Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Penal substitution is a theory of the atonement that says God literally punished Jesus on the Cross.
This theory is problematic because one cannot justly punish an innocent person, and Jesus was innocent. Therefore, for God to literally punish him would be unjust.
In a previous post, I discussed how this view relates to other theories of the atonement. In this post, we’ll take a look at a proposed basis in Scripture for penal substitution.
A Scriptural Basis?
Advocates of penal substitution frequently appeal to the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 52 and 53.
The Suffering Servant passage is one of a number of places in Isaiah that describes a significant servant of God, and it seems this passage offers the best chance of providing a basis for penal substitution.
From the beginning, Christians have understood this passage as a messianic prophecy, and the New Testament authors apply various parts of it to Jesus (cf. Matt. 8:17, Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32-33, Rom. 8:36, 10:16, 1 Pet. 2:24-25).
This makes it clear that the Suffering Servant passage is a messianic prophecy, but it doesn’t mean that it applies only to Christ.
The Original Suffering servant
As I discuss in another post, the literal sense of many Old Testament prophecies applies to something during or near the lifetime of the original prophet, and they then have a further fulfillment in Christ as part of the spiritual sense.
We therefore need to examine the Suffering Servant passage in its original context first, before proceeding to apply it to Christ, and this we did in a post on the original Suffering Servant.
There we explored several possibilities about who the original Suffering Servant may have been. Proposals have included the prophet himself, one of the Gentile leaders who supported the return of the Jewish people to their land, and the Jewish governor Zerubbabel, who oversaw efforts to rebuild the temple.
However, at least eight passages in Isaiah (41:8-9, 44:1-2, 21 [2 references], 45:4, 48:20, and 49:3) identify the whole nation of Israel as God’s servant, and so we focused primarily on the idea that Israel was the original Suffering Servant.
Jesus would then recapitulate and go beyond what happened to Israel the same way in the Suffering Servant passage that he did the prophetic statement found in Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (cf. Matt. 2:14-15).
The Issue of Language
In our post on theories of the atonement, I noted that it’s possible to use penal substitution language for what happened on the Cross—i.e., language that makes it sound as if God punished Jesus—as long as this language isn’t meant in a fully literal sense.
The latter would require God to commit the unjust act of punishing an innocent.
But if the language is being used in a non-literal or accommodated sense—one that doesn’t require punishment in the full, ordinary sense—then it can be used.
We even saw how Scripture sometimes uses punishment language in such senses.
This means that, in looking at Isaiah 52-53, we need to be sensitive to how the passage uses language. So let’s consider that issue . . .
How Does the Suffering Servant Passage Use Language?
It is clear that there is a great deal of non-literal language present in the text:
- If the corporate interpretation of the Servant as Israel is correct then we have a metaphor where a whole nation is depicted as a single individual.
- We have inanimate things (e.g., the hill Zion, the “waste places of Jerusalem”) and composite things (e.g., Jerusalem) urged to do things they would not be literally capable of doing (Isa. 52:1-2, 9).
- The watchmen are said to “see the return of the Lord to Zion”—a literally invisible and metaphorical event (Isa. 52:8).
- The Lord’s invisible and metaphorical arm has been shown to the Gentiles (Isa. 52:10, 53:1).
- The ends of the earth are said to “see” the Lord’s salvation (Isa. 52:10).
- The Lord is said to “go before” the captives and to “be your rear guard” (Isa. 52:12).
- The Servant is said to be “exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (Isa. 52:13).
- The Servant’s appearance (if it’s Israel) is said to be extremely disfigured (Isa. 52:14, 53:2).
- The Servant is compared to “a young plant” and “a root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2).
- The Servant is said to have carried griefs, sorrows, iniquities, and sin as if they were physical objects (Isa. 53:4, 11, 12).
- God is imagined to have physically hit (“stricken, smitten,” “bruised”) the Servant (Isa. 53:4, 8, 10).
- The Servant is said to have been physically wounded, bruised, and lashed (Isa. 53:5), which would be a non-literal description of Israel’s sufferings if the Servant is a collective entity.
- The human speakers are compared to wandering sheep (Isa. 53:6).
- God is said to have laid iniquity on the Servant, as if it were a physical object (Isa. 53:6).
- The Servant is compared to a lamb and a sheep (Isa. 53:7).
- The Servant—whether it is Israel or a literal individual—experiences a metaphorical death and burial (Isa. 53:8-9).
- The Servant is depicted as an offering for sin—i.e., as a sacrificial animal (Isa. 53:10).
- The will of the Lord is said to prosper in the Servant’s “hand” (Isa. 53:10).
- The Servant is said to “see” the “travail of his soul” (Isa. 53:11).
- The Servant is said to divide “a portion with the great” and “divide the spoil with the strong” (Isa. 53:12).
- The Servant is said to have “poured out his soul to death,” as if the soul were a liquid and death were a container or location (Isa. 53:12).
As with many passages in the prophets, this one is filled with non-literal language.
Underlying all of this language is the concept that God has allowed the Servant to suffer, and from this he has brought about good for Israel, in its restoration to the land, and for the speakers, who have received spiritual benefits through the Servant and, in particular, the Servant’s knowledge of the Lord.
Applying the Text to Jesus
In Matthew’s Gospel, we see the application of Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”) applied to Jesus, who recapitulates Israel’s journey to and return from Egypt (Matt. 2:14-15).
If the Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is meant to be Israel in the literal sense of the text then the New Testament use of these chapters for Jesus involves the same kind of application, whereby Jesus recapitulates something Israel initially experienced.
On the other hand, if the Servant was originally meant to be a single, historical individual, this also fits with the way the New Testament applies Old Testament precedents to Jesus, for he is also depicted as the new Moses and the new David.
Either way, being aware of the amount of non-literal language in Isaiah 52-53 means that we must be careful in how literally we take this language in making the application to Jesus.
Some elements will apply to Jesus in a more literal way than they did to the original Servant:
- Jesus is a sin offering in a more literal way than the original Servant was.
- Jesus died in a fully literal way, unlike the Servant.
However, other elements will be less literal:
- Jesus did not literally have offspring (children), and so the statement that the Servant “shall see his offspring” (Isa. 53:10) must be taken in a less literal, spiritual sense (e.g., as applying to Christians).
- Jesus did not “divide the spoil with the strong” (Isa. 53:12) in the same sense as the Servant. Ordinarily, this would refer to the spoils of a battle or, at least, to material prosperity, but Jesus was poor and remained poor.
Other elements of the text will remain equally non-literal, even if they apply to Jesus in a different way:
- Jesus does not literally carry griefs, sorrows, iniquities, and sin as if they were physical objects (Isa. 53:4, 11, 12).
- God does not literally lay iniquity on Jesus, as if it were a physical object (Isa. 53:6).
We therefore must pay close attention to the way in which we understand the text and how it applies to Jesus.
If there is to be a basis for penal substitution in this text, it will be found in the way the passage describes God’s interaction with the Servant: What does the text say God does to the Servant?
The first passage we need to look at is Isaiah 53:4-5, which reads:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
We have already dealt with the non-literal nature of the language about Jesus bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows.
The next line says that the speakers “esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Read in the natural way, this means that they thought God had done these things to the Servant, on account of the Servant’s sins (that’s why God normally strikes someone in Old Testament thought), but the reality was different, as revealed in the next line.
Instead, the Servant “was wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities.” The use of the passive voice here could mean that God wounded and bruised the Servant, but if so, it isn’t meant literally.
God did not physically harm Jesus. His wounds and bruises were caused by the Romans. God allowed this to happen as part of his plan, but he himself didn’t do these things. We thus don’t have a basis for saying that God literally punished Jesus.
That idea is further undermined by the fact that the text explicitly states it was on account of our sins—not the Servant’s—that these things happened.
If God allows something bad to happened to one person despite his innocence, that’s an indicator that the innocent person was not being punished in any literal sense of the word.
What about the “chastisement” the Servant receives? The Hebrew word used here, musar, means “discipline,” “chastening,” or “correction,” but the context again indicates a non-literal use. The fact Jesus was innocent meant he wasn’t being disciplined, chastened, or corrected in any literal sense.
Moving forward in the text, verse 6 says that God “laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This is more of the same non-literal language depicting Jesus as carrying our sins as if they were physical objects.
Verse 7 says “he was oppressed, and he was afflicted,” but—again—it was the Romans that literally did these things. God only allowed them as part of his plan.
Verse 8 says he was “cut off out of the land of the living” and “stricken”—things that were again literally accomplished by the Romans—with the prophet noting the reason God allowed them was as part of his plan for dealing with “the transgression of my people.”
Finally, verses 9 and 10 note the ironic contrast:
Although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief.
The second part of this might be more literally translated that it was God’s will to “crush” him and that he has “made him sick.” If the latter translation is correct (and there is doubt about this), then it would not apply to Jesus in a literal way, because we have no indication he was sick.
However that may be, any literal bruising/crushing that was done to Jesus was performed by the Romans, with God only allowing it as part of his plan.
And significantly, we again have an affirmation of the Servant’s innocence paired with a statement about what God “did” to the Servant. Taking these statements together, the idea of punishment in the literal sense is thereby undermined.
I therefore conclude that the Suffering Servant passage does not give us a basis for saying that God literally punished Jesus on the Cross.
It may use language that—taken out of its historical and literary context—could suggest this, but the only literal injuries that were done to Jesus were performed by the Romans, not God, and the text goes out of its way to stress the innocence of the Servant and, by extension, Jesus.
We thus don’t have in this passage a solid basis for the idea of penal substitution—as opposed to other substitutionary theories of the atonement.