and unclear! I agree it’s wrong to see Jesus condemned for his own sins, but inclined to think it’s problematic to consider him “stricken by God” at all, even tho I agree with Michael that God carries out his purposes through evil men. Yet, I can see a way to define Jesus as experiencing God’s ‘wrath,’ and certainly as dealing with the problem of his wrath upon our sins, but I think that the common conception that he “satisfied God’s wrath” in the sense that God is unable to forgive without retribution, is a problematical view of God’s nature and character. I think what makes wrath unnecessary is the kind of repentance that makes God’s caring correction unessential. I would rather think that what “satisfies God” is achieving righteousness in the sense of bringing us to be what we are meant to be, rather than inflicting suffering on the righteous Jesus in itself is what satisfies him, regardless of whether it restores actual righteousness in us. What think ye?


One of the things Christ was doing at the cross was removing God’s wrath from my vision so that I could see and savor Divine Beauty in His own face. At the cross I was united to Christ in a mystical union. My sins were extrinsically transferred to the innocent Christ as God’s wrath was poured out (through evil) and Christ removed God’s wrath from my vision as He died and was resurrected and then the righteousness of Christ was extrinsically transferred over to me. That is, I have died to the old self as it was crucified with Christ and clothed myself in the robes of Christ’s righteousness as I am risen to new life. I am one with Christ in mystical union with Him. There is now no condemnation for me. For all that has been removed by Christ as I am in Him and He is in me. Death has been overcome. I can now experience the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The Lord causes the injustice of us all, the sin of us all, to fall upon (or to encounter or to strike) the Servant. (v.6,12) We’re the ones wrathing, against God in our injustice, which God voluntarily accepts and bears. The Son is nowhere in Isaiah 53 bearing the punishment for injustice, the Son is bearing the injustice. But we don’t force our injustice upon the Son, the Father authoritatively allows it in cooperation with the Son. We thought Him stricken by God, and God certainly takes responsibility for it, but He’s taking responsibility for exposing the Servant to us and to our sins. We esteemed Him stricken of God, but it was our sickness and griefs He bore and carried – our griefs and sicknesses, our transgressions piercing Him through, our injustices crushing Him. The Lord has caused the injustice of us all to strike Him. That isn’t because the Father is angry at the Son, opposing the Son, it’s because we oppose God.

In the next chapter God consoles rebel Israel, married by God, Who betrayed God, and who in her sins becomes a widow: it is Israel (and all of us) who kills God (which God authoritatively allows out of love for Israel even though she is an adulterous wife), for which God rejects her for a time but not permanently.

Which would schism the two natures of Christ, but that wasn’t what I meant. For the Father to wrath against the Son instead of against sinners would be to act against the Son, and in a way completely different from the Son’s actions: the Son doesn’t wrath against Himself nor against the Father. It is sinners who wrath against God.

I am actually in favor of a version of penal reckoning (God sharing the results of God’s punishment with sinners, being reckoned with the transgressors), and even of penal substitution in a particular way (I even wrote an article on that topic this week at the Cadre), but at no point do I claim the Father acts in wrath against the Son. God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is authoritatively responsible for what happens to the Son, but not in that way.


Thanks. As I reflect on your view here and reading of Isaiah 53, it appears to me that our interpretations strongly overlap.

Hi Bob

It occurs to me that in this discussion – as well as in a host of similar biblical discussions (including the validity of this site itself; Universal Reconciliation) – what we are really dealing with is the law of non-contradiction. What it is and how well we recognize and manage it. In it’s essence, It states that something cannot be both true and not true at the same time when dealing with the same context.

If one takes the time to do a quick search of “bible contradictions” a great many supposed contradictions are quickly found. And most of these searches involve folks trying to
A) thereby demonstrate the falseness/untrustworthiness of the entire bible - or -
B) defend the faith and scripture by explaining why the claimed contradiction is actually not.

So we can read that God both causes (Is 45:7), and does NOT cause (Jer 29:11) calamity. Few would try to defend the notion that God, in the same sense and same context does both. (Just as it would be non-sensical to claim that this chair is made out of wood and is NOT made out of wood…) We recognize then that we must very carefully describe the context in which it would be proper and accurate to say God causes calamity (one might say for example that since God is cause of everything ie “original cause”, that must include this particular calamity) and it would also be necessary to describe in what sense one can accurately claim that He does not cause calamity. (One might claim that since He has given us free will, He has empowered us to act against His wishes/desires and we simply reap the natural consequences.)

In this case then (ie the case of Penal Substitution) it seems my protest against it is that too many of it’s advocates have not bothered to address (or perhaps even fail to see) the contradictory nature of their claims. So to say “God is Love” and “God demands Punitive punishment” are – and clearly to me – mutually exclusive; they are contradictory. The fact that a great many hold these two ideas and don’t see tension here at all simply means – again, to me – that they have simply ignored, or not seen, the law of non contradiction. To say that God is love negates the notion that he ordains punitive punishment (eg ECT); to say He ordains punitive punishment negates the claim He is love.

Is it possible to say then that the Atonement is BOTH substitutionary (penal) and NOT substitutionary? Well sure; just as it’s possible to say (reasonably and rationally and logically) that God both does and does not cause calamity. However it also seems pretty obvious that the only ones trying to make these subtle context distinctions upon which so much hinges are those who see the contradictions in the first place. (ie those who have serious issues with most Penal Substitution explanations…)

I suppose what I’m saying is that it’d be nice if those who have no problem embracing the Penal Substitution model would feel less need to defend it to us (or worse, question our sincerity or faith because of our theology – no one really does that here thank God!) and simply recognize that, having detected a contradiction, we feel obligated (a holy obligation even) to resolve it. My observation is that ones theology stops at the point where the most possible questions are answered for that person.

And of course that’s the very same respect I’d like as one who finds inherent contradictions in saying that God loves all, that God wills the Salvation of all, that God is able to accomplish His will, and that some will be permanently lost. So perhaps Christians need to give each other a bit more space and honor each others need to resolve the contradictions we see in our theology…

To my mind then contradictions abound in a literal rendering of the Penal Substitution model obligating me to seek resolution for them.
–Unity of the God in Trinity is fractured;
–Notion of salvation/forgiveness being a “free gift” – even though extracted at such an horrific “cost” in PS;
–Idea of sin as an object which can be passed around (ie to Jesus in PS);
–the apparent need for God to be cajoled/appeased/dissuaded in PS
–And of course the idea in IS 53 (our topic here) that God is the active agent in orchestrating the violence against His own Son

Might the wanderings of our fellow Christians theologic development seem less threatening and conflict inducing (think of all the theological fights you’ve witnessed over the years) if seen simply as their attempts to resolve perceived contradictions?

I think so.