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Can a loving God punish the innocent?

Unwilling to countenance the notion of an all-loving God punishing the innocent Christ for the sins of the world, some theologians have turned against a stalwart doctrine of the reformation, Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) model. This model seeks to explain at least one aspect of the fact of expiation and propitiation of sin wrought by Christ on the cross. “A loving God could never punish an innocent person,” they say. “The idea of a retributive God who won’t forgive unless a human sacrifice has been made is not found in scripture,” they say. 

A sacrificial lamb

Against these theologians stands Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This text describes a servant of the Lord, referred to by scholars as the Suffering servant.

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14  Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
  and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
53 Who has believed our message
     and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
     nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
     a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
     he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
     and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
     stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

Some critics have lodged that a theory including PSA is read into this text rather than naturally out of this text. They therefore need to interpret this text as something other than what Penal Substitutionary Theorist understand it; a servant who dies on behalf of the people, bearing the suffering that would have been the people’s punishment were they the ones that suffered it. In the following, I seek to expose and lay bare the claims of these critics false. 

Claim 1. Verse 4 indicates that the people thought he was being punished by God, but that they were wrong. 

The claim is that the people were wrong, and the suffering servant was not being punished by God after all. But this is not at all an accurate reading. 

Verse 4 reports the false estimate the people had of the suffering servant. 

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.

Where they erred was not in that God was carrying out the punishment. Rather, they erred in thinking that the servant’s affliction meant he was being rejected by Yahweh. What they come to see is that it was “the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (v. 10).

This makes sense of the shock and bewilderment of the people. The last thing the expected was for the gracious and generous God of Israel to cause an innocent man to suffer.

Claim 2. There is no mention of (i) God’s justice being satisfied, nor of (ii) God’s wrath. 

However, what is necessary for a theory which includes penal substitution is not the idea of God’s justice being satisfied, but that the Servant’s suffering is (a) punitive and (b) vicarious.

The punitive nature of the Servant’s suffering is seen especially in v. 4, 11, 12, where he is said to “bear our sins.”

The vicarious nature of the Servant’s suffering is seen in the sharp contrast of the Hebrew pronouns between the Servant and the people in Verse 5

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.

Also the shocking nature of the unjust fate for a servant who was righteous. The Servant does not merely join the people in their suffering, or suffer “because of” the people’s suffering, but because the “punishment for our suffering laid upon him.”

“God’s wrath” is at play in the punitive nature of the Servant’s suffering, where in “bearing sins” he bears the guilt (substitutionally) of another person’s guilt. 

Claim 3. The word “for” is better translated as “because of” rather than “as a substitute.”

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, . . . 
1 Corinthians 15:3

Texts like this creed are ambiguous when taken in isolation, but become pregnant with meaning in light of Isaiah 53. The first thing to note is that there are no other passages in the Jewish scriptures that could be construed as even remotely about the Messiah dying for people’s sins. This could only be referring to the suffering servant of Isaiah. 

The second thing to note is the meaning of “for” (hyper) here in 1 Cor 15:3 is made clear by expressions like “delivered up for our trespasses” (Romans 4.25), where “for” translates dia + the accusative, meaning on account of, and “delivered up” and “trespasses” recalls Isaiah 53:7-8. Similarly, Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many,” where “for” translates anti, “instead of,” “in exchange of,” and recalling the “many” of Isaiah 53:12. Thus, the expression “died for our sins” in the creedal formula refers to substitutionary, punitive suffering straight from Isaiah 53.

For another example see 1 Peter 2:24, where the author says of Christ, 

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
1 Peter 2:24

The quotes are lifted straight from Isaiah 53, showing the authors of the New Testament interpreted Christ and the suffering he endured on the cross in light of the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 53. It is therefore rightly said that an Isaianic soteriology pervades the New Testament. See the table below for a references to Isaiah 53 and the suffering servant in the New Testament.

Courtesy of Crag Evan’s paper of the same name.

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