NT Wright and Penal Substitutionary Atonement


Curious to get your thoughts on this quote from NT Wright in repsonse to Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

“This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent.“ You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’.”


No disagreements here! :slight_smile:

It is not the wrath of the Father against the Son, much less the wrath of God against Himself, that is satisfied on the cross; but the justice of fair-togetherness: God willingly shares in the suffering both of sinners and victims alike. God doesn’t punish Himself, the Father isn’t punishing the Son (and especially not for something someone else did that the Son didn’t do!); but God is sharing in the suffering of punishment.

For sinners, the suffering is punishment. For God, the suffering is love for the sinners. (And abuse by sinners, too, willingly allowed by God. The sacrifice on the cross is a highly complex action. The intention isn’t complex, though: love for everyone, sinner and victim alike. :slight_smile: )


I find this all very confusing.

If what you say is true how does that square with a passage like Hebrews 9 ? This seems quite unequivocal in saying that something has to die and blood be shed or there is no way remission can be obtained for sin.


I can’t recite now, but I seem to recall a number of verses that speak of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement.


I think I discussed this at some length over in the “Can UR trump the Myth of Redemptive Violence” thread, recently; possibly in that doc I attached to it regarding testimony of God’s responsibility in the death of Jesus (whether understood in a trinitarian fashion or otherwise).

Erm, let’s see… here were my relevant comments from that doc…

Heb 2:8b-15: “For in subjecting all things to Him, He left nothing that is not subject to Him, even though we do not yet see all things subjected to Him. But we do see Him Who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for Whom are all things and through Whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the Author of their salvation through sufferings… Since then the children share in blood and flesh, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless he who had the power of death–that is, the devil–and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

Heb 9: Christ enters the holy place not through the blood of goats and calves but through His own blood (v.12), offering Himself to God through His eternal Spirit without blemish (v.14),making and mediating the new covenant with us through His death, “For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it; for a covenant is valid only when men have died and is never in force while the one who makes it lives.” (v.15-17) Therefore “even according to the Law one may almost say all things are cleansed with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no sending away [or freedom, or forgiveness].” (v.22) Unlike the earthly high priests who have to cleanse copies of the things in the heavens with the blood not their own, again and again, entering a holy place made with hands, a copy of the true one; our true High Priest puts away sin once and for all by the sacrifice of Himself. (vv.18-26)

Heb 10: the Hebraist relates that Christ-YHWH Himself prophesies how God (the Father) prepares for Him a body for Him to come to do the will of God in offering His body in self-sacrifice one and for all. (Which is the ground on which the Hebraist warns about the punishment coming to those who trample underfoot and regard as unclean the blood of the covenant by which they are sanctified, insulting the Holy Spirit.)

Heb 12:2: Therefore, let us “fix our gaze upon Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith, Who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

None of this necessarily involves “God” wrathfully punishing “Jesus” instead of us for things we did instead of Jesus. The point to Heb 9 is that the Temple sacrifices were a foreshadowing of the truth that was coming: that all things are cleaned by the self-sacrificial blood of our true high priest, who (unlike lesser high priests) sacrifices Himself, not other things, and not for His own sake (unlike lesser high priests) but for the sake of all others.

Now, there is wrath coming to us if we refuse to be sanctified by this gift of God; but even the Hebraist does not teach that the wrath is hopeless (only sure to come–and notably the focus of the Hebraist, both times he mentions this fearful wrath, is on those who might otherwise be formally regarded as “already saved”! He isn’t talking about pagans or atheists or whoever, either time.)


<< Isaiah 53:6 >>

New American Standard Bible (©1995)
All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

What about this one?


Actually, taken by itself this verse wouldn’t suggest the wrath of God at all: iniquity isn’t wrath (of God anyway), iniquity is injustice (literally un-equity). Whenever we sin, we are doing injustice to God (and especially to the action of God, Incarnate as the Son, by the grace of which action we exist and have capabilities to choose to do justice or injustice at all.) There Jesus is, up on the cross, being sinned against by all of us: murdering God. Which God, in several ways, willingly set up, with the Son being complicit with the Father in this action. (I mention key portions of Isaiah 53 in that doc, too.)

It’s other verses of Isaiah 53 that suggest God is wrathing against His Servant–or anyway that some kind of wrath is being leveled against the Servant, for which God has primary responsibility.

Isaiah 53:3-6, 10, 12; “He was despised and forsaken of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being was upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon Him. …] But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief. …] Therefore (says the Lord) I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the loot with the strong; because He poured Himself out to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.”

I don’t think anyone can seriously deny from Isaiah that God has the primary active responsibility in what is happening to the suffering servant–even though I don’t think anyone can deny either, at least from other scriptural data, that we are complicit in the death of Christ as well. (This happens to be a theme of the subsequent chapter, 54, that the wife rejected by the Lord God, her husband, for killing Him, will be restored by God eventually. Interestingly, the Lord compares this restoration of the universal Jerusalem–though Jerusalem isn’t mentioned by name–to God’s resolution after the flood of Noah never to flood the earth again. So, who exactly needs restoration after the flood…?! Chp 55, incidentally, starts with the same imagery I was talking about from RevJohn recently, in the second half of this comment for the “After Death Repentance?” thread. Also, incidentally, I borrowed the blessing of the second half of chp 55, as a blessing from God on Portunista for Book 4 of my series of novels. I have my reasons. :mrgreen: )

But is the Suffering Servant being punished by God?

Despite translators habitually translating the word “punished” into the text, that word doesn’t really appear in the chapter, except maybe at verse 5. The word there is better translated “chastening”, but of course “chastening” could be construed as “hopeful remedial punishment”, too.

The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t best fit the overall context. The preceding verses are set up as an ironic counterpoint: He was despised and rejected by us (v.3), not by God; yet He Himself bore our sicknesses and He carried our pains; and yet we in turn considered Him to be struck down and afflicted by God (v.4). But He was pierced as a result of our transgressions, crushed as a result of our injustices. (v.5)

The prophet’s testimony on the matter is complex. On one hand, yes, God is actively responsible for the suffering of His Servant. And yet somehow we are wrong, ironically so, if we consider the Servant to have been afflicted by God. The poetic logic is summed by verse 6: we all have sinned and gone astray, in other words we all are doers of iniquity; but the Lord has laid our iniquity on His Servant.

The Lord has active responsibility in “crushing Him” (v.10); but His active responsibility in doing so involves ensuring that the Servant suffers as the victim of our injustices; in which self-sacrificial suffering the Servant is also actively complicit, “pouring Himself out to death” (or “submitting Himself to death” as another translation), bearing the sin of many and interceding for the rebels with whom He was reckoned.

This gels very well with chapter 54, where the barren, forsaken widow will no longer remember the shame of her youth but shall be restored by her Husband. Who is her Husband angry at? Not at the Servant! And note the Servant is the one Who died–slain by who? By God, yes, but also by us: this is the “shame of her youth” of the widowed wife–whose Husband is her Makers (the title is plural in Hebrew, incidentally), Whose name is YHWH of Armies, the Holy One of Israel, called the God of all the earth. God doesn’t reject the Servant; God is the Servant (and yet is multiple persons somehow, the Servant and the One Whom the Servant serves). Whom God rejects in wrath is the Bride, who rejected Him and whose adulteries (as poetically described elsewhere, including in Isaiah) the Servant suffers over to His own death: that she (we) might be healed.

“For the Lord has called you, like a wife deserted and wounded in spirit, a wife of one’s youth when she is rejected,” says your God: “I deserted you for a single moment, but I will take you back with great compassion. In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but I will have compassion on you with everlasting love,” says YHWH your Redeemer.

Is the chastening of the Servant penal? No; God directs the injustices of us upon Himself–we are the ones who are murdering God, even though God trumps our sin by taking the primary active responsibility for this atrocity. (Which, after all, only makes sense, since we couldn’t do it if He didn’t allow us the ability to. Which is also the point of chp 53.)

Is it substitutionary? I would say not, although there is an ironic counterpoint in the first half of the chapter. The suffering and the responsibility for the suffering is cooperative, not substitutional.

Is it atonement? That is, is it at-one-ment? (Which was the English word originally.) To this I would say yes: God, in actively cooperating with us, in com-passion (passion together), despite our sin, is making at-one-ment with us; and His goal is clearly for us (in poetic conjugal imagery even!) to be at-one-ing with Him again, someday.

“Though the mountains may move and the hills may shake,
My love will not be removed from you,
and My covenant of peace will not be shaken!”
says your compassionate YHWH.

(To the one who has said to herself, in effect: “I am!–and there is none beside me! And I am not a widow!!!”)


See also my discussion of 53:11 (in connection with the identity of the Servant, but also in connection with a penal-substitutionary theory about who is satisfied by seeing what), in this comment of this thread.

(Where I also discuss the widowed rebel-bride, and the connection of the Noah reference to the prophecy, stated several times in RevJohn, that there shall be no more sea.)