April 02, 2017

Must a Biblical Doctrine of the Atonement Comprise Penal Substitution?

Dear Dr. Craig,

I have been enjoying your videos and podcasts about your study of the atonement. I have to admit though, that as of right now I don't accept penal substitution. Though I grew up with this view, I now hold a combination of the recapitulation and satisfaction theories. To briefly summarize for the readers, the recapitulation theory teaches that Jesus became like us and did what we should have done, so that in him, we might become like him and do what he did. This is perhaps the oldest theory of the atonement and is the basis for many later theories. The satisfaction theory of St. Anselm adds that Jesus's self sacrificial obedience served as restitution for our sins, or as Anselm calls it, satisfaction. In my opinion, these theories together are more Biblical and intellectually satisfying than penal substitution.

I'm writing to you because nearly every Christian that I look up to, especially yourself, believes that the Scriptures teach penal substitution. I feel like I'm missing something that maybe you can help me to see. In the Join Me In My Study series and the latest Defenders class you argue that the suffering of the Lord's servant in Isaiah 53, whom we identify as Jesus, clearly functions as substitutionary punishment.

First, you say that the phrase, "upon him was the chastisement that made us whole," in Isaiah 53:5 is an explicit reference to divine punishment. But doesn't the phrase, "we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted." in verse 4 imply the exact opposite, that he only appeared to be punished by God from a human perspective? Yes, as verses 7–8 say, he was afflicted and stricken, but it was by the injustice of men, not by the just condemnation of God. And yes, of course, as verse 10 says, it was God's will that he suffered and died as a sin offering, but that's far from saying he was punished by God.

Furthermore, I have a question about the meaning of the word translated as chastisement or punishment. I have no knowledge of Hebrew, but from my limited study, it sounds to me like it means discipline for one's good, not strictly punishment. As Hebrews 5:8–9 says, "he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation," i.e. he endured discipline for our good. Is this not at least a possible, if not plausible reading of Isaiah 53:5?

Second, you argue that the idea of bearing sin means suffering the punishment for sin, citing Leviticus 24:15–16, where we find: "Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. He who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death." It's clear that in this context, bearing sin effectively means suffering the punishment for sin. But how do you account for passages like Leviticus 5:17–18, where the offerer of a guilt offering is said to bear his iniquity, and 10:17, where the priests are said to "bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them" by eating portions of the sin offerings? Are these examples also punitive?

There are so many more questions I would like to ask, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave it there.

Thank you, and God bless.



United States

I was rather surprised by your statement that recapitulation and satisfaction theories are more biblical than penal substitution, Micah, since the biblical grounds for the former are slim, indeed, to put it mildly. In his classic study of the atonement A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1870), Albrecht Ritschl begins his history with Anselm, not with the Church Fathers, because in his view the theories of the Church Fathers are not really theories of atonement (or reconciliation) at all but have to do with conquering Satan, corruption, and death. Atonement theories, properly speaking, have to do with “a removal of the one-sided or mutual contrariety between the Divine and human will.” Accordingly, the speculations of the Church Fathers “about the redemption of the human race from Satan, and about the deification of the human race as a natural unity, do not fall under that notion.”[1] My Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg dismissed Anselm’s satisfaction theory with the single sentence: “without . . . vicarious penal suffering, the expiatory function of the death of Jesus is unintelligible, unless we try to understand his death as an equivalent offered to God along the lines of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which has no basis in the biblical data.”[2]

By contrast there are strong biblical grounds for the view that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering which we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment. My claim is that any biblically adequate doctrine of the atonement must include penal substitution as an essential element. That does not exclude recapitulation and satisfaction from also being part of a full-orbed theory of the atonement. Those elements can be included, too. You just should not omit penal substitution as an important element as well.

As you rightly observe, Isaiah 53 is a key passage. As I noted in Defenders, although some scholars (viz., R. N. Whybray) have claimed that the Servant of the Lord merely shares in the suffering of the Jewish exiles, this interpretation is rightly rejected because such an interpretation (i) does not make as good sense of the shock expressed at what Yahweh has done in afflicting His righteous Servant (Isaiah 52.14-53.4) and (ii) is less plausible in light of the strong contrasts, reinforced by the Hebrew pronouns, drawn between the Servant and the people.

With respect to (i), the verse you quote (v. 4) is part of the false estimate the people had of the Servant. But where they erred was in thinking that his affliction meant his rejection by Yahweh. What they come to see is that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (v. 10). As you note, what is startling is the injustice suffered by the Servant: he is God’s righteous Servant, who does not deserve his fate. New Testament scholar Donald Carson emphasizes,

It is the unjust punishment of the Servant in Isaiah 53 that is so remarkable. Forgiveness, restoration, salvation, reconciliation–all are possible, not because sins have somehow been canceled as if they never were, but because another bore them unjustly. But by this adverb ‘unjustly’ I mean that the person who bore them was just and did not deserve the punishment, not that some moral ‘system’ that God was administering was thereby distorted.[3]

So, of course, the condemnation of the Servant was unjust. That’s what’s so shocking. (I think that perhaps you’re confusing substitutionary suffering with the imputation of sins. There’s no claim that Isaiah 53 teaches the imputation of the people’s sins to Christ.) The Servant simply bears the punishment that the people deserved for their sins.

With respect to point (ii), the Hebrew pronouns reinforce the sharp contrast between the Servant and the people, showing that he does not merely join them in suffering. Here is how Hans-Jürgen Hermisson translates Isaiah 53.4:

Surely our infirmities–he bore them
and our diseases–he carried them.

Hermisson concludes, “One cannot therefore articulate this as R. N. Whybray has done –‘He merely shared our sufferings’– in order to interpret the thought of vicarious suffering out of the text.”[4] According to Otfried Hofius, the idea of substitutionary punishment “is expressed several times in the passage and should undoubtedly be seen as its dominant and central theme.[5]Here is how Hofius translates v. 5:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
and crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment for our salvation lay upon him,
and by his wounds, healing came to us.

The punishment (cf. NRSV) spoken of here cannot mean discipline, for it is clearly not for the benefit of the Servant, who is driven to death, but for the benefit of those on whose behalf he suffers.

Now, as you note, another indication that the suffering of the Servant is punitive is that he is said to bear our sins (Isaiah 53. 4, 11, 12). “Bearing sins (or iniquity)” is a common Hebrew idiom, which typically means, when used of people, to be held culpable or to endure punishment (e.g., Leviticus 5.1; 7.18; 19.8; 24.15; Numbers 5.31; 9.13; 14.34). I say “typically” because, as you note, when priests are said the bear the people’s sins, the meaning is, rather, to make atonement (e.g., Leviticus 10.17: “that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord”). But when people bear their own sins, the meaning, as Hofius puts it, is “to bear guilt” or “to bear the punitive consequences of one’s guilt.” He observes,

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the expression . . . usually appears only where persons must ‘bear’ the penal consequences of their own guilt– that is, in cases where they must ‘do penance’ for the evil that they themselves have committed and that now comes back up on them as a disaster. Here in Isaiah 53 by contrast–and only here –there is talk of one person ‘bearing’ substitutionarily the guilt of other persons; he thus suffers the penal consequences of alien guilt.[6]

So in the case you cite, Leviticus 5:17–18 is an example of the typical use of this Hebrew idiom. The NRSV renders these verses:

If any of you sin without knowing it, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, you have incurred guilt, and are subject to punishment. You shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish from the flock, or the equivalent, as a guilt offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the error that you committed unintentionally, and you shall be forgiven.

By contrast in Isaiah 53 the Servant is the one who bears the sins of the people.

It remains only to emphasize once again how fundamental Isaiah 53 is for the theology of the New Testament. The New Testament authors—indeed, Jesus himself—identified Jesus with the righteous servant of Isaiah 53. I Peter 2.24 says of Christ, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” In light of Isaiah 53, texts like “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (I Corinthians 15.3), ambiguous when taken in isolation, become pregnant with meaning. There is no other passage in the Jewish scriptures that could be construed as even remotely about Messiah’s dying for people’s sins. The formulaic expression “died for our sins” thus refers to substitutionary, punitive suffering. This meaning of “for” (hyper) 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.” II Corinthians 5.21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” is seen to echo in all its parts Isaiah 53. “Who knew no sin” recalls “the righteous one, my servant,” in whose mouth was no deceit (Isaiah 53.9, 11); “for our sake he made him to be sin” recalls “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53.6); “in him we might become the righteousness of God” recalls “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53.11). Again, no other Old Testament passage remotely approaches the content of this sentence.

The New Testament authors, then, following Jesus in his own self-understanding, saw Christ as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who suffered in the place of sinners, bearing the punishment they deserved, that they might be reconciled to God. Penal substitution must therefore be a part of any biblically adequate atonement theory.


[1] Albrecht Ritschl, A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, trans. John S. Black(Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1872), p. 11.

[2] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 3 vols., trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 2: 427.

[3] D. A. Carson,“Atonement in Romans 3:21-26,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives, ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 204.

[4] Hans-Jürgen Hermisson, “The Fourth Servant Song in the Context of Second Isaiah,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher [1996], trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 30.

[5] Otfried Hofius, “The Fourth Servant Song in the New Testament Letters,” in The Suffering Servant, p. 164.

[6] Ibid., p. 166.