The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Isaiah 53: proof of Penal Substitution???

I want to clarify that penal substitution is one version of substitutionary atonement that teaches Christ took the punishment for the sins of humanity. Other models include Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement and Hugo Grotius’s moral government theory of the atonement that is popular among Arminians. My view is moral government.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is such a profound prophetic message! I don’t know but I would imagine that it is and has been terribly important to Jews down through the years and especially in the wake of the holocaust. It is indeed a message from Jews, to Jews, about what it means to be a suffering servant. It is a pivotal query our Jewish friends have been asking since WW2. And there is no question but that in this portrait of the suffering servant he is seen to endure the punishment meant for the “we”, the “all of us”, denoted in the text. Who are the “we”, the “all of us”? All humanity? We have no basis for such an extrapolation. I understand that some see the Hebrew Bible as having been written for the Church of Jesus Christ, but I do not share that view. The first question of exegesis is to ask what the text meant to the author, and the next question is to ask what it meant to the intended audience. We are not the intended audience. Therefore, despite its clear synchronicity with Anselm’s doctrine of penal substitution, we cannot accept the Suffering Servant passage as God-provided support for it. We must ask what was the intended meaning and allusions, and then we must ask how it was understood by its intended audience. Then we can ask, not altering the allusions and substituting our own, what meaning might it have for us today.

This reminds me of a similar debate on a UK group some years ago.

I cited the story of Sgt. Coward, a British NCO who during WW2 managed not only to run a small private war against the Nazis while a POW, but contrived to smuggle himself into Auschwitz briefly. He then went on to get explosives into the camp to blow up part of the IG Farben plant run by slave labour, and contrived the escapes of many Jews, possibly as many as 400. After the war he presented his evidence to the war crimes tribunal, helping to get several convictions.

To my mind the similarity with my understanding of the gospel is quite remarkable.

Sgt. C lived among people who were being punished unfairly, and shared their punishment. He was not recognised by the guards, which led in the end to their downfall. Nobody required him to be punished (there is no hint of PSA), but by choosing to share the punishment he contributed to ending the injustice. He was instrumental in destroying part of the camp from the inside.

Jesus lived among fallen humanity, who were in deep trouble because of the sin of Adam. He was not recognised by the Jewish priesthood, which led to the crucifixion and ultimate victory. Having died he blew hell apart from the inside (yes, I do believe in the harrowing of hell). What happened contributes to the devil’s ultimate downfall.

There is a Wiki page about him, which I personally think is rather too sceptical of his achievement.

On the harrowing of hell, I think of it rather like this. (For non-uk readers “Old Harry’s Game” is a radio comedy show set in hell, Scumspawn is Satan’s first lieutenant.)

Allow me to make a small tribute to “Old Harry’s Game”:

Satan: Scumspawn, you look pleased with yourself.

Scumspawn: We’ve won! The human vermin have killed God, hanged him on a tree so that he is cursed.

Satan: Tricky that. If he’s cursed, where do you think he’ll go?

Scumspawn: Why, he’ll go to hell of course.

Satan: This is hell. He’ll be down here in about two minutes. And he’ll be really upset. You’ve just allowed an omnipotent and very annoyed deity into hell.

Scumspawn: Oh ****!

Somewhat irreverent I grant, but I hope it gets the point across.


Of course Isaiah 53 was written “to Jews.” But isn’t it the N.T.‘s application of it to Jesus that makes us think that it is relevant for the church’s understanding of atonement, and thus makes grasping its’ originally intended meaning important for us?

The Septuagint translation is based on a different Hebrew from that of the Masoretic text from which Old Testaments are currently translated—the same Hebrew from which the New Testament quotes of the Old are based.

Do you understand verses 9-10 as translated from the Masoretic Text?

*9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand…(RSV)*

Who is this “offspring” whom He will see? Did Jesus have any offspring?